SOUTHERN ADVENTURES OF A NORTHERN DRESSAGE HORSE, by Leslie McDonald

This winter I decided to treat myself and my horse, Dauntless, to two weeks of intensive training in sunny Ocala. Not only would it be an opportunity to hone our Grand Prix skills, but to be honest, it would be a welcome escape from what seemed to be endless cold and snow.

No one could ever call my Dauntless a wimp or a hot house rose. Through our years together, he had always presented a steady confidence, cantering down centerlines of dressage arenas at all sorts of show grounds.  Outside the arena, he carried me with a warrior’s courage. From startling wild turkeys into full flight when his cantering hooves broke their cover to confidently confronting a buck in full rut who was in blind pursuit of a frantic doe who leapt from the trees over the fence directly in our path.

Often I felt his heart pound as loud as mine at these unexpected incidences, but no matter the surprise, he never shied from adversity. Even a barrage of automatic gun fire from the neighbor’s backyard range that echoed off the metal sides of our riding arena with the impact of all out warfare never phased him more than an acknowledging glance.

That being said, I don’t think my northern dressage horse was prepared for the sights that awaited down South. As we moved into our Ocala digs, I sensed this was going to add a unique chapter to our journal. While the farm was comfortable with large, airy box stalls and access to pasture, the ring where we would train was a three-quarter mile hack down a road adjacent to a pasture of Black Angus cattle. Dauntless had never before seen cattle. His initial impression was a bit of shock and awe as he absorbed their strange sight, scent and sound.

After two days to acclimate and rest from the long trailer ride, it was time to head down the road for our first training session. A part of the journey unavoidably took us down a narrow lane between the

Walking past the Black Angus herd.

cattle field and an empty pasture. The initial hack to the riding ring was uneventful as the cattle grazed at the far end of their big field.

After the lesson, as we returned home down the land, my concentration was preoccupied with the new exercises learned. Lost in thought, I didn’t immediately notice the very large, lone black figure standing with its rump toward us in the corner where the lane opened onto the safety of the road. Not overly concerned since the big beast seemed disinterested in us, I nudged Dauntless forward, confident that we could slip by unnoticed.

But, hold that confidence! When we came within twenty feet that enormous black figure slowly turned to square off at us. Much to my dismay, I realized it was a bull! He lowered his head, making serious, long eye contact with Dauntless. At the same time, he began a low, menacing bellow.

I don’t know who initiated a quicker whoa, Dauntless or me. Immediately deciding that retreat was our

best option, I glanced over my shoulder. To my horror, I realized that while the bull held Dauntless captive in his stare, he was calling his ten “girls” to him. Our retreat was now in jeopardy as the “girls” obediently headed up the fence line directly behind us. TRAPPED!!

No option but forward. “Come on, big guy,” I encouraged with the bravest voice I could muster. “We can do it!

I’m certain Dauntless thought that after ten years together I had finally gone around the bend. But,

bless his heart, after only a moment’s hesitation, he dropped his head and returned that bull’s threatening glare with matching intensity. Moving forward from my leg, he never broke eye contact, staring down that bull until we were safely out of the lane.

Back on the road, heading toward the stable under the arching live oak trees draped with Spanish moss, I felt a new confidence in the swing of his walk. I sensed when we

returned home to Ohio that he would have a great story to share with his northern barn buddies about the day he’d faced down the bull he had nicknamed “Filet.”

Leslie, Dauntless and Linda Zang

A Ride Out in Autumn

A Ride Out in Autumn by Leslie McDonald

October Indian summer … my favorite long awaited season has finally arrived in all its crisp glory. Skies a welcome, intense blue, the hazy summer pollution washed away by the first frost that swept in over the weekend on the shoulders of a southbound Canadian high. The rising sun’s palette of red, yellow and orange cascades across the tree line behind the barn with an almost iridescent intensity.

It’s a day meant for absolute freedom, for playing hooky from the constraints of daily responsibilities. A day to let the senses be guided by boundless imagination. A day to escape back to the carefree abandon of a childhood gallop, cheek buried against a mane flying free with the wind.

I sense that the change in the season affects him too. His stride quickens as we pass the arena gate as eager as me to turn away from the discipline of routine. He gives a final convincing tug on the reins, reaffirming this glorious morning was created just for the two of us with a far greater horizon than the perimeter of the arena.

