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It’s a long and arduous adventure on the road to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, but for 50-year-old dressage enthusiast Nancy Smith, who divides her home base between Ohio in the summer and Florida in the winter, it’s the magical journey that counts. The detours, obstacles and struggles are all part of the package, welcomed trials and tribulations without which the ascent would not be as meaningful.
Their equine passports in order, two of Caroline Ashton’s horses, Donatella, a ten-year-old Westphalian mare and Donneur, a nine-year-old Danish gelding were escorted by Smith, caretaker, trainer and rider, to Germany in late October in order to work for two-and-a-half months with legendary international master horsemen Hubertus Schmidt, who rode on the Gold Medal winning German team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
“My goal is not just the Olympic Games,” Smith explained. “Many of the horses that I train on a daily basis have issues that have to be resolved. My goal is to make them all productive members of the horse community so that they will always be enjoyed and cherished by their owners. Everyone always has time to ride a pleasant horse and that horse is guaranteed to always be well taken care of. Only a handful of superstars go international. But every horse has to find a station in life.”
Horses aren’t equipped with global positioning systems hooked up to their heads. That’s where Smith comes in, identifying their individual stations and bringing out their brilliance. She designs an equation that works. Determined to incorporate Schmidt’s lessons into her own formula for success, Smith is currently in Germany exploring an equine culture shock that is quite foreign to the majority of American equestrians.
Hubertus Schmidt’s primary foundation is to allow his charges to willingly accept the outside rein while remaining loose and relaxed on the inside rein, a seemingly simple recipe which often becomes lost in the substructure of basic groundwork.
“The horses have to start out their session with a low stretching neck and be able to maintain that at the trot and canter before moving onto collection. Once the collection has started, shoulder-in and half pass are the keys to engagement,” Smith said, recounting her German instructor’s primary strategy to achieving balance.
The lateral work, Smith maintains, allows the horses’ haunches to step deeper and deeper underneath. “The key point to remember in the lateral work is that you can have flexion in the jaw without bending in the neck, but you cannot have bending without flexion. It is a big challenge to keep the horse on the outside rein during the half pass, but you cannot maintain collection without it.”
Yet even in lateral movements, the emphasis is always focused toward forward movement. “The hands must not exert more pressure than your legs to keep the horse forward,” Smith continued. “I have yet to see Hubertus stop a horse that was too strong and you don’t see him rein back either, except if required in a test. Everything is corrected in a forward direction, although not allowing the horse to run on the forehand, that’s the tricky part. This kind of training is the real deal and very demanding on the horses and the riders. Theoretically, it can be applied to all horses and riders, but in reality, few are up to the challenge of working at this level of intensity. Every horse and rider will have to find the level of intensity that matches their goals.”
According to Smith, there’s no tiptoeing in a German stable and no one cuts any slack. The horses are not spared either in exposure or in their work ethic, and as a consequence, newcomers quickly learn to adapt to incidents that Americans would consider unnerving. “It has been very interesting to watch the young horses just starting under saddle and how it compares to what we do at home. Basically, lunging with side reins is standard in a lunging arena but things take a whole new direction when it’s time to get on,” Smith explained.
“I have watched a young horse over a period of three days go from having someone lay over the saddle to cantering. What makes it so different is that all this takes place in a 20 x 50 meter arena while everyone else is riding. No concession is made for the horse being young, kind of like being thrown in the water, sink or swim. Quite a challenge to navigate in that space on a horse that doesn’t know what the aids mean and if they are shy about oncoming horses, they have to get over that in a hurry! Once again, it appears that we baby our horses much more and shelter them compared to the German way. I think there is merit to both approaches, they just get the horses over the shock of riding in traffic in the beginning, instead of at the horse show like we do,” Smith concluded.
The policy in a German stable is for the horses to get with the program with little question and zero pampering, a policy that no doubt quickly strengthens a timid, poorly balanced or weak-seated rider. “No special treatment here if the horse wants to look at something, just a good crack with the whip and forward they go. Not going forward or hesitations of any kind are just not tolerated here. And there is no worry about how that affects the other riders in the arena. It’s damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead. Our horses looked more like a school of fish, when one spooked and changed direction, they all did. You had to laugh,” Smith said.
