Give Peace A Chance - In STRIDE

By Su Zi

Katie Pell and Roxton, the horse she trained while riding as a junior in STRIDE shows. Katie is now attending the University of Findley, Ohio under an equestrian emphasis, hoping to make horses her life's work.


Oh, how ancestral people revered the horse. Even in modern times, horses are still seen as mystical, as beautiful. It should be no surprise that many people describe their relationship with their horses as a partnership. Such people are unashamed of the sensuality and spirituality of their kinship with horses; their choice is towards a peaceable way of being.


The peaceful equestrian does not want to coerce the horse. Currently, peace-based equine education programs graduate thousands of people and their horses. These horse-human couples have voice, and can have impact upon all the communities in which they live and work. Some of these peaceful partners are backyard-based; some are famous folk with large scale equestrian operations. It is no longer excusable to be cruel to horses, because holistic horse care is no longer marginalized.

One group of horse lovers has created a positive community, a club that includes the show ring and the discipline of dressage. Known for its rigor and precision, dressage has Olympic status. Oftentimes, dressage is seen as similar to ballet. Blending the athletic with the aesthetic, both ballet and dressage have ideals of exactness. In addition, both ballet and dressage are classical art forms that provide endless challenge for those who choose them. Dressage may be difficult, but it is also enjoyable. Of the five dressage club members spoken with (through telephone and personal interviews) regarding their club, each equestrian mentioned the word "fun."

The club is a local Group Member Organization of the United States Dressage Federation. GMO members receive a USDF Group Member card and eligibility to compete at USDF-recognized shows. This local organization calls itself STRIDE, an acronym for Striving Toward Rider Instruction and Dressage Education. As an organization, STRIDE hosts schooling shows and educational clinics, including a February weekend with Dr. Max Gahwyler that was also open to non-members of the club. In all comments made in separate (in one case, dual) conversations, these women spoke of the necessity for education and the necessity of fun in their club endeavors.

"That's what we try to do: have fun. There's more backyard people and trainers with young horses that come to our shows…and we have fun," said Irene Gentile from her business, The Eclectic Equestrian, of Belleview, Florida, on a Saturday afternoon this past January. Irene's boutique offers consignments of all equine disciplines. During the course of that afternoon, Irene hosted two young riders, a customer in search of chaps, and her friend, STRIDE member Lisa Sutton.

"I start all my babies and bring them there [to STRIDE shows]," said Lisa. "I take all my young horses to the STRIDE shows before I take them to the big shows. They should have fun." Horses having fun at horse shows is a challenging idea that was also mentioned by another area equestrian. In a telephone interview, STRIDE association founder Lynne Sheppard also mentioned horses having fun at horse shows: "I did some show announcing and I'd watch these people and the horses were so unhappy. And then, when I came back to STRIDE, it was obvious that both horses and riders were having fun. You do have to work hard, but it should be fun." Commenting further about the tensions of the show ring, Lynne said, "Regardless of adversity, people [need to] keep their sense of humor…you can still have a good time."

Some skeptics may wonder about the credibility of an equestrian association so ready for a good giggle. STRIDE's peace-based priority was certified by the presence of equine folk hero Pat Parelli at STRIDE's year end Yuletide party. "I invited Parelli to the STRIDE Christmas party; I had asked him for a door prize," said Irene Gentile. "We're working to get a STRIDE clinic that's a Parelli [educational clinic]. He's got the system where you can learn it and be wise, from kids to adults." Other STRIDE members also spoke of Parelli methodology. Judy Downer, in a telephone interview, said, "I do believe in his principles and I respect him for the education he offers to the horse sport."

The connection between education and community was repeated by all STRIDE members. Judy Downer called STRIDE "more of a grassroots organization" and said she found the community interaction "refreshing. We enjoy the opportunity for social interaction… I think that's what makes STRIDE unique." Although Judy has a PhD in animal science, she says her education was not only "prompted by having horses in my life, but also prompts my contribution to STRIDE regarding the USDF L judge certification program. My scores [at STRIDE shows judged by L judge graduates] are very comparable to what I see in the recognized shows," she said. Also speaking about STRIDE's educational partnership with USDF, former STRIDE president Loretta Lucas said, "We sponsored the USDF L judging program this year and were USDF volunteer riders for instructor certification." An educator with a BA in environmental biology, Loretta said, "STRIDE is a place to come and have fun and become better horsepeople. People who come to STRIDE say what a fun bunch of people we are. People from other clubs cannot get over how unpretentious we are. I've shown at rated shows and they're not club-run shows. A rated show is a giant thing and there are friendly people you don't know and there are big trainers and some of them are snotty. One of the things STRIDE does is encourage people going to a rated show to stall together and we provide a tack stall so we still have a sense of community."

