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How grand prix rider Lau­ren Tisbo gets the most out of her mounts.

Practical Horseman - - Features - By El­iz­a­beth Iliff Prax

In a sport where rid­ers are known for ex­per­i­ment­ing with all kinds of tack, 32-year-old grand prix jumper Lau­ren Tisbo still man­ages to sur­prise crowds when she en­ters the show ring. Two of her horses com­pete in a race­horse ex­er­cise sad­dle and one shows in a bri­dle with no head­stall, of­ten de­scribed as an In­dian or war bri­dle. “I’m a firm be­liever that you’re go­ing to get the most out of a happy horse,” she ex­plains. “I guess some peo­ple might say I go to ex­tremes.”

Stand­ing sixth in the Longines FEI World CupTM Jump­ing North Amer­i­can East­ern SubLeague at press time with one qual­i­fier left, Lau­ren agrees with the com­mon wis­dom that elite-level horses are in­vari­ably quirky. “Part of the fun of the sport is fig­ur­ing out those quirks and find­ing the right key that makes horses go as well as they can go.”

Do­ing things un­con­ven­tion­ally has been some­what of a theme for this suc­cess­ful rider, who grew up in Bar­ring­ton, Illi­nois. Un­like many top jumpers, she didn’t start her ca­reer in the eq­ui­tation and hunter rings. A horsey friend sparked her in­ter­est in rid­ing early. Her par­ents bought her an Ap­pendix Quar­ter Horse named Okie Dokie when she was 12. She re­mem­bers, “He was re­ally green and noth­ing fancy. I had to get a lad­der to bri­dle him be­cause he was a lit­tle bit ornery.”

But Lau­ren’s great­est pas­sion as a child and teenager was soc­cer. “I was on high school and travel teams, ran in­door track to get fit for soc­cer and spent time in the gym.” This left very lit­tle time for rid­ing, so Okie Dokie be­came a pas­ture pet for sev­eral years. By Lau­ren’s ju­nior year of high school, though, soc­cer had be­come more work and less fun. She de­cided to quit and turn her at­ten­tion back to horses.

She moved Okie Dokie to Katie Kap­pler’s sta­ble and soon re­al­ized that he wasn’t cut out for the show world, so she sold him as a trail horse. Lau­ren, on the other hand, was hooked. “I did some of the hunters that first year, but I in­stantly fell in love with the jumpers.” Her par­ents gen­er­ously sup­plied her with horses to ride while she at­tended Lake For­est Col­lege, which didn’t have an equestrian team but was only an hour away from Katie’s barn. Since then, many top train­ers, in­clud­ing John and Beezie Mad­den, Katie Pru­dent, Eric La­maze, Candace King and An­thony D’Am­bro­sio, have helped Lau­ren to prog- ress to world-class level.

Paul O’Shea, a grand prix rider from Ire­land who as­sisted Lau­ren in find­ing both of the stallions in her string, says, “She’s a very gutsy rider. She def­i­nitely thinks out­side the box. She’s not afraid to try some­thing to see if it works.” But he also at­tributes her suc­cess to good sta­ble man­age­ment. “It’s very im­por­tant to her that the horses are re­ally well taken care of and very healthy. She re­ally pays at­ten­tion to the lit­tle de­tails. She’s a very hard worker. It’s nice to see her do well.”

The Value of Your Bond

One of the things Lau­ren learned along the way was the value of bond­ing with her horses. “I’m all hands-on. I can clip, I can plait [braid], I can pull shoes. To me, it’s re­ally im­por­tant to know how to take

care of your horse. If you’re not in there muck­ing his stall once in a while, you won’t learn his per­son­al­ity or be­hav­iors.”

This strat­egy paid off with an ex­tremely tal­ented, yet quirky, Olden­burg mare named La Centa, nick­named Penny. “She was quite ner­vous at the in-gate. When I first got her, she wanted noth­ing to do with it! Us­ing my legs, spurs or stick didn’t help—and get­ting a groom to lead her in didn’t work ei­ther. She would back away and try to rear up.”

