Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Interview with Katie Frei

Photo Courtesy of Tara Katherine Photography
Katie competing at Rolex Kentucky 3 Day
Photo Courtesy of Tara Katherine Photography
Headquartered at her farm Yellow Rose Eventing in Florida, Katie Frei will be competing at the 2014 Rolex Kentucky 3 Day in April with her horse, Houdini. I caught up with Katie right after she arrived at the Fork 2014 CIC3*/CIC2* & HT and she filled me in on her background and what is keeping her up at night about the upcoming Rolex Kentucky 3 Day.

Tell me a bit about your childhood and when you started riding.

I grew up near Kalamazoo, Michigan where my parents still live. My parents were in pharmaceuticals but bred racehorses as a hobby. They sold some horses at Keeneland and raced some. None of ours made it big on the track but it did get me some good horses to ride!

At about six I started riding, I had a Shetland pony named Woody who was the most rotten pony ever. I wanted so badly to have a pony hunter with all the bling but my parents said, “no, we have thoroughbreds and that is what you will ride.” I’d go in the hunter ring and my horse would lap the others. I tried the hunter ring, dressage, even fox hunting but was not successful at any of them. Then at about 8 or 9 I tried a baby novice event and won. I finally found the discipline my horse was good at so I stuck with it.

What is your daily routine?

I have a couple of working students and we all begin our day at 7 am. We have 16 horses in work, mostly young horses that are 6 and below in age. We feed, bring in, turn out, muck stalls to start the day. I try to be on my first horse by 8 am.

When I had my business in Maryland it was more of a teaching based business. I love to teach but it didn’t give me enough time to ride so when I moved my business to Florida I shifted my business model to more of a sale based so most of the horses are for sale – some owned by me and some owned by investors. The working students have their own horses too of course.

I have some very good clients who will fly to Europe .. or send me with their checkbook … we pick out a horse and put some time into them and then we sell them. It’s a bit nerve racking spending someone else’s money but its worked out well.

The day never really ends. We ride until dark or later. Clients sometimes are here late in the day to try horses and sometimes we don’t’ get to ride our personal horses until we’re all done. It’s great, but busy. We try to do fun things when we can like go to HITS to watch the Grand Prixs, go out to eat, things like that. But really we have fun all the time – I have a great group here.

Speaking of eating, when do you get a chance?

<laughing> We don’t! Its coffee in the morning, grab something when you can and some wine or beer at night.. Pretty much a liquid diet!

What is Houdini’s daily routine?

Houdini goes out for turnout each night. He’s a real wimp though and can’t go out by himself so I got him a present this year -- a mini named Spartucus who bosses him around. He comes in occasionally with tiny scrapes – at knee height! The turnout really helps with his mental health.

Each morning the girls (working students) lunge him for 20 minutes to get some of that extra energy out so he is more focused when I ride him – except for Sunday which is his day off. I am a big believer in a program. They need a program. They need a plan….. You can’t go out and say “hmmm what am I going to do today?”
Katie and Houdini

So Mondays are for fitness unless there is a show the previous Sunday and then they get the day off. We will either do trot work or hack. Tuesday is flat work. Wednesday we jump. Thursday is for fitness for some horses or we flat school. Friday we jump some smaller jumps – a grid or some poles. Saturday we gallop on my track or do cross country. Sunday is the horse’s day off but not for me! -- I have to be a farmer and fix everything that is broken on the farm. Owning your own farm is a lot of work!

How long do you work each horse?

Usually about 40 minutes for each workout. Sometimes we do two sessions a day. Because we are a sale based barn we need to be flexible – you never know when a client might show up.

What did you do in your last schooling session?

Well since we are at the Fork right now I only have two horses with me so its like a vacation! I have Hannibal who is a homebred and he is doing the young horse class and of course I have Houdini with me. His (Houdini) class isn’t until Friday so today (Wednesday) we just did a relaxed canter. We got here yesterday and I try to get on them as soon as we get someplace because I think it helps them relax and get out the tension they got while trailering. Helps them relax at night and eat better. So even if it’s a long trip I get on. Sometimes it doesn’t work out if we arrive late at night but I try.

You had a good run with your horse Sir Donovan. Where is he now? Is he still competing?

I sold him to Peter Barry who is friends with Boyd (Martin) and now Boyd has the ride on him this Spring. He is a HUGE Irish horse and was way too big for me since I’m only 5’2”. Boyd can ride him better with his long legs and they are doing very well together. <A few days after we talked, Katie filled me in on some news… “Update on this.. a friend of mine in Michigan just bought Sir Donovan! Phillipa Humphreys will now have the ride on him and I am thrilled for them.”>

What staff do you have?

