“Listen to your horse. What is he telling you? How is he feeling today?”
That is how a two-day clinic with Peter Lutz for students of Detroit Horse Power begins. Lutz, a show jumping trainer based in Bedford, New York, has represented the United States at the World Cup Finals, made Nations Cups appearances, and won five-star grand prix classes. At this clinic, held at Willowbrooke Farm in Plymouth, Michigan, his focus is on the elements of good riding.
Today’s students are horse-crazy teens doing typical horse-crazy teen stuff: taking riding lessons, learning to muck stalls after their lessons and dreaming of having horses of their own one day. But these middle- and high-schoolers are from low-income neighborhoods in Detroit, and many have grown up amidst poverty, crime and violence—a stark contrast to the bucolic pastures that served as a backdrop to the clinic. They are students at Detroit Horse Power, an organization founded in 2015 by former Detroit elementary school teacher and eventer David Silver to provide urban youth with opportunities outside the classroom to develop the confidence and skills needed to set them up for future success.
The eight students attending the two-day July clinic are among DHP’s most dedicated; they have been working with the organization since its inception, taking riding lessons after school and participating in summer camps. Several are now youth leaders at the organization and serve as role models for the next generation among its approximately 30 year-round students and 100 summer campers. At Detroit Horse Power, the focus is not just on riding, but what Silver calls the “PERCS”—perseverance, empathy, responsible risk-taking, confidence and self-control—the lessons that horses will teach us, if only we listen.
Before mounting, the students gather in a circle and share how they are feeling: some are exhausted, some are frustrated, some are OK, some are excited. As the riding lesson begins, those negative feelings start to fade. For these students, this is their time for relaxation, an opportunity to let go and forget what might have happened before.
“Every time I get on a horse, I feel like everything in my mind is blank.” Kaira, 14, explains.
The clinic begins with a check-in for the horses, too. Once mounted, Lutz asks the students to think about how the horses communicate with their riders: are their ears turned backwards or forwards, are their tails swishing in irritation, is their breathing steady and relaxed? He asks the students how they can communicate with their horses and reminds them of their aids: seat, legs, hands, voice.
Lutz sends the students out to the rail at a walk and asks them to focus on how the horses are responding to their aids. Then he asked how they might need to adjust their ride to better speak the horses’ language. To test the lines of communication, he asks them to halt and to walk again, all on a straight line, and make sure the horses are listening to the aids. He suggests the students try pairing their physical aids with voice aids: a squeeze of the leg with a soft cluck, or a pull of the reins with a “whoa.” Although the students are mostly beginners—only a few have cantered before, and none have jumped—Lutz reminds them that responsiveness to the aids provides the foundation of all horseback riding. Even at the highest levels of show jumping, he says, horses and riders are speaking the basic language of “go forward” and “collect”—the same commands they are working on today.
Some of the students struggle to get their mounts to respond. Fifteen-year-old Jaaden, for example, is riding an off-the-track Thoroughbred standing nearly 17 hands high, and while he is determined to communicate with his partner, his legs travel just halfway down the tall horse’s sides. Lutz tells him to lower his hands, shorten his reins, and maintain a more consistent connection with the horse’s mouth, while applying pressure with his legs. This is contact, Lutz explains, the rider’s most basic way of connecting with his or her horse.
“There is a language barrier: Horses can’t speak to humans, so I have to learn by feeling how the horse is feeling, emotionally, physically,” Jaaden said. “So I speak to the horse but not in the way that people think; you have to get the feeling of the horse, because the horse feels you as well.”
Another student named Jaiden also is having trouble establishing that contact. Lutz brings him into the center of the ring, and takes one rein in his hand, while Jaiden still holds the other end. Lutz pulls gently, as a horse might when he takes the bit, and Jaiden yanks back. Lutz asks him to be softer and pulls the rein once more; this time, Jaiden lets the rein go completely slack. The third time, Jaiden achieves soft contact, holding the reins firmly but still gently. He and Lutz share the rein for a moment, gently pulling back and forth, practicing the give and take between horse and rider.
