For The Love Of Horses: Achieving Maximum Performance From A Horse Requires Accurate Rider Technique

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“A horse is like a violin. First it must be tuned, and when tuned, it must be accurately played.”

Author unknown, and very few might understand the correlation on forefront, but it’s the heartfelt philosophy of Michelle Napier, horse trainer and riding instructor.

“Most horses are very smart, and many can be readily trained to do more than most people have ever imagined,” Napier said. “But, for a finely trained horse to perform at its level of expertise, the rider must also know how to ride and guide their mount to achieve that potential.

“It’s actually quite similar to a violin. No matter how finely tuned, no pleasant music will come out unless accurately played. Horses are exactly the same,” continued Napier right before starting to teach her first riding lesson Saturday morning at her family’s Napier Performance Horses near Junction City.

“Our objective is to help riders understand how horses think and ride, so they are performing at their potential. Many horses are more experienced than their riders, and the horses sometimes get the blame for mistakes, when the rider is at fault,” explained Napier, who has a vast background in learning about horses and their riders.

“I’ve been riding horses since I was quite young; have taken lessons in diverse disciplines, with some of the best horsemen in the country. I want to share what I’ve learned with others, so they and the horses they’re riding can experience all of the enjoyment I’ve had in riding and showing horses,” said Napier, most always seen with spurs attached to boots, as she dismounts from a horse, and dashes away from the barn to meet personal obligations, whatever they be.

“All horses are different, and all riders are different, but we’re really fortunate to have a set of very talented and actually very forgiving horses that students can learn the basics of horsemanship and continue forward to become proficient riders and winners.

“Some horses are so smart. They will perform according to the ability of their riders, from very young and inexperienced to expert seasoned winning exhibitors,” Napier insisted.

Based out of the JJJ Ranch in Junction City, Napier said, “We specialize in the overall performance horse and rider, as well as speed events and Arabian western pleasure and hunter pleasure.”

Presently, Napier has 16 students receiving lessons, and in peak times generally has half dozen more.

“Our facilities are outdoors, but we still ride year around, unless it’s below 30 degrees, or there’s too much snow or mud. It’s easy to find out the desire of students when they have to bundle up and come out in the cold to ride a horse,” said Napier, admitting that in the summer there is often a waiting list of students desiring to enroll for her riding instruction.

 

Of course, school hours limit when children can ride. “We have lessons at 4 o’clock, and 5 o’clock, five days a week, and then several sessions Saturday morning, and again in the afternoon.”

Every level of student is involved. “We have young children riding in lead line classes through teenagers who are becoming quite accomplished, and adults from beginning riders to those improving their abilities,” Napier said.

Again, she emphasized, “We’re fortunate to have four lesson horses that all ages and levels of students can ride. Certain horses work better for certain riders and ages, and that becomes apparent early on.”

During shows, one horse might be entered in a dozen classes, from slow pleasure riding to the fastest barrel races and  speed events, maybe even with a half dozen different riders. “That takes a sound minded, well-trained, very versatile horse,” Napier insisted.

Interestingly, and quite importantly to Napier, “There are talented horses of all breeds and in all disciplines. Seemingly unlike some people with horses, I am not prejudice for breeds or the style of riding.

“I love all horses, and appreciate them all for what they can do. We have an Arabian, a Racking Horse, which is a Tennessee Walking Horse-Standardbred cross, an Appaloosa, a Miniature Horse and Quarter Horses. They all have their attributes, and most of them are quite versatile,” Napier appreciated.

“The kids seem to love a variety of horses, too,” she noted.

While Napier has horses for riding lessons, she also sometimes leases horses to people. “Others own their horses and come here for riding lessons. There have been students who start riding here and decide they must have a horse of their own, and I help them find one that fits their need,” she said.

“We have facilities to board several horses here, too. That makes it possible and convenient for students to own horses and have them readily available at lesson time, without having to haul here, or even own a trailer, for that matter,” Napier added.

Although she has purchased a number of horses with high degrees of training, Napier has also trained several horses from the beginning and generally keeps one or two customer horses that she’s starting and developing as all-around performance horses.

Spark for horses was ignited at a young age when Napier started riding with her cousins who owned horses. “We’d just throw on a halter, jump on, and go out across the field, what fun,” she reflected.

Then, when in the sixth grade, Napier started taking riding lessons at Wild Rose Equestrian Center in Dearborn, Missouri. “I really didn’t have any idea riding horses could be so complex. It was still a lot of fun, but challenging learning to ride a horse that could do so many things, if I just asked it in the right way,” Napier acknowledged.

Due to financial reasons and school obligations, Napier was forced to take a break from working with horses until an opportunity arose to help at Rosewood Stables, caring for horses and stalling facilities. “The big perk of the job was getting to ride horses, and I started taking dressage lessons,” Napier said.

In clarification, dressage is defined as “execution by a trained horse of precision movements in response to barely perceptible signals from its rider,” and others consider it “the method of training a horse to perform maneuvers in response to the rider’s body signals.” High level competitions recognize finesse of the most accomplished horse and rider combinations.

 

Working her way up to assistant barn manager, Napier became involved in all aspects of horse management, further expanding her dressage training and adding jumping over fences to her horse riding repertoire.

“I then started competing in shows and giving lessons,” she noted

It wasn’t until 2005, when she graduated from high school that Napier actually got her own horse. “Winchester, a half Arabian Pinto, was five-years-old when I bought him, but just barely started. He would rear, buck, fight; he knew the bad things and how to get away with them. I completely retrained Winchester, taught him everything.

