A horse farm by any other name

Susan Hopf




Rolling acres of emerald hay, horses happily munching on the early summer grass, blue skies and the silhouettes of horses and riders cresting the hill for a trail ride all describe the perfection of my life with horses. 30 years and I have yet to grow tired of the life however it was not always as peaceful a scene.

Gaining a reputation in the horse world is not an easy task. Newbie trainers and instructors come and go faster than a sharp-shinned hawk snatches her dinner from the sky. In anticipation of gaining clientele gimmicks and catchy methodology abound in a sea of self-proclaimed experts getting noticed, and more importantly paid, for your efforts demands some level of confidence if not arrogance. Confidence is easy to come by when the horses with which you work improve and the riders begin to think for themselves at least these are the qualities by which I have always judged my own expertise. However as the new kid in town (a very loooong time ago) the ugly truth was lurking in a trailer at “C”.

Cadence, freedom of movement and the quality of gait were taught above all else in the beginning phases of my work with both horses and humans. Students were taught to recognize what was correct and what was not while keeping those three attributes foremost in their minds. Entering the ring at “A” my students kept their cool (mostly) and attained these goals in front of the judge I was very proud. With anticipation we were handed the score sheets only to find that the numbers were abysmal but worse, the comments made no sense.

Training level tests in either dressage only or combined training were judged as if the horses were capable of Grand Prix level movements. All too common were comments such as “pull your horse together”, “no frame”, “lack of collection”, “too little elevation” and my favorite “perhaps a change of bit is in order to make the horse stretch the neck and accept the bridle”. Sorry? Make the horse stretch by what means is this even possible?

One judge down and the next competitive event on the horizon meant hours of bolstering the confidence of students that were let down by the first. We all produced the same level of performance but sadly the scoring and comments were no better so it was time for a re-evaluation of what I though were correct schooling methods. Scouring the books and magazines for something that was missed resulted in a list of contraptions for setting the head, harsh crank nosebands (sorry but how does this encourage a supple mouth) and a whole host of quick fixes that would set the frame on even the most stubborn of horses.

No! No! No! So the search for more answers continued until I found a very good instructor trained by Nuno Oliveira and the magazine Dressage and CT, which was filled with wonderful articles, written by Jean Luc Cornille, that spoke of such things as the biomechanics of the horse whoa what a novel idea actual information regarding the function of the horse.

Studying and applying what was learned now replaced the time wasted in seeking help from the local judges.

Another few weeks found us facing the next show, which again bore the same results, but with a new level of confidence I appealed the judge’s commentary regarding the bit, which was a Boucher snaffle. We spoke on the grounds, we spoke in emails she held on tightly to the belief that the horse was “behind” the bit, afraid of the bit, not on the bit, not through the bridle, blah, blah blah. Back and forth it went for over a week after the show with me also sticking to my guns, that the horse was none of the above but was in fact correct “in the bridle” with the poll the highest point as he carried himself freely forward in a nice steady rhythm and not curled up in a bunch and broken in half somewhere in the middle of his neck. Obviously she became frustrated and in an email that she proclaimed to be the last word on the subject stated, “well it really has nothing to do with the bit anyway.” Duh my point exactly! Thus began a rather well known campaign of bucking the system and standing up for the horses and my students wherever appropriate. My reputation was secure; we stopped entering competitions and instead pursued higher education by attending clinics as well as continuing the study of the horse.

Well back to the peaceful scene with which we started the name of my little bit of paradise is Which Barn Farm. This came about as a bit of joke shortly after moving in to the 27-acre garbage pit my husband and I just acquired. Many dilapidated buildings housed much junk. As we worked on either cleaning out, restoring or building new the whereabouts of needed items would be questioned and the answer was inevitably “in the barn” which was always followed by “which barn”. Thus the name that stuck. However as my reputation grew it became apparent that people were confused by the farm’s name and would misspell it.  “Witch Barn Farm” was how it was listed in the local horse clubs’ newsletters. Folly or fate? you decide.