Versatility Training for Equines

Local mountains are a beckoning welcome with their Spring greens and the promise of wildflowers, so who wants to ride their horse round and round in a show ring – even for a blue ribbon?

The answer Two Tone Ranch trainer and clinician Dennis Schoonderwoerd has discovered is fewer and fewer Santa Ynez Valley riders. Instead, whether it’s in pursuit of competition or just for fun, the trend is toward horse versatility training – which means developing expertise in navigating the myriad of unexpected obstacles found around working ranches or out on the local trials.

The Versatility Ranch Horse events are comprised of five classes, said Schoonderwoerd. He focuses his training on the Ranch Riding, the Ranch Conformation and the Ranch Trail classes. It was the later which was the subject of his most recent clinic, hosted by Ceila Westbury for the Santa Ynez Valley Fillies riding club on Richard and Sharon Kline’s Rancho San Lorenzo ranch this past February 1st in Los Alamos.

Over the course of the last year the Kline’s and Schoonderwoerd have built a wide variety of obstacles for horse and rider to navigate: from the teeter-totter bridge to the water-box and the cowboy curtain to the box of bones. More than a dozen unique obstacles speckle the lush pasture shared with calmly grazing cattle. “They were overwhelmed with the variety of trail obstacles, which was good,” says Schooderwoerd of the ladies who came out to ride and learn.

Sharon Kline’s goal was not so much to prepare for a competition but to improve her riding skills. “I used to ride in high school,” she said with a smile. But she and her aging horses were out of practice. “My goal was just to be a better rider, but I got a lot of other benefits as well.”

Schoonderwoerd began this clinic as he often begins the training of his horses – from the ground. Explaining to participants the concept of the direct-and-drive method. He explained that horses can be trained to handle obstacles from the ground before they are broke to ride. “But even seasoned horses benefit when their riders take the time to teach them first from the ground. In fact, the risk of injury to both can be reduced by almost 90 percent by doing so” explained Schoonderwoerd.

But the 15 or so pairs of horse and rider were eager to give the trail course a go, and spread out to try their hand at the carefully crafted tasks set out for them. “It’s cool because it develops the trust between you and horse,” said Ellen Levine, who attended the clinic. “Every bit of this was new to me.”

In addition to the Fillies, Schoonderwoerd has conducted clinics for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department Mounted Unit, the Saddle Skirts and the Santa Maria Valley 4-H Club and is available for both private and group lessons. Once an avid competitor, Schoonderwoerd now focuses on getting locals ready to compete.

Schoonderwoerd developed his training system which he will present in a series of clinics to be held locally. As the son of a dairy rancher, he began riding at age five and has spent a lifetime learning both hands-on and from other experts. He tailors his classes to meet the specific needs of his riders and the concerns that arise in the Santa Ynez Valley.

For example, in the Ranch Trail class at the Fiesta Stock Horse Show, riders must demonstrate their horse’s willingness to perform seven tasks often encountered during the course of a normal work day. Three are mandatory: opening, passing through, and closing a gate; dragging a log; and dismounting to unbridle and re-bridle their horse, before remounting to complete the course.

The other requirements change from one competition to another, but often include crossing a water hazard or bridge, side passing over a log, putting on a slicker from one spot to another or roping a stationary object.

“You never know what you are going to be asked to do until you arrive at a show,” said Schoonderwoerd, just like you have no idea what hindrances lie ahead when venturing out in the wilds. He likes his students to learn the skills necessary to assist them with whatever they have to face. Knowing how to help your horse face the unusual is the key.

“I’m learning what I need to practice on in the future,” said Lynn Kirst, a charter member of the Fillies who was gaining her first introduction to Schoonderwoerd’s methods. “It was a very positive experience. I’d like to work with Dennis again.”

Kim Gahan found the clinic helpful. “Dennis really knows what he is doing – he is very thorough,” she said.

By and large, the teams were able to navigate most of tasks they faced, but all riders left with an approach that will assist the horses to trust them as they face the unknown. “For me, it’s not always about the final product the day of the clinic,” said Schoonderwoerd. “It’s about making progress.” To that end, with local competitions scheduled for July and August, now is the time to prepare.

Upcoming Schoonderwoerd clinics will be held on March 16 for the Santa Ynez Valley Riders, for their competition held April 27. And on May 18, the Fillies will hold a Ranch Trail Competition for members and their guests. For more information, Schoonderwoerd can be reached at Two Tone Ranch (805) 452-9361.


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