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Horse Sense: Trainer's techniques translate across other aspects of life

by Heather Knight, SF Chronicle Staff Writer

Published in the SF Chronicle October 12, 2001 

If you don't look where you're going, you're never going to get there . . . Keep the connection . . . Breathe, breathe, breathe.

Close your eyes, and Laurie Scott sounds like a seasoned motivational speaker, worthy of giving the keynote address at a self-empowerment seminar. But her lessons include no overhead projectors or inspirational books-on-tape. Her auditorium is a horse arena, and her followers wear riding helmets.

Leaning against a wooden fence encircling a dirt arena at Webb Ranch in Portola Valley, Scott, 41, quietly observes some of the area's most successful professionals - doctors, engineers, scientists and corporate executives - as they leave the daily grind behind for an hour.

In her dressage and jumping classes, "Riding Lessons and Assertiveness Training," Scott, of Penngrove (Sonoma County), comments on her students' posture, gaze, grip - and yes, breathing - in an effort to make them feel in control of their mount.

Her students say her equine wisdom translates into important lessons for out-of-saddle life as well - from persuading co-workers to see it your way to making compromises with spouses to dealing with whiny children.

"It's the ability to form a partnership with mutual respect," Scott said. "Horses are easy. It's the people who are hard."

There is always an alternative solution. . . . Be firm, not restrictive. . . . Breathe, breathe, breathe.

On a recent afternoon, Scott worked with Carla Befera, who owns a public relations firm, and a horse, Levi. Scott sometimes takes students on trail rides or to the nearby polo field, and she never uses a lesson plan. ("I teach what I see," she said.) Befera, 44, of Palo Alto has been taking lessons since January.

"She'll say, "I know what you're saying, but what is the horse hearing? Don't get into a war with the horse. Make it clear that you're in control,' " Befera said after her lesson.

"It's the same in business. If you go into a client meeting, especially as a woman, if you're wringing your hands and saying, ÔGee whiz,' do you think they're going to give you their business? Guiding a business, guiding any endeavor, is like guiding a horse."

Scott notices the tiniest misgivings in a horse - caused by the rider's thumb pressed too tightly against a rein or maybe a foot placed a bit off- center in the stirrup - and shouts corrections almost before the mistakes are made. Her students swear she reads horses' minds, and some even liken her to a modern-day Dr. Dolittle or a veritable horse whisperer.

"That sounds a bit grandiose to me," Scott said. "I don't know that I'm a horse whisperer, but I definitely listen. And that's the most important part."

Scott, who grew up outside Chicago, has always loved horses and took riding lessons throughout her childhood. She decided to pursue her other love, filmmaking, as a career, earning a bachelor's degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1982 and a master's degree from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in 1984.

She worked as a freelance film editor in Los Angeles, spending any extra money on riding. Tired of the long hours, she quit in 1989 to move to Sonoma County, where she worked as an exercise rider at Allen Paulson's Brookside Farms in Bonsall. She has given lessons in riding and assertiveness training at Webb Ranch since 1996, charging $210 for four sessions.

Make the correct option the most comfortable one. . . . Suggest, ask, then tell. . . . Breathe, breathe, breathe.

"If you want to ride, you have to be assertive," she said. "If you're passive, you're not going to accomplish anything."

Terrie Douglas, a software engineering manager at Sun Microsystems, has ridden horses since she was a girl, but never learned the proper techniques.

She started taking lessons with Scott a year ago to erase "35-plus years of bad habits."

The lessons have helped Douglas gain confidence in her job and personal relationships.

"Now I have an I-can-do-this attitude in stepping into any new situation," she said. "It's like I have a positive outcome in my brain before I start the process."

Indira Palmatier, a marriage and family therapist, has taken lessons with Scott for a couple of years. Born with one arm, she thought she'd never be able to ride a horse, but now rides well. Scott demonstrates techniques to Palmatier by using only one arm herself.

"It's like she's inside my head, seeing how I'm viewing things," said Palmatier, 51, of Cotati. "Sometimes she can even tell me what I'm about to think before they are real thoughts. It's a little uncanny.

"I would say that she's brought to my life a sense of accomplishment, a lightheartedness and a sense of joy. One of the last things I do at night is go through a picture of riding my horse with her instruction, the changes, the bodily sensation of those changes and then fall asleep with this really nice feeling."

Scott's youngest student, Amanda Hedges, 14, of Ladera, said the lessons help her in school.

"After a lesson, I have everything she says rush back in my brain, and I pick it apart," she said. "In class, I think, "Oh, this is what I learned in my lesson.' Like, you can't look with just your eyes, you have to turn your whole body. It's the same with a math problem. You can't just use what the teacher told you: You have to try other things until you find out what works."

The best rides look like you're not doing anything at all. . . . Believe in small victories. . . . Breathe, breathe, breathe.

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