I have two working students -- Vanessa has been with me since September. She graduated from Clemson and we just found her a new horse in the fall from the track. Catherine has been with me about a year and is taking a gap year away from college. She just completed her first one * and did great! They have a lesson every day and are great people. Its not a paid position but they have all their expenses paid. They share an apartment here on the farm, have a credit card to buy groceries and their horse board is paid as well as their shipping to events. We have a great time together!

How does your husband put up with all that estrogen?

Sven is gone all day managing his own family horse business near HITS Ocala. They breed about 40 foals a year. He used to ride his stallion Quebec (Quick Star) at the Grand Prix level but spends most of his time now selling horses and running his family business, EWSZ.

The horse business is not an easy one. Tell me how you are succeeding.

If you are smart and business savvy there is potential to make money in this business. Good horses sell themselves… especially when they are attractive and sensible and talented. We were able to buy our farm and have everything we need and the horses have everything they need. It does help to have great equipment and product sponsors and good owners who go in partnerships with horses.

Its nerve racking spending someone else’s money on a horse as an investment but I’ve had a good record. I like being successful for my owners and getting them a good return on their investment and work hard to make sure it happens.

How do you keep you sponsors happy and how did you get your sponsors?

You have to beat the bushes a little bit. Sometimes they contact me but I have a good friend who is smart at marketing and she put together a cd and video about a sponsorship package and that worked well. It’s something that is hard for me. I’m pretty modest so it’s a bit harder for me to get sponsors. It’s probably why you couldn’t find much about me in writing – I’m not one to say “look at me; I’m the best rider ever.”

I do have some great sponsors though. Heritage has the best gloves ever and Bob Bitzer sends me all I need. Houdini can’t function without his RevitaVet and Tom Neumann is always very supportive of us. I recently became a Devoucoux rider and I am thrilled with their saddles.

Rolex Kentucky is coming up. What is keeping you up at night worrying?

I want my horse to have a good experience. No matter what capacity that is. I don’t want my horse to walk away with less confidence than what he came with. Go there and learn something. Even if the weekend doesn’t’ go my way and doesn’t meet my expectations, I want him to take something good from it.

Houdini is very genuine. A little odd. A little strange. But a huge heart. He struggles a bit with his self confidence – he tries very hard. If I fall off he goes back to his stall and sulks and feels bad. Even if it’s my fault, he will come out of the ring shook up and think he did something bad.

So going into Kentucky I need him to feel like Superman, I need to build up his ego.

I ran him a at a Prelim horse trial before Jersey Fresh and he came out with a ton of confidence so I will do it again for Kentucky to make sure he feels confident. Not to place but so he feels good. If my horse feels good I do too.

He’s a good horse. I want to make it a good experience for him.

What will be your routine at Rolex? When will you get there?

We can check in on Monday. There is no point in trying to sleep the Sunday night – we are too excited – so we will drive all night Sunday and get there Monday to settle in. It’s better for the horses anyway to drive in cool of night.

In the past I have brought some sale horses with me. You’d be surprised how many people are there shopping for horses and the stabling is cheap. Lots of competitors bring other horses that need be worked with them or horses that they are moving from their winter Florida quarters to summer North quarters.

I think this year though I am going to bring Houdini alone because he is like a ‘Stage 5 Cling On’ – he attaches to his trailer mates and then can’t concentrate. Him being alone will help him get in the zone.

Where will you stay?

At events we typically stay in my living quarter trailer but at Kentucky Mom always treats us to a hotel, so why not?

Does your Mom come to the big events?

She actually comes to a lot of them. Even the smaller ones. Dad is a bit more high maintenance and likes the events that have a VIP tent where he can enjoy the free coffee to sit and read the Wall Street Journal.

Who else is coming?

Vanessa will come groom and help. She is great. My husband, Sven, will be there – he is in charge of the worrying!

Best of luck Katie at Rolex -- we will be cheering for you!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Second Knee Surgery is in my Future but trying PRP First

Those following along on my journey know that about a year and half ago I had a partial knee replacement on my left knee.  At the time of the replacement my other knee was in pain as well but not nearly as much as the one that I had replaced.   Arthritis is progressive.  You may be able to slow it down but its not ever going to get better.

