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Horsemanship Clinic at UT Martin


By Melanie Smith Taylor

Over Valentines weekend, February 14-16, 2020, the University of Tennessee at Martin, Tennessee hosted a Wildwood Horsemanship clinic given by Melanie Smith Taylor and Robyn Miller. The premise of their clinic is based upon the desire to demonstrate that good horsemanship is deeply intertwined with all riding disciplines. Robyn teaches the groundwork and initial flatwork to connect the identical exercises that she shares on the ground to those from the horse’s back. Melanie then continues the work on the flat, introducing poles on the ground and jumping exercises that incorporate the same important principles.

While the frigid temperatures outside hovered in the teens, the warm and welcoming indoor facility on campus provided a nice alternative for the riders. Some of the participants were students at UT Martin, while others came from the Mid-South, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Texas.

The riders were instructed to come to the first session with their horses saddled, but in a halter and lead rope. Robyn demonstrated each groundwork exercise with one participant’s horse, and then Robyn and Melanie went around to each student to assist them in their practice and answer questions. 

Melanie explained that through the groundwork we are able to give our horses a basic understanding of the meaning of the aids, which is the basis of communication for all riding disciplines. We try to keep the groundwork simple yet directly connected to the mounted work.

Robyn added that groundwork is a checklist for how your horse responds to pressure and whether or not he is light or braced to the aids to go forward, backward, move left and right. Groundwork also allows you a safer vantage point to warm up your horse as you check for soundness and readiness to ride.

The groundwork consists of exercises to help the horse develop his strength and prepare his balance for carrying a rider. Asking the horse to keep his mental and physical focus with the rider, as he learns to accurately respond in a soft willing way, is the key to working together as one. This, in turn, builds the mutual confidence, trust and respect necessary for a true partnership.

Once the horses are bridled and riders are mounted, Robyn has them repeat the same exercises, staying aware of their horse’s body and feeling for the timing required to find balance and precision.  She encourages riders to continuously ask (apply an aid) with quality, clarity and consistency, always releasing the pressure of the aid as soon as the horse responds. In this way the horse becomes lighter as he learns there is always the promise of a release when his response is correct.

Melanie then took over and directed the riders in some additional warm up to work on balance and adjustability. She incorporated rails on the ground and low jumps in gymnastic patterns that continued to ask the horses to stay mentally and physically with their riders. Following this gradual preparation, the horses and riders were much more together and in sync as they negotiated the jumping tracks.

Robyn and Melanie ended each session with questions and answers. They reminded riders that building a bond and partnership through groundwork is an important part of helping the horse find you (the rider) as his place of peace and security. Embracing groundwork helps you truly connect with the horse and develop better awareness, feel, timing and accuracy in whatever you ask him to do from his back. Staying open and aware of what the horse has to offer is often our best lesson.

That is why Melanie titled her recent book: Riding with Life: Lessons from the Horse. For more information on Robyn and Melanie’s clinics, you can check out the website

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