“Winchester became an excellent performance horse, and I even used him for lessons. Eventually, I sold Winchester to a 12-year-old girl, who was literally in love with him. That girl’s mom insisted that Winchester was her daughter’s salvation to sanity when her parents had personal problems,” Napier related.

Marrying her husband Jason in 2007, the couple has lived in several parts of the country as they’ve followed his career, now serving as a captain in the United States Army.

“Two horses have always traveled with us, and I’ve continued giving lessons and also training horses for the public. When we were stationed at Fort Bliss and lived in El Paso, Texas, I started barrel racing. That’s big cowboy and rodeo country, and there are lots of barrel races everywhere,” Napier said.

During service in Fort Benning, Georgia, Napier was taught by nationally recognized horse trainer Bill Cantrell, as well as other gaited horse trainers.

“I worked with several gaited breeds and a number of Tennessee Walking Horses. They are really beautiful, easy-moving horses. Riders often can’t appreciate what they’re missing by not riding horses bred for the smooth relaxing gaits,” Napier said.

Biggest horse related accomplishments for Napier personally was when she was the overall high point champion in barrel racing, took a reserve championship in flag racing, and combination race, as well as being overall top five in Western pleasure saddle type and senior Western pleasure horse in 2009 in the Northern Missouri Horse Show Circuit.

In 2013, Napier rode her Arabian mare, Beyzina, to claim the hunter pleasure championship at the American Royal Arabian Horse Show in Kansas City. That same year, Napier was the high point rider in English pleasure and English equitation in the Blackjack Saddle Club Show yearend standings.

Anxious to credit her favorite horse, Napier said, “BCQH One Tuff Dude, known as Indy, is a 15.2 hands, ten-year-old foundation bred, bay gelding, with an outstanding mind and loads of ability. Indy was barely started when I got him as a three-year-old, but he’s an all-around performance horse now.

“I used Indy for a lesson horse for about seven years. Students rode and showed him in the rail pleasure classes, and in the speed events, too. Even a three-year-old could ride Indy safely. But, as it always seems with a very good horse, Indy has a problem now, so I’m generally the only one who rides him.

“He has arthritis in his right front fetlock, evidently from an injury, possibly being kicked, at a young age. But, I compete successfully on him in professional competition of the National Barrel Horse Association. With daily joint supplement and an annual infusion to the joint, Indy is an excellent barrel horse, and he loves it,” Napier credited.

 

The Napiers were transferred to Fort Riley three years ago and have been continually developing Napier Performance Horses.

“We were fortunate to find these facilities with the stall barn, riding pens and large pastures that we really enjoy riding in. The pasture riding is good for our horses, and the students really like a break from riding in confinement, and they better understand the importance of horsemanship ability wherever they ride,” Napier contended.

One favorite lesson horse has been an Arabian mare called Cadence. “She is an excellent pleasure horse, and many of the students want to ride her, because she’ll generally place, often win, against the Quarter Horses in Western pleasure. She’s really smooth, but Cadence would also place in the speed events,” said Napier.

An outstanding hunter pleasure horse, Cadence has been shown by Napier to collect championship titles in that division However, a decision has been made to sell the horse to make room for additional acquisitions.

Probably even more special at Napier Performance Horses is the Racking Horse mare called Dixie. “People who make fun of gaited horses back down real quick when they see all of the students riding and winning on Dixie. She does well in the speed events, too, partly because she’s so smooth, especially changing leads so precisely in pole bending. A lot of students have won overall championships and junior championships on Dixie,” Napier noted.

Children obviously are important to Napier, right above horses, and she’s mom to almost two-year-old Caleb and five-month-old Caden.

“They’re just 22 months apart in age. I continued riding up to a week before they were born, and then started taking them with me in a baby pouch when they were a few months old. Caleb really loves horses, always wants to ride and is practicing to be in the lead line classes. He loves to ride with me every chance he gets,” Mom Michelle related.

Of course, husband Jason better like horses, or he’d likely be in a fix, but most fortunately he does. “We’re one all-around horse family. Jason helps with all aspects of the operation and especially enjoys riding in the pastures around here and going on trail rides.”

Further developing her all-around knowledge of everything to do with horses, Napier worked at Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery where she was trained in equine emergency care.

Reviewing the format of her lessons program, Napier said, “I take students of all ages and experience. Students are taught riding as well as safely working around and handling horses. Students learn how to better communicate with horses through their riding skills.”

There are lessons in hunter pleasure, Western pleasure, speed events, barrel racing, as well as general riding and trails. “Students are encouraged to show and compete at shows and races, but many just ride for the fun of it,” Napier said.

Napier Performance Horses hosts Play Days and Fun Shows at the barn with all students welcome to attend. “It’s a great time to have some fun and get to know other horse enthusiasts,” she said.

Elaborating on her personal training philosophies and techniques, Napier said, “Horses are trained to be light and responsive to the bridle, while being sensitive to leg and seat pressure.  I emphasize groundwork that desensitizes and promotes respect, which creates a calmer and more willing horse.”

Again, Napier pointed out that she works with all breeds of horses and in all stages of training.

Uncle Sam is sometimes the determining factor in the near term future. “We will be relocating to the Kansas City, Missouri area sometime this summer, and will continue all of our horse operations, although we are yet unsure of the exact location,” Napier said.

“I will offer lessons, and continue to train horses to higher levels of performance in every discipline, including barrel racing and speed events at major competitions.

“My main objective is to help develop horses and riders to achieve their maximum potential. See, a violin player really does have similarities to a horseback rider,” concluded Michelle Napier of Napier Performance Horses.

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