In addition to fun and community, STRIDE members also mentioned the holistic well-being of the horses they adore. Judy Downer included praise in her method for keeping horses healthy and happy, saying "I think a lot of people fail to praise the horse enough." She also says she included massage and acupuncture, and is proud of her 19-year-old Grand Prix horse for being off painkillers and "doing well". Loretta Lucas noted how even "average dressage magazines are full of ads and articles" regarding alternative therapies, which she says "definitely have a place". Loretta also mentioned a STRIDE clinic on acupuncture and lameness; she has acupuncture treatments for her own horse. Noting "the true dressage aficionado is really focused on the betterment of the horse," Loretta further stated, "The very essence of dressage is bringing out the best in the horse. I think that's what draws people to it: bringing out the beauty, elegance and natural splendor."

Of the STRIDE members, Irene Gentile is a whole-hearted devotee of peace-based equine care taking: "I do as much as I can homeopathically. I went back to [feeding] whole oats, corn, barley, flaxseed, garlic, pro-biotic and diatomaceous earth. I have a 27-year-old thoroughbred and she's still spry. I did go back to the corn, barley and oats because I had a horse with hives because of the sugars…it's these sugars. I totally believe horses are grazers and they live on good grass. You get good quality hay and they don't need to gorge on grain." Irene hand mixes a week's feed at a time for the baker's dozen of large and small horses on her farm.

For STRIDE founder Lynne Sheppard, holistic methods led to her own re-education and a change of life path: she now has certification for human wellness and operates the Whole Health Institute in Belleview, Florida. Speaking of how the horses in her life gave her this impetus, Lynne said: "I was also involved with the equine insurance industry. People would file 'loss of use' and the horse would be destroyed. That's how I began to learn about Bach flower [remedies] and homeopathy. These horses began to come back sound." Lynne further discussed the horse-human partnership when she said, "it is empowering to direct a horse, to tune in, getting deeper into your body and connecting with your horse."

Throughout all these conversations, STRIDE members spoke of commitments to community, education and pleasure, from the perspectives of horse and human. These STRIDE members participate in events with their equine partners beyond the STRIDE community as well. Likewise, STRIDE clinics are open to the public. They welcome a variety of ideas of peace-based horsemanship. Lynne mentioned involving various kinds of horses: "Any horse could do well if they were ridden well and ridden properly." There are many mixed-breed, backyard horses brought to STRIDE events. Many STRIDE members have background experience with a variety of horse types, dispelling the notion that all dressage horses are imported royalty. "Not all our members' horses are dressage stars. Some members ride mules too," said Loretta Lucas. When Irene Gentile and Lisa Sutton discussed dressage driving, Lisa commented, "I tell people and their eyes light up, especially if you can get a pony." Ponies can be dressage horses too!

What's good for the horse is good for the spirit. No STRIDE member contradicted the peace-based practice of their horse-human partnership. Saying "Horses are what make me who I am," Judy Downer continued with "they weave in and out of my professional and personal life; spiritually they give me encouragement and the release from the pressures of my life."

STRIDE was formed from a core of fifteen equestrians in 1987 who saw the need for their own community; an association who "wanted their horses to be the best they could be" as Lynne Sheppard says. Whatever the level of ability -- of horse or human -- it is possible to experience community without sacrifice of peace-based, holistic practice. "It is my great hope and honest desire," said Lynne Sheppard, "that STRIDE continues to be a beacon to the rest of the dressage community; it is about education and about having fun."

Regardless of the shape of the saddle, or even the presence of the saddle, community is possible. Formed on a premise of peace and holistic practice, these communities add to the voices resisting cruel methods. Such voices cause positive change. Such communities embrace the sacred and spiritual relationship between horse and human. In this way, there is an honoring of the mystical beauty the ancient humans revered. Such communities are at hand, watching and waiting at their pasture gate.

About the author:

Su Zi lives in Ocala, Florida and spent many years working as a groom and barn manager. Now, the horses she takes care of are her own.

For more information:

You can form a grass-roots peace-based organization in your area, whether or not it is affiliated with the USDF.

USDF Group Membership (GM) is obtained by joining a USDF Group Member Organization (GMO). Each GMO sends a roster of members along with appropriate dues to USDF. The USDF Group Membership year is April 1-March 31.