What did you say? A look at how important our words are in horsemanship and in life.

4 Apr

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 11.38.34 AM
By Staci Grattan – Owner, Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd Minn.

*This article also published in the April edition of the Valley Equestrian News

I hear these things every day in my barn. I hear them from nice, kind people who love all horses and love their own horses to distraction. I have heard them at clinics, uttered by nationally recognized clinicians. I have heard them during lessons, schooling sessions, shows, trail rides, clinics and while just “hanging out” at the barn.

I hear words regularly that give me pause:
“He is lazy.”
“He’s just always so naughty.”
“He’s afraid of everything.”
“He’s high strung.”
“She’s a spoiled brat princess.”
“She’s too sensitive.”
“She’s just a nervous horse.”
“She doesn’t really like people.”
“Who are you using today for your lesson?”
“I’m going to go work my horse.”
“We have to work him through it!”

Overheard while auditing a clinic recently:
“When we ride a 1500 pound animal with a brain mass the size of a snapping turtle, we have to expect these things.”

“He’s not going to be able to do it but let’s see what we get.”

We “horse people” like to talk (a lot) about our horses, your horses, the horses across the road, horses on TV and horses on the internet. We love our horses. We love to talk to them and about them. But what are we really saying?

I imagine what many of you are thinking at this point is, “My horse IS lazy doggone it!” Or “My horse doesn’t understand what I am saying anyway!” I would ask you , is he lazy? Or is he merely living up to your oh-so-low standards?

I would point out that while horses may not understand words, they are excellent readers of body language, and what we say becomes what we think. What we think is how we act. Whether we know it or not, I would dare say our horses know exactly what we think of them.

A mentor of mine once asked the following question:
“Why are we working our horses? Why are we not instead working with them?“

To truly excel in horsemanship, I believe we must partner with our horses, like dance partners. One leads but both must be willing and have a voice. Horses DO NOT have to do the things we ask them to do. Most of us have seen terrible examples of horses that have decided they are NOT going to carry out the human agenda any longer. How can we truly connect in partnership with an individual we refer to as “lazy” or continually focus on his tendency to be “nervous” or talk about “working” or “using” him?

The giving capacity of the equine heart is so incredible that many horses will perform regardless of poor partnership or lack of positive support, or, in some horrible cases, even inadequate food and water. Think, however, of the amazing results and joy one could experience in true connection and partnership!

I challenge you to consider your relationship with your horse. Redefine it. Get some clarity. How are you talking about him and to him? What do your words communicate and set as an intention for your relationship? Is your negative vision impacting your relationship with your horse? Is it impacting your relationships with other humans?

Shifting your wording, and ultimately your perspective, may make all the difference. A few examples:
From: “He’s very lazy/naughty.”
To: “He’s very smart and laid back. It’s fun to think up new and different ways to motivate/challenge him!”

From: “He’s so high strung/nervous/afraid of everything.”
To: “When we work together I focus on being a good strong, grounded leader for him to feel safe with.”

From: “She’s spoiled/too sensitive.”
To: “I really love that she lets me know when something isn’t right so I can help her stay in optimal physical and mental health.”

From: “I’m going to go work my horse.”
To: “I’m going to go work/play WITH my horse.”

From: “Work him through it.”
To: “I’ve picked a clear direction and I’m just going to stay with it and see what happens.”

Words have power. A lot of power. They set intention. They communicate feelings, instructions and a whole host of other information. We use our words daily to communicate with each other and our animals. What we communicate is as important as how we communicate it. Words translate into results.

I offer these thoughts in the hope that you will consider your words and your perspective the next time you talk to or about your horse, or for that matter, your child, spouse or sibling. You just might find that a few little words make all the difference!

Staci Grattan and her husband Brion Fornshell co-own Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd, Minnesota. Staci enjoys using her focus on good solid horsemanship basics, true classical dressage and natural holistic horsemanship to assist horses and humans. Spirit Horse Center is located in North Central Minnesota and provides, boarding, training, lessons and regularly hosts clinics and events benefitting horse owners and horses. For more information on go to http://www.spirithorsecenterinc.com

Holding the Vision

4 Jan

By Staci Grattan

Photo Credit Mallory Bourn – Bourn Photography http://bournphotography.smugmug.com/

“It’s not a matter of mechanics, it’s a matter of heart.”

Classical Dressage Master Dominique Barbier December 14th, 2014, during a clinic at Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd, Minnesota


Photo – Legend 8 year old Friesian X QH gelding and Staci December 2014.

In horsemanship we spend quite a bit of time and energy working on the mechanics of handling and riding horses. Where are my hands? What are my legs doing? Could I have timed the hand or leg aid better?

On the other end of the spectrum are those of us who are not mentally present and/or not focused on what it is that we want from our partners. Basically we leave all decisions up to the horse and “react” to what they give us.

The conversation between horse and human can get lost along the way as we “should” on ourselves “I should be doing this”, “I should have done that” or we simply don’t focus at all.

Don’t get me wrong, proper aids and mechanics are important, as is riding for pleasure in a relaxed manner.

As a riding instructor, trainer and lifelong

student of horsemanship and classical dressage I see (or have been in) many situations where horse handlers/riders know the aids but they are so focused on them that they end up “micromanaging” the situation. The best example I can think of is when we are learning to drive and we “over correct” the car and end up swerving down the road with timing that is “behind” the situation. We’ve all been there.

The flip side is the rider who isn’t thinking about what they want. Instead they are either focused on what they do not want and or not focused at all.

Perhaps you recognize yourself in one of the above scenarios. Maybe it is sometimes. Maybe it is always. Maybe sometimes it is one way and sometimes it is another. The good news is I have some insight on how to bring your partnership with your horse to the next level no matter what your discipline or riding style is.

The truth is, no matter what our horsemanship style is, we all must provide leadership in our partnership with our horses. But, how do we accomplish this?

The notion that leadership is entirely physical ie giving aids and physical movements on the ground and in the saddle has long since left my mental airport.

Currently, before I do anything else, I picture what I want. I breathe and I focus and I give my horse the gift of being mentally present and give CLEAR direction via mental images.

My own horses and the horses that I handle regularly have now come to expect this mental guidance from me. Each one of them reacts a little differently to my “mental envisioning”. However, one common denominator among them all, is that when I forget, or am tired or distracted (even for a moment), when I come back to center and picture exactly what it is that I want, they all visibly relax and things begin to flow– akin to a human sigh of relief.

This is pretty incredible validation for my logical little human brain. I can almost hear the horses telling me “Thank you for the clear direction!”

I can imagine a few of you out there reading this shaking your heads and thinking “What?! Is she trying to tell us horses are telepathic?!”

Maybe I am. However, even if you can’t swallow that notion, how about the cold hard facts?

The truth we all know about highly successful athletes is that envisioning a movement or an outcome can make the difference between winning and losing.

Ask yourself, why is that?

To add to this scenario, I ask you to consider how often you feel “behind the curve” when handling or riding your horses?

Think about it, are we “reacting” to what they give us? Are we trying to force things physically by giving repeated similar aids that aren’t working at all or only working in a mediocre way? It has been my observation that many of those handling and riding horses are not only not providing clear mental direction, they are not keeping a strong vision. There is no judgement behind that statement, it is merely an observation.

Horses will often throw mental challenges our way by asking “did you mean trot?” or “how about this” or “I’m a bit uncomfortable with this, how about that?”

I believe in those situations we best assist our partners by providing not only the clear mental direction as discussed previously but also a consistent vision . Instead of saying “no not that, no, no” what would happen if you responded with “this is what I want, this is what I want, this is what I want”?

For me, this is best accomplished by visualizing and then holding that image.

I want to clarify that statement by stating that doesn’t mean we aren’t flexible! We are always adjusting and readjusting our goals when working with our horses.

In my experience it works best when I hold the vision calmly and patiently. If I am getting a lot of “questions” from my horse I may adjust my end result goal to end the session on a good note. The important part of that equation is holding your picture calmly and patiently. Not only are you clear in your own mind and heart about what it is that you desire, you provide consistent clarity for your partner.

As we launch the New Year I hope I have given you some food for thought in regards to how you partner with and provide leadership to your horses. I encourage you all to find the vision and hold it as you work with your horses in 2015!

Staci Grattan and her husband Brion Fornshell Co-Own Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd, Minnesota. Staci enjoys using her focus on true classical dressage, basic and holistic horsemanship to assist horses and humans.  Spirit Horse Center is located in North Central Minnesota and provides, boarding, training, lessons and regularly hosts clinics and events benefitting horse owners and horses.

For more information on go to www.spirithorsecenterinc.com

A Matter of Trust

6 Oct

By Staci GrattanIMG_9859 2

Photo Credit: Liv Bjerre

I recently attended an eight day holistic horsemanship course near Cody, Wyoming at the beautiful Dimock Ranch. Taught by a mentor of mine, Anna Twinney of Reach Out to Horses, and a follow-up to many hours of previously completed course work, the curriculum focused on further honing my skills in ROTH’s Trust Based Partnership methodologies.

I had the high honor of working for the second time in my career with some spectacular BLM mustangs from herd management areas near Cody.

During my time in Wyoming with five other highly gifted students, two spectacular ROTH instructors, Anna herself and perhaps the best teachers of all in the form of mustangs, I experienced many shifts in thinking, as a horsewoman, a trainer, an instructor and as a person.

As I sat down to write this article I began to mentally “sum up” my experiences.

I became fairly amused as a song by Billy Joel from my teenage years kept surfacing in my thoughts. “A Matter Of Trust”. A line from the song resonates: “You can’t go the distance with too much resistance”

This concept was clearly illustrated during my time spent with April, a 3 year old BLM Mustang from the McCullough Peaks HMA. April is a stunning cremello mare with blue eyes, who was gathered off the range in 2013 and has spent her time at Dimock Ranch. Initially gentled to human touch via ROTH Students last fall, April has received minimal daily handling since then. As my project for the week, I was assigned the task of working with this stoic and sensitive filly on foot and leg handling to ensure positive farrier experiences, and leg stretches for further mobility and desensitization. What we learned together was so much more.