The rich fragrance of fallen leaves and damp earth intensifies under the churn of his hooves as we swing into a soft canter down the fence line that leads away from the stable to who cares where. Today there are no rules, no schedules, no demands. Today there is only me and my friend beneath a perfect autumn sky, creating an exquisite memory that will linger long after the sun has set.

Cinderella’s Ball Gown by Leslie McDonald

Cinderella’s Ball Gown

Spring never fails to herald the return of my beloved barn swallows.  From their remote winter nesting grounds in South America, they miraculously manage to navigate their way back home to my farm in southern Ohio.

Our first nesting pair took up residence twelve years ago almost as soon as the newly built stable was erected. That original couple must have liked the neighborhood as it didn’t take long to attract their friends and relatives to become our seasonal residents. I must admit they make the best tenants, keeping our bug populations under control in exchange for bed and board.

By June, the hatchlings are peeking out over the edges of rafter nests. Their parents are kept busy on non-stop bug patrol to fill the chirping demands of growing bellies. Before you know it, hatchlings morph into fledglings, teetering on trusses and stall headers in preparation of their first big solo flight. All the celebratory chatter and flutter makes for a happy barn.

I’ve always enjoyed birds. As a young girl, one of my favorite nursery stories was Cinderella. I particularly loved the part where the blue birds happily swarmed around Cinderella, sewing a magical gown that was perfection for the ball.

When I ride my horse out in our back field, I can imagine the thrill Cinderella must have felt being dressed by her feathered tailors. As soon as Dauntless and I strike off through the gate at a trot, we’re joined by my swallows. They swoop and soar zany flight paths around us, sunlight reflecting iridescent purple off their wings. My horse and I become willing partners to their dance as they dive and bank around us.

At the end of the ride, while I may not be attired in the ribbons and satin of Cinderella’s ball gown, I feel equally as charmed by the special attention paid to me by my personal hatch of swallows.

MY ANCESTOR’S PAWS

MY ANCESTOR’S PAWS

The farm has been my kingdom for 11 years. I rule it with an iron, but benevolent paw that does honor to the genes of my ancestors. Welsh folklore hails Corgis as the mount of the woodland fairy warriors. To this day our markings still show their saddle outline across our shoulders. For over ten centuries, Corgis have been loyal heel nippers, maintaining order and keeping livestock in tow across all manner of farmland. In 1999 at my birth that venerated position was passed to me.

I oversee seven horses, two Labradors and three cats not to mention the myriad of daily visitors who drive through the farm gate. It’s an arduous work load for a low-set fellow who’s 14” at the shoulder by 30” long, weighing in at a sturdy 41 pounds, but still I remain the proud master of my domain.

Control central is in the house where my office is located beside the mudroom toilet. When not on duty, I doze contentedly between the porcelain bowl and the clear plastic guard my mistress has screwed over the wall to protect the blue paint from my frequently dirty coat. First-time visitors to the mudroom are usually surprised to see me curled at my “desk”.  Without moving, I have mastered the subtle upward roll of my eyes as they enter my “office”. The effect has caused more than one visitor to hesitate before dropping trou to utilize the facilities adjacent to my head. My cunning tactics have even resulted in one man retreating the moment he noticed my eyes rotate upward toward his partially unzipped fly. The legend that grew from that day earned me the honorary title of “Jaws of Death” for the possibility of what could be.

My day begins promptly at 7a.m. with aisle sanitation patrol. Those horses are a messy bunch, dribbling grain out feeder openings as they gobble their breakfast. My job is to gather up all the spilled grains and sweet feed that litter the aisle. In that capacity, I have perfected the technique of oral disposal to a fine art. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

After breakfast you will find me ringside overseeing the daily training sessions. It’s an easy hop over the short dressage ring where I station myself mid-arena at X watching my mistress put the horses through their exercises.  She always rewards me with a cookie from her pocket when we head back to the barn between rides.

