―Natalie Mayrath, StreamhorseTV Director of Content
Two common themes arose when some noteworthy ladies of the equine world got together for International Women’s Day in conversation about the past, present, and future of the horse industry. During The Trailblazing Horsewomen Livestream, presented by StreamhorseTV and Horse Illustrated, the group of distinguished veteran horsewomen, whose careers collectively span across numerous breeds and disciplines—not to mention decades—encouraged leaders in the equine world to strive for cultural competence and non-forceful approaches in horse training. Patricia E. Kelly, founder of Ebony Horsewomen, and Patti Colbert, the mastermind behind The Extreme Mustang Makeover, challenged organizations across the industry to drive the needle on cultural competence, which is the ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with people from cultures and/or belief systems other than one’s own, based on various factors. They cited potential implicit bias, stagnancy, and outdated policies and systems as problematic.
The Demand for Cultural Competence
Kelly, who has been running equine-assisted therapy programs since 1984, mentioned that in her experience, certification agencies who work in equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) do not talk about cultural competence. “It’s a great hole that they leave in terms of working with people,” said Kelly. “If they’re going to work with one demographic, fine, but if it’s going to be open for all people, you have got to understand cultural competency.”
Colbert warned that old systems could trip up progress in many areas of the horse industry. “Our associations are antiquated,” she explained. “They’re cumbersome, they don’t make nimble decisions, they’re weighed down by internal politics that are tied to competition, and the public isn’t tolerating that any longer.
“MPS is what they’re suffering from—which is male, pale, and stale. And they’ve got to wake up to our cultural opportunities within the horse [industry].”
One of those opportunities was highlighted by Lynn Palm, trainer of four American Quarter Horse Association Superhorses, who celebrated her 50th year as a horse professional in 2020. Palm, who has been a top rider in western dressage and a successful advocate of dressage for all breeds, is on a mission to have American Quarter Horses earn qualifying points in English riding competitions where they formerly weren’t eligible for points.
“If you bring in people who are all involved with the same breed and they’re doing other disciplines where they don’t even recognize them, I mean shame on them,” she said. “If they recognize them in three-day eventing, it may grow their membership.”
Colbert described Palm’s mission as an opportunity for the love of the horse to bring siloed parts of the industry together. “You have to be innovative, you have to be able to implement things that are popular,” she said. “Newcomers are bringing new things, and if we can’t change our board of directors and our methodology in making changes in our industry … we are gonna stagnate.”
Establishing Gentler Training Methods
Another common theme that stood out during the live event was collective support of a conscious shift toward non-violent methods and terminology in horse training. Debbie Roberts Loucks, a champion of non-forceful training methods through her family business started by her father Monty Roberts, stressed that she doesn’t like using the word “breaking” about horses, women, or anything for that matter. “We are pushing a campaign around #startingnotbreaking. We could actually do something about that vibe, if we just become cognizant.”
Kelly agreed. “It is a very straight predator term, control and power, instead of partnership—and absolutely we have to change that.” Palm added, “We cannot use ‘breaking horses’ and teach them to submit to perform, that’s the total opposite I’ve always been my whole life.”
Loucks and her father run a program entitled The Movement, which touts horses as a pathway to peace for humans. Another peace advocate featured in the show, world-renowned veteran horse expert Linda Tellington-Jones, echoed the sentiments brought forth by Loucks, talking about training without breaking. “We actually like to think of educating even, and I really support Debbie in going for ‘training’ instead of ‘breaking,’ because breaking the spirit, you know, that was considered that you had to do it,” she said. Tellington-Jones recounted how she would train horses as a young girl in Canada “without bucking, without trauma … I did that for years.”
Anne Kursinski, a five-time Olympian in show jumping and dual silver-medalist, said she has seen firsthand that training breakthroughs can happen through this type of approach, where riders are “trusting the horse, letting the horse be a horse, not breaking, not over-controlling all of those things … It’s not only you feeling the horse, it’s the horse feeling you back.”
The horse was celebrated and honored throughout the roundtable discussion, which was presented in lead-up to the article “Trailblazing Horsewomen” written by award-winning journalist L.A. Sokolowski and appearing in Horse Illustrated’s May issue.
Colbert, in closing the group discussion, stressed the need for industry leaders to let the horses bring everyone together in new ways so they don’t get left behind. “The horse brings us together,” she said. “I mean like nothing else. From the cities to the country. And if we don’t open our hearts and our minds to that, they’ll run off without us. The people that love the horses will create their own venues, and their own ways to do things. And the long old-time deals will be left in the dark.”