LOCAL DRESSAGE SCHOOL BEGINS NEW ERA
School is in session at Lucky Cricket Farm in Huntingtown, Maryland, and Chesapeake country horses are attending. Their subject is dressage, a horse and rider training method which dates back to ancient Greece and owes its traditions to Renaissance Europe. For over twenty years, Lucky Cricket Farm owner Mary Russell, assisted by her husband Mike Russell, has been pursuing the art of dressage. Now, she is coaching riders of all ages and their equine partners in this noble and graceful art. Some ride their own horses; others ride horses owned by or boarded at and leased by the farm.
Her students train at least once a week. They like to test their skills at dressage schooling shows, which give them valuable riding experience and help them focus on ways to improve their riding techniques. Under the orange and white banner of Lucky Cricket Farm, Mary and her students have regularly demonstrated their talents in equestrian shows throughout the area and participated in other local events, such as Calvert County’s 350th Anniversary Parade, but Mary and Mike have always wanted their farm to offer more to their students and to the dressage community.
Two years ago, after years of planning and saving, the Russells took a major step toward realizing that goal: they began construction of a climate-controlled indoor arena and sixteen stall barn that would allow them to expand their stable and make year-round training more practical.
In the summer of 2005, with work in progress, they opened their farm to two events. In August, they hosted the 4H Camp on Wheels, for an afternoon, which brought a school bus full of students to the farm. Mary and students presented a Parade of Breeds, with which they explained different horse breeds and how they are traditionally used. They also gave the 4-Hers a riding, driving and grooming demonstration. The highlight of the event was a musical freestyle in which four riders and their horses demonstrated dressage moves in rhythm to the song, “I Like to Move It, Move It,” made popular by the movie, “Madagascar.” That same month they hosted the Potomac Valley Dressage Association Calvert Chapter three-day dressage clinic. Chapter members spent three days working on their riding position through pilates, riding, and massage and chiropractic adjustment.
Earlier this year, with their new facility almost complete, they were able to mark another milestone in Lucky Cricket Farm’s evolution: they hosted the first of several Sunday Winter Dressage Schooling Shows. This was the first schooling show held on the farm grounds, the first event where Mary and her students could compete on their home turf, and the first dressage show held at an indoor arena in Calvert County.
SOME ARE BORN HORSE LOVERS, SOME ARE MADE
For Mary, it was a high point in a horse-lover’s journey that began when she was in seventh grade. Her first teacher and benefactor was Mr. Dave Gough, who allowed her to use one of his ponies as a 4-H project. He was her first instructor. Later, Mary was co-captain of the University of Maryland Equestrian Team. After college, she became interested in dressage, which literally means training. It uses gymnastics to develop the horse’s and the rider’s balance and to promote trust between the horse and rider. Exercises rely upon and seek to accentuate the horse’s natural movements. They are used to strengthen the horse and to teach the rider to communicate using body movement. A well-tuned riding team will develop a smooth and graceful rhythm that makes their work together seem joyful and effortless. Mary has become a devotee of the method because of the harmony it creates between the horse and its rider.
When Mike Russell met Mary, he was not especially interested in horses, but fate had other plans. He accompanied her when she went to buy her first horse and the seller erroneously but prophetically added Mike’s name to the ownership papers. Soon after they became co owners, in 1984, Mary and Mike were married. They then purchased thirty rolling acres of farmland in Huntingtown, Maryland. At the time, they had that one horse that had made Mike an instant equestrian, a lucky cricket good luck charm for which they named the farm, and a dream of training horses and riders in the art of dressage. Motivated by their desire to help “Keep Calvert Country,” they joined the Agricultural Preservation Program through which the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation purchases easements on eligible properties to ensure that those properties remain farmland or woodland in perpetuity.
BUILDING A HORSE LOVER’S DREAM
Mary, an electrical engineer by trade, and Mike, a mechanical engineer, have spent all of their spare time and energy improving the farm, bringing in students, and building a stable of horses – some they own and some boarded by owners who train there.
Meanwhile, Mary has continued to learn and train in dressage as well as teach it. She cites Major Anders Lindgren, Swedish Olympian and author of Teaching Exercises: A Manual for Instructors and Riders, and Mary Flood, United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Certified Instructor as two of the most influential teachers in her life. Mary took a three-month leave of absence from engineering in 1995 to train in Florida with both of them and considers it a highlight of her riding life. In 2002, she attended the Aachen Horse Show in Germany: another experience she describes as both unforgettable and instructive. Mary is currently working toward her USEF Instructor Certification. She is always striving to evolve as a rider, a trainer, and a teacher, and Lucky Cricket Farm has evolved with her.