While horse shopping, Smith came to the conclusion that Schmidt’s basic German attitude of not sparing the horse is pretty much adopted throughout the country. “We have seen mostly young horses, three and four-year-olds, however, here in Germany, they are well accomplished at that age and have already been to a few shows. Many times not only do they walk, trot, and canter on the bit, they are already trying a few changes. Certainly not what we are used to at home,” said Smith.
In Germany, there are no punches pulled and when horse hunting, a prospective buyer pretty much gets to tap into the raw, bare, pure essence. What they see is what they get. Smith explained, “You really get a feel for their temperament since they have no problem showing you a horse that hasn’t been ridden in a week or a three-year-old that was broke, turned out for a month and then ridden for two days before you came to see it. You also ride these horses in a busy arena and you find that they are quite used to the confusion and oncoming traffic. I have to say it is much more pleasant than trying a four-year-old that has barely cantered and only been ridden at home with no company.”
There are some glaringly identifiable differences between showing in Germany compared to the American version. “They play music with each ride that coincides with the gait that the horse is in and begins and ends as the horse does,” Smith said. “They also give each rider a glass of wine as they come out of the competition arena. The other thing is that NOBODY leaves before the prize giving. They love to celebrate the winner.”
Another equine culture shock is in stable management differences. Americans tend to pamper their show horses, whereas the Germans exercise a tougher regime bordering on limited tolerance. “The theory here is that they can take care of themselves and the more you pamper them, the more they need,” Smith explained. “Every horse is on the same diet of crimped oats, three times each day, the same amount, one big scoop, even on days off and bran mash never happens. They get silage (their version of hay) once each day, in the middle of the afternoon, a lot of it.”
“Little to no turnout,” Smith continued, “And they stand on their days off or they are ridden long and low. It’s amazing what they get used to and they work very hard and seem to thrive just fine. One thing that almost every barn has is a solarium to dry them off in the winter, which is pretty nice. They bed on straw mostly and use a deep litter method adding more each day and then about every four weeks, they strip the barn. Basically one guy does the feeding and stall cleaning for close to 50 horses. German people work as hard as their horses!”
“Well, now I have witnessed stall cleaning the German way. As I mentioned earlier, the stalls are not cleaned on a daily basis when the horses are bedded on straw. Instead, they use the deep litter method, just adding more each day. After about six weeks, when all the horses look 18 hands in their stalls because there is so much bedding, it is time to strip the stalls. The horses are moved out of their stalls, turned out, put in another barn or just tied somewhere for a few hours and the work begins. All the feed bins have to be unscrewed from the wall, and a bottom board that is on each stall divider is removed, then the walls can swing back flush against one side so the tractor can come in and start scraping out the straw. It still takes a couple of people with pitchforks to take the bedding away from the walls so the tractor can take it out. What a tremendous undertaking.”
Whatever colors of the German spectrum that Smith decides to incorporate into her training and teaching regime, it no doubt will reflect in her horses. “I have always been able to think like a horse and find a way to communicate with every horse I have worked with. The biggest skill is being able to listen to the horse. If he doesn’t act on your request, you must determine whether he is saying, ‘I can’t’, ‘I won’t’ or ‘I don’t understand’ before you can correct him effectively,” Smith explained.
“I notice everything about my horses,” Smith continued. “I know what is normal for each one physically and attitude-wise. I have also learned to put my ego aside and not have to be the winner every time. One of the skills of a good negotiator is knowing what is okay to compromise on because compromise is an inevitable part of a partnership. It isn’t easy to accept things when you are a horse and have no control over your life. It is only because they are so inherently generous that they submit to our whims. That is why it is so important to have a horse that fits your goals.”
“Some horses are really hard workers, enjoy the life of a show horse and thrive on the attention and the pressure of achieving. Others do not,” continued Smith. “But for sure there is a home for every horse where they can be a hero for their owner given the right situation. It is definitely a balancing act between logic and emotion so that they both work toward a common goal. And sometimes, when all else fails, you have to go with your gut feeling.”
For Smith the experience in Germany has been invaluable, training and life lessons she hopes to pass on to both her horses and her students back home. “I try to live my life each day and move through this world treating others with kindness and respecting our differences. I am very blessed to have had, and continue to have the love and support of many people. I am anxious to ‘pay it forward’ to those that come after me in this sport.”