Lau­ren ex­per­i­mented with many dif­fer­ent strate­gies to help Penny over­come this prob­lem be­fore she found one that worked. “Once we fin­ished our school, I would keep her busy work­ing on the flat un­til it was our turn. Then I would just con­tinue trot­ting—or can­ter­ing—right into the ring.”

Penny also had such an aver­sion to jump­ing open wa­ter and liv­er­pools that she some­times even re­fused reg­u­lar fences that were lo­cated close to a wa­ter jump. In 2014, Lau­ren spent sev­eral months at John Whittaker’s barn in Eng­land. While in Europe, she en­tered Penny in a 1.50-me­ter class in Mu­nich. The first fence was right next to an open wa­ter. “She let me know that she didn’t like that. Af­ter the first at­tempt, where I didn’t even get to break the start timers, I de­cided this wasn’t in her best in­ter­est and pulled up.”

The only class left on the sched­ule was a 6-bar, in which rid­ers tackle a straight line of four jumps in a row, sep­a­rated by two strides each. The fences are raised af­ter each round of clear rides. Lau­ren hadn’t pre­pared for the class, but she wanted an­other chance to get Penny in the ring. “I gave it a shot—and she ended up win­ning, clear­ing 1.85 me­ters.” The next week they tied to win an­other 6-bar in Wies­baden, Ger­many, break­ing the show record in the process by clear­ing 2.05 me­ters.

Although Lau­ren never solved Penny’s prob­lem with open wa­ter, she did over­come her aver­sion to liv­er­pools by school­ing her daily over many vari­a­tions of them at home. By the end of the mare’s ca­reer, she was jump­ing liv­er­pools con­fi­dently.

“Some­times when horses have is­sues or weak­nesses you just have to find out how to play to their strengths,” says Lau­ren,

who ad­mired the mare’s ta­lent so much that she kept her on as a brood­mare. This spring, Penny is ex­pect­ing her first foal by King Kolibri, an­other of Lau­ren’s suc­cess­ful re­tired jumpers.

The Race­horse Sad­dle

An­other mare who came through Lau­ren’s barn was very dif­fi­cult to fit a sad­dle to be­cause of her prom­i­nent withers and wide shoul­ders. “If the sad­dle was too tight on her shoul­ders, she’d cross-can­ter all the time. If it pinched her withers, she was like a run­away train. It af­fected her reaction to pres­sure on the bit, too. She was re­sent­ful of it and un­co­op­er­a­tive.”

A friend sug­gested that Lau­ren try a race­horse ex­er­cise sad­dle on the mare. Not quite as small as an ac­tual rac­ing sad­dle, it has very short flaps, no pan­els and a half tree made of alu­minum. “The tree is a U-shape at the withers and where the stir­rup bars at­tach. The rest of it is to­tally flex­i­ble. There is no need to worry about pan­els not fit­ting flat on the horse’s back or the gul­let be­ing too wide or nar­row for the spine.”

The mare made a re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tion in this sad­dle and her train­ing prob­lems dis­ap­peared. “Her back re­ally changed: She de­vel­oped a lot of mus­cle across her back and her topline changed sig­nif­i­cantly.” Lau­ren was so im­pressed that she tried the sad­dle on an­other horse with back is­sues. He, too, showed dra­matic im­prove­ment. She now schools all of her horses in the sad­dle at home and com­petes two of her top horses, Co­rian­dolo Di Ribano, also known as Rocky, and Brindis Bo­giobo, in it.

Jump­ing in the sad­dle “felt weird the first time, but I got used to it re­ally quickly. I ac­tu­ally feel the most com­fort­able in that sad­dle now. It’s so soft and you’re a lot closer to the horse. You can feel everything—if a horse is strain­ing in his back or not push­ing off as well with one hindquar­ter versus the other. I also feel like I have a bet­ter po­si­tion in it than in a reg­u­lar sad­dle.”

