Equine educators never stop learning

Red Deer’s Mane Event clinic | Couple teaches relaxation, harmony and balance for rider and horse

RED DEER — Michael and Tiffany Richardson consider themselves horsemanship educators rather than trainers.

“I am a student of the horse, and that has allowed me some wonderful opportunities,” Michael said after a horsemanship clinic at the Mane Event held in Red Deer April 27-29.

“We never stop learning and that is why we don’t call ourselves trainers. We educate.”

The couple teaches relaxation, harmony and balance for rider and horse.

Harmony and balance are especially important for Michael, who has been a paraplegic since 1986 after a Jeep rollover. He had to develop a new perspective about the world around him, which came partly from therapeutic riding that started five weeks after his accident.

“Life is precious and you have to make the most of every minute. That drove me to take what I experienced as an ambulatory person. I am not going to let my perspective define who I am.”

The Richardsons, who are based at Hico, Texas, own eight horses and offer riding lessons and training at their arena. They also travel the continent conducting horsemanship clinics to help both the disabled and able-bodied rider.

Tiffany works with young people while Michael works with riders who have had problems.

“We get a lot of people who have pursued other programs and for whatever reason it hasn’t work for them,” he said.

Added Tiffany: “We get a lot of last resorts.”

She said people often tell them the horse will be shipped for slaughter if it cannot be fixed.

“We will bring the horse around, but our program requires that the rider be involved, whereas a lot of people take the horse for 30 days and then bring the rider in,” she said.

“Most of the issues we run into, it is rider-horse combination.”

Part of the training uses a skeletal model to show students what is happening to their spines, pelvises, hips and thighs when they ride.

Michael admitted it took him seven years to figure that out, and now it is the core of his teaching methods.

He was hurt from the sternum area down, which means he cannot use his abdominal muscles or grip with his legs. He had to find new ways to continue riding.

Early on, his therapist told him not to forget how to walk.

“You can ask people how they walk and they can’t tell you. It is such an innate thing,” he said.

People don’t think about how to walk, but he has had to break down each movement. He then applies that mechanical knowledge to build harmony between the horse and rider, in which the person moves the hips and spine in a way that is similar to walking.

“You want to mirror the horse and let the horse mirror you. If you don’t see a good reflection, it is up to you to change it,” he said.

Sore hips, knees and back after dismounting mean there is tension from not sitting properly. Tiffany said his methods helped her.

As a competitive eventing and dressage rider, she was developing physical problems.

“I was sore every time I got off the horse. If I am sore, I know I was doing something wrong,” she said.

This knowledge took time to develop.

After his accident, Michael was a competitive para-athlete but he had an accident in which he burned the tops of his thighs. That injury slowed down his time and he missed making the Olympic team by a fraction of a second.

He decided to go back to school in Illinois and study psychology in 1992. He discovered the equine management program by accident and met Tiffany in his first class. She eventually earned a degree in business management.

They married 10 years ago and moved to Texas.

Besides working with riders and their horses, Michael is also involved in saddle design.

He has had several serious injuries since his first accident, and his saddle must provide back support and comfort.

His most recent saddle provides back support at 70 degrees so that he does not lose his balance.

The saddle, which keeps evolving, must also work for the horse so that it can wear it and carry the rider comfortably.

“We have very narrow parameters in what we can work with,” he said.

Michael urges his clients to get comfortable with riding before they buy a special saddle and horse.

The Richardsons have also shared their knowledge on a 13 week television show called The Gift of the Horse on RFD TV, an agriculture network in the United States. It has been renewed for another 13 weeks.

“My desire is to keep doing whatever makes a difference. If that takes us pursuing other things, I am open to that,” he said.

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