As previously mentioned, I consider wild born mustangs to be amazing teachers of horsemanship. If one is listening or watching “for the whisper” you can tune in to a whole host of information. Untouched and wild born horses give us a pure, undiluted, untainted view into true horse behavior and language.

For my assignment with April, I was to present my progress to the instructors and class on the final day of the course. I was to work mostly on my own time to accomplish my goals. So the first day I made my way out to the large paddock containing several young mustangs to get my horse and get down to business.

Having worked with mustangs previously, I knew that catching them is always an issue, and actually can stubbornly remain an issue for life. Having experience with this and having been briefed on April’s situation, I felt confident I could catch her in a short amount of time. What I had forgotten was the mustang sense of humor and uncanny ability to humble us lowly humans. While she was not at any time running or out of control, April made me work for about 30 minutes to catch her, basically burning a whole session. I’m sure she thought it was a great opportunity to see who I was, and to remind to ASK – not tell – and to go SLOW. I am proud to say I did rise to the occasion by dusting off my rusty mustang “slow is fast” approach and ultimately it worked, as I was able to finally touch her, leading to a conversation that was to last all week.

My take away from first session:

  • You think you’re asking – but you’re really telling.

As a horsewoman, I like to ask my horses as much as possible. There are times that “telling” is the only option (dangerous situations etc) however a trust based partnership comes from a give and a take. Asking “Can I touch you here? Do you like that?” Asking allows a voice and opens the floodgates for a lot of valuable information. If we listen, the horses will tell us.

Most domestic horses are very accepting. It is quite easy to get into their space and do a whole lot of things to them. We don’t ask, we just do, starting with the approach in the paddock. We bustle right up to our horses. Maybe they get a greeting, maybe they don’t. We put the halter on and we come in. Is there a hello? Is there a check in? Do we approach in a polite manner? Where are my eyes? How is my body language? How am I communicating? Is it in the language of Equus? It’s easy to forget these simple things in everyday life. April reminded me that if we were to have a trust based relationship, I needed to move slowly, communicate clearly by using proper body language and eye contact, and do a whole lot more asking – down to the simplest things such as “Can I touch your withers?”

As the week went on I worked with April and many other horses, mustangs and domestics, on a variety of things from trailer loading and ground tying to extreme behavior problem solving. My awareness of equine language and learning hit a whole new level from these experiences. However, a theme surfaced with each situation and each horse, reminding me that asking instead of telling whenever possible, opened doors.

During my personal time with April, I worked hard to be extremely mindful of her sensitivity and her appreciation at being asked even the smallest things. The more questions I asked, the more things she agreed to and the resistances faded. We had many “conversations” in which she showed me incredible things such as her ability to learn very quickly by small releases of pressure. I am quite proud to say that by the end of our time together we were able to present to the instructors and class while April was basically at liberty in her paddock with several other young mustangs. I was able to pick up all four feet, do leg stretches, and gently place each foot back in place. All this while April stood quietly with a simple short rope hanging loosely around her neck. At any time she could have easily left my company. To say it was an exhilarating moment is an understatement.IMG_9851 2

My experience in Cody offered a shift in perspective to be sure. As the days passed I began to ask myself questions about my interactions with others. As a Mother, Wife and Boss, I wondered “Could I be creating more of a partnership? Could I take the communication to the next level? Is themutualtrust in this relationship? How often do I ask permission for simple basic things?”

I invite you to remember that each time you interact with your horse you are, in effect, training him. Take a look at those interactions and ask yourself where your level of trust and partnership is. Can you take it up a notch? Are you asking, or are you telling? To be clear, asking does not mean your horse gets to do whatever he darn well pleases. Asking means just that, asking. “Can you put your foot here? Can I touch you there, or there, or how about there? If you don’t want me to touch you here, can you tolerate here?” You get the point. The big picture is creating a conversation that flows back and forth. You might just find that creating that conversation creates a whole lot of trust.

Staci Grattan and her husband Brion Fornshell Co-Own Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd, Minnesota. Staci enjoys using her focus on true classical dressage, basic and holistic horsemanship to assist horses and humans.  Spirit Horse Center is located in North Central Minnesota and provides, boarding, training, lessons and regularly hosts clinics and events benefitting horse owners and horses.

For more information on go to http://www.spirithorsecenterinc.com

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A BLM Mustang Stallion residing at McCullough Peaks herd management area looks on curiously during a visit to the wild herd areas.

A Day of Pure Joy! Area Five Special Olympics Horse Show at Spirit Horse Center

9 Aug

photoBy Staci Grattan

July 19th, 2014 Spirit Horse Center was the home for the Area Five Special Olympics Horse Show for the third year in a row. Hosted by Mounted Eagles Therapeutic Horsemanship, the show encompassed three area teams, 37 brave and hard working riders, 11 incredible horses and a horde of devoted friends, family and volunteers.
The athletes competed in traditional style horse show classes such as Halter, Trail and Western and English Equitation.

