“I’m excited to join the team here to share riding and training tips, horse care advice, behavioral problems and solutions, and much more with you all. I’m also looking forward to teaching you about my riding system and how it can help further the relationship between you and your horse. Since I’m new to this space, I wanted to let you know a little about my background, horse experiences, and core beliefs when it comes to the relationship between human and horse. Enjoy this interview with Pittsburgh writer and equestrian Sarah Susa, and I look forward to sharing more with you in the future! Keeping it real. ”
SS: When did you fall in love with horses?
EM: Loving horses isn’t a choice. You’re born with it. If you can sit in a field for more than ten minutes and just watch horses eat, you have the horse bug. It’s in your blood. That’s not a normal thing to do.
When I was young, maybe about nine, my neighbors had a pony for their kids. From that moment, until I was well into my teens, I did anything for those neighbors just to spend time with that pony. I cleaned stalls, mowed grass – anything – just to spend time at the barn.
When I was 12, he family bought a horse for their daughter, and so I had unlimited access to the pony that she outgrew, and I rode every day. My favorite cousins lived nearby as well, and we all rode together. My 2 cousins, my sister and I – two horses, two ponies, four little girls. We didn’t have saddles; we rode bareback. I didn’t ride in a saddle until I was 17-18. After you fall off so many times, you learn to stay on!!
The neighbor girls all took lessons with a local, high-level dressage instructor who they went to once a week. I’d go to every lesson I could, just to watch and listen in on their lessons. Then I would go home and practice what I saw them doing on the pony the next time I rode. He was the best-trained backyard pony, leg yielding and changing leads! My foundation, then, I suppose, was a combination of self-taught, bareback dressage!
I give my neighbors so much credit for my riding foundation. They allowed me to learn and experiment. They were so generous with their horses and their facilities. Four of their daughters were older than I was and one younger. When the older girls graduated and went on to college, I became a pseudo-daughter. They allowed me the freedom to ride as much and as long as I wanted to. I can remember times I was out from 7 am to 7pm. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it really is not. I would pack a lunch in my saddle bags, head for Pine Haven or North Park. I would swim the pony in the creek, build a campfire and just hang out with Choco. I was never afraid to be alone- I had “my pony”.
SS: At some point, you must have outgrown the neighbor’s pony. When and how did you get your first horse?
EM: When I was a teenager, I started working at a boarding stable. In addition to cleaning stalls and feeding, boarders would pay me extra to ride their “bad” horses. One woman, for example, paid me $20 if I could get her horse to cross water. I think my actual response to her was, “You’re paying me to ride your horse? Are you kidding me?” I couldn’t believe I was being paid to ride!
While working at that stable, I made friends with the farrier. He did a lot of buying and selling horses and was my mentor for a few summers. He’d buy a horse or a few horses that he thought had potential. I’d buy one from him, ride and show the horse all summer, and sell it hopefully by the end of show season. I would ride about 45 minutes to North Park show ring from the farm in Wexford. Lots of times I had two horses to show; I’d ride one and pony the other one right to the show grounds, show all day and ride home again.
The farrier tried to warn me-he told me repeatedly, “Do NOT get in to the horse business. It’s too hard.”
Then he turned around and sold me another horse.
Skeeter was my first unbroken 2 year old. He was a big Appaloosa, I can remember walking him up to the barn and thinking to myself “What did I just do?” He was my guinea pig – I just started experimenting with him, he kind of trained real easy. He just took the training smoothly. I fell back on a lot of the basics from my secondhand dressage training, and we did a lot of trail riding. He turned out to be a super nice horse. I even kept in touch with his owner and she had him until he passed away at a ripe old age.
SS: Did you ever feel like you were in over your head?
EM: What sixteen year old ever feels over their head? I didn’t ever really see failure as an option. I always thought of problem horses like a puzzle, not a problem. I am a problem solver and seeker of the “why”. Learning to solve the mysteries behind the “problem horses” at the barn, allowed me to begin to understand “bad horses” are not usually bad. They were just misunderstood.
