Monday, December 11, 2017

The snowy road to Virginia

I never thought that the next time I'd travel to see Christian would be to attend his funeral. I thought maybe I'd head down to Wellington someday to see what all the fuss was about, or catch him on a trip through Tryon for dinner and maybe play some cards. Sometimes things just don't work out that way though and it seems like the universe falls back into chaos.

The service was lovely and touching. The pastors found a way to capture the unfathomable loss, the palpable depth of love, the unfairness, the support we all felt being together, and maybe just a glimmer of hope.

"I found myself admiring Christian, which is odd for an adult to admire a teenager... When I grow up, I want to be like Christian," reflected his uncle.

"Find the feeling you had @ full gallop every now and then," quoted his friend Maggie from a note he left for her.

"I love you till my head pops off... and my arms, and my legs," said Anne, his mother. A saying they ended most conversations with since he was a small child.

I spent some time with Anne afterwards. Ever since hearing the news, I was gripped by a need to wrap my arms around her as tight as they could go and it felt good to do that. It's hard to find the words to say; we want to make it better, to say something to help heal the wound, but what words are there? I told her I could only imagine the pain she felt, only knowing my own feeling of loss. She responded no, grief affects all of us. There is no scale or measurement to gauge or compare.

To me, it seems that grief is a broken heart and for each of us it shatters into a different number of pieces. That initial punch in the gut, finding out what's happened, is the most profound. From that point on, we start gathering up the pieces one by one. The more we put together we start to move from that initial stage of loss, to remembering the person, remembering the good and the bad. Eventually we may even put that heart back together again. It might take weeks, months, years, decades, lifetimes, but every little piece we gather up makes us feel a little more whole again. It might be a memory, hearing their voice, seeing a rainbow, thinking of a joke, singing with a favorite song, but each moment and small smile adds up over time.

There was quite a bit of karaoke and dancing, revelry, snowman building, and s'mores making after the service. I think Christian would have approved. Joy amidst grief. Strength with the pain. Smiles between tears. I don't think we could ever forget that force of positivity, no matter how many years go by.

Thanks for the smiles, thanks for the joy, thanks for being you and inspiring us to work harder. You may be lost, but will never be forgotten.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Legacy of Christian Kennedy


It's been over a week now that we heard the horrible news of your accident. People talk about the stages of grief, but they seem to all happen simultaneously. Immediately I felt shock and disbelief, like it was some sort of sick joke and after a couple days you'd call or text or post online, "haha just kidding." It's not a joke though, you're really gone. From shock came oppressive grief, the feeling like you'd either been punched in the gut or just had some sort of empty hole inside of you. I constantly felt hungry, with no appetite, no desire to enjoy food or anything I was doing. My face hurt from crying into my ever-present windburn, and every time I thought I was out of tears for you more would follow. Now I'm finally getting to the point where I can say your name without crying, remembering the good times, remembering the amazing person you were, and what a light you were in all of our lives.

Because crying feels disingenuous to your memory. You were such a positive, happy guy, I know you'd be upset to know how many people you made sad. You were always quick with a joke, quick with a smile, quick to lend a hand, always ready to go the extra mile. Your passion for horses is what made me love you first. Lots of guys are afraid to show affection, especially to animals. You had no shame and I can't count the number of times I would walk past a stall to see you taking an extra moment to give a horse a scratch or cuddle.

That passion was leading you to great places. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that we would have seen you riding in the Olympics some future year. Not only were you so passionate about your horses, but your pure talent and drive always blew me away. The gangly 15 year old forgetful kid was really blossoming into a bright young man. I can only imagine what your mother felt, but I know it was hard for me to watch you growing up, when in my mind you felt more like a kid brother. Now the knowledge of all the things you won't experience sits in our guts like a hard stone.

As an outgoing, happy person, surrounded but other outgoing, happy people in Wellington, you started to enjoy the area and going out with friends pretty quickly. It worried me on occasion that you might get drawn into less than savory groups but I chalked it up to youth and happiness and didn't want to rain on your parade. I wonder know if I should have said something, but it's really hard to give 21 year olds meaningful advice especially when we all feel like we have life worked out at that point.

I really felt mad with you for awhile. How could you be so stupid to not wear a seat belt*, to be in a car driving so fast? Why didn't you make better decisions that night? All I had to do is think back on mistakes I made in my life.We can all look back and find at least a few moments where we made a snap judgement that could have ended very badly, but somehow skipped out with little to no damage. When I was in college, I tried to lead a 3 year old OTTB from his stall a couple feet to our indoor arena for turnout when he blasted out of the stall like a start gate on the track. I was dragged about 20 feet hanging onto the halter before my brain clicked on to let go, and went face down into the dirt. He ran past me and luckily didn't kick out, because I ended up being alone in that barn for the next 6 hours. If I had been injured I very well could have died that day, all because I wanted to save 2 seconds of attaching a lead rope. 