Free Longe­ing

Lau­ren has al­ways tried to make school­ing at home fun for her horses, ex­plain­ing, “It’s not all about mak­ing them do what­ever you ask them to do ex­actly when you ask them to do it. I think there’s more to it than that.” One of her now re­tired horses, Roundthorn Ma­dios, fol­lowed her around the ring like a big pet af­ter rides, she says. “I’d get off him and run in zigzags. I would start run­ning and he would start trot­ting. And then I would stop and he would stop.”

This game evolved into the free long­ing method she now prac­tices with some of her show string. For ex­am­ple, with Rocky, a Sella Ital­iano stal­lion, she used free longe­ing to teach voice com­mands for down­ward tran­si­tions. “He gets a lit­tle bit mouthy in his tran­si­tions. I now go from the can­ter to the trot just by say­ing ‘trot.’”

She cred­its free longe­ing and the ex­er­cise sad­dle for help­ing Rocky, who is just 10 this year, progress rapidly to the top of the sport. “He was re­ally like a first-year grand prix horse when we got him a year ago. I knew that he was a spe­cial horse and was go­ing to jump the big­gest grands prix, but I did not think it was go­ing to hap­pen within six months of hav­ing him! With most horses, it’s usu­ally a lit­tle up and down as you’re bring­ing them along. He just fig­ured it out overnight.”

Last year, Rocky and Lau­ren won the $100,000 Hud­son Val­ley Jumper Clas­sic at HITS on the Hud­son and placed third in the $216,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jump­ing New York CSI****W, com­pet­ing for the Amer­i­can Gold Cup at

Old Salem, New York, and the $380,000 CSI***** Rolex Grand Prix FEI in Tryon, North Carolina. “For a 9-year-old horse to get that kind of re­sults, it’s un­usual,” says Paul. “He’s a re­ally spe­cial horse and they have a great con­nec­tion.”

The War Bri­dle

A dif­fer­ent tack ex­per­i­ment ben­e­fited Lau­ren’s other tal­ented stal­lion, a 12-yearold Hol­steiner named Mr. Visto, also known as Vin­nie. (“I love mares,” says Lau­ren with a laugh. “I don’t know how I keep end­ing up with stallions.”) When he came to her barn, his pre­vi­ous owner sent along the bits she’d used with him. But Lau­ren still had trou­ble con­trol­ling him. “He doesn’t have a bad mouth, but he is strong. When he doesn’t like what you’re do­ing, not only does he pull down, but he wrings his head from side to side and up and down. He hit me in the face at least once or twice just in protest when I was try­ing to shorten him on course. And he’s not a horse that wants a lot of con­tact. He wants you to let him be.”

Lau­ren tried count­less dif­fer­ent bits on Vin­nie to no avail. Fi­nally, a friend sug­gested that she try a war bri­dle, which is sim­ply a loop of rawhide rope at­tached to a piece of cot­ton rope and two metal rings. Reg­u­lar reins are at­tached to the rings. You slip the top of the rawhide loop into the horse’s mouth just as you would a nor­mal bit. Then you tighten the cot­ton rope un­derneath his lower jaw to ad­just the fit. The “bit” rests on the horse’s tongue. “It is strong, but it’s only as strong as you make it,” says Lau­ren, who found that it al­lowed her to ride Vin­nie with much lighter con­tact. “When I’m flat­ting him or com­ing up to a jump, I don’t have very much con­tact un­less I need to shorten his stride.”

Vin­nie re­sponded im­me­di­ately to the war bri­dle. “He’s so much hap­pier in it. His form is bet­ter and his whole ex­pres­sion changes—his eye looks softer and he’s more en­thu­si­as­tic. I was so ex­cited I tried it on ev­ery horse in my sta­ble.”

