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Good Horse Sense - Part One

By Kathy Edstrom

For as long as I can remember I’ve adored horses. As a young girl my bedroom was filled with horse items. From a foal wall rug, to the many horse toys and stuffed animals that adorned my shelves, bedside table and bed pillows, I was a true horse admirer. I dreamed of having a horse of my own some day and ‘til this day I still wait.

Many years ago I sustained a severe back injury. I was thrown from a horse back in 1988. I wasn’t able to ride for two years following that accident. That incident didn’t sour my affection for horses or riding, if anything, it intensified my desire. Many years went by before I got back in the saddle. I rode periodically with friends in past years, but what I realized is that I was a passenger, rather than a "driver".

When my back injury flared up again, things got worse for me and I wasn’t able to ride at all, nor was I able to do many of the things I used to be able to do and enjoy. I went through a very tough time over the past couple of years. It wasn’t until my physical condition worsened so much that I was sent to a spinal surgeon in February 2003. The surgeon seemed confident that I would need surgery to repair the damage that had been done to the discs in my back, but I declined having surgery. I had tried numerous things over the past many years and nothing had helped, or at least helped for an extended period of time. Physical therapy was my last resort. The surgeon gave me four months and said if I wasn’t substantially better by the end of the four-month period, that back surgery was the next step. He also told me that I most likely would never ride a horse again.

Those who know me well know that when someone says that I’ll never be able to do something, I typically go the other route to prove them wrong. As the ol’ saying goes, “never say never”.

I began physical therapy in March 2003 and by July 2003 I had made substantial progress. In fact within two months of physical therapy I had made tremendous progress. The numbness and tingling in my left leg was slowly going away and with all the physical therapy exercises I was doing, I was physically getting stronger and building good strength in my back.

A year prior I had begun my search for a riding instructor. Most of the instructors expected me to have my own horse and they wanted studentswho were interested in competing, not just learning good horsemanship skills. They also were not willing to work with me due to my physical limitations. As the year progressed I was physically getting worse, so I stopped my search for a riding instructor.

Then in April 2003 I came upon a small tack shop and decided to stop in. Funny as it may seem, even though I don’t own a horse, I’ve always enjoyed going into tack shops just to look at all the gear. Perhaps it was that part of me that yearned to have my own horse and someday own a fancy saddle and bridle. Whatever the case may be, I felt drawn to that store.

As a friend of mine browsed through the shop, the petite gal behind the counter asked if she could help us. We replied by saying that we were just browsing. As we talked with her about horses, I learned that she was an instructor. I didn’t say anything during that visit because I didn’t know if I’d be able to ride again. Two weeks later, out of curiosity,I decided to go back and pay that little gal a visit.

I explained to her my physical limitations and the injury I sustained. I also told her that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to ride again but I wanted to learn more about horsemanship. She invited me to come out to the stable where she boarded her Thoroughbred so I could meet him and see her riding style. I accepted her offer and spent 30 minutes watching her ride this beautiful gelding. That sealed it for me. I immediately felt a connection. Something told me, “This instructor is for you”. I was completely honest with her from our first conversation, so she knew exactly what my goals were and especially what my limitations were.

I believe fate lead me to that little tack shop so I could meet Traci and begin my journey in fulfilling my lifelong dream of riding.

Horse Trainer with a Gentle Touch

Traci Gralton started riding when she was five years old. She remembers getting her first horse, a Quarter horse named Joker. Traci was twelve years old then. Joker was a horse Traci rescued after she and her sister witnessed this horse being starved to death. Traci adopted Joker and provided the love and care this abused horse desperately needed. She nurtured Joker back to good health and provided the training this horse lacked.

Traci’s philosophy for riding horses is all about having fun and socializing with other people who share a similar affection for horses. I asked Traci how she became a riding instructor. She said she “fell into training and teaching”. People used to consult with her when they had problems with their own horses, even when she was a teenager. Traci was becoming well known for problem-solving equine behavioral issues.

Traci has done western riding and hunt seat, but her specialty is dressage. She has owned and personally trained many breeds of horses. Traci’s Thoroughbred, Cal, is the horse she is currently doing riding lessons with. His registered name is Sophistical, as he was known in the early 1990’s when he was a professional racehorse in Illinois.

Even though Cal won several races, he still had many issues on the track. Cal retired from racing at the age of six and was put out to pasture for three years until Traci adopted him at the age of nine.

Traci has acquired all of her horses as “rescue” horses. They all had problems that the owners didn’t want to work through or felt they didn’t have the time, energy or resources to help the horse. Traci would step in and adopt the horse. Then she would rehabilitate him so he could be adoptable once again and make a nice horse for leisurely riding.

 I asked Traci what her goal was for Cal. She said she wants to take Cal to his highest potential as a competitor in dressage. Cal is now fifteen years old. It took Traci six years of problem solving to bring Cal to the current level he is at as a school horse. His previous owner still finds it difficult to believe that the horse he once knew as an unpredictable, highly excitable racehorse is now being utilized as a school horse.