I mean to say that none of us are blameless, usually we have a moment like that and look back years later thinking "man, that was dumb. I could have really gotten hurt." You don't get that second chance, and I think that's what seems the most unfair. I know that if  you had any inkling of what would transpire that night, you would have done things very differently.

In the days after the accident, I was so grief stricken it was impossible to see any kind of silver lining over such a senseless, preventable death. What struck me though was the outpouring of love, of donations, of stories online from all the people who's lives you touched. It seemed everybody who met you, even if just for a day, remembered you and remembered your unique and shining personality. We always ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but I think the better question is what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? Do you want to change the world for the better, raise a family, make lots of money, travel the world?

The legacy you leave behind is your memory and how you've touched the lives of so many even though you died so young. The legacy you leave is the Christian Kennedy Future Stars program that Robert Dover was so kind to name in your honor. The legacy you leave is in the smiles of your family, who despite suffering such a horrific loss seem to be able to remember that shining positivity we so loved you for.

It's still a long road ahead of sadness, and we will always and forever miss your presence. I'm trying to not get lost in grief like I did the first few days. I'm not religious, so it's hard not knowing what's happened to you now. To me, you're just gone. However, I do find myself talking to you in my head, repeating the same three statements over and over.

I love you.

I miss you.

I wish you were here.


It has come to my attention that the news  stories mis-reported that Christian wasn't wearing a seat belt. He was, so he did try to make a decision to stay safer but the speed of the vehicle was too great for it to protect him. It doesn't make the outcome any better, but it just drives home the point that he was a good kid and struck by an unfortunate accident.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Saddle Fit Basics in Four Parts: Spinal Clearance

*This post is part of a 4 part series on basic principles of saddle fit. Please be aware that there are many other factors often present in saddle fitting for both rider and horse, and it is best to contact a professional to make sure your horse is fitted properly and all factors are taken into consideration. These posts are meant to help the reader develop a basic understanding of saddle fit, and to be able to recognize a situation where a professional saddle fitter needs to be called in. Enjoy!*

Saddle Fit Basics in Four Parts - Spinal Clearance

There are many factors to be taken into consideration regarding proper saddle fit for the horse. I've narrowed down the broad picture into four basic starting points for evaluating proper fit, and beginning to identify issues. We'll begin with Spinal Clearance.

To many it will be obvious that the saddle can not make contact with the horse's spine, especially the wither. A saddle sitting directly on the spinal column (remember these are bony structures) will cause the horse to be very painful and sore and he may refuse to work or act out with bucking/rearing/bolting as a result of this pain. However, once we have clearance what would "adequate clearance" entail?

I've heard lots of rules of thumb in the past, whether it be 2 fingers, 4 fingers clearance over the wither. Others say, just as long as it's not touching you're fine. What's important to consider is if you evaluate your spinal clearance in the aisle with the horse standing statically, you don't have the added factors like a properly tightened girth, the weight of the rider, or the movement/lift of the horses back to consider. Thus the best way to evaluate will be with a rider mounted and the horse in motion.

To get a general base, I do start in the aisle preferably with no pad and the saddle girthed down. What I'm looking for is room to get my hand down the gullet to the base of the wither (assuming the saddle is placed properly with the tree points either directly behind the scapula for a Stübben, or slightly further back for other models, depending on the manufacturer) which is especially important for a horse with a very long wither. We don't want to have clearance at the pommel and then make contact halfway down the gullet since this will still make the horse sore.

In addition to having clearance over the top of the wither, I also want to make sure I have some room on either side as well. It's difficult to see in the picture above, but I can put two fingers on either side of the wither with room before the panel makes contact (I would call that adequate). What people often forget is that the spinal cord and wither is very mobile in the horse and needs to be allowed to move freely side-to-side. If the saddle is too tight on either side, it will restrict the horse's movement and may appear lame or just unwilling to move out and forward.

Notice, I specifically haven't mentioned an exact measurement over the top of the wither for proper clearance. That is because the necessary amount of clearance will vary from horse to horse. In general, I would like to have at least 3-4 fingers clearance over the top of the wither with the saddle girthed and rider mounted to account for the horse's movement, compression of the flocking, and other factors depending on the individual case. However, if I'm dealing with a downhill or mutton withered horse, the amount of clearance may be higher to allow proper balance of the saddle from pommel to cantle. It may look funny to have a lot of room but we'll talk more about how important the balance of the saddle can be on those horses. Essentially if all the other factors are adequate, you really can't have TOO much clearance, but you definitely can be too close to the spine.

This picture above would be a prime example of a saddle with proper clearance above (I have room for roughly 4 fingers), but not at the sides of the wither (I can't even get one finger next to the side of the wither). I would expect this horse to be restricted in his movements. He may not present as totally sore, but may be less willing to move forward and work than he would in another saddle.