It requires a lot of work to keep the Labradors in check. As the saying goes, “They’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer.” Every few years a new puppy appears who thinks he’s the big man on campus. That is until I teach him the ropes. Those tender, floppy ears only require a few sessions with the “jaws of death” to learn who the boss really is. I’ve never considered them more than domestic help, relegated to a subservient life in the barn while at the end of the day I retreat at my mistress’ heel to the sanctuary of the house.

And, finally, there are those cats. Worthless fur balls if ever I’ve seen one even though my mistress insists they have value by keeping the mice away. To me, they’re just a bigger strain of rodent that are entertaining to chase and a bit more trainable than the Labradors. I’m proud to say the threat of a “jaws of death” attack has provided the educational incentive to teach them to run up fence posts and tree trunks.

Night has fallen and the farm is long asleep. The horses doze with their heads hung out Dutch doors in the crisp fall air. Labradors snore hunkered down in the chafe in the loft. Cats entwine as only cats do in the secret recesses of the barn. I alone remain sentry outside my mistress’ bedroom. Head on paws, ever vigilant for any unfamiliar change in the night rhythms, faithfully watching and guarding in the tradition of my ancestors

INTUITION

The natural intuitive gift of animals never ceases to amaze me. They often clearly see the light of a problem while we humans are still struggling to find the switch. Stories abound of storm stranded cats finding their way back to beloved families or of dogs seeking help for a disabled master. Our furry friends are blessed with a special intuition, a mysterious gift that often leaves us mere humans in a state of wonderment.

I was never more touched by animal intuition than a recent summer afternoon as I was in the arena teaching a lesson. Much to my surprise, I looked up to see my Corgi hurrying down the barn aisle. Beamer was definitely on a mission, trotting toward me with a big, business gait.

In his youth, Beamer had been my constant barn companion sniffing up trouble, harassing the cats, or sitting patiently ringside while I schooled a horse. However, since passing through middle age, he had begun to shun barn time in favor of a cool snooze spot next to the mudroom toilet. As he had aged, the high pitched squeals of the horses as well as the occasional sharp kick against wooden stall walls seemed to affect his nerves with the same intensity as athunderstorm crack. Recently, his brief barn appearances had been limited to meals or to frisk visitors for treats before returning to the sanctuary of the house.

This current midday visit was totally out of character, so it was a pleasant surprise to see him trotting down the aisle. I knew it had taken a concentrated effort for him to leave his mudroom hideaway. It would have required the forethought and determination to use his nose to push open the sliding porch screen door to get out of the house. Although he had long since mastered the technique, he usually used it to return to the house to avoid summer heat, annoying barn noises or irritating insects.

I patted my thigh to encourage his progress. “Hey, Beamer, great to see you. Come help me with the lesson.”

He cocked his head at the sound of my voice, but rather than trotting to my side, he paused in front of the fifth stall. A big brown, white-blazed head hung out over the half door, bobbing at the sight of the tri-color Corgi in front of him.  Twenty year old Rasi was my partner of eleven years, a successful Grand Prix competitor now show ring retired to teach my advanced students. Possessed of an unpredictable, quirky personality, the big gelding had joined our farm the year after Beamer was born. Of all the horses that filled my barn, Beamer had been particularly drawn to Rasi from day one, seeming to adopt him as his personal project.

“Beamer, come!” I called a little more insistently, eager to reward him for making the unexpected trip to the barn.

He gave Rasi a last lingering look then trotted up to me.  I tosseled his head, reaching into my pocket for a treat. “Good boy! What a nice surprise,” I praised as he dropped down by my side.

Without warning, Rasi gave the back of his stall a resounding kick then body slammed his neighbor’s wall, pinning his ears and shaking his head. Beamer was off in a shot, not fleeing the noise for the house as I would have expected, but running toward it and Rasi. He sat down in front of the stall, looking up at his friend then back at me.

“Beamer, “I called, reaching into my pocket to entice him with another treat. “You know Rasi can be a grumpy old man.  It’s hot and he’s just having a fussy day. C’mon back. I’ve got more treats!”

Beamer gazed thoughtfully between me and the stall until Rasi settled to stick his head back out over the door, looking down at his little buddy. Seeing that his friend was not in trouble, the lure of the treat won out and Beamer trotted back to me. He remained at my side throughout the lesson, but although he was with me in person, I sensed his focus remained on Rasi as he lay facing the barn aisle, head resting on his paws.