I didn’t have a lot of knowledge, but I was persistent. And my biggest strength was that I could sit a horse! I wasn’t coming off and I loved to get to the root of the problem.
I wore a path in the grass a few feet off English road. I called it my “pony path”. Neighbors would laugh and say, “There goes that little blonde headed girl again”. They would see me canter past their front porches from breakfast to dinner. Many years later I ran into those old neighbors. The first thing they asked me was if I still loved horses, they made a comment on how many times they saw my head blonde head flying past the hedges on that pony. .
Riding at Joyce’s boarding stable gave me the reputation as the girl who would ride the “bad horses”. Ironically, it also taught me that horses aren’t ever truly “bad.” They’re just misunderstood. I now know the true value of putting in the time to figure that out – a lesson that I’m reminded regularly when faced with “problem horses” today!
SS: When did you make the leap from a horse-hobby to a horse-career?
EM: When I was 19, I got a job driving school busses. It came with health benefits, so for a number of years, I had a “dual career” – I drove busses during the school year, and on my evenings, weekends, and full time in the summers, I trained horses, gave lessons, and hosted pony rides and pony birthday parties. I did that for a lot of years.
Teaching riding lessons started by accident. My friends’ kids would show an interest in horses, I’d invite them over, they’d ask, “How do you…” and I sort of started giving informal lessons.
In the 80s, I had another Appy named Wakanda; who would free lunge and do tricks. We used to give demonstrations and shows for local groups and horse clubs. I still run into people every so often that still remember him and the demonstrations. Before clinics were even a “thing,” different groups would invite me to bring my horse and give demonstrations of what he could do, and they always asked how I taught him to do it.
I did a lot of showing at the time, as well, and loved obstacles and the trail class. I’d show, and I’d win, and then people would want to know how I trained my horse to do the obstacles so well. The shift happened very organically – this was long before John Lyons and Parelli and the horse Expo’s became popular– people saw what I was doing and said, “Show me how to do that.” Local horsemen’s associations, 4-H clubs, and other riding groups would invite me out to teach group lessons. Now we’d call them clinics.
I opened a boarding and training stable in Evan’s City in 1985, when I was 21, and ran that for over ten years. In addition to boarding and training, I taught riding lessons, competed, took my clients to shows, and was a 4-H leader. Those were fun, busy times.
SS: How has your career evolved since you first started? How would you describe what you do now?
I do a lot out of my current stable, Saxony Farm – clinics, lessons, training, behavior and pain analysis. I put on clinics and workshops on confidence building, obstacle/trail training, new horse ownership, traveling and camping with horses, and many other topics. I travel a lot, as well; mostly for clinics and expos. I love clinics – working closely with horse and rider pairs; helping riders to better understand their horses, and seeing progress by the end of the clinic – it’s very rewarding.
SS: You mentioned that it’s rewarding to you to help a rider better understand his or her horses. How do you read, so quickly, a horse that you’ve just met? I’ve seen you spend just a few minutes with rescue horses you don’t know, and within a few moments, you seem to “get” them. Would you call this a gift?
EM: I had a horse once that tried to buck me off all the time – it didn’t make sense. He was a nice horse. I tried and tried to figure out what set him off. I figured out that the saddle wasn’t fitting right. After buying 4 different saddles, 6 types of pads and not much luck. I just happened to get one that kinda worked for the moment. I learned about saddle fitting from a colleague, and then I spoke to another friend who was a human chiropractor. He asked if he could work on my horse to see if his back was hurting. That was way before equine chiropractic was a “thing”. He adjusted my horse and “wa-la”. Fixed the bucking.. Now I understand saddle fit, pads and how misaligned horses react to pain. It was all part of the learning process. Now I am NOT saying it was fun, just educational. It took years of frustration and figuring; deducing, trying; watching and listening to put it all together.