Traci’s personal goal as an equestrian is to be able to ride at the Pre-St. George level of dressage, which is through the first four levels of dressage. To learn about the equestrian sport of dressage, visit the United States Dressage Federation website at: http://www.usdf.org/index.asp

Cal was a professional racehorse for three years. He was born in 1988 in New York and by the age of two he was on the racetrack. Cal raced at Sportsman’s Park, Hawthorne and Arlington Heights in Illinois. The only training Cal had was track training. It took two years of Traci working meticulously with him to teach Cal how to enter a trailer. This was one of Cal’s major behavioral issues that Traci was helping Cal overcome. She literally had to start from ground zero with Cal. This was even more of a challenge as Cal was already nine years old when Traci adopted him so he was very set in his ways.

Traci had to retrain Cal to respond to all of her aids at a walk, trot and canter. The two most difficult and challenging training areas were lunging and trailering. Traci says trailering was the most difficult thing to teach Cal to do. He would rear up when he’d approach the trailer. Traci said it took a long time to get Cal over his fear of going into a trailer.

How did Traci help Cal through this difficult time? She said she provided good experiences for Cal every time he would be trailered so he wouldn’t make associations with the trailer meaning he was going to the racetrack. Traci turned every trip into a holiday. She made everything fun. Tracitook him riding in different placesas well as turned him out to run freely in safe environments. By doing this on a frequent basis, Cal slowly got over his fear of being trailered and started going into the trailer more willingly as the positive associations began to outweigh the negative.

I asked Traci what her proudest achievement is with Cal. She replied by saying that Cal is now a happy and relaxed horse. He doesn’t exhibit worried behaviors like he used to. Traci described Cal as being miserable when he first came to live with her. Now he is a very well behaved, well-adjusted and healthy horse, emotionally and physically.

Traci’s philosophy on being a good horse owner is to be sure the owner works the horse. The horse should be groomed a minimum of three times per week. Proper nutrition is a must. Traci recommends keeping the diet simple and being sure the horse’s needs are met. The more a horse works, the more supplements he will need. It’s important to speak with your veterinarian about what you are doing with your horse. Veterinarians might have samples of supplements to try with your horse before you spend a lot of money on something that your horse doesn’t need or responds well to. A good veterinarian will be able to determine what your horse needs.

Be aware of your horse’s personality. An attitude change can mean that something is not right. A good place to start is by grooming the horse. You can check his legs and hooves to see if there is something physically ailing him. Traci says, “The most important thing is to spend time with your horse, spend time with your horse, SPEND TIME WITH YOUR HORSE!” Too many people get a horse and then realize they don’t have time for him so they put him out to pasture. They may not ride the horse for weeks, or even spend time with him. The horse may not get the proper grooming he needs and often times does not get much attention other than when he is fed. This is why Traci says to find a job where the horse is happy. Work on helping the horse be the best he can be at that job.

Traci takes her job as a riding instructor quite seriously. Her number one priority is to be sure the student is comfortable around the horse when they are working the horse on the ground. If the student is uncomfortable with the horse during early training, the student will be even less comfortable and onfident when riding the horse.

Traci reminds her students to trust their gut instincts. If you think something is wrong, there probably is. As a good horse owner/rider it is your responsibility to find out what is wrong and then do your best to resolve the problem. In order for a horse and rider to become proficient at the task they want to achieve, Traci recommends riding a minimum of three to four times per week. This is excellent for the health of the horse, as it keeps him in a good mental state as well as in good physical condition.

Traci says the rider should have a clear idea of what they want the horse to do. Don’t change your mind in the middle of the training session. Be consistent. The rider should visualize the horse doing exactly what you want him to do and stay focused. If your focus is not on the horse, walk away. Lack of focus will confuse the horse. When in doubt, leave. Traci recommends you groom the horse and put him in his stall. Come back later when you can devote all of your attention to your horse and training session.

Traci as a Trainer

I’ve been taking private riding lessons with Traci for six months now and it has been a very positive experience for me. Traci has a great way of explaining how to do particular exercises so the students completely understand what is being asked of them. Remember, if the rider is confused so is the horse. Traci relies a great deal on how things should feel. So when I’m riding, Traci will often say to me, “Can you feel Cal in your hands?” What this pertains to is how Cal is handling the bit and the amount of pressure he is putting on the bit. A rider can feel this in her hands when holding the reins. Traci is very in tune with the horses she rides. You can see the harmony between horse and rider when they glide across the arena.

No matter what equestrian discipline you choose, Traci says to have fun with it. Once you’ve chosen a discipline, begin your search for a trainer that will suit your needs.

Traci starts all of her students out by doing groundwork with the horse. Her reason for doing this is for the rider to gain confidence in herself. By being confident when working the horse on the ground, the horse will sense that confidence in the student and that will carry over when you get in the saddle to ride. Another excellent reason for beginning with groundwork is if the student loses confidence when in the saddle, the instructor has a place to bring the student back to where she feels confident. Traci believes if you start a student immediately riding and problems arise, you don’t have anywhere to take the student back to where she can succeed and feel comfortable and confident.

If a student doesn’t learn how to work a horse on the ground, it won’t directly affect them when the person rides, but if they run into training problems while riding, they will then need to go back to ground zero and learn how to work a horse without riding. Groundwork helps immensely with working through training issues. The bigger the fear the student has, the more complicated the groundwork should be. This will boost the confidence of the student and the fear will diminish.

 

Published December 2003