The three teams:
Jack Pine Stables – Walker, Minnesota.
Director Kristine Oppegard – Retired Registered Nurse with a heart of gold!
Jack Pine Stables is a seasonally run PATH International Certified Program. PATH (formerly NARHA) is an acronym for Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
Jack Pine offers weekly sessions May to September to 43 participants who work on horsemanship skills with their eight wonderful program horses.
Find Jack Pine Stables on Facebook for more information about their program.

Milaca Community Rockin Riders – Milaca, Minnesota
Head of Delegation – Kathy Fitschen
Milaca Community Rockin Riders is a Special Olympics Team supported by Milaca Community Education and hosted at the Kostanshek Family Farm. Ann Sheehan is the owner of the three program horses who faithfully and gently assist the seven team members to realize their equine goals.
The program has a fundraiser in September “A Special Event” to raise funds for the team.

Mounted Eagles Special Olympics Team – Brainerd, Minnesota
Mounted Eagles Therapeutic Horsemanship Eexcutive Director – Lynn Fairbanks.
Head Coach/Mounted Eagles Program Founder/Lead PATH Instructor – Susie Bailiff
Mounted Eagles Special Olympics Team is comprised of 7 current and former Mounted Eagles Therapeutic Horsemanship participants. The Special Olympics team for Mounted Eagles has been in existence for three years, however Mounted Eagles Therapeutic Horsemanship recently celebrated 20 years of service! Mounted Eagles is a PATH International Certified Program with nearly 70 current participants. The Special Olympics Team is sponsored by Spirit Horse Center and Grattan Home Health Care Inc. Mounted Eagles is a 501c3 Non Profit Organization largely supported by fundraisers such as their upcoming “Walk and Roll So They Can Ride” September 6th on the Paul Bunyan Trail in Nisswa Minnesota, “A Night With The Stars” at Arrowwood Lodge in Baxter Minnesota September 20th  or “ Hoofin for Mounted Eagles” a benefit trail ride and campfire September 27 or 28 at Trailing S Farm west of Pequot Lakes, Mn

Mounted Eagles has seven dedicated hard working and patient equine partners who assist not only the Special Olympics Team but also their regular program participants to reach their equine dreams and goals. Mounted Eagles operates year round 3 days per week at Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd.

As the facility owner of Spirit Horse Center, I have been the host for many shows, clinics and events in the six years we have been open. The Special Olympics Equestrians and their horse partners have always been the most inspiring to me. The bravery, enthusiasm and delight shown by the participants and the incredible care and patience the horses provide is truly humbling. The partnership and encouragement displayed between fellow athletes and the horses and riders is heart warming.

I was struck by the valor of the participants and the loving assistance from their equine partners such as Athlete Ashley and Parfait a program horse from Jack Pine Stables. When it was their turn to present for halter class, Ashley and Parfait came into the arena fondly ushered in by the coaches (who are not allowed to assist once the athlete enters the ring) – Ashley was clearly nervous and afraid, asking “can you walk with me? I’m so nervous and scared” – Parfait slowed her steps and lowered her head as a Volunteer Judge smiled and stepped up saying “sure we can walk together – you’re doing great!” Ashley courageously completed her halter presentation, working hard to follow instructions from the Judge. As Parfait and Ashley exited the arena Ashley’s face lit up in a beautiful smile as she said, “We did it!” to her friend Parfait.
Ashley’s coach Kris later confided that Ashley’s life has not been easy. She is a ward of the state and has no family involvement. As a developmentally delayed adult living in a group home, this program is an important self esteem builder and source of joy for Ashley.
I was equally struck by the zest and vigor for life displayed by many of the athletes such as Hanna from Mounted Eagles. Hanna is a 22 year old developmentally delayed young woman with a twinkle in her eye and a total enthusiasm for life. Hanna’s elation was tangible as she rode her horse Mahler in several classes. Each time Hanna received her ribbons on the podium she celebrated by high fiving her competitors and raising a fist in the air. This joyful exhibition made me smile several times. She was happy and proud and she wanted everyone to experience that!photo copy

Photo – Hanna and Mahler

Throughout the day I saw many demonstrations of teamwork and enjoyment; happy dances, grins, fist bumps, high fives and horse hugs to name a few. These beautiful, honest and pure displays of the best kind of emotion we can experience left me feeling motivated to find more opportunities to express joy and love without reservation.
Really at the end of the day isn’t that all that matters?  photo copy 2
Staci Grattan and her husband Brion Fornshell Co-Own Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd, Minnesota. Staci enjoys using her focus on good solid horsemanship basics, true classical dressage and natural holistic horsemanship to assist horses and humans.  Spirit Horse Center is located in North Central Minnesota and provides, boarding, training, lessons and regularly hosts clinics and events benefitting horse owners and horses.

For more information on go to http://www.spirithorsecenterinc.com

The Dreaded “D” Word

4 Jun

The Dreaded D Word

Dressage as I see it – An invitation for the casual rider.

By Staci Grattan – Spirit Horse Center


As a born and raised “backyard rider” I’ve had horses basically my whole life. I come from a line of “do it yourselfer” backyard horsemen and women.