My point, here, is that yes; I do think that I have a gift; I think I do have an ability to “see” or “read” horses more intuitively than a lot of people. But, I also know part of it comes from the time I’ve put in to simply watching and learning about horses. The time I’ve put in riding difficult horses, and trying different things to see what works and what doesn’t. And most importantly, the time I’ve spent learning from others. So often in the horse world, we close each other out. Decide it can only be done one way. We need to take in all we can from the people around us, and then we’ll have a toolbox of tricks that we can pull out when we need them. LEARN from OTHERS good or bad, what to do or NOT to do.
I’m NOT the only person who can read horses the way that I do. But it takes patience, and lots of time observing horses to get a more full understanding of how they think – I’ve spent a lot of time watching horses, which has been my greatest asset in what I do now. I’m so glad that my career now gives me the chance to share my knowledge and understanding with people, too – I can teach people how to read their horses’ body language, and how to see their horses more clearly, and become more aware of what their horse needs.
SS: Your riding system, Horses 1-2-3 – Where did that come from? What inspired you to create your own system?
EM: I developed my riding system as a clearer way to get my point across. I realized that when I’m working with horse and rider; I find myself meshing the needs of the horse and rider together. I give the rider instructions based on what the horse needs and at the level, that the rider is able. Not vice versa like many other trainers who think every person can work with any horse. That is NOT possible. I’m molding the rider and the horse together at the level that they are at– it’s an opposite approach, but far more effective than trying to get a 1000 pound animal to bend to the will of a tiny human. If the horse is dangerous to the rider; I tell the rider to sell the horse and get one that is safe! This can cause issues, but the truth does sometime hurt and I am honest about it.
My riding system is based on the same concept – that horses are similar but individual. They have similar learning progression but different time frames. Horses 1-2-3 makes it easy for the rider to understand the WHY and the HOW of what they’re doing, and leave little room for error. Progress when the horse is ready and when the rider understands what they are doing. I’ve made it pretty simple – your leg has three positions; different positions yield different results. I’m showing you what your horses need to be able to do certain maneuvers or skills, and I’m giving you the knowledge and the how-to do it.
It’s a system that makes it easy for the rider to focus on the horse. And the horse, as I’ve learned over the years, is what it’s really all about.
SS: So you started off riding bareback, observing your neighbor’s dressage lessons. Since then, you’ve ridden all sorts of breeds in just about every discipline. Do you have a favorite breed to work with, or style to ride?
EM: I really don’t. And I guess that’s what’s different about me. I appreciate the foundation of dressage and think that those early dressage skills can be used across the board. I like riding western, especially when I’m traveling, camping, and trail riding with my husband and my horses. People that ride in the ring think trail riding is easy. Just try leaving the ring on a horse that has never been out of one. I’ve also worked for an Olympic jumper and have done a lot of low level jumping, and love that; an Arabian breeding operation for a short time and owned my own boarding and training barn; and even competed in a horse reality television show. At the same time I love the challenge of trail classes and obstacle courses. I’ve done some ranch versatility, as well, and enjoyed it, too.
SS: What about a favorite breed?
EM: You’re not going to believe me, but I really don’t have one. I love the color of a beautiful Paint. But I can have as much fun getting a gaited horse to gait well as I can riding a beautiful canter on a Quarter Horse or a gallop across the field. I like them all… and that is my problem.
SS: So how do you decide a horse is a “keeper?” What allows a horse to find a permanent home at Saxony Farm?
EM: There are too many nice horses to keep one that doesn’t fit with my program, or that I don’t really connect with. It’s hard to be a horse at my barn – if I’m going to keep a horse; I have some pretty specific requirements. I don’t fall in love with a horse. It has to earn a stall at my place. I love horses yes; don’t confuse the issue. It takes just as much time and money to feed a good horse as a bad one. Might as well have a good one.
I am drawn to horses that are, first and foremost, independent. I look for one who falls in the middle of the pack, who isn’t attached to his herd, who is a bit of an outlier or a loner – I like a horse who doesn’t need the herd to be secure.