As I finished the lesson, Rasi gave the wall another sharp kick loud enough to elicit a squeal from the neighboring mare and a bark on the run from Beamer who was quick to return to the stall.

“Let’s take a look,” I said, stopping to check out my old companion. Beamer hustled into the stall, pushing past my legs as soon as the door was open.

Rasi didn’t appear physically distressed, just a bit fussier than usual. His lunch had been cleaned up and there was some manure in the shavings although not as much as most afternoons. Pulse, respiration and heart rate were within normal range.

“It’s probably just the heat,” I said to my student who was untacking her horse.  “Think I’ll give him a little free time in the ring to walk out his angst.”

As soon as he was out of his stall, Rasi seemed to settle. He casually walked to the end of the indoor arena and hung his head over the gate, letting the breeze fluff his mane as he gazed out at the pasture. Assured that all was now right in Rasi’s world, I picked up Beamer and tucked him under my arm.

“Please keep an eye on Rasi,” I asked my student. “I’ll be back down as soon as I give Beamer a quick bath. I’ve been putting this off all week. Give me a call if anything seems out of the ordinary with Rasi.”

Beamer squirmed and wiggled under my grasp. I attributed his agitation to my use of the “B” word, but once again, I was thinking like a mere human. If my cognitive perception had functioned on a higher Corgi level, I might have recognized the real purpose of his unexpected midday barn visit. But, being a lesser human creature, I had deterred him from his mission and returned to the house to subject him to a dreaded bath.

I had been immersed in the mudroom tub up to my elbows dousing Beamer with the sink spray house for only five minutes when my student came running up to the house. “I think you need to check Rasi. He just lay down in the middle of the ring. He’s not rolling, but he’s not getting up either.”

That totally abnormal behavior report necessitated an immediate response. I scooped a dripping Beamer out of the tub and bolted back down to the barn. Beamer was close on my heels, pausing just long enough to shake off volumes of bath water.

As soon as I saw Rasi standing center ring, mildly pawing as though considering lying back down, I recognized the symptoms. His previously unsettled, grumpy condition had deteriorated into borderline colic. Head lowered and ears slightly back, he watched me approach without moving away.

Before he went over the edge, I knew I needed to walk him in the hope of diverting a more serious problem. As I snapped on the lead, Beamer glanced from Rasi to me with a soulful look from his dripping wet face .that didn’t cut me any slack.

Probably best that I didn’t speak Corgi because if I did I’m certain he would have berated me with “I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen. My reward for warning you about Rasi was to be dumped in a laundry tub and sprayed with water.”  Talk about a guilt trip.

Six hours of hand walking, two doses of Banamine and one farm vet emergency call later proved Beamer’s original diagnosis correct. Through it all, Beamer was never out of eyeshot of his friend. At 9:30 pm, our vet proclaimed due to the growing severity of the gas distension, we needed to transport Rasi to the veterinary hospital with strong odds of surgery facing us.

After hours of hand walking that had seemed like an eternity, once we loaded Rasi into the trailer, the time flew driven by on the fear of the reality that awaited us. Our 11:30pm arrival at the hospital was met by a full surgical staff attired in scrubs. The diagnostic time was brief as the distension and Rasi’s discomfort has greatly increased during the trailer ride, leaving surgery the only viable option. The surgeon assured us that even though there had been no obvious cause, Rasi’s condition was just one of the regrettable, unexplainable mysteries of colic.

Before my dear friend was led off for surgery, I hugged him once for me and then a second time for Beamer whose sharp intuition had sensed his friend’s plight from his sleeping post in the house mudroom. My Corgi has been the first to sound a warning long before any signs of the colic were visible to his human caretaker.

Two hours of surgery followed by five days of hospitalized intensive care resulted in a positive prognosis that saw Rasi on his way home on the very appropriate Fourth of July. So much to celebrate, but my joy couldn’t compare with the exuberance of his little buddy Beamer when he saw his friend unloaded from the trailer in our stable yard. In the days to come, I sensed we would be seeing a lot more of Beamer in the barn as he monitored his friend’s recovery while making sure my nursing care was up to his standards. And, who am I after all, a mere human to argue with Corgi intuition?