As a preteen from a financially challenged family I joined 4-H and decided to give showing a go. We lived about seven miles from the local fairgrounds so every year I would ride my horses there (we didn’t have a horse trailer) and spend the week showing in 4-H classes pertaining to western riding and occasionally an open halter class. While at those show grounds I saw kids who had trainers and coaches and horse trailers and fancy saddles (and more than one saddle?) and rode “English”. I remember watching the parents “warm up” the horse and wondering why they were running their horses around in a circle on a long rope? What! Keeping in mind this was nearly 30 years ago and I was a self taught backyard rider you can understand my amazement and confusion.

This was my first exposure to “English” style riding and it formed a lasting impression.

An impression I believe many of you will be able to relate to.

I recall scoffing at the people running their horses around like crazy in circles on a long rope before the kids would climb aboard. I remember thinking “why are these people running their horses around and tiring them out before they get on?”

I remember looking at the tiny “ridiculous” saddles and thinking “yeah not in this lifetime” at the direct contact reining and thinking – “Sheesh why are the pulling on that poor horses mouth like that? That’s just terrible!” And asking the question – “don’t they do anything other than circles?!”

Words like canter, collection and contact had no place on my vocabulary at that young age and well into my 20s. Dressage and “English style” riding seemed silly, pointless and frivolous.

In my late 20s I had a pretty hot trail horse. I was in over my head but unwilling to admit it. I decided I needed “a better seat” and began exploring local riding instructors and researching training and riding concepts. I ended up with a local dressage instructor and began my love affair with dressage.

A lot has happened in my horse life since then, from private backyard breeder to commercial stable owner where I do some training and riding instruction, from training with a local instructor to training regularly with internationally recognized Natural Horsemanship and Classical Dressage experts, however my love of dressage and its most basic and simple offerings remains. Dressage is not rocket science – it’s just good solid basic horsemanship!

This article speaks to all horse lovers. However as a former casual, self taught backyard rider who was intimidated by “that fancy dressage stuff”, I invite casual riders and horse enthusiasts to explore the value of the principles, teachings and philosophy found in the oldest form of horsemanship.





Why Dressage?

1)   Health, wellness and longevity.

I believe good horses are like fine wine – they just keep getting better and better. Lets face it , we put a lot of love, time and energy into our horses and we want them to last forever. Proper body mechanics by horses under saddle go a very long way toward joint longevity and injury avoidance. We know this to be true of any athlete, and horses are no different. The concept of collection as well as self carriage are valuable concepts for any horseman or woman to explore and implement. Physical collection in the horse not only makes for a more pleasant ride it also potentially saves your horse from a whole host of injuries and promotes long lasting physical strength. True physical collection and proper body mechanics are an integral teaching in Classical Dressage. Note I did not say Competitive Dressage as in my opinion that is another topic entirely.


2)   Decrease negative tension.

Dressage teaches us to “ride every stride” and think ahead.

Dressage horses look “hot” and out of control to many casual observers – and they can be. However the goal and teachings of the Classical Dressage Masters I have studied and studied with is to increase sensitivity certainly but decrease tension. The more aware we are, the more “with” our horses we are. Many Classical Dressage Masters promoted a partnership and dance with the horse. Side note – horses who are moving “correctly” with heads down and back lifted are taking direction from their riders and remain much calmer– horses who are moving along in “anti collection” (term coined by Dr Deb Bennett) back hollow, head up in the air, are often not really “with” the rider, carry tension and possibly have more of a propensity to spook etc.



3)   Connection, physical and mental assessment and riding preparation.

Many Classical Dressage teachings include groundwork in the form of proper mindful lunging and in hand work. Please note I say “mindful” lunging in which the horse and human are mentally connected and the human is paying attention to the horse! When I say “properly moving” I mean that the horse is coiling his loins, stepping under himself, lifting the base of his neck higher than the haunches and lifting his back as best he can based on his physical fitness level and conformation.

Not only are these things very valuable tools for connection on a deeper level, they also allow the human to do a physical and mental check in with the horse. There is huge mental and physical value to lunging done in which the horse must move correctly at a walk and a trot. Side note – do NOT underestimate the mental and physical benefit of working with your horse at a walk on the lunge line.

In hand work, as taught by several Classical Dressage Masters, also offers benefit to nearly any horseman as a tool for several reasons:

a)    Lateral work done in hand such as shoulder in, keeping in mind physical limitations and conformation, offer an opportunity to address physical or mental limitations from the ground by strengthening and suppling. Difficult canter/lope departs can be improved with shoulder in work either under saddle or in hand.

b)   In hand work (as well as lunge line work) offers a great opportunity to work through mental and physical issues. The saying goes “if it’s a problem on the ground it will be a problem up top!” Why not address tension, anger, insecurity issues from the ground where you are able to offer more support?



4)   Contact = Conversation = Partnership.

