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Karen Irland

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Karen's Biography

     I have been riding, training and showing horses for 45 years.  Hunters, eventing and dressage are my background and learning is my passion.  It was my good fortune to study with many classically trained teachers – Chuck Grant, Vi Hopkins, Robert Hutton, & Col. Lindgren among others. From them, I learned the important basics of training and riding horses in many disciplines. The how and why of the classical gymnastic training of horses was the common theme from all my teachers.


     Then in 1986 I met Sally Swift, author of ‘Centered Riding®,’ the first teacher to talk about the ‘HOW’ behind the ‘WHAT’ to do on a horse. Sally was truly the Yoda of riding – sharing her unique ways to get through to riders and make amazing changes – resulting in happy and correct horses. She taught me how to apply my classical training to my riding - with lightness and less effort. I was able to study extensively with Sally for over 14 years and her joy and light spirit are always with me.  


     My next important teacher has been Tom Nagel, author of “Zen and Horseback Riding.” Tom’s discovery of the real core muscles, the psoas, is truly the ‘Missing Link’ for riders. Riding and teaching with Tom’s techniques, combined with Centered Riding, has been truly effective for me and my students. Awareness of both methods gives riders real balance and stability in the saddle – resulting in that elusive effortless harmony in our riding. Tom and I have been co-teaching the Riders Seat Combo clinics since 2006.


     Lifelong work with many natural horsemanship trainers has greatly enhanced my understanding of the horse’s nature and communication. This relates directly to riding in so many ways. Problem solving begins patiently, on the ground, and progresses to the saddle. Gifted horsewoman Barb Apple has been a real mentor in this area. 


     My teaching perspective is a melting pot of my initial classical theory and practice, with Sally Swift’s emphasis on the rider and ‘less is more,’ philosophy, and Tom Nagel’s core muscle work. I have been very lucky to learn from so many gifted teachers and I really enjoy sharing this knowledge with riders of all disciplines. Seeing effortless looking riders and relaxed, happy horses is the resulting gift!


Teaching and Training


     Many years ago, when I first began teaching, I met an animal trainer in Florida. He trained large birds for a fantastic act with complex tricks. It was very impressive – but what I really noticed was that he had 6 large birds, sitting on their perches throughout the show. The birds never attempted to leave the perches, (and they could have, they were not fastened to anything) but waited calmly for their turn to show off. After the show I went up to the trainer and asked him “How do you get the birds to stay on their perches?”  His reply was, “Well, when they get off the perch, I put them back on the perch, and when they get off the perch, I put them back

on…..etc”  (You get the idea).


     In one sentence, he had summed up the perfect training philosophy – patience, repetition and reward. This is the philosophy I was taught as a kid with horses. There is no other way. Impatience, frustration, demands and force have no place with any animal. My earliest teacher was a master at “Ride forward, ride straight, be patient.”  Later on, Chuck Grant often told his students, “Ask often, expect little, reward frequently.” There is a common theme here, yes?


     Another mentor was an Australian who taught me his “advance-retreat” training method. He was always calm, grounded, incredibly patient around the horses he worked with. He had unlimited time when it came to training. He would slowly advance with a rope or blanket, wait until the horse was relaxed, then retreat to take the pressure off. (That was the reward) He would repeat this over and over. (Bird on the perch again!) Horses quickly learned that they were never going to be pressured into anything, and would accept all new tack, movements, equipment, mounting and riding, calmly and safely. 


     These kind and fair methods of working with horses were not always the norm. I was so lucky to be around such amazing horsemen and women when I was young. I learned that what works on the ground, will work in the saddle. This approach transfers easily to the saddle. My classical instructors used the same exact methods. Ask, wait for a response, release pressure, ask again. The release tells the horse that he was correct. No judgement is needed.  No ‘outcome’ is expected. Repetition is simply systematic, gradual gymnastic training. All beings learn to enjoy the process thru these methods. 


     To be effective trainers and riders, to use these methods to good effect – we do have to put away ego and agenda. Or “end gaining” as Sally Swift used to say. We are too often caught up in goals and getting something ‘done.’ We think that if we try harder, use more muscle, read more books, go to more clinics, etc. that we will find The Answer. Sally said to her students, “We need to be less busy DO-ing and more busy BE-ing.”


     The principles of ask, release and reward apply to us humans too. It is the best teaching tool that an instructor can have in her pocket.  Every being, 2 or 4 legged, appreciates learning from a patient, positive teacher. None of us learn by being yelled at, drilled to death, or abused. Instead, we love to hear, “good job!” and so do our animal partners.


     One book on my list of good reads is “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” by Karen Pryor. Karen is a trainer of dolphins and early promoter of positive reinforcement training. She writes with humor about training any being positively – (dolphins, dogs, horses, husbands or kids!).  Well worth the read, she sums up in simple style the way we should all live and treat others. 


     The common theme in all my mentors thru my training and riding life has been this same message. It is a pleasure to see my horses, dogs, and students change and grow and enjoy the process while they improve. As the saying goes, “Less truly IS more” and it goes for us all in every part of our daily lives.


    Thank you for visiting my web site.  Enjoy the stories and be sure to watch the slide show!  Your questions and comments are welcome!

Happy Trails!