Magic Turnout

Little Magic

Doug's DarlingsAmelia Gaurding

Simply The Best

Simply the Best

What exposes us to opportunity and those life altering choices that tempt with promise? Is it fate or circumstance or just plain luck? Do we notice when fortune taps us on the shoulder? Or are we pre-determined to be in a specific place at a specific time like star-crossed lovers?

No matter the cause when I first saw him seven years ago the thought of adding a green broken three-year-old to my life was not even a figment of my imagination. I was comfortably traversing middle age on the back of a twelve-year-old Grand Prix horse without any desire or inclination to revisit the bumps and grinds of the fractious youngsters of my youth.

My husband and I were in Maryland to visit old friends and admire their latest crop of imports. Of course I’d packed boots and breeches because after all we were traveling to horse heaven and it would never do to arrive unprepared. But honestly, the original plan was to “o-o-h” and “a-a-h” over some elegant young Swedish Warmbloods then retreat to our favorite crab shack to enjoy the Chesapeake’s finest along with the camaraderie of long time friends.

I certainly wasn’t there for a strapping chestnut three-year-old barely six weeks under saddle who was just beginning to find answers to the questions posed by the humans in his life. But, from my first step down our friends’ aisle that colt’s attention fixated on me and never let go. Whenever I was within eyeshot of his stall, I felt his penetrating gaze, impatiently waiting for me to discover what he already appeared to know.

I tried to keep my interest in this handsome youngster casual, but as soon as my friend noticed our flirtation she was quick to produce tack. There was no denying that I was curious to explore the relationship offered by the colt, so there was nothing left to do but see where the reins led me.

Where I had expected the uncertainly and imbalance of the newly broken, there was instead a raw confidence and power emanating from gaits that hinted of all the potential yet to be revealed. He was light and forward, eager to answer any question I posed even though hearing them for the first time. Despite his youth, he gave me the steady assurance of an experienced packer even when a gaggle of geese landed uninvited in the center of the dressage arena. How could he be so wise at such a young age to know he was exactly what I needed in my life when before that weekend I hadn’t even known myself? When I dismounted I knew that before I headed home to Ohio my heart would have no choice but to make arrangements for this new chestnut “man” in my life to follow in short order.

But, is there a litmus test to determine the potential merits of a prospect who we hope will carry us to the fulfillment of our dreams? What law of Nature ordains that all the pieces and parts will ultimately mesh into the perfect whole?

The young horse is the untested gamble on potential that entwines bloodlines, conformation and basic gaits with the dream of the visionary.  In many disciplines the payoff or disappointment comes early as with Thoroughbreds who charge down the backstretch as two and three year olds with careers culminating often before horses in many other disciplines are even broken to saddle.

The journey of the dressage horse is one of the longest and most arduous for all the years required to develop the strength, balance and confidence to climb the very tall ladder to Grand Prix. So few achieve that final rung, most washing out along the way limited by talent, temperament or soundness. But always the search goes on for that ideal mount who will carry their rider with them to the top.

And so I began the dance again with this new partner hoping against hope that he would be the one. Introducing each movement with the careful precision of a pianist composing a new song, note by note until the harmonies blend into a complete melody. Training, stretching, collecting, bending, extending through the years as one by one the questions of each progressive level were asked and answered.

Together we built layer upon layer of proficiency until only one hurdle remained. The day he answered that final question something magically clicked and he soared, finally finding the groove to lift us effortlessly around the arena in a confident passage. With each stride his pride swelled, elevating us to that special place that had beseeched me from the eyes of a green broken three-year-old those seven long years ago.

Our annual farm Christmas gift to clients is a custom-made C.D. Everyone is invited to submit the song they feel best represents their goals and vision of the year ahead with their favorite horse. Imaginations set free they never fail to come up with a truly creative recording that sets the tone for the new season.

My selection this year could have served as our theme song ever since that first meeting in Maryland seven years ago. But, somehow his mastery of the final piece of the Grand Prix made it all the more appropriate for the big chestnut gelding whose focus still never wavers from me whenever I am within eyeshot. Without hesitation, I chose Tina Turner’s classic “Simply the Best” because he was and always will be to me.