May 2013 X-Ray
While its still not nearly as bad as my left knee, the right knee is getting worse and I can't walk now without limping and its starting to cause my hip, ankle and back on that side to hurt.    I had xrays taken last May and then again on March 30th and there is definite progression.   Besides the narrowing of the space, my leg is collapsing on the inside so I am getting more bowlegged which is causing some of the limping.

I'm also including an xray of a normal knee so you can see what it should look like without arthritis.

When there is this much damage there are very limited options available.  My doctor said I could try the unloader brace but I tried that on the right knee and it only caused bruising and ripped the skin off my knee and didn't improve the pain any  Not trying that again.
March 2014 X-Ray

I could also try OrthoVist again but it generally does not work well when there is so little cartilage left.

And there is knee replacement which has a fairly extensive recovery process but was very successful on my right knee.

But there is ONE other option that is fairly controversial at this point but has shown some promising results -- PRP or Platelet Rich Plasma injections.  PRP is where they remove blood from your arm, remove the platelets from the whole blood and then inject it directly into the knee with the hopes of stimulating growth and healing.  Despite it showing some decent results, its not currently covered by insurance and there are not many doctors who are using it for arthritis.  I had been reading about the studies using the technology so when my doctor mentioned it was something he would like to try, I jumped at being his first patient.

Being his guinea pig wasn't as risky as it sounds.  He has been using the process in surgery for soft tissue repair quite awhile with very good results.

Normal Knee
So last week I became his first arthritis patient to receive PRP.  He removed 30 cc of blood from my arm, centrifuged it, and then injected the resulting 7 or so cc of platelets into my knee using ultrasound to guide the needle.   The injection itself was not painful but about halfway through the pressure of all that liquid behind my knee WAS painful.  Not unbearable though and well worth it if I get good results.

Its been a few days now and it may be just having more fluid in there but I do feel there is less pain so I am hopeful.  I know my knee is pretty far gone though so the chances are lower but one can hope.  If it works then I will get another injection in about six weeks and potentially one more.

Crossing fingers and toes that it works.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Loose hands - not good for baby birds and not good for my horse

As dressage riders we frequently are told the visual that we should hold our reins as if we are holding a baby bird.  Tight enough not to drop the bird but not so tight that you will crush the bird.   I thought I understood this and followed it well until today's lesson where I had an "aha" moment.   (Yeah!  I love those!)

I have been working hard on keeping steadier rein contact but I missed something important.   Today my instructor pointed out that my hands were "giving the reins away".  I was keeping steady in my arms and elbows but each time I asked for more from behind (and other times too...really a LOT of the time), I was opening my hand and providing a loose environment... essentially dropping the baby bird.

You would think that a soft forgiving hand grip would be a good thing.  And it is.  But a hand that continually opens and closes is NOT a forgiving hand grip.  Its a taking / giving / taking /giving hand and that can be annoying and even worse cruel.  

Its our job as a rider to provide a stable place for our horses.   They need to know that our hand is going to be stable in every area -- the hand, the elbow, and the arm.  I understand its a fine line between staying stable and being rigid but that is our job as a rider - to find that fine line.

Go back to that baby bird.   If I am only holding the bird with my thumb and pointer finger I am keeping him from falling or flying away but I am not providing a secure environment where he bird feels safe.   Keeping the bottom fingers closed and firm provide a "nest" of security.   I need to do the same for my horse.

Like all bad habits this is going to take a bit to break.  I knew it was working well because Golly responded well to the change.  Despite that I felt as if I was clenching my fist in comparison to the previous amount of pressure.  And I found myself continually having to remind myself to "darn it... shut those fingers".

Time to practice!

Monday, March 24, 2014

What is Dressage?

I promised a posting on the first phase of eventing -- Dressage -- and here it is!

Dressage is my discipline of choice but its still the most difficult for me to explain.  I'm asked all the time what it is and I have difficulty explaining it to my friends and family but I'll do my best here.

Dressage has been practiced for over 2000 years.  Although clear documentation is not available, there is some evidence that ancient Greeks practiced the discipline mainly as a method of training their war horses.  It was important their horses were nimble and responded to the lightest of aids.

Imagine being in war attempting to utilize various implements of death and your transportation is a live animal with a mind of its own!  The horses were taught to move laterally with just changes of weight so the soldier could use their hands to fight.   The horses were taught to trot in place to keep their muscles warmed up without moving and to change speed and direction with changes in the position of their rider.