Classical Dressage teaches us about contact with the rein. Contact is a two way conversation between the horse and rider – we do not have an unmoving “death grip” on the rein nor do we ignore it entirely until we need to stop or turn. Rather we are constantly and lightly in touch with each rein and varying the pressure by a light give and take. Contact can be accomplished with a loose rein if that is your style. The point here is that contact is a method of conversing with your horse – much like your seat and leg, we are creating a conversation and ultimately a partnership.



Any time you can broaden your horsemanship horizons it’s bound to be a positive experience. There are many “roads to Rome” and in this case many of the principles I outline above may or may not be covered in other disciplines. The true purpose as I see it of Classical Dressage is care for and partnership with the horse. Training is done on a slow and consistent basis always keeping within the comfort zone of both partners without shortcuts, or gimmicks. As truly the oldest form of organized horsemanship, dressage offers proven and time tested methods for your consideration. Check it out! You might just be amazed at how basic and simple the concepts are and how universally they apply to all levels of horsemanship and span disciplines.


Staci Grattan and her husband Brion Fornshell co-own Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd, Minnesota. Staci enjoys using her focus on good solid horsemanship basics, true classical dressage and natural holistic horsemanship to assist horses and humans. Spirit Horse Center is located in North Central Minnesota and provides, boarding, training, lessons and regularly hosts clinics and events benefitting horse owners and horses.

For more information on go to http://www.spirithorsecenterinc.com


Photos feature – Legend 8 year old Friesian X Quarter Horse gelding.

Photo 1) A shared connection and proper body mechanics on the lunge line can be beneficial in multiple ways.

Photo 2) Connection and partnership – the ultimate goal in any form of horsemanship including classical dressage

Photo 3) Lateral in hand work can be beneficial in multiple ways including addressing strength and flexibility issues, mental relaxation and focus and mutual connection.



Life Lessons From a Dressage Master

30 Jan

Life lessons from a Dressage Master

By Staci Grattan owner Spirit Horse Center in Brainerd Minnesota www.spirithorsecenterinc.comScreen Shot 2013-07-24 at 11.30.24 AM


Dominique and Debra Barbier http://www.dominiquebarbier.com

As the owner of a barn that does boarding, training and lessons with a strong emphasis on good solid basics and dressage, I hear the following phrases or a variation thereof on a regular basis.

  • “Oh, that fancy dressage stuff! I don’t do that! I just want to get on and ride!”
  • “ All dressage people do is ride in circles. I don’t want to ride in circles, that’s boring and I don’t see the point”

When I hear these things I have to smile a little on the inside. I smile for a variety of reasons including the fact that I agree  – I say YES get on and ride your horse, ENJOY yourself and your partner!  Mostly I smile to myself because I am of the opinion that properly done classical dressage, specifically the method taught by Dominique Barbier and his equally talented and skilled wife Debra, has absolutely nothing to do with being “fancy” or riding in circles and everything to do with a solid foundation in the basics, proper physical body mechanics, relaxation by the partners and a strong mental connection. To be clear  – I have seen Mestre Barbier ride beautifully executed high school dressage maneuvers seemingly without effort on horses so relaxed and happy it seemed like a Sunday afternoon on the couch. I have also seen him teach these movements to students. My point here is that the foundation for these beautiful “dressagey” movements is something every horseman and horsewoman is looking for, a partnership with a physically and mentally relaxed and sound partner.  No matter what your horse goals or disciplines are, there are very valuable offerings in Barbier’s style and methodology from a horsemanship perspective.

Dominique is many things, a dressage master, a successful published author many times over, an incredibly intuitive and gifted horseman with decades of experience including an amazing and vast array of training most notably with classical Master Nuno Oliviera (1925-1989). To say he is highly skilled and trained would be an understatement. All achievements and education aside, as an instructor and trainer I believe the most valuable offerings Mestre Barbier provides are life lessons. The kind of life lessons that not only make us better with the horses but also make us better people in general!

The old horseman’s adage “you ride as you are” is very true and I believe the “change of consciousness” that Barbier encourages each of his students to explore holds the key to not only better riding, and partnership with horses but also a better quality of life!  Its not about riding in circles, or what pretty movements you can do (although that is very fun!) or the tack you use or any of the aesthetics. It is all about simplicity, partnership, joy and a change in the way we look at our horses and the world around us.

Barbier asks us as students to:

  • Think of our horses as “dance partners” always remembering there is a “number one partner and a number two partner” Number one leads the dance, however both partners must be willing and relaxed.
  • Always be thinking in lightness and gentleness. Always ask – “how can I do less?”
  • Ask for what you want. Be clear! Don’t cope with what is given – ask!
  •  If things are not going well, stop! Start over. Think “new horse, new rider”.
  • Always approach your horse in relaxation. Nothing is ever a big deal.
  • Keep things simple. Don’t overcomplicate!
  • Remember that everything starts from the ground and your basics. If there are holes or trouble on the ground it WILL show up in the saddle. Proper mindful lunging and “in hand” work are key!
  •  “Sit there and stay with it!” Understand that effective and productive horsemanship/training should look a little like paint drying. Day by day we make steady, quality progress by having clear goals and a solid program.
  • Be present! Always!
  • Anything you do. Do it with joy!

If we change a few words here and there, couldn’t most of these philosophies be translated into our day-to-day lives?