 These two pictures show a horse with a fairly high wither. Over the top of the wither I can get about 3.5 fingers and on either side about 2 fingers clearance. This looks fairly good, but with the addition of the rider's weight, I would recheck and see if we need more.

These pictures show a client of mine who is built very downhill and completely mutton withered. I have lots of clearance in the pommel (as shown by my fist) because I'm trying to achieve proper balance from pommel to cantle as shown in the pictures on the right (proper balance in this dressage saddle should be roughly a 1" drop from cantle to pommel on this saddle, which I'll discuss with more depth in an upcoming post on Balance).

U shaped tree
V shaped tree

Excuse the poor artwork but the pictures above are a rough illustration of two common types of tree shapes shown as a cross section of the horse's wither with the head plate/gullet plate shown on top. The V shaped tree on the left is the most common shape you'll find  in a saddle, while it can fit just fine on the shown horse's cross section we are a bit snug on either side of the wither and do not have even contact through the point. In this situation, it may be necessary to go wider with the tree size and add extra padding or a half pad to offer proper clearance, just to allow freedom of movement.

On the right, I show a rough drawing of the shape of a Stübben tree. You can see that there is more room on the sides of the wither (still keeping clearance over the top) and the tree points are making more even contact with the horse's side for better bearing surface of the tree. In general I prefer this method of fit, though some horses can work fine in V shape tree I tend to find better comfort and results in a U shape instead.

To recap: we don't want the saddle coming into contact with the horse's spine especially on the top and sides of the wither. Adequate clearance may vary from horse to horse depending on his build, but should be reevaluated with the saddle girthed down and rider mounted to ensure proper clearance. When in doubt, call a certified saddle fitter to help evaluate your horse and take other factors into consideration.

Coming soon, Tree Width, Balance/Stability, Bearing Surface, and other notes!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Thanks, Eric.

I'd like to share some thoughts about a very dear friend of mine that I cherish greatly, and after his accident last week I've really spent some time thinking about how much he's impacted my life. I first met Eric Dierks at a clinic in Ohio while I was in college. I remember being very nervous for my lesson with him (I'd heard so much about him through the grapevine in Illinois and ridden with nearly every family member of his back home, but never Eric before) and it amazed me at how well organized his thought process was within his training mantra. He broke down his system into bite sized pieces we could all understand, take home, and practice on our own. We spent much of that lesson focusing on the rhythm of the walk, something I'd never really given much thought before and I went back and practiced for months until Eric's next clinic hoping to impress him.

By the second trip he made out, I was absolutely hooked. I spent every moment of the clinics by his side drinking in every word he said and watching all the riders and horses progress in the partnerships under his tutelage. He's always been well spoken, firm but fair, and always on the horse's side to improve the rider's communication. When the third clinic rolled around, I nearly begged Eric to take me on as a working student. He agreed.

During my time as a working student
As soon as I graduated college, I drove back to Illinois to pack up nearly all my belongings into trailer and SUV and made the trek down to North Carolina with my mom to help me get settled. I ended up working at Renovatio Farm with Eric for 7 months and he truly changed my life. Not only did I find the perfect geographic location for me to settle down and make my home like the Chicago suburbs had never felt to me, but I had found someone who could really shape me as a horsewoman.

It wasn't easy. Being a working student means working hours well past sun up to sun down, night checks, pitching in on your days off, catching horses in that random 3 am thunderstorm and sometimes finishing a day where cereal was all you could eat because the idea of standing up to cook was exhausting. Eric took me apart to my basic essentials as a rider and started over, building me back up piece by piece. Am I a upper level professional now? No, but I never expected to be, with a pony cross I was told "couldn't jump" and my own fears and insecurities. What I have become is a much more compassionate rider, able to listen to what my horse is telling me and react in more appropriate ways.

I went from an ok Training level rider, to having some pretty crummy shows at Training level, to leaving Eric's farm to get a real job and having time to let all my education from him sink in and get fully absorbed, to winning our next Training level the following show season on our dressage score (our very first double clear) and eventually completing a Prelim event which I had never even dreamed possible. Eric pushed me to believe in myself, to believe in my horse, and to be able to rely on my own instincts as a rider.

I only have the budget to go lesson with Eric a handful of times a year now, and I try to squeeze every last drop of education I can out of every visit. We had the good fortune of riding with him the day before his water heater explosion accident, and once again he expertly coached Tristan and I around XC schooling at Windridge farm. The weather was perfect, Tristan jumped everything we put in front of him and we all just had a marvelous time together enjoying our four legged friends.

Eric, you have been a life-changing force to me and I can never repay you for how well you shaped me into a fairly respectable horsewoman. I hope you are teaching me lessons until you're at least 120 years old and then you might be able to think about retiring, but definitely not before then. If you really need a vacation, next time just ask, the airlift was a bit overkill. You have the whole equine community of Tryon and beyond rallying for your swift and full recovery. Thank you for all you've done, and I know you've touched many lives beyond mine too.

Thanks, Eric.