Today we compete in dressage by completing what we call "tests" which are specific patterns and movements.  Each "level" has a different pattern and set of movements.  As you move up the levels, the movements become more difficult and each level progresses from the level before.   Precision is very important.  For example, in nearly every test a 20 meter circle is required.  The circle must be exactly 20 meters, be perfectly round and performed exactly where specified in the ring.

There are various letters around the perimeter of the ring and the test uses those letters to show where to perform the movement.  For example, the test might say to start the 20 meter circle at A or to halt at X.   The letters on the perimeter of the ring have actual markers but the letters in the center of the ring are just known by the rider and judge to be there.

No one is quite sure what the letters mean or where they originated but they have been used for many years and are continued to be used.   There is one theory that in an ancient Germany the walls of one stable courtyard were marked with letters indicating where each courier and horse were to wait for their rider.  So K for King and F for Furst (Prince) and so on.

We also use something called the Dressage Pyramid which is progressive as well. Elements at the top of the pyramind cannot be perfected until the ones at the base of the pyramid have been achieved.  In addition, the bottom elements of the pyramid are practiced more than the ones at the top and are even top riders and horses will work on the lower ones during each ride.   Proper collection cannot happen unless you have first achieved rhythm and relaxation.

You receive a score that is based on the potential of ten points for each movement.  For example, one movement is entering at A and then halting at X.  You are judged on how straight you come down the centerline and how square and still the halt is (among some other smaller nuances).   A perfect score would be a 10.  A marginal score would be a 5 and a 0 means you didn't perform the movement at all (say your horse decided that jumping outside the ring would be a better movement!).  Each score is added up and the final score is based on what percent you received of the total possible score.  For example, if a total 120 points were possible and you got 92 then you score would be a 76% (92 ÷ 120 = 76%).

Many riders only compete in dressage but dressage is also the first phase of eventing.   The scoring in eventing dressage is a bit different than the rest of the dressage world as the lower the score the better.  They essentially subtract from the perfect score points for each error made.

Eventing itself is very similar to a triathalon.  The first phase is dressage.  The second cross country which I explain in the post - Rolex Kentucky 3 Day - and the third phase is show jumping.  Show jumping are jumps set up in an enclosed ring.  The goal is to get around the course without knocking any poles down within a time limit.   The same horse and rider complete all three phases and there are vet checks between each phase to ensure the horse is fit enough to continue to the next phase.  Lower level eventing is typically completed in a single day but for the larger more advanced events, they are completed over three days.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Spring... Where are You?

Spring, where are you?   We were teased this weekend with sunny skies and nearly 60 degree temps.  I rode in a tshirt and actually was sweaty.  I loved it!

Attempting to find the road
But it was just a tease.  As we were riding on Sunday afternoon, the clouds suddenly rolled in and the trees started swaying in the wind.   Then the wind felt as if someone has opened a refrigerator door.   The air was still warm around us but it felt as if there were cool streams of air tunneling holes into the warmth.  
And then the rain started.  A chunky rain -- filled with bits of ice.  I live about a mile from the barn where I keep my horses and had driven the tractor over to rake the arena.   So of course I had to drive the tractor back home and hadn't even thought of a rain coat so I used the ever so fashionable discarded sawdust bag over my head.  I turned a few heads as I drove down the road!

During the night, we were the lucky recipients of a freezing rain and then snow.  By the time I started the trek to the barn, the truck was completely covered in snow.   As I was driving slow in a four wheel drive, the slick road conditions weren't too much of an issue but because the snow was so deep and I was the first to drive on it I wasn't sure where the road was.  I made some good guesses and seemed to be on solid ground luckily.    

The horses had been in all night so I decided to put them out for the day despite the snow so snuggled them up in their blankets and sent them out to enjoy some hay.  

Despite the beauty of the snow I am SO ready for spring and this March snow just seems a cruel joke after our gorgeous weekend.  I am ready to ride and enjoy longer days and sun on my shoulders. 

Stay consistently on the triangle

As dressage riders we talk a lot about staying evenly on the "triangle" of the two pelvic bones and single pubic bone.   When we are balanced and deep in the saddle, all three should have equal pressure.   Of course, there are times when one of the bones will have more pressure.  For example, one of the pelvic bones will drop to get more bend on the side we drop.   Or both pelvic bones will have a deeper feeling when we are going for a driving seat.

At my last lesson I realized that I have developed a bad habit of dropping weight into my pelvic bones each time I use my whip.  I have recently discovered that Golly goes much better when I have either equal weight or lighter weight in my pelvic bones -- keeping an open seat rather than a driving one -- so this is  the exact opposite feeling I should be giving when I am asking for more forward motion with the whip.  

