I was introduced to Heidi Potter at Dressage show Memorial Weekend in 2016. This was the first time I had ever seen Western Dressage. I decided to interview Heidi recently for an article for Mane Stream newspaper. Heidi is a professional horsewoman, CHA Certified Instructor and Accredited Horse Agility Trainer in Guilford, VT.
Q: How and when did you get your start with horses?
HP: I think I was born with a love for horses. I lived in a city neighborhood but always dreamt of having my own horse. At the age of six I began riding at a friend’s farm and a couple years later began trail riding at a stable in a nearby country town. My dream of owning a horse became a reality when I was 12 and we moved to that town. I had saved up $350 by then and it was enough to purchase my dream horse, Thunder, whom I had been trail riding on at a local ranch. Thunder was a 16-hand, pure white, grade gelding that was likely an Appendix Quarter Horse. I loved his look, his size and his speed.
Q: What certifications do you have?
HP: Certified Centered Riding Level III Clinician; CHA (Certified Horsemanship Association) Master Instructor and Clinician, HAAT (Horse Agility Accredited Trainer) with the International Horse Agility Club of Devon, England; Horse Speak Apprentice
Q: What accomplishments do you have?
HP: I hold the rank of Shodan (Black Belt) in Shorin Ryu Karate-traditional Okinawan Art of Self-Defense. I mention this because so much of my practice as a Holistic Style Trainer and Centered Riding Clinician are based on applying the Eastern philosophies of Mindfulness, Breathing, Centering and Grounding for overall physical, mental, emotional and spiritual balance.
2010 CHA Clinic Instructor of the Year Award
2010 Reserve Champion New England Stock Horse Show Green Horse Division
2010 Division Champion & Overall High Point Reserve Champion, North Brookfield;
Eastern Regional Obstacle/Trail Ride (2nd out of 130 competitors)
2016 & 2017 North American Western Dressage Open Division Champion for Intro Level
Q: Who is your mentor?
HP: Cathy Drumm is my primary Western Dressage coach and instructor. Cathy was referred to me by a friend that had gotten involved in Western Dressage and rode with Cathy. Knowing my training and teaching philosophies she felt that we would work well together. For the last few years I have enjoyed studying, working and showing with Cathy. She is a very knowledgeable and supportive coach. I have also ridden a fair amount with Michelle Taylor, a traditional Dressage Trainer, whose commitment to pushing Riley and I to the next level is always appreciated.
Q: Where do you want to go with your discipline?
HP: As far as time and Riley’s ability will take us. My goal is always to help Riley become stronger and fitter. As a big, long horse with an easy going personality it can be challenging at times to convince him that going to the “gym” is really necessary. It is always important to me that I balance work with fun and variety for both our sakes. We do much of our training in the surrounding fields and trails to keep it more interesting for both of us.
Q: What do you get the most pleasure out of when training a horse or a person?
HP: My passion is to help improve the relationship between horses and their humans. I am committed to helping people better understand their horses, what they value and what is needed to help them get past problems and enjoy a safer, more enjoyable relationship. I get the most pleasure out of seeing how far they can come in our time together.
Q: What is holistic horsemanship?
HP: My holistic approach to horses has evolved over a lifetime of caring for, riding, living with and working with horses. In my quest for knowledge I studied under many different trainers with a focus on “Natural Horsemanship”. After years of study I still felt like something was missing. I could get horses to do what I wanted them to do but felt that the relationship with the horse was lacking. I didn’t want a trained robot. I wanted a willing, happy, interested, invested partner. One that wanted to stay when turned back out to the herd.
Observing them in their natural state offers us a deeper understanding of how they achieve leadership and co-exist in a harmonious, peaceful way. We don’t see them repeatedly disengaging one another’s haunches or driving each other in circles. They communicate with amazing subtlety, releasing the request and returning to a neutral emotional and physical state the moment the request is granted. What they really value is harmony and peace in herd.
These thoughts led me to move away from round pen training and some of the techniques I had long studied and used. In my search for the “missing link” in how to build safe, trusting and enjoyable relationships I discovered Piet Nibbelink, a student of Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling. Piet opened my mind to a different way of “being” with horses, one where the horse truly has a choice. The round pen became a picadero (square pen) and the work became mostly at liberty. Then, much like my training in Traditional Martial Arts and as a Centered Riding© Clinician, the focus was first on the human. The depth of mindfulness needed to find success in the picadero was refreshing and challenging. The horses were speaking very clearly, offering responses to the most subtle movements or energy from the human. They were given corners to go into whenever they felt a need to disconnect. Re-establishing connection led to a deeper level of awareness and technical knowledge regarding movement, motion, energy, expression, and positioning between horse and human. Horses were not directed or corrected by the use of ropes, sticks, whips or flags. In this particular work we held a rope down by our sides but rarely used it. We were taught to use all of our natural aides before ever lifting the rope.
If things weren’t working it was time to step back, turn away and figure out what YOU did wrong and what YOU had to do differently. This gave the horse the space and time needed to begin a new lesson, for he was our teacher. Learning is difficult, if not impossible, when the horse (or human) is feeling threatened, being chased or is frightened. Creating a calm environment is the top priority in developing a trusting relationship.
In late 2016 I was introduced to Sharon Wilsie through her book “Horse Speak.” Sharon’s work offered even further clarity on what horses truly value and perceive, and what is really natural behavior in the herd. Her lessons have brought me to a deeper understanding of myself and how to better communicate with horses in a way that makes sense to them. The results of this work and sharing it have been very rewarding. It has brought about some amazing changes in horses, their humans and in the relationships they share.
We will always need knowledge, tools, techniques and skills to communicate to the horse about movement, boundaries, leadership and partnership. As their keepers it is our responsibility to support their well-being in all ways, for only then can we create more safe and enjoyable interactions for both the horse and the human. My responsibility and commitment is to meet them where they are, in that moment, and offer them compassion and understanding so that trust can grow.
Q: Is there ever an untrainable horse or person?
HP: I find that if someone chooses to work with me either in a clinic format or for private lessons or training they are open to what I have to share. I never consider a person “untrainable”. What they take from me is up to them. I haven’t run across a horse that couldn’t be helped, at least to some extent.
For more information visit www.heidipotter.com