Learning from Karen is like having your own personal cheerleader. Her sense of responsibility to the horse, as well as her open, nonjudgmental, and fair-minded nature allows you to go beyond the rigid rules of specific disciplines and get to the heart of your mental, emotional, and physical partnership with your horse.
Through her never-ending quest for personal self-improvement and her practice of authentic communication, she has become a powerful voice that helps guide riders to better partnership and results in harmony.
Even after all the decades of being a professional trainer, instructor, and competitor at the Grand Prix level, she still wakