Riding With Life, by Melanie Smith Taylor
Melanie Smith Taylor’s new book, Riding With Life:Lessons From the Horse, brings a sound philosophy of horsemanship, and details on how to achieve it, that allows every horse to reach his/her best potential. The philosophy treats the horse as a sentient being, taking into account the natural instincts, personality, and particular preferences of the individual that produce the behaviors which humans strive to influence. It is opposite to the approach that treats the horse in a mechanistic way, as an object to be manipulated, which, consequently, creates problems for riders and mental and physical anguish for the horse. Melanie’s approach is all about building a positive relationship between horse and human.
Melanie has a lifetime of experience with horses and has received valuable mentoring from some of the best horsemen/horsewomen in the world, beginning with her mother Rachael Smith and extending to George Morris, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, and her late husband Lee Taylor. The combination of these insightful minds has culminated in the development of TaylorMade Horsemanship (pun intended) which is tailored specifically to help each horse and rider achieve their personal best.
Horsemanship encompasses every aspect of the relationship between horse and human, and needs to reflect a practice in excellence. “It all starts the moment you enter your horse’s presence. Whatever your level of experience [or riding discipline], I invite you to fully embrace the philosophy and practices of horsemanship this book offers,” Melanie writes. I wholeheartedly agree! After all, what is the goal of everyone’s riding experience? “…Experiencing the delight of riding in balance and lightness with a responsive, healthy horse,” Melanie answers.
Melanie’s journey begins with tales of her childhood, growing up on a farm in Germantown, Tennessee that she describes as the Smith version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm. We had a couple of everything: sheep, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, guinea hens, peacocks, pigeons, and dogs. One of the most famous was the rooster Peeping Tom, who frequently perched on my mother’s head… During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, People magazine featured a picture of my mother wearing her rooster ‘hat,’ much to the amusement of Prince Phillip of Great Britain.”
After retiring from show jumping, the next best thing that happened to Melanie was meeting and marrying Lee Taylor, in 1989 in his barn at Wildwood Farm (how apropos). Melanie’s relationship with Lee reconnected her to her roots and the valuable horsemanship lessons she had learned from Rachel. “My mother had instilled in me an abiding love for all creatures, especially horses, while my husband taught me to appreciate every horse as an individual….Lee believed that all horses were innately good and deserved a chance. It was the humans in their lives who caused them to develop troubled attitudes and undesirable habits.”
Lee introduced Melanie to the master horsemen Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman, who came to Wildwood Farm to conduct 4-day clinics to start young horses and tune up the older ones. “From Ray and Buck I learned the foremost unforgettable lesson that the horses and ponies are really the teachers, not the humans. You must listen to them, observe then, and stay alert to everything they have to offer.”
Melanie lays the foundation of understanding the horse by explaining the horse’s nature. “As a prey animal, they way the horse lives and thrives in the wild is at the root of his enduring nature. The horse seeks to know the meaning of everything around him, obtaining information from his acute senses, which are highly developed and considerably different from our own. Humans and horses process sensory information quite differently. We tend to analyze data from our senses using intellect and logic, whereas horses feel for the meaning in their bodies,” Melanie writes, then explains the social world of horses – hierarchy, interaction with one another, and leadership.
“Horses learn what they live and they live the way they learn.” – Ray Hunt.
To develop a successful relationship with the horse, “Figure out what is important to the horse and make that important to you.” – Ray Hunt.
Three fundamental principles of all successful human-horse relationships are:
(1) The Request. We apply pressure in some form to encourage a desired change.
(2) The Response. The horse makes a change in the desired direction.
(3) The Reward. We immediately cease the action that brought the change the horse made in the desired direction. The release confirms to the horse that his behavior was correct. “When the horse experiences a release every time he yields, he learns to associate his willingness to yield with an opportunity to rebalance himself. When you operate with an awareness of the horse’s sensitivities, you can preserve them in him. Balance and lightness occur when we take nothing from the horse to get him to respond.” Balance in the horse and the rider is the basis for every movement and must always be at the forefront.
Once these basic principles are established, Melanie explains how the TaylorMade horsemanship program is applied to colt starting and keeping older horses in tune. A great ride begins with thorough and correct ground work and proper preparation. “Everything you do with your horse should eventually look and feel like a dance performed by two partners moving in balance as one.” Key point: The horse is not a robot. A horse is a living, thinking being with his own personality and preferences. We must begin every step considering how the horse feels in the present…you have to be flexible and adjust because what works with one horse may not work with another.”
The remainder of the book is devoted to detailed explanations of how to achieve these positive results, beginning with effective ways just to catch a horse from a pasture.
The chapters on groundwork exercises show how to prepare young horses, as well as veteran horses, with a solid foundation for all mounted work. The exercises are clearly explained and illustrated, with the main focus on centering the horse and helping the horse stay centered.
Once the groundwork is accomplished, it is time to ride. The human should continue to practice the groundwork principles from the horse’s back, focusing on quality, precision, and safety.
The last unit is devoted to jumping, Melanie’s specialty. Hunter/jumper riders will no doubt find great advice here. But even if jumping is not your riding discipline, you’ll still find helpful fundamentals: keeping your eye focused and preparing your position well in advance. All riding disciplines require the basic elements of straightness, staying relaxed, smooth transitions, balance, timing, and accuracy. Above all, patience is the key. There’s also a section on turnout and proper care of the horse after the ride.
Concluding remarks: “Whenever we’re with our horse, we should leave him in a better place. It is our responsibility to ensure that he has improved from the time we greet him until we turn him out. By helping him better understand our aids and what is expected of him, we set him up to succeed.” Melanie’s mentors “… taught me what is important: how to understand, appreciate, and honor the nobility of the horse and forge a true partnership with this wonderful animal.”
About the author: Melanie’s horsemanship and riding skills have enabled her to reach some of the greatest accomplishments in the horse world with her special “horse of a lifetime” Calypso, including the U.S. Triple Crown of Show Jumping – the American Jumping Derby, the American Gold Cup, and the American Invitational. Their ultimate triumph came with a team gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
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