In closing, I offer a few more favorite quotes I have gathered from Mestre Barbier during my attendance at various symposiums and clinics as consideration for your own journey to a “change of consciousness”.

“Beauty is rarely in the way of spectacles. If you want to see beauty you need to sit still and look for it.”

“The world doesn’t change, but you can change the way you look at it!”


The word of the day is?

6 Jan

Spirit Horse Center Buzz

A weekend clinic at Spirit Horse Center with Anna Twinney of Reach Out to Horses

The Theme of the Day Is?

A multi-faceted horsemanship weekend with Anna Twinney

By Staci Grattan
Owner, Spirit Horse Center – http://www.spirithorsecenterinc.com  – 218-825-4944 – email info@spirithorsecenterinc.com

As self-professed “horse people,” most of us realize that the study of horsemanship is lifelong and complex. It is, for many, part of the draw – never-ending and multi -faceted.


Quality trainers will tell you that the more tools we have in our toolbox, the better we are able to serve horses and their human counterparts. It seems there is no single answer in the complex world of horsemanship. No absolutes.


Anna Twinney of Reach Out to Horses is the living embodiment of this “many tools in the toolbox” approach. She’s a brilliant horsewoman, trainer, horse behavior expert, and accomplished and proven animal communicator. Add to this impressive resume a top-notch working knowledge of essential oils,  supplements and nutrition, kinesiology as well as traditional, alternative and natural health care and horse-keeping methodology. It seems Anna’s “toolbox” turns into a veritable “tool chest.”


Anna’s company, Reach Out to Horses, has an extremely comprehensive training program with offerings for students of all abilities and levels.  Woven throughout Anna’s offerings is a  “multi-pronged holistic horsemanship” approach, covering a comprehensive array of horsemanship as well as alternative healing modalities and animal communication. (www.reachouttohorses.com)


Anna’s second clinic at Spirit Horse Center, in November 2013, saw clinic participants and their horses expand their awareness and knowledge of horsemanship and all its components. Each day a “theme” seemed to surface – unintentionally but appropriately.


During Day One, Anna put on her “Animal Communicator hat” and shared with participants her insights for effective telepathic animal communication. Her uncanny accuracy, high skill level and strong ethical viewpoint as an Animal Communicator came across clearly. Participants learned how to be open to a form of communication that Anna believes is available to every human. The theme expressed this day seemed to strongly center on “belief” and being open. Anna worked with students throughout the day to hone their skills, knowing what is real and what is not, how to tune in and be accurate.


On Day Two of the clinic, participants experienced the Obstacle Course at Liberty with their horses. Anna asked them to “form a plan but don’t fall in love with it.” In other words, pick an obstacle or goal to conquer and work through it with your horse, be it an arch with pool noodles hanging from it, a tarp on the ground or a small jump.


Alone or in pairs, and working with one or two horses, participants learned how to develop a deeper connection to their horse and themselves by using body language to work the horses through the chosen obstacles without touching them.

Auditors and participants gained valuable insights on being present and “in the moment,” and how to ask clearly and kindly for what we desire.


A few pearls of wisdom offered by Anna this day were:

  • Once you get a “softening” ask for completion of the obstacle.
  • Leadership is who moves whose feet!
  • When we see a “try” when working with horses we release the pressure. Horses learn from this release of pressure.
  • Horses are waiting for us to meet them where they are.


The theme that surfaced on this day was “clear intention”  – and its extreme importance when working with horses.


The subject of Day Three was “Spook Busting.” Anna put on her “horse behaviorist” hat to educate participants on her groundwork methods and the application of them into many areas, including dealing with  “spooky” situations.


The “spooky” props varied in intensity from bouncing balls, umbrellas and plastic bags on sticks to tarps on the ground, flapping and draping over the body.

Returning to one of Anna’s core philosophies, the horses were “met where they were at” and were not pushed into more than moderate discomfort. Participants worked their horses successfully through the “spooky” items and were rewarded with a deepened relationship via a clear communication of leadership.


Key insights from Anna:

  • When we strike a horse we are a predator. When horses strike each other they are establishing a pecking order.
  • Backing up is not a normal action in the pasture. Work versus rest psychology is an effective tool when training horses.
  • Match the energy of your horse when schooling on ground work.
  • Groundwork translates into work under saddle! If there are communication issues on the ground there will be communication issues under saddle.
  • Horses learn from repetition where the magic number is three to learn a new skill such as head-drop for bridling.
  • Horses are associative thinkers where the magic number here is five. For example, when teaching trailer loading we would do it in five different locations to truly cement the thought that the horse can load anytime anywhere.



The theme of the day was “timing”  – we have between 3/10ths and 8/10ths of a second to respond when presented with an issue. Timing is crucial because horses are largely associative thinkers.


Many participants remarked over the course of the weekend that not only did they gain valuable horsemanship skills and a deeper relationship with their horses, they also gained valuable self-awareness.


As horsemen and women, it seems that self-awareness may be the most valuable tool in our collective toolboxes. If we can hold an awareness of our individual strengths and weaknesses, it stands to reason we are better able to meet our horses “where they are at.”