Today, with fifteen horses and thirty students, Mary and Mike are excited to offer a venue that encourages beginners and seasoned riders –children and adults- to learn and compete side by side in a fun, safe, smoke-free environment. Since Lucky Cricket Farm is a family-oriented equestrian educational center, offering a series of dressage schooling shows to its students and the community is only logical.
In dressage schooling shows, participants must complete a series of riding techniques appropriate to their training. There are seven levels of dressage in the world: Introductory, Training, First, Second, Third, Fourth and FEI. Introductory is designed and governed by the United States Dressage Federation. Training through Fourth level is designed and governed by the United States Equestrian Federation. The four most advanced dressage tests are at the FEI level: Prix Saint Georges (PSG), Intermediate 1 and 2 (I-1 and I-2) and Grand Prix. These tests are designed and governed by the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale or International Equestrian Federation.) Olympians are selected from Grand Prix Riders. The Aachen Horse Show is an FEI recognized event.
Tests are officiated by judges who are trained and licensed by the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) and the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). There are four types of judges who must have increasing levels of judge training, riding, teaching, and judging experience, as well as recommendations from other judges to advance in their status.
Basic training for judges is called the “L” Program. “L” program graduates can judge informal activities, such as schooling shows. Recorded or “r” judges are distinguished “L” graduates who, after completing more training, are licensed by the USEF to judge programs to the Second Level. Registered or “R” judges have at least two years judging experience and have completed more training. They may judge programs to the Fourth Level. Senior or “S” judges are the highest-level judges. They must have good judging records, international riding experience, and recommendations from several “S” judges. They may judge events at all levels to Grand Prix.
INAUGURAL SEASON A SUCCESS
Lucky Cricket Farm’s 2006 Sunday Winter Schooling Show Season began on a cold but clear day in January. The first event attracted over one hundred people, including 27 riders, one from as far away as Pennsylvania. Guests of all ages - some seasoned veterans and others who didn’t know their trot from their canter – flocked to the equestrian center. In its new indoor arena’s warm and comfortable viewing area, everyone enjoyed a potluck lunch, and then spectators settled in to watch a competition that emphasized learning and fun.
As in all of Lucky Cricket Farm’s shows this winter, the riders were neatly turned out in traditional dressage dress of white breeches and shirt, knee-high riding boots and a riding helmet. Some wore full formal dress that included gold pins to close their shirt collars; dark dressage coats; stylish hair nets that gathered their long hair at the back of their necks; and white riding gloves. Each rider was the picture of elegance atop a well–groomed mount as she saluted the judge and the audience at the start of her test.
One at a time, riders entered the ring and responded to a series of commands, called by Reader Christina Dale, in a five-minute test designed to demonstrate how well they work with their horses. In the Introductory Level Tests A and B, horses and riders are judged on the quality of their walk and trot. A well-done walk has a four-beat stepping motion. A well-done trot has a two-beat motion with strides. It is more energetic than a walk and the horse’s legs move in diagonal pairs. How smoothly the horse and rider respond to each command is critical to their performance.
January’s blue ribbon riders in these tests were: Liza Axe and her horse, Borderlord, representing Hampton Horse Farm of Owings, Maryland (Test A-Section 1); Cindy Marquardt and Toasted Almond also of Hampton Horse Farm (Test A-Section 2); and Kelly Quesinberry and her horse, Cherokee, of Lucky Cricket Farm (Test B). Mary was especially proud of thirteen-year-old Kelly and seven-year-old Cherokee, because Cherokee was a starved horse that had been rescued by the University of Maryland. Kelly bought him from the University and started from scratch with his training. (An untrained horse is said to be “green.”)
In Training Level Test 1 that followed, riders were held to a slightly higher standard of performance and had to respond to more commands, including a working canter, which is an easy gallop. It has a three-beat motion with a period of suspension that should be fluid and strong. Lucky Cricket Farm’s Kim Thomas rode Ensign’s Image to a blue ribbon in this event.
First Level Tests 1 and 2 were performed next. In these tests, judges look for an even greater degree of athleticism. They want to see thrust, or pushing power. The horse will be energetic and move through transitions with ease and grace. Mindy Maslin of Highland, Maryland, and her horse, Midnight Treasure, gave an impressive demonstration of these skills that earned them a blue ribbon in this class.
Michele Alexander from Begin Again Farms of Leonardtown, Maryland and her horse, Montreal, provided what was perhaps the highlight of the show. In the Fourth Level Test One, they demonstrated advanced moves that included half-pirouettes at walk, where the horse makes a half-circle in place; trot half-pass, where the horse trots forward and sideways on a diagonal line across the arena; extended trot, where the horse sits on its haunches and floats at the trot; canter half-pass, where the horse canters forward in a diagonal track; and a flying change, where the horse changes leads in the canter and looks like it is skipping. Their majestic performance introduced the beginning level riders to a ballet-like routine that was worth aspiring to and was a joy for all the audience to watch.
