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Horse Riding Lessons Offer Youth Challenges and Character Development

Horse Riding Lessons Offer Youth Challenges and Character Development

by Carla Gajewskey / photos by Erin Treadway

If you take a short drive out of Texarkana, just 15 miles from the city limits, to FM 2516 and George Thomas Road, you will find some of the most graceful yet unlikely teachers. 

But instead of math, science and reading, these teachers train their students in the skills of patience, presence, and persistence. Who are these unusual teachers?  They are the horses of Red River Riding Academy, and they work hard teaching young, aspiring riders that they are a mirror of their handler. 

The owner and trainer of Red River Riding Academy is Katie Crabtree, a Texarkana native and Pleasant Grove graduate, who received an Equestrian Science degree at William Wood University in Missouri. If you look back to Katie’s 6th grade St. James Day School yearbook, you’ll see that even at that young age she aspired to be a horseback rider.  

Studying for her Equestrian Science degree taught Katie not only about the physiology and training of horses, but also how to teach other riders to form a relationship with the animal. Her education even included creating mock curriculum and lesson plans for her future students and assistants, the horses.

Of course, horses and Texas go together like Toby Keith and country music. As a young Texan, Katie started out riding in the western-style, which emerged from ranching culture and the influence of Spanish Conquistadors in the American West. Most commonly associated with cowboys, western-style riders control their horses mostly through the reins, using light pressure against the neck to steer the animal’s direction. But eventually Katie got a taste of traditional English-style riding, which features a smaller saddle and focuses on guiding the horse with direct contact through the mouth, seat and legs. English-style riding is also about building the horse’s athletic ability while progressing the training of both horse and rider. Texan or not, Katie was hooked and Western riding became a thing of the past for her.

Katie used her degree to make her childhood dream into a reality by opening the Red River Riding Academy in 2012.  The following year, Katie had the opportunity to work as an assistant trainer at Valhalla Farm, a prestigious training facility in Wellborn, Florida. She spent a year working side by side with award-winning rider and trainer Erin Brinkman, and learned a wealth of techniques and information to integrate into her own school in Texarkana. It was at Valhalla that Katie learned a technique that has become an instrumental part of the RRRA curriculum – the ability to teach “feel,” or in other words to teach students to control the horse by reading the animal’s various movements and body language. The better relationship a rider has with her horse, the better able she is to read, or “feel,” and therefore control her horse while riding. 

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Katie’s natural talent with horses and children, her dedication, and especially her enjoyment of the ride are reflected most strongly in her students. One of RRRA’s rising stars is Kendall McKinney, a third-grader at Redlick Elementary, who has enjoyed learning a variety of skills at the academy, including grooming, safety, and (especially) riding. At a typical lesson, Kendall helps her instructor every step of the way: brushing her horse in the cross-ties, then tacking-up and gently leading the horse to the ring for the lesson. After working through a variety of games and activities to prepare both rider and horse for upcoming shows, Kendall helps her instructor untack and groom before giving her horse a peppermint as a special after-workout treat. Kendall says she can tell the peppermint is the horse’s favorite part by the way his eyes grow big at the sight of it in her hand, a telling example of a growing rider-horse relationship.

Like Katie, Kendall’s love for horses runs deep. While many girls are ripping open the latest Barbie doll on Christmas morning, Kendall remembers a special horseshoe from Santa as her most cherished gift. Kendall’s love of horses only grew when she started her lessons last September. Though anxious at first, her fears were replaced more and more by excitement with each new lesson. Her favorite part of riding, she says, is when she gets to canter. She explains that while a canter may look slow to an observer, it’s actually much faster than it seems. Several RRRA students participate in horseback riding shows, and soon Kendall will join then. She says that when her time comes she knows she will be confident, but if she ever feels like she’s not ready Miss Katie is sure to be there to encourage and reassure her. Kendall’s advice to new riders? ”Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s worth the challenge.”

The next time you find yourself a little south of Texarkana, you may want to stop by Red River Riding Academy, where you’re sure to be greeted by some amazing creatures who will make your heart smile:  the loveable Boomer, who will give you enough kisses to make up for any that you may have been denied of in your life; the pre-Madonna Spirit, strangely reminiscent of Shirley MacLaine’s character in the film “Steel Magnolias”; Spirit, who may appear aloof but is just a big softy on the inside; and finally, the maternal Sassy, who can often be found mothering over young, aspiring riders. Finish off your visit by taking a stroll to the shimmering pond on the outskirts of the academy, where catfish will reward those who come bearing bits of bread by surfacing to the top for a little pat on the head. Whether you are a horse lover or not, a day at Red River Riding Academy will no doubt leave you in agreement with Winston Churchill’s observation that “no hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.” 

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