For as long as I can remember, I've been mesmerized by horses. It was never the thrill of riding fast or jumping high that drew me in, but the desire for a relationship with the horse. There is something about the horse that speaks to my soul. Something about their nature inspires me to be a better human; to show up every day a little more open, a little more authentic, a little bit more vulnerable. I believe our horses have much to teach us about ourselves, if we are so willing.
My background is diverse and very unique, with much of my experience coming from my time training draft horses for carriage work on downtown streets. I am an accomplished and well respected carriage driver, liberty trainer, and a dedicated student in the Academic Art of Riding. I believe my love for learning and my desire to always further my own education and development are among my greatest strengths.
Thanks to my childhood riding instructor, I began training horses at quite a young age. Growing up in Calgary, Alberta, there were horses everywhere, and my coach had a particular soft spot for the misfits and rejects of the lot. Our barn was mostly full of thoroughbreds, many of them off the chuckwagon track. These animals – usually tall bays with little for distinguishing markings – when they arrived at our barn generally knew GO! and not much more. While we always had a few lovely old school masters around to teach us the ropes, all of us students would soon graduate to younger, greener mounts, and our lessons became about so much more than just our own riding. Much of my education as a teenage rider was in educating these horses to become confident, sensible hunter/jumpers. These were great lessons in patience, clear aids, and developing a steady but giving hand.
I graduated high school and moved to Victoria, BC for university. The next summer, I accidentally landed a summer job as a carriage driver in the city’s beautiful, tourist-centric downtown. Spending 30-40+ hours a week with lines in my hands, I capitalized on the opportunity to learn as much as I could from the horses themselves. It was here that I found my niche and passion, and I went on to spend most of the next decade driving commercially, both on the coast and back in Alberta.
In 2011, I was accepted into the BC College of Equine Therapy, where I completed a two-year certification in Equine Sports Therapy. This program offered a thorough cross-section of equine health and wellness from a fully holistic perspective. My hands-on studies included anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, care & management, nutrition & herbology, manual therapies including massage and acupressure, saddle & tack fitting, emotional assessment & therapies, and applied kinesiology. This schooling has given me an invaluable educational background that informs my teaching and training daily.
DEVELOPING CARRIAGE HORSES & DRIVERS
After graduating “horsie college,” I returned to the west coast, and soon began driving carriage commercially once again. Just like in my teens, I was frequently given the young or less experienced horses to continue their development, and in 2017, I was named Supervisor of Horse and Driver Development with one of the world's top carriage tour operators. I was charged with the education and training of all new horses and drivers coming into the company, preparing them to tour visitors safely and happily throughout the city centre. I was also tasked with developing an industry-leading training program for both horses and drivers. With a strong emphasis on safety, this comprehensive curriculum outlines the skills, knowledge, and experience needed to ensure horses and drivers remain healthy and happy in all manner of urban situations.
While I was driving professionally, I also maintained my own team of Belgians at home. We showed at the local fall fairs and did wagon rides for special events in our area. We were a well-known fixture in our community, often hooking up the wagon to go and visit a neighbour or get ice cream from the corner store. Always seeking to learn from respected mentors, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with a number of internationally acclaimed carriage drivers and instructors in recent years, including Barry Hook, Robin Groves, and Andy Marcoux.
Meanwhile, in 2012 I spent all of $600 – meat price – to buy a young Belgian gelding. Tony was not my first horse, but he was my first “blank slate”. He was five years old, friendly, curious, fiery, SMART, and feral. Throughout our years together, his education has been my education. Tony was, especially back then, a lot of horse. I was searching for a way to harness and sculpt his enthusiastic energy without dampening it. I wanted to work with him, not against him, and keep myself safe doing so. That’s when I met Heather Nelson, and Heather introduced Tony and I to liberty training. Through liberty I learned to teach through play; to keep my horse engaged as an active participant in the class. I learned to assert clear, consistent boundaries that allow my horse to respect me, and I learned to give him the same right. Now, I use liberty to further develop
Tony’s strength and balance, to check our communication and the clarity of my aids, and to keep the fun and play alive and well.
ACADEMIC ART OF RIDING
In 2016, Heather brought Kenneth Vansweevelt out from Belgium to teach a few clinics to us Canadians. Leading up to his arrival, Heather quoted Kenneth in saying, “We must teach the horse to be so obedient to his own body that he should never disobey his body trying to please a human.” As I was struggling at the time with a horse with a chronic, persistent overuse injury, this principle lit up my brain and I quickly signed Tony and I up for the clinic, eager to meet Kenneth and learn more. In that clinic, Kenneth guided me to find a softness and attentiveness within Tony that I didn’t know could exist. The depth of his approach offered me something that I’d been yearning for my whole life. The Academic Art of Riding is a revival of the ways of the Old Masters, inspired by the great European riding academies of the 16th – 18th centuries, and tracing back to the writings of the Greek cavalry colonel Xenophon from c. 400 BCE.
The Academic Art of Riding is centered on the premise that “dressage is for the horse, not the horse is for dressage.” It is an education for both horse and rider, with the intention of building the horse’s strength and balance to be able to carry itself and a rider in a healthy way for a long partnership. Communication is of
utmost importance, with a systematic approach to teaching the secondary aids – rein, leg, hand, voice, whip – in order to educate the primary aid of the seat. Much of the schooling is done from the ground through groundwork, lunging, long reining, and work in hand, so that we know that the horse understands the aids and has the necessary strength before adding the rider.
The Academic approach also considers with great importance the horse’s mental and emotional wellness. Danish Grandmaster Bent Branderup maintains the motto, “Two spirits who want to do what two bodies can.” The mental connection and development therefore are equally important as the physical.
What I’ve found in the Academic Art of Riding is a system of training and horsemanship that sits very well with my values of honouring the horse body/mind/spirit, development of a deep partnership, and schooling for health and enjoyment of the work, rather than for show. I love the feeling that there is no ceiling – there is always more to learn and further to develop, and I appreciate the community of like-minded people to grow and learn with.
In late 2022 I finally made the move back home to southern Alberta, where I maintain an active roster of students both in person and online. I am currently working towards the goal of successfully completing my AAoR Groundwork/Lunging test, as well as obtaining my driver levels with the Carriage Association of America. The more I develop in my Academic work, the more I understand how to apply it to driving as well, as driving is just another possible position to work the horse from. With these tangible goals to work towards, I continue to develop my skills as a carriage driver, groundworker, rider, teacher, and student of the horse.