25 Jun

WOW the BUGS ARE MEAN this summer.

We have been experimenting again trying to combat bugs in an economical, healthy and environmentally friendly way.
As the summer wears on we have found that this year the flies are much more persistent.
We have been using Young Living Animal Scents Ointment applied in a thin layer from the knees/hocks down (concentrating on the joints and coronet bands) and bellies chests and groins to keep the flies at bay.
We have also changed up our fly spray recipe a bit in an effort to keep the flies at bay.
*Side note – we DO use commercial fly sprays at the barn in times on extreme need – however we were dismayed to discover that many commercial brands not only contain propylene glycol (antifreeze ingredient?) but are also extremely harmful to fish and aquatic environments.

2/3 water
1/3 mineral oil
2 tbl dawn dish soap
10 drops geranium
10 drops clove
10 drops aroma siez blend
10 drops thyme

this can be used on people and dogs as well…be aware however that some of these oils are photosensitive and may cause a sun reaction on more sensitieve individuals. We have not had any negative reactions thus far.

Alison Nygren is our essential oils rep for Spirit Horse Center – she can be reached at alisonnygren@gmail.com

Equine bodywork-What is it all about?

7 Jun

by Lise A Lunde – of Black Gold Massage hosted by Spirit Horse Center.

ImageLise is a Nurse Practitioner in Cardiac Medicine, an Equine Massage Therapist and an avid horsewoman. We are privileged to have Lise working with us at Spirit Horse Center as the Program Director for our Similar Spirits Women and Horses Program as well as our Equine Masseuse. Lise enjoys spending her free time with her horses trail riding, endurance riding and doing dressage.


There are a variety of types of bodywork available for our equine partners including chiropractic care, pain release therapy, aroma  therapy, energy work, Reiki, acupuncture and acupressure and massage therapy. Well, now there is one more to choose. It is called the Masterson Interactive Method of

The Masterson Method was developed by Jim Masterson, and is directed at alleviating soreness, strain and tension in the horse’s body. The Masterson Method is based on the use of touch to find and help release accumulated tension in key junctions in the horse’s body. These key junctions have an effect on the horse’s movement and performance and include the poll-atlas junction, the neck-shoulders-withers  junction and the hind-end junction.

The Masterson Method is an interactive therapy. The horse is an active partner in this bodywork.  The bodywork incorporates touch, response from the horse and release of tension in the key junctions. Recognizing the response of the horse and adjusting the level of touch and pressure is the key to this method of bodywork.  The horse is an active participant because his response and release is what makes it work.

Having recently had the opportunity to become an advanced student- in- training in the Masterson Method, I have been impressed at how subtle some of the bodywork is and how expressive the horse can be in responding. As I continue to have the opportunity to learn the technique by working with a variety of horses I have  experienced:

  1. A new way of listening to what the horse is saying
  2. Observing the visual signs of release of tension in the horse
  3. Observing more comfort, suppleness, mobility and improved performance
  4. Development of a bond of cooperation with the horse

To learn more about the Masterson Method go to Mastersonmethod.com or contact me at lisealunde @aol.com

Chase those “buggy blues” away with our homemade insect repellent recipe using essential oils!

7 Jun

Can be used on horses, dogs, kids humans etc. Should also be a great short term tick repellent.

Alison Nygren is our Young Living Essential Oils Sales Representative at Spirit Horse Center. You may email her at alisonmnygren@gmail.com to place an order. We also have catalogs and informational brochures at Spirit Horse Center.

Before we begin with our flying insect repellent recipe we offer a great tip for gnat protection. We smear a very light layer of Animal Scents Ointment in the affected areas (ears chest bellies etc). The application generally lasts 2-3 days. This serves two purposes. Healing any raw areas and further repelling gnats. Works and smells great!

Basic Flying Insect Repellent Recipe
Two things to note about this recipe:
1) We arent into precise measurements. We make this on the fly (haha pardon the pun) in the barn aisle.
2) As the insect populations change by time of day or time of year this recipe can be modified to selectively combat insects that are more intense at specific times for example adding extra peppermint when the flies are bad etc etc.

You will need:
Peppermint Oil & Purification blend Oil, an average size spray bottle, plain mineral oil (can be found at Fleet Farm in the Health and Beauty Section) Dawn Dish Soap and Tap Water.
Fill bottle 2/3 full with tap water
Add Mineral oil  to the bottom of the neck of the bottle.
Add a squirt of dish soap (approx 2 tbl)
Add ten drops of peppermint

Alternate add ins:
5 drops Idaho Tansy – flies
5 drops lemongrass – gnats and mosquitos
10 drops melalueca – flies and mosquitos
5 drops Aroma Life – flies
5-10 drops of lavender – all flying insects and soothing to bitten areas
5-10 drops clove – flies later in the season

Add ten drops of Purification blend
Shake well before use.
Apply liberally to bellies, groin,legs and tails.

*additional helpful tip – grapefruit and peppermint applied neat onto kids and dogs makes a great short term tick repellent.