Anders Lindgren

We at DowntheAisleStories.com would like to dedicate this issue of our newsletter to the memory of our magnificent mentor, Major Anders Lindgren. He was a constant source of inspiration and guidance since I first was privileged to train with him at the Violet Hopkins Instructors’ Symposium in 1981.

The consummate horseman from Olympian to Swedish National Champion to USDF Hall of Fame inductee, he was most of all the great communicator with a gift of drawing the best out of all of his students. Utilizing precision gymnastics around orange traffic cones, he communicated his message with creative analogies that drew indelible pictures in our imaginations as we trained to fulfill the vision he offered. At the conclusion of my initial lessons with him, my first purchase upon returning home was a set of 12 bright orange cones from the local sporting goods store. 30 years later those now faded, well worn cones are still a valuable resource in my teaching arsenal.

Possessed of a rich sense of humor, he inspired our efforts to learn and grow with our horses through the levels with correct classical training. He had a flair for colorful expressions that overflowed the margins of my notebook at every memorable clinic. Colorful phrases like “Buns management”, “Shuttle the bits”, “Play your instrument and conduct Bernstein with your supple wrists”, “Let the joints of your fingers be oil cans to lubricate the horse’s mouth” and “Hurry slowly.” He had perfected verbalization to a high art. But, the line I remember most is “T-T-T … things take time.”

In 1993 when I purchased my first Swedish Warmblood, I asked Major Lindgren’s permission to name him in his honor. Permission granted my special new horse officially became “Anders”, carrying the name of my memorable mentor down countless center lines all the way through the FEI level in honor of the instructor who had given me so much.

I was able to share the manuscript for Down the Aisle with him last summer just before it was published. As I wrote the chapter “My Memorable Mentor” in his honor, I wanted to share it with him before we went to print. I will always treasure the phone call we shared after he read the complete manuscript and expressed his enjoyment.

To the memory of a dear mentor, horseman and friend, rest in peace knowing your passion for horses will always be heard through the voices of the students you inspired.

Santa’s Stairs

On Christmas Eve when I was a young child I would lie in bed and listen for the click of Mother’s heels going up and down the wooden basement steps on the other side of my wall.  Each trip delivered gaily wrapped packages from friends and relatives that Mother had secreted away in her laundry room storage closet that was out of bounds to me in the weeks leading up to the big day. Delighting in her role as Santa’s helper, she materialized a festive display of gifts under our tree as if by magic every Christmas morning.

For as long as I can remember, my sole Christmas wish was for a pony. My parents were quick to try to redirect my dreams toward something more realistic like a bicycle or a sled. After all, we lived on a corner lot in the suburbs where people walked dogs on the sidewalk and fluffy cats prowled hedge lines. There certainly wasn’t the space or zoning for a pony.

But, I was too young to be deterred by grown up realities. Each Christmas, I hoped upon hope that Santa would answer my wish and send that pony to my mother for safekeeping until the big day. What better place to hide a surprise pony than her laundry room closet? The boundless possibilities of a youthful imagination failed to recognize that a pony never could have lived in that closet let alone navigated the basement stairs on Christmas Eve to wait for me beneath our tree.

In my childhood reality where carpets flew and dogs talked, a pony in a basement closet was no less a possibility. And so, bundled in my bed each Christmas Eve I held my breath hoping to hear the click, click of Mother’s heels coming up the basement stairs followed by the clip, clop, clip, clop of a pony’s hoofs.

But, years of very specific letters to Santa, wishing on stars and an ever growing number of birthday candles never made that pony materialize up those basement stairs. Long after I was old enough to admit the unrealistic possibility of a pony appearing under our tree Christmas morning, the dream continued to grow. It was nourished by weekly riding lessons and an extensive collection of plush horses in every shape and color that each year were gifted under the tree in festive paper as my surrogate pony.

My parents were ultimately worn down by their little girl’s dream that refused to fade. Seven years after my full court Santa campaign began, the reins of my first horse were finally put in my hands on Valentine’s Day. The calendar date of the gift didn’t matter because once that horse was finally, truly mine every day seemed like Christmas.

Although that long wished for pony never did clatter up Santa’s stairs behind my mother, the child that still dwelled in me couldn’t help but believe that maybe, just maybe he really had read my letters written with such loving desire for all those many years.