Lessons from Lead Mares

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This article won the 2021 GMO Newsletter Award for a first person article for GMOs with 75-174 members. It originally appeared in the North Woods Dressage Association newsletter, NWDA Accent, June 2021.

By Bridgi Pajunen

In April of 2021 I had the opportunity to spend time at beautiful Solstice Ranch in Ocoee, Tennessee. I studied with Aimee Brimhall McCord, a horsewoman with a rich equestrian background. Since 2006 she has been developing her own educational program, Inspirational Horse. Rooted in her childhood love of horses, Inspirational Horse has grown out of her own study with some of the world’s most diverse and accomplished equestrians.

I heard about Aimee many years ago at a Karen Rohlf Dressage Naturally clinic. Karen spoke highly of Aimee and indicated that she had special, perhaps discomforting, abilities. Aimee understands what science is starting to demonstrate. Horses can sense the electromagnetic field of the human heart from 50 feet away. Horses read our intentions more accurately than other humans. Horses seek harmony with other horses (and humans) by communicating their intentions through body language.

I sought Aimee out because for the past five years I have been trying to create a harmonious relationship with my Trakehner mare, Rey. When Rey became my equine partner I was hopeful that, based on her prior training and athleticism, we would progress through the levels of dressage with ease. But horses, being the magnificent teachers they are, keep showing me what I don’t know. Rey is no exception.

Aimee explained the basic ethology of horses in herds. In nature, herds are made up of individual horses with different roles that allow the herd to function. Similar to birth order, horses are born into these roles and do not change throughout their lifetime.

Equine herds are made of passive, dominant and lead animals. A passive horse seeks comfort by following along. Dominant horses are inclined to play physical dominance games. Lead horses are born with an awareness that keeps the herd safe. They are not born followers and are less likely to spend energy in play. The comfort of a lead horse is dependent upon the attentiveness of the herd and the herd’s responsiveness to the lead’s signals. Aimee explained that the body language used by horses in each of these roles is unique to that role.

So when I first met Aimee in the Summer of 2020 and she identified Rey as a lead mare, it was a bit of a relief. I had learned to be the one standing still during the game of who moves whose feet. And up until I met Rey, that had worked pretty well to establish my leadership with horses. But Aimee explained that this kind of dominance cannot establish ‘leadership’ with a horse whose nature is to be the leader and whose body language is far more subtle.

On the first morning we were in the 100-foot round pen and Aimee was facing my horse and me. She started to talk about the red-winged blackbird nearby. Suddenly I saw it, perched on a post in front of me but behind Aimee. This was my first lesson in the quality of awareness of a lead mare, and where it gets a little hard to put into words the things that Aimee understands and teaches.

The lecture portion of our sessions took place in the barn in front of a white board hanging across from the young horses’ stalls (so they could study the lessons on their own time!). Illustrations on the board depicted the energetic ‘bubbles’ around horses and humans. Our awareness of these bubbles and their interactions is at the core of our communication with horses. Aimee explained that lead horses especially appreciate conversations about energetic space and can be very sensitive to physical aids. In nature, it would be rare for a herd member to engage a lead horse in physical dominance games.

From the white board we would move on to three kinds of exercises:

LIBERTY We played with the invisible connection between the horse and the human without the use of halter or rope. Aimee teaches games that test this connection and ultimately strengthen it by setting up situations for the horse to use its mind and instincts to identify the human as their herd.

GROUND WORK (IN HAND) Aimee often uses a cavesson. She has developed her own prototype for use with a rope halter, the feel of which she prefers. The cavesson is less likely to result in the bracing, twisting, and imbalance that can inadvertently occur with the use of a traditional halter, with the lead rope attached under the chin.

Any dressage enthusiast would recognize the ‘in hand’ exercises that Aimee teaches. They included lateral movements to enhance upward and downward transitions, hindquarter engagements through use of transitions on the wall, and exercises that help create an active halt on a circle, to name a few.

But in Aimee’s world the exercises have a different feel. The horses arrive at the same place I’ve seen in classical work in hand, but Aimee emphasizes the use of a mental preview (envisioning the result and embodying that preview in the space we are sharing with our horse), rather than being quick to use the tools as mechanical, physical aids.

RIDING Aimee patiently and meticulously observed the state of our dressage. She was able to identify the subtle but critical areas of discomfort my horse displayed under saddle. We played with breathing and posture. I experienced moments of freedom of movement in my horse (Rhythm and Relaxation) that I can truly say I have been seeking for five years. She also allowed me to try different bits from her collection.

During my time at Solstice Ranch I had the privilege of observing Aimee’s interactions with her own horses. The young Nokota Mustangs are blank slates. She talks about herself as a mad scientist, able to experiment with a different way of starting them. The Nokotas appear to be enormously happy with the experiment and have beautifully developed top lines even as young and as yet unridden horses.

And then, on a morning without a lesson, I spent time giving my horse a spa and exploring the mouth and neck releases I was taught. Leilani, Aimee’s lovely and talented intern, came by the grooming aisle and we talked about life while Rey yawned and yawned and yawned—the sign of a good spa, I think.

I still have dressage goals with my horse. I would like to ride a first or second level test at one of our NWDA schooling shows this Summer. I am committed to the physical well-being of my horse, who was not put on Earth to carry a rider. Correct dressage training will help me fulfill that commitment.

But after spending time with Aimee Brimhall McCord, I see that access to my horse’s relaxed physical body and all of her athletic splendor has to be secondary. In the end, what I learned is that there are invisible rungs beneath what appears to be the bottom of the training scale. Those rungs are Understanding and Communication. And they are key ingredients for me to achieve the Rhythm and Relaxation that are the foundation to dressage.

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