In 1995, Connecticut trainer Margaret A. Beeman asked her then new client, local arborist and avid amateur driver Scott Monroe, what his goals were for the black Morgan he'd just bought as a three-year-old. Scott's answer was unhesitating: "My dream has always been to be on a USET team--and why be on a team if you're not going to win?"
Scott is the first to admit he's intense and competitive. "I'd been driving about four years with my first horse, and I knew I was really hooked. For better or for worse, I'm not the kind of guy who can buy a horse and drive up and down the mountain and say I'm satisfied." With this new horse, Bethesda After Dark ("Shadow"), he was aiming for the top.
Since then, the goal of "driving for America" on a World Championship team has sustained Scott and Shadow and molded them into a combination that works as one entity.
From the Beginning: Making the Right Thing Easier
To succeed in combined driving competition, Shadow needs to be willing to do as Scott asks--immediately. Whatever they're training him to do, says Margaret, "We ask him to do it, we show him the way, we let him search and find it."
An example: In the very beginning of their work with him, Shadow--like many young horses--wouldn't stand quietly. "One common solution is to put a chain over the nose or gums to try to make the horse stand still," Scott says. "But Margaret said, 'OK, since he doesn't want to stand, let's help him figure out that standing is a better deal.' So when we said 'Stand' and he wouldn't, we walked him around and around us--we were standing still--until he caught on that it was a whole lot easier to stand still than to do all that work.
"That's the very first step, and everything builds on that. Under saddle or in harness, for instance, when he resisted a light aid to round himself and give, I applied a little pressure and then released, telling him, "When you resist me, you'll feel this, but then I'm going to give it back so you can't fight me. This is where I want you to be.' And eventually he said, 'Oh, OK, this is where I need to be.'"
In the round pen, Shadow's total attention is on Scott--as Scott's is on him. Early free-longeing built directly on "making the right thing easier," Scott says. "I asked him to walk. He didn't want to walk? OK, let's do a little work at trot or canter. I like that. Then I'd give him the signal to turn to the inside and check in with me: 'OK, let's try it again; will you walk off now?' There's no longe line, no whip. It's just body language and voice.
"It took months of work, but now he changes his gait, changes his direction, stops, back up, all in response to my body and voice. When he's walking in the round pen, my hands are at my sides. If I raise one hand without saying a word, he picks up a trot and trots until I give another command. The round-pen work has sharpened my ability to focus on him. That's an asset when we're taking the hazards at speed; my timing has to be exact, and he has to be responsive. "
Even when pulling a carriage, Scott says, Shadow needs to carry himself rather than lug on his forehand. "We want him on his hindquarters so his front end is light and I have 'power steering.' We want impulsion, nuance, softness, no hanging on my hands.' When Margaret rides Shadow, as she sometimes does when Scott is tied up with work, often she uses a dressage saddle. Scott says, "She can ask everything from him that I need in terms of suppleness and collection."
Widening the Circle of Knowledge
Scott and Margaret take Shadow to yearly clinics with Canadian-born/Wyoming-based horsemanship clinician Peter Campbell, who trains horses in all disciplines. "He says, 'I don't care what kind of bridle you put on your horse's head, it's what's in his head that counts,'" says Scott.
The clinics have helped them improve their mastery of "the connection of the rein to the foot, and have helped Shadow gain a better understanding of what we are asking of him," according to Margaret.
"If you have a knowledge of how the horse balances and arranges himself for upward or downward transitions, or for a right or left turn, you can help him do it," she says. "If you're galloping into a hazard with a sharp right turn ahead, you can slow him to a canter or trot using your left rein, then--applying pressure at the moment he's about to step forward--help him reach underneath with his right hind so that he can balance and push himself forward. The reins are to direct the horse, helping him arrange himself and place his feet where they need to be, rather than correct him."
Another important piece of the training puzzle has come from Pennsylvania-based pairs driver Lisa Singer. A repeat national champion who's also driven her team of Morgans for owner Mimi Thorington internationally on several World Championship squads, she's become a friend and mentor.
"I may not be able to explain what I'm feeling or what I'm not able to do when I drive," Scott says. "But Lisa drives Shadow and says, for instance, 'I think you need to ask with the inside rein and let the outside rein go a little bit, and you'll find that he'll bend more' or 'he'll drop his head' or 'that foot will come over more.' It's fine-tuning, pinning down the little things that make the difference at this level."
The newest small-but-important detail from Lisa is learning the feel of just one pound of pressure on the reins. "She has a little scale that you hold in your hands as you would the reins; it measures the pressure of your fingers. She said, 'We want just one pound on each rein in dressage. And here's how it feels in your hands.' It's nice to have an image I can relate to; it makes the information stick. So I went and bought an English pound coin to carry in my pocket whenever I drive Shadow, reminding me of the feel I want in my hands."
After a winning 1999 season in the Preliminary Singles division, Scott and Shadow moved right up to Advanced in 2000 and by 2001 were competing successfully at that level. A suspensory injury sidelined Shadow for several months but a careful rehab program enabled them to compete at Bromont's FEI driving competition in May 2002; they finished second. Selected as members of the U.S. squad for the 2004 World Singles Driving Championship in Sweden, Scott and Shadow finished in 12th, the highest-placed U.S. combination; the U.S. team finished ninth. In 2005, they won the U.S. National Singles Driving Championship at Gladstone, N.J.
For more details on Shadow's training program, see "My Hands Become His Feet" in the April 2004 issue of Practical Horseman.