And; I like the quirky ones, I hate to say it. They’re usually the hardest to get along with. You know the ones that always have to be getting into things. They just make the best horses. Quirky horses are the smartest horses. And let’s be honest – a lot of people DON’T want the smartest horses – they’re often hard to handle and harder to figure out. But I want a horse that I can teach to think on its own, so that if a disaster happens, it thinks calmly figures out the safe route and does not panics. Horses like this; you have to earn their respect and trust. I need my horses to respect me and see me as the leader, and horses like this often put up a fight at first, if you do not handle them right, you can make a monster. I see it so often; many trainers bring me these horses to help them figure out what is going on. Trust me TRAINERS bring me horses all of the time. The good trainers admit when they need help and another set of eyes to solve the issue. Old timers used to do this and we need to learn this lesson. It takes time and patience to make a good horse. Most people don’t get along with these horses, and don’t put in the time needed to form that relationship. These horses need a special touch.
SS: So tell me about your “quirkiest” horse.
EM: Quirkiest? That has to be Virgil.
He was a tri-color Paint, named VL’s Mister Buck. Craig and I went to Colorado to visit his brother, Rodger, who raises Paints. Rodger asked if I was ready to buy a horse, and I told him that I really wanted a specific color, and I didn’t think he’d have it. He took me to quite a few places that raised Paint’s. We finally went to Westcliff, Co. to see a fellow named Virgil Lawson. He was quite well known for his paint horses. We walked around the barn and he waved his arm real big. He said if you can’t find it here; it doesn’t exist. Right in front of us were fields full of beautiful horses. There were about 250 horses – the facility was enormous. Horses everywhere, it sure was a sight to behold. .
I was looking for the independent ones, and saw a few that I liked the look of, but I really had my heart set on a buckskin. Rodger said that he had two that I may be interested in. “There’s one,” he said, and painted to a six-month old, never-been-handled buckskin paint lying IN a manure pile. I asked about the other, less poop-covered one, and he showed me a little filly in a round pen. She seemed a little weaker – she had been getting over an illness – and I worried about her making the long drive home.
Rodger ran a few horses in a pen for me, and the poop horse was just a little goofy. That sold me on him. We settled on him and another six-month old filly that had also never been handled. We got them on to the trailer and drove them home.
When we got back to the farm, I spent about five minutes with the filly and had a halter on her for the first time.
That little buckskin gelding; the poop horse, took two and a half hours. He was tricky, that guy. My husband looked at me and said, “We’ve got ourselves a colt.”
Next we had to name him. I started out calling him Heath, but that never seemed to fit. Then one day, I just said how about calling him Virgil. It would be twofold name. One as a commemoration of Virgil Lawson his breeder; the other kind of metaphorically puts me in mind of a lanky prankster. So, that settled it; I put Virgil in a box stall until he willingly connected with me. He’d never been handled before coming to Pennsylvania, so this was the closest I could get to “imprinting” a 6 month old unruly stud colt. It took him about two weeks to warm up. But after that, he was all mine.
At two, I started to ride Virgil, but he was just too immature. He’d buck his way into a canter, every time. He needed to grow up some. Smart horses mature very late, but you have to at least get them broke young – I rode him just enough to keep him going, but knew that I couldn’t push him or it would backfire on me. I just took it slow and he did great.
I concentrated on the filly, and started doing ranch versatility with her. I rode then with girl named Stacey Westfall, before she became famous. The filly was coming along nicely, and I enjoyed my time with her and Stacy and her family were genuinely nice people.
When Virgil turned four in 2006, I signed him up for the new craze called extreme cowboy race. It was at Equine Affaire in Columbus; a timed competition to work through a variety of very difficult obstacles. It seemed like a perfect match for Virgil’s brains and attention deficit disorder! That winter, I started to push him for the first time – we worked every obstacle that I could think of, and he thrived on the challenge.