Overall, the first show was a success. Celia Vornholt, United States Equestrian Federation level “r” Dressage Judge from Davidsonville, MD, was appreciated as much for her helpful hints and reminders as for her judging of the tests. Her mantra of the day became, “Keep your horse forward,” which means encourage it to maintain an active, energetic and fluid motion (not lazy, but not rushed.) Rider position is the key to achieving this and is scored on all dressage tests. Also contributing to the day’s success were: Ann Newton, Show Manager; Joan Damalouji, Scorer; Christina Dale, Reader and Riders’ Helper; Ashleigh Groff and Elaine Bailey, who also were Riders’ Helpers; and Bud Beard, who is one of Mary’s students, and was the Runner for all the shows. As Bud, who delivered test results from the judge to the scorer and had a birds-eye view of the competition, noted, “Many of Mary’s students did exemplary work and the guest riders were great, too.”
Public Health Scare Limits Show Scope, Not its Spirit
With their first home competition under their belts, Mary and Mike looked forward to their second schooling show, but an outbreak in Maryland of Equine Herpes forced them to allow only Lucky Cricket Farm horses to participate.
Farm owners sought to quarantine their horses from this incurable virus that can be fatal if it attacks the nervous system. Maryland’s recent outbreak began at Pimlico Racetrack near Baltimore on January 2. Quarantines at certain facilities including Pimlico contained the outbreak to the racing population and Maryland’s Department of Agriculture declared on March eighth that the outbreak had officially ended.
The next show was held on February 26th, another sunny but very cold day. About fifty spectators attended the event, which gave seven of Mary’s students an opportunity to test their skills and engage in some friendly competition with each other. This time, United States Equestrian Federation “L” level judge, Judy Strohmaier officiated, encouraging the students and offering them helpful suggestions throughout the day. Judge Strohmaier was pleased with the pace and scope of the show. “Overall,” she said, “The students did very well.” Returning Show Manager, Ann Newton, was also pleased with the show. She is glad for the new family-oriented indoor venue, because it gives horses and their riders a chance to participate locally in winter events.
The rest of January’s show hands reunited with Newton to help make February’s show a success. This time, Elaine Bailey served as Reader and Riders’ Helper while Ashleigh Groff worked as a Riders’ Helper. Even though this was a smaller scale event, the audience of families, friends, and other guests was not disappointed. The Lucky Cricket Farm horses and their riders provided an entertaining and educational demonstration of dressage techniques, and became the real heroes of the day. Blue ribbon winners were: Caitlin Groves, who rode Lucky Cricket Farm veteran, SPITTINIMAGEOFBOSS (affectionately called Bert) in Introductory Level Test A; Sam Sallitt, who also rode Bert, in Introductory Level Test B: and Kelly Quesinberry, who again rode her horse, Cherokee, this time in Training Level Test 1.
Season Closes on High Note
The grand finale of Lucky Cricket Farm’s Sunday Winter Dressage Schooling Shows was held on March 26th. It was again open to all registered horses, and featured fifteen riders, including three who brought their horses in from other stables.
Shiela Haviland, an experienced rider, brought her ten-year old rescue named Harley, because the event gave Harley, who is green (new to training), a chance to get used to working in a show environment.
Another experienced rider, Pat Lookingland, brought her horse, Springbok, from Celia Vornholt's farm in Davidsonville, Maryland to perform the most advanced test of the day: Second Level Test 2. Ms. Lookingland is a former show jumper who switched to dressage because physically it is less stressful. She loves the grace and beauty of the sport, as well. This was her first time riding at Lucky Cricket Farm, and she was very happy with her experience at what she deems is a “great schooling venue. The owners are extremely helpful,” Ms. Lookingland said, “and the arena design is impressive. There is easy access from the (attached) barn to the large sand arena, there is ample parking, and all the facilities - from the stalls to the restroom - were very clean.”
Ms. Lookingland also liked the mix of children and adult riders. “The children are extremely well turned out,” she said, and she was very impressed by their “cooperative spirit.”
A Judge’s Perspective
United States Equestrian Federation level “r” judge, Beverly Fields, who officiated at March’s show, said she, too, was happy with the venue and the event. “The improvements are wonderful,” she told me. “The arena is bright and well set up.” She thought having windows and a door at the end of the arena directly opposite the judge’s station was a smart idea, because they added to the light and provided an alternate exit.
Ms. Fields kindly shared her insights into the art of dressage and judging it. “Dressage,” she explained, “is a test of the horse’s straightness: his suppleness and balance. His straightness is the alignment of his spine throughout the performance – even in the turns.
“Judges also look at the rider’s posture, balance and suppleness, especially the looseness of her hips. The horse and rider are evaluated on how well their movements flow together, both as individuals and as a team. A good measure of the rider’s control is how well she can control her individual body parts. Can she, for example, tighten her ankle without tightening her hips? This is important in maintaining balance and sending the right signals to the horse.”
