February 2018

Swamp Fox Farms: Where the Winning Begins

Author: Special to CH2

If you have been on Facebook recently, you may have seen photographs of some of Swamp Fox Farms’ most recent victories. The barn just returned from the Holiday Horse Show series in Wellington Florida, where their horses and riders enjoyed incredible success at the internationally rated competition. The social media shots depict impeccably turned out horses and smiling riders holding championship ribbons. The tack is beautifully polished, and the riders make the winning look easy. As head trainer David Loman said, “The winning is the easy part, but we started winning months ago. We win in the ring by winning in our preparation at home.”

As we drive through the gates of Swamp Fox Farms, located in the Levy section of Hardeeville, the brick columns lead to a blooming camellia forest. The drive then curves into a lane, shaded by ancient oak trees, that leads to a Virginia-style home site. The barn is located behind the house on what some would think to be an odd angle, but even this layout was on purpose.

“Summers in the Lowcountry get incredibly hot,” explained owner/operator Lauren Marcinkoski. “We laid the farm out so that the end of the barn would face northeast. In the summer, we catch the cross breeze coming off the ocean and air moves naturally through the stalls. But in winter, we can close the sliding doors against strong northeasterly storms.

The oak-lined drive may be picturesque, but the trees were planted strategically to provide shade to the paddocks where horses stroll in their free time. Every detail of the farm was thought out to accommodate their elite equine athletes.

“The paddocks are placed so that I can see each one from the house, and the gates are situated so that minimal steps are taken to get to a horse from the barn if need be. Our number one priority here is to keep horses safe and happy so that they can work towards their peak physical condition each day,” Marcinkoski explained.

The tour of the farm starts at the front gates, which close at the end of each day and can only be accessed via a privacy code. The entire property is enclosed by a game fence that keeps horses in, in the rare event that one escapes its stall, but keeps unwanted critters out. Moving up the driveway, the arena is a well-groomed five-acre space with specialized footing on which to work the horses. “We looked at footing all over the world from Wellington Florida to Dublin Ireland and ended up using a local professional to build the arena. No one understands drainage in the Lowcountry like the locals,” Marcinkoski said with a chuckle.

The footing is specially formulated to be firm but have just enough give so that horses landing after a jump do not feel jarred or stressed. To achieve peak performance, each horse also works outside the ring at least once per week, either in their grass field or down the dirt road. “Training on different terrains works muscles differently and ensures that when we arrive at a horse show with different footing, our horses do not feel muscle soreness after competing on a surface that is different than what they are used to,” Marcinkoski said.

The arena is neat, tidy, and set with exercises that challenge horse and rider. “We like to create appropriate problems at home,” Loman said. “When we get to the horse show, it should feel like just another day. When I walk a course with my students, they should be thinking ‘This is much easier than what we do at home.’ Some people like to say that practice makes perfect, but the truth is that practice makes permanent. Therefore, we go through a process of both mental and physical development before we put things into practice. Preparedness is everything, and so you must practice things correctly.”

Loman also pointed out that this is the same for the horses. The psychological health of the horse is just as important as the rider’s; horses have to feel confident, too. “If a horse is over-faced, it does not matter how well the rider performs. We want our horses to walk into a competition with even more confidence than the rider.”

The tour of the farm moves from the arena into the front of the barn. The first door on the left at Swamp Fox Farms is a “feed room,” where each horse’s diet is mapped out in detail. The feed room is where the incredible attention to detail and organization becomes apparent. A giant color-coded chart and series of carefully labeled drawers for each horse outline medications, supplements, and personalized feed. “Our horses are elite athletes and their diet is incredibly important,” Marcinkoski said. “The horses here work at an elite level, and just like people, each horse has specific needs regarding vitamin and protein intake to form lean muscle mass.”

Walking from the feed room down the main aisle of the barn, the comfort of the horses is top priority. Each stall starts with a French drain (gravel topped with river sand) and a permeable mat. The mats are topped with several inches of wood shavings that are then banked into the corners. This system is used not only to keep the stalls comfortable, clean and dry at all times, but to keep the horses from getting legs stuck in corners as they get up and down, Marcinkoski explained. Each stall is equipped with high powered fans, a salt lick to provide electrolytes, and an automatic sprayer that mists all-natural bug repellant every hour on the hour.

The comfort of the horse does not stop at the stall. Each horse gets outside time in addition to a work out each day. The paddocks at Swamp Fox Farms feature “run-in sheds,” a structure designed to provide shelter and shade for horses so they can stretch their legs even when the weather is not perfect. Each shed is also equipped with high powered fans so that outside time is free from insects and heat. “Keeping horses in the Lowcountry can be a challenge between the heat and the bugs, but we do everything we can to keep them comfortable,” Marcinkoski said. “During gnat season, we try to fog daily, and the county works with us to spray for mosquitos.” Horses here even have a wardrobe for every season: cotton blankets for cold and nylon fly sheets for spring to combat pesky insects.

The tour of the farm ends in the office where Marcinkoski and Loman spend many hours planning and organizing. The back wall is lined with whiteboards that list instructions for each horse, to-do lists for employees, and notes for the veterinarian or farrier. “Equestrian sports are unlike any other,” Loman said. “We have two athletes to consider in our daily process, one of which cannot talk. We have to use instinct to read the horses every day and decipher what they need from us. Done well, this sport looks simple from the outside, but we manage these horses just like a baseball team would manage their players. Their physical fitness is just as important as their psychological and emotional well-being. We have a well-known mentor who reminds us constantly that horses do not have problems; they have people. An unhappy horse does not want to perform well. A happy horse loves his job.”

The belief behind the training system at Swamp Fox Farms is that horses are never innately naughty. Horses always do what they believe to be right at that time. “If a horse refuses to jump or begins to act out, it is typically because he is unsure, uncomfortable or unhappy about something,” Marcinkoski said. “We strive to prevent unhappy behavior, but if it does start, we have a responsibility to the athlete to find the cause immediately. We have to be so careful with our equine athletes. This is not like tennis in that we cannot simply replace the racket. If the horse is injured, neither athlete can compete.” To shield the horses against injury, they are ridden each day in protective boots and iced down after each exercise session.

In short, the next time you see a picture of a blue ribbon, know that the accomplishment started with weeks of preparation and attention to detail behind the scenes. “Honestly, the most important part of this whole program is our team,” Marcinkoski said. “Our grooms, veterinarians, farriers—everyone works so hard to make just one winning round possible.”

Swamp Fox Farms is located at 2712 Levy Road, Hardeeville. For more information, visit swampfoxfarms.co, follow on Facebook at swamptownusa, or call (912) 484-8510.

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