I think this is a bad habit that developed back when Golly still had a bit of buck in him.   When I put the whip on him he would frequently throw a buck and I started sitting back some as a defensive move to stay in the saddle.  Not a bad thing when that was happening but since he has matured and is no longer bucking, its time to drop the habit.

What is amazing is that I had no idea I was doing it until my instructor pointed it out and then I realized I do it EVERY time.   Just one more reason why its so important to have someone on the ground that can give you honest feedback on your riding.   One more thing to keep in the back of my head during schooling.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rolex Kentucky 3 Day -- What it Is and Why I Love It!

Its coming.... nope ... not just Spring .... but ROLEX!!!   Most people in my family and even some of my horse friends don't quite get why I am so excited to attend the Rolex Kentucky 3 Day Event so I thought it would be good to give a primer about what makes Rolex so special.

Rolex is huge.  Not just in size but in the horses and riders who compete there.   Its like attending the Olympics without the need for a passport, long travel and fight for substandard accommodations.   Its historically a qualifier for the Olympic games and thus many horse and riders who compete at Rolex consequently compete at the Olympics.  Horse and riders come from all over the world.  Last year pairs came from Great Britain, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Ecuador and of course the United States.

The first time I went to Rolex in 2005 (which is when I took these pictures) I didn't even know what a 3 Day Event was.  My friend dragged me along on the trip promising it would be fun.   I got a great education on eventing but a little spoiled as the first "event" I attended was the pinnacle of the sport.

3 Day Eventing is a three part sport that requires the same horse and rider pair to compete in dressage, cross country jumping and show jumping over a three day span.  Between each phase, the horse is checked by veterinarians to ensure that they are sound and able to compete in the next phase.  It takes an incredible amount of fitness, agility and well I want to say bravery... but honestly I wonder if its more insanity, to compete in this sport.

I'll hit the other phases in a future blog but for this one I'm going to start with the most exciting phase -- cross country!

The horse and rider gallop over four miles with obstacles scattered throughout.  There is an optimum time they have to complete it and if they go over they receive "time faults".  They also get faults -- otherwise known as points off their score -- for refusing to jump a fence.   If the rider falls off their horse they are eliminated from the competition.  Each year the course changes slightly.  Last years course had 28 jumping situations and had to be completed in 11 minutes 42 seconds to score without a time penalty.

The jumps are BIG!!   You would think galloping on rolling terrain between the jumps would make it hard enough but the jumps are also solid, large fixed objects and sometimes of a shape that would terrify most horses.  Take a look at this jump from the 2005 Rolex course - I know if I asked my horse to jump this he would tell me I was nuttier than this squirrel's meal and I would end up smack in the middle of the bushy tail.

To add to the complexity, the horses are seeing the course for the first time as they approach the jump. The riders do what is called a "course walk" earlier in the day to plan out their approaches but the horse has to have the talent and trust in their rider to complete the jump.

If each jump was the same, seeing it for the first time would not be a big deal but most of these jumps have "questions" -- items that make the jump more complex than it appears on the surface.  For example, a jump may be situated in the shadow of a tree so the horse has to adjust its vision as it enters the shadow spot.   In the jump below a ditch runs under the jump at an angle so the rider needs to decide do they take off towards the right side where the ditch smaller on the takeoff side or to the left where the ditch is larger on the takeoff side but gives the horse the added chance of landing on solid ground on the landing side?

One of my favorite jumps in the "Sunken Road".    When I first saw this jump I didn't believe my friend that a horse could really jump it.  It had to be just a decorative feature.

Its a multi part jump -- first the horse jumps over the white fence you see on the right side of this picture.  They land in in the small piece of grass between the "sunken road" and the fence.    The landing area is so small that the front legs need to be lifting to jump into the pit as the back legs are landing so it takes a huge amount of trust and dexterity on the part of both horse and rider.  They jump into the pit and have one stride before they lift out and repeat the same sequence on the other side.  

Horse and rider entering the sunken road

And after clearing the pit, they continue on to the white fence
And this blog would not be complete without mentioning the "dog watching".   Spectators love their dogs and are allowed to bring them.  There is a doggy day care and people pushing strollers with their pampered pooches inside are not uncommon.

I hope this gives you a quick glimpse into what makes Rolex so awesome.   I'll fill you in on the details of dressage and show jumping next and can't wait to share my 2014 experience with you!