When I asked what distinguishes a good ride from a not-so-good ride, Ms. Fields said, “Tension due to the show can affect the suppleness and ease of performance.” She offered some sage advice to show participants: “In schooling shows such as these held at Lucky Cricket Farm, the ride may score well or poorly, but it’s important for the rider to understand that it’s one ride and to learn from the experience.”
At the end of each test, Judge Fields stood to greet the rider and horse. They then engaged in what looked like a friendly chat. These conversations were meant to be private, but from the smiles many riders flashed during these talks, it was obvious to the outside observer that the judge was encouraging to each participant. She felt all the riders were receptive to her comments and suggestions, and she thought it was a fun show.
One rider, eleven-year-old Sami Crocker, who rode Lucky Cricket Farm pony, Belle, to a blue ribbon in Introductory Level Test A, said, “Ms. Fields was very helpful in her suggestions on how to keep my horse forward in the walk and keep her going in the turns.” Sami was very proud, because she had “improved a lot over February’s performance.”
“I like dressage,” she told me, “because I like dressing up, picking the test to perform, and the horse to work with.” Sami has been riding at Lucky Cricket Farm for eighteen months and likes the new arena, because it is “so comfortable.” She enjoys training with Mary, because Mary “is constantly helping and making sure we do things right.”
It is evident from Mary’s easy laughter when she interacts with her students, both two-legged and four-legged, that she loves teaching dressage and she loves to have fun with it. In that spirit, during intermission, she and her students presented a musical quadrille demonstration that was worthy of a season finale. Six riding pairs: Mary and her horse, Feinesse; Elaine Bailey and her horse, Java; Ann Newton and Ensigns Image; Sami Crocker and Belle; Caitlyn Groves and Bert; and Caitlin Seiwertsen and SS Shadrack, delighted spectators with a choreographed display of dressage skills that had the horses prancing to the beat of music, including Henri Mancini’s “The Pink Panther.” The riders’ smiles and the spring in the horses’ steps as they danced side-by-side in an unwavering line toward the audience showed they enjoyed performing as much as we enjoyed the performance. The unity and grace they exhibited was breathtaking.
The day ended with another bonus. Prizes were awarded to the top six people with the highest average scores received during the three winter shows. Because Mary and Mike had to close the February show to horses not boarded at their farm, they required participation in only two tests. The person with the highest average score was E. Victoria Bohrer. She received a $50.00 gift certificate graciously donated by Just One More Saddlery & Tack, which is located in Prince Frederick, Maryland. She and her horse SA Pentacle, also earned a blue ribbon that day for their performance in Training Level Test 2.
Victoria is fourteen years old. She boards Pentacle at Lucky Cricket Farm and has been training with Mary for two years. A graceful and confident rider, she told me “I like dressage, because learning the maneuvers and working with my horse is challenging.” She is excited about the prospect of learning more complex techniques.
$25.00 gift certificates were awarded to Claire McCawley (2nd), Caitlin Seiwertsen (3rd), Kelly Quesinberry (4th), Samantha Sallitt (5th), and Mary Kruse (6th). These prizes were graciously donated by: Hatchers Supply of Huntingtown, Maryland; Loveville Leather and Tack Shop of Loveville, Maryland; Jacqueline Morgan Skin Care of Prince Frederick, Maryland; and Double D’s Fitness and Footwear also of Prince Frederick.
Mary and Mike Russell have been the heart and soul behind all three of their Sunday Winter Dressage Schooling Shows. With Mary helping riders warm up their horses, and Mike reading for March’s show and performing multiple behind the scenes tasks, they still managed to meet and greet participants, guests and helpers with a warm smile that reveals the love and pride they feel for their horses, their students and their farm.
FORWARD TO THE FUTURE
With the local dressage community gearing up for its spring and summer events, Mary and Mike concluded their shows until next winter, but school is still in session. They regularly offer riding lessons with Mary and clinics with visiting instructors such as Ange Bean. In May, the Girl Scouts descend on the farm to work on their Horse Fan, Horse Rider and Horse Sense badges. The Calvert County Farm Tour takes place at Lucky Cricket Farm on July 16, 2006 from 1-4 PM. The farm also plans to participate in the 4-H Camp on Wheels in August.
Meanwhile, they continue to teach and learn with their students and horses, and you can look for them at various local equestrian events. Check out their calendar at www.luckycricket.com.
Lucky Cricket Farm is located at 1935 Emmanuel Church Road. It is a smoke-free family oriented equestrian educational center that emphasizes care of the horse along with the dressage riding technique. You don’t have to own a horse to ride there. Prospective students and boarders can inquire at their website or by calling 410-535-1670.