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Laurie Scott: Teaching more than how to stay in the saddle

By Carla Befara

Published in Ride! Magazine December 2001

She can “talk to animals”— or perhaps more accurately, she listens very carefully. Corporate CEOs, pediatricians, psychologists and software engineers pay Laurie Scott to teach them interspecies communication, and her students are coming away with a bonus: a heightened ability to communicate with their own kind, as well.

Horse and people trainer par excellence

In her role as horse trainer/riding instructor, Scott coaxes both stubborn horses and hardheaded executives through their paces. A former jockey, who received her dressage training under famed British Dressage Team coach Jane Bartle-Wilson, Scott’s home base is in the north Bay Area, where she is highly regarded (which is no small feat in a region that may feature more trainers per capita than any other in the state). She also travels south three days a week to the Peninsula, where she takes appreciative clients through rigorous workouts at Webb Ranch in Portola Valley, Calif.

Why do high-powered industry leaders don breeches and take a pounding from this diminutive dynamo? There are certainly more convenient ways to get exercise. But in addition to a good cardio workout, Laurie’s students find they are gathering tips that help in everything from treating patients to managing employees to getting the upper hand in business negotiations. Some are picking up new parenting techniques. All walk away with radically different body awareness.

In my case, the correlation between horse riding and life skills become apparent almost immediately. After an eight-year absence from riding due to child rearing, I had brought my daughter to Webb Ranch for her first lessons.

Lessons for Lily, Mom

While Lily, my daughter, banged her tiny boots against the sides of a Buckskin mare that hardly knew she was up there, I moseyed over to the next riding arena and eavesdropped on one of Laurie’s adult lessons. What I heard intrigued me.

“Where are your hands?” Laurie asked, and the rider looked down helplessly, as if those bent wrists and raised elbows belonged to someone else. “Can you feel him tensing his neck against you? Try straightening your wrists and then softening the inside rein.”

“That’s it!” she crowed a minute later, as the horse obediently dropped its head into a nice rounded form. “Did you feel that?” As I eased closer and continued to listen in, she gently coaxed the student to notice what her own body was doing, and to feel how the horse was responding, cheering when a correction brought about a positive effect.

Something about this compact, auburn-haired instructor’s style fascinated me. After her lesson was over, I sidled up and asked if she was accepting new students. She eyed me askance, kicked the ground once with the toe of her paddock boot, and finally blurted out, “You know, I don’t work well with everybody. I have my own style.”

Only a little daunted, I stood my ground: “I know you do. I’ve been listening.” This response seemed to meet with her approval, and a slow grin spread across her face. My lessons with Laurie Scott began the next week.

I learned quickly that her lessons begin before mounting and continue well after the horse is untacked. Her years as a jockey and exercise rider at the track, where horses are often green or highly charged (or both), have ingrained in Laurie a deep respect for safety, and she brooks no lapse in horse care.

I preened when she admired my thoroughness in picking out hooves both before and after the lesson, and cringed when she noticed--- from across the yard, no less--- how I clumsily missed at my first attempt to bridle a head-tossing Quarter Horse. “I can see we’ll need to review tacking procedures,” she said. Every step began with safety issues and concluded with the horse’s comfort.

Be clear and assertive, never aggressive

Once in the saddle (after a short lesson in landing softly on the horse’s back), Laurie stressed that providing clear signals must start immediately, not after we’d entered the ring, but within the first steps away from the mounting block.

“You HAVE to be clear, and assertive,” she instructed. “It’s a matter of safety, so you don’t get run off with. Plus, it will make the next hour MUCH more enjoyable for both you and the horse.” (Hmmmm, this reminded me of my daughter’s first-grade teacher, who quietly maintained the most beautifully behaved class I’d ever seen. When I asked her secret, she told me it was vital to firmly establish the rules during the first week of school. “It’s really self-defense: I have to live with these kids for nine months,” she explained, “and how well they understand the rules makes all the difference between a year of struggle and a year of fun.”)

Laurie is quick, however, to point out the difference between assertive and aggressive: “To me, assertive is making your expectations clear, so you and the horse work as a team. Aggressive is using hostility, trying to bend the horse to your will using force. Yanking on the bit, or using a whip for punishment, makes me sick to my stomach.”

Laurie continued: “Remember, whenever possible, less is more. The quieter you talk, the harder he will listen.” Laurie also explained that using excessive leg cues was just like yelling all the time.

Gently punching my arm, she said, “If I keep banging away here, you’ll lose all sensitivity--- or hit me back!”

“But,” I sputtered. I was trying to move around a lot of horseflesh, wasn’t I?

“Try it,” she urged. I oh-so-gently laid my leg on, and the horse stepped nimbly away from it, like magic.

Laurie smiled. “Then, if you do have to nudge harder, he can sense the added urgency.”

Was this patently obvious? Yes. Did I need to be told? Uh, yes. Did it conjure images of my kids tuning me out when I raised my voice, or nagged over and over? Well, maybe a little.

In the ring, her corrections ran the gamut, from exasperated (“Your right hand is doing something really ugly right now!”) to gentle, if somewhat school-marmish reminders. “Where is your outside leg?” she would ask, and when I gamely ventured, “Uh, attached to my hip?” the response was a meaningful silence.