Equine Affaire was his first time off the farm, let alone the first time at a show. He was a champ. He loved the newness of being away from home, and was curious about everything. No problems with traffic, horses, obstacles, anything. He loved his “adventure.”
He was 11th out of 50 horses, and I was so proud of him. But I was more proud of how totally un-phased, and how utterly curious, he was at every aspect of his new environment. He kept on like this, too. He was the same horse, any time, anywhere. He’d get off a trailer and make himself at home, wherever he was. As long as he was with me, he was like, We’re home! Now what adventure awaits us?!”
That horse… I had originally wanted to name him something sleek or elegant, but he was a goober and Virgil was a goober name, and it just fit him. Once we connected, that was it – he just always wanted to be with me. He made such faces – he’d always be sticking out his tongue, or chewing on his lead rope. He was such a goof, but he was so smart in his dorkiness, and was always up for new things, he could even blow lip farts! Can you imagine it? A horse blowing lip farts and bubbles from his mouth, it always drew attention when he made that noise. He could do it for hours. I’ve never had another horse as brave, as smart, as curious, or as interested in life and the world around him as Virgil.
SS: Sounds like Virgil was your “heart horse.” But what about the man who has your heart? How did you find a man as crazy about horses as you?
EM: It wasn’t luck. It was careful planning.
I was married before Craig. My first husband pretended to like horses for me. It didn’t work. Note to any horse crazy person out there! If you LOVE horses- men will be jealous if they do not understand the love for a horse.
I have requirement for my horses, and I had requirements for my husband, as well.
When I was open for meeting men again, I had three criteria: He had to own a horse, a truck, and a trailer. It was a deal-breaker if my future husband didn’t love horses. I wanted to make sure this time that his interest was already there before I came in to the picture.
If it matters to you that your partner share your passion for riding, make sure they’re already into horses. It’s the only way to guarantee they’re not just putting on an act. I’d give that advice to anyone, and will talk to anyone’s daughter abut it.
I met Craig through a mutual friend who knew that we both had horses. Craig’s family was into horses. He showed Appys when he was younger, and when I met him he was actively showing and had a team of Belgian draft horses as well. His father Glenn Montgomery is well known in the Belgian horse world for his breeding of “Jay Lou Supreme” the horse that changed the Belgian breed into what it is today.
Our relationship works because we both understand the work that is involved. The horses come before… well… us. He’s an integral part of my life, and my business. He’s my true partner. We love vacationing together and taking our horses along – not many people can say that about their partner. He’s interested in getting more into Reiner’s, but right now we love to travel across America trail riding together.
SS: So Craig’s clearly lucky enough to live here. What four-leggeds currently have the privilege of living at Saxony Farm?
EM: My current horse is Avatar. Virgil died young and unexpectedly, and the fact that Avatar is related to Virgil definitely caught my interest. I bought him in Colorado where he was mostly stalled because he couldn’t play well with others in the field. No one – horse or human – really got along with him. He’s quirky, too. We get along.
Colonel is Craig’s horse. We bought him to resell, but we liked his personality enough that Craig decided he could stay. He’s independent and easy going, and just a pleasure to have around. Craig really likes him.
And Jacques is here, too, for life. He’s my first long-term keeper. I got him when he was five. He wasn’t broke, though he had broken two trainers (an arm and a collarbone) and had a reputation for being crazy. He was originally sent here by his owner to figure out what was going on with him. I had a feeling he was a good horse, and didn’t know why he was bucking everyone off. Part of my journey with Jacques was figuring out what was wrong with him. I gave him space to be himself, asked for his respect, and we clicked. A few weeks in, I offered to buy him, and he’s been here ever since. You want to talk about quirkiness – he used to swim across the previous owner’s farm as a baby and run loose down the road and earned him the name Jacques as in “Jacques Cousteau” if you are old enough to remember the famous marine biologist. He’s almost 34 now, and starting to show his age, but he gave me so much in his life that I owe him his retirement here with us.
Life is an Adventure, Saddle up and Ride!
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