Rid­ing other horses in the bri­dle at home helped Lau­ren ad­just to the dif­fer­ent steer­ing tech­nique re­quired. Un­like con­ven­tional bri­dles, whose reins at­tach to the bit on ei­ther side of the horse’s face, the reins on a war bri­dle con­nect to the same place on the rope un­der the horse’s jaw. “You have to teach them to turn from their shoul­der more which, tech­ni­cally, is how a horse is sup­posed to turn. They’re not sup­posed to turn by bend­ing their necks.”

To fa­cil­i­tate steer­ing, she uses a rope around the horse’s neck in a man­ner sim­i­lar to neck-rein­ing. “I was told to use the rope to guide his neck when he’d get stuck in the turns so he could un­der­stand what I was ask­ing for.” Vin­nie fig­ured it out quickly, she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever used the rope around his neck on a course.”

Paul agrees that Vin­nie seems hap­pier in the war bri­dle. But, he adds with a laugh, “I think I’d be ner­vous my­self, rid­ing in it.”

Most of Lau­ren’s other horses re­sponded to the bit as if it were just a nor­mal snaf­fle. She has found it help­ful, how­ever, in im­prov­ing ride­abil­ity in some cases. For ex­am­ple, her 6-year-old home­bred, Graf­fiti Boy, who will show in the Young Jumpers this year, re­sponded very well to it. “He was test­ing me last sum­mer; he didn’t want to lis­ten to me. I rode him in the bri­dle for a cou­ple of weeks. It was like a switch went off in his head.” Af­ter that, she went back to rid­ing Graf­fiti Boy in a con­ven­tional bri­dle.

Now based in Welling­ton, Florida, Lau­ren continues to ex­plore ways to im­prove her bond with each horse she rides. “The stronger bond you have with your horse and the more things you can do to keep him happy and in­ter­ested in learn­ing and work­ing, the bet­ter he’ll go for you.”

Lau­ren Tisbo is com­mit­ted to bond­ing with her horses in and around the barn, which helps her to learn their per­son­al­i­ties and quirks. She is a strong be­liever that if the horses are happy and healthy, they will per­form their best.

ABOVE: Sev­eral of Lau­ren’s horses are rid­den in a race­horse ex­er­cise sad­dle, in­clud­ing Brindis Bo­giobo. The flex­i­ble ex­er­cise sad­dle has very short flaps, no pan­els and a half tree that is U-shaped at the withers and made of alu­minum.

LEFT: Lau­ren ex­per­i­mented with dif­fer­ent strate­gies to help a chal­leng­ing mare named La Centa over­come prob­lems at the in-gate and with wa­ter jumps. The pair went on to break a show record at Wies­baden, Ger­many, in the 6-bar class, clear­ing 2.05 me­ters.

Sella Ital­iano stal­lion Co­rian­dolo Di Ribano is also rid­den in the race­horse ex­er­cise sad­dle. Lau­ren be­lieves that rid­ing him in the ex­er­cise sad­dle as well as fre­quent free longe­ing has helped him rise to the top of the sport quickly.

When Vin­nie came to Lau­ren’s barn, she had trou­ble con­trol­ling him. The stal­lion would pull down and wring his head from side to side and up and down. Here, Lau­ren is try­ing him in dif­fer­ent con­ven­tional bri­dles and bits, but she didn’t see a ma­jor dif­fer­ence un­til she rode him in a war bri­dle.

Lau­ren rides her Hol­steiner stal­lion Vin­nie in a war bri­dle, which con­sists of a loop of rawhide rope at­tached to a piece of cot­ton rope and two metal rings. The top of the rawhide loop goes in his mouth like a reg­u­lar bit. The cot­ton rope can be tight­ened un­derneath his lower jaw to ad­just the fit. The “bit” rests on his tongue and reg­u­lar reins are at­tached to the metal rings. This al­lows Lau­ren to ride Vin­nie in a lighter con­tact.

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