After the students achieve their soft contact, Lutz changes his focus to responsiveness and discipline. He instructs the riders to ask for transitions from walk to trot, trot to canter, walk to halt. The students are on borrowed horses—as many opportunities as Detroit Horse Power organizes for its students, most of the teens do not get to ride as much as they would like—and some are out of practice, especially after the pandemic. Today’s school horses have been loaned by clinic host Willbrooke Farm, one of Detroit Horse Power’s partner barns near the city.
Lutz asks the riders to shorten their reins, to keep their eyes up, and to apply their legs as they navigate their horses through a course of groundrails. Some of the groundrails are placed like jumps, providing the students an opportunity to practice their two-point and build their strength in the saddle, but others are set up parallel to each other, forming corridors in which the students are asked to either transition from trot to walk or from walk to trot. The exercise calls for precision, as the students must be paying close attention to their horses and must also be looking ahead to the next exercise, anticipating what comes next in the course of rails. As soon as they master the course of rails set on the outside line, Lutz increases the difficulty by moving the rails onto circles, requiring the students to use their outside leg and keep their eyes up and ahead. Some struggle with the exercise, but Lutz pushes them to keep going, to try again if they don’t succeed.
The students tack and untack their horses for their lessons, and must complete various chores in the stable before they can go home for the day. By the end of it, Jaaden is tired.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished something, like I’ve accomplished unity; it’s a type of peace, like a zen feeling when you’re around horses,” Jaaden says. “It’s a majestic type of thing.”
Leairra, 15, felt similarly.
“I feel kind of free,” she said after her lesson, clasping her rainbow horse charm necklace. “It’s just me and the horse, and I feel happy. It’s my happy place.”
But more than just the happy place, DHP is family, the type of family that tends to spring up around the shared love of the horses. For these students, the program leaders at DHP become trusted mentors, who might help them through difficult situations at home or at school, and their fellow students become their friends.
“It’s home,” says 17-year-old Berenice.
As Kaira says, the horses have also “taught me a lot about being careful and gentle around people.” Jaiden, too, says that being around horses and learning to read their emotions has helped him to think more about how someone else might be feeling, to read their body language and to react slower. He cites the PERCS—perseverance, empathy, responsible risk taking, confidence, and self-control—and says he sometimes visualizes the horses before responding to a text that might have otherwise set him off. He says his family is proud of him.
For some students, these riding lessons may become a portal, a way to get into college and receive scholarships—18-year-old Brianna is college-bound and hoping to be on the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team at Wayne State University in Detroit—or to learn skills that will help them get a job. As Jaiden explains, horses teach you to listen, and sharing group lessons with other students teaches you to be kinder and to be patient, all of which will help him with a future employer.
Many of the students dream of the day that they might have their own horse to see every day and share with their family and friends. That vision could come to fruition with Detroit Horse Power’s campaign to repurpose vacant land and create its own urban equestrian center in the middle of Detroit, in a neighborhood aptly named “Hope Village,” to provide more resources to the city’s youth.
The 14-acre site has been selected and plans drawn up, and the focus is now on raising the funds to build a 24-horse facility, with hopes of opening to the community by early 2023.
At the end of the two-day clinic, the circle reconvenes, unmounted, and the students review what they learned and what PERCS trait they worked on in their lessons. For many, the key takeaway was confidence: perfecting a two-point, learning how to apply their outside leg in a turn, or getting their horse to respond to the aids.
Lutz goes last, and he, too, speaks about confidence. He tells the students that when he was a teenager, he was painfully shy and struggled to find his voice. Through the horses, he found something he was good at, but perhaps more importantly, he found empathetic listeners in horses. He admits to nerves when he first arrived at the clinic; to this day, he has not lost the shyness he had as a teen.
But by listening to the horses and learning to speak their language, and sharing that language with the students, those walls and boundaries dissolve.
That night, after sharing a pizza dinner and reflecting on the day’s lessons, the students will return to Detroit, and Lutz will return to Bedford. Soon, the clinic will be but a memory. The hope, however, is that the students will walk away with that bit of quiet confidence, and memory of accomplishment, having learned to listen to their horse and, in turn, be listened to themselves.