I eventually learned to notice just what that errant leg or twisted wrist was doing. It was astonishing to learn that most of the time I didn’t have a clue what my appendages were up to. It was less surprising to make the direct connection between my lack of body awareness and my mount’s inability to respond. I slowly began to get the message: Figure out what you are “telling” the horse, and start listening more carefully to what it is telling you.

As this awareness dawned, so did the realization that almost all her comments could just as easily be tips on parenting: “Did you give him the time to respond to the first cue, before you repeated it?” (Gee, I…)

“Are you praising every time he gets it right?” (Well, I was planning to…)

“If you skip steps, it will show up later.” (That pretty much sums up child-rearing.)

“You know, horses are quick learners. If you get them to do something right five or six times, they’ve learned it! Of course, if you let them do it wrong, they’ll learn that, too.” (Ulp…)

Any of this sound familiar? Do we remember to praise our kids for each tiny right step? Do we give them a chance to respond, before we nag gain? Do we (OK, do I) send out a mixed message? Is it sometimes tempting to let an infraction slide in order to avoid a confrontation?

You get the picture, as did I in pretty short order. I also noticed that most of these skills were just as applicable at my office—praising my staff would reinforce behavior much better than reprimands. And starting off with a new client from a position of strength would keep me in the driver’s seat better than wrestling for control later. And so forth.

After a few months, I was curious to see whether Laurie’s other students were finding that their equine skills carried over into life in the two-legged world. With a bit of nosing around, my hunch was confirmed.

Disciples of Scott’s

Laurie’s roster of students ranges from horse owners looking to improve their relationships with their own mounts (these are the only types of students she accepts in the North Bay), to new and returning adult riders that train on “lesson horses” or their own mounts at Webb Ranch.

Although she accepts the rare, precociously mature child, the majority of her pupils are adults. They have started riding as late as 57 years of age, and run the gamut of high-stress occupations, including doctors, nurses, psychologists, consultants, commodities brokers, and titans of the Silicon Valley hi-tech industry. The ones I polled all found that Laurie’s approach to riding offered carryover effects in daily life.

Tina Beach, a consultant for the hi-tech industry, started lessons together with a co-worker, looking for an outdoor activity they could share. Tina surprised Laurie by sticking to it long after her colleague had moved on to other pursuits, becoming both a devoted student and good friend.

Tina describes Laurie as “The perfect teacher for adults who are perfectionists. She is ideal for people who demand high standards of themselves.”

“Riding was something that initially scared me half to death,” she added. “When it became something I could do, and even do well, I found it gave me the confidence to take on just about anything else in my life that used to intimidate me.”

Terrie Douglas, a software engineering manager with Sun Microsystems, was a life-long rider who wanted to learn dressage. She asked to start with the basics, as if she had never ridden before, and immediately fell under the spell of Laurie’s praise-and-reward system.

“I love it when she says ‘There! You got it!’,” said Douglas. “It has built my confidence to an all-time high. Now I go around thinking, ‘I can do that!’”

Since adopting an assertive stance atop a horse, Terrie has found that the self-doubting voice that used to accompany her elsewhere has gone silent. “[Confidence] has crept into every part of my life.”

As part of her company’s team of elite troubleshooters, Terrie routinely faces high-powered clients demanding immediate satisfaction. “If I thought there was going to be an unpleasant confrontation, I used to pass it off to members of my staff whenever possible,” she recalled. “Now, I feel completely comfortable standing my ground when I need to.”

One student, Jim MacMahon, came to Laurie almost under duress: His wife made a deal that she would learn to swim only if he learned to ride. A respected pediatrician and clinical associate professor at Stanford, this six-footer learned a whole new physical bearing.

“She did wonders with him,” said MacMahon’s wife, Sandra. “He started out (like) a bull in a china shop— really unaware of his physical being.” Prior to lessons, he had also harbored a certain timidity around horses. After he picked up the basics, Jim stayed on, riding twice a week, improving his seat, his confidence, and his posture by leaps and bounds. Said Laurie: “His body awareness escalated. He adopted an entirely new presence, with an assertive poise and posture that he carries to this day.”

Another client, Indira Palmatier, is a marriage and family therapist by profession. She finds one of Laurie’s trademarks to be her unwillingness to give up on the small things.

“She keeps reminding me that one tiny correction can make a huge difference in both the way the horse moves and the appearance of the rider,” said Indira. “And she is right— but, of course, it is hardly confined to horses. There is such a parallel in my own work— lights go on all the time!”

Indira marvels at Laurie’s ability to “get inside the rider’s mind” and make the right adjustment, although she admits that sometimes her teacher’s intuitiveness is downright eerie. On one such occasion, a split second before the thought had crossed Indira’s mind, Laurie called out, “Don’t even think about shortening your inside rein!” Indira’s plaintive cry came back: “Can’t I even have a private thought?!”

Laurie Scott admits she is personally happiest when on a horse herself. Her favorite assignment is bringing along young horses, a challenge she always welcomes. At the slightest inquiry she will ship out photos of her new “baby,” a 16.3-hand, 3-year-old Thoroughbred gelding that she is lovingly training at home.

But her natural abilities as a teacher are undeniable, and confirmed by a string of fans that will attest to the impact she has had on their lives, both in and out of the ring.

However, Laurie shrugs off such accolades: “The truth is, people will ride horses, whether I teach or not. I just want to help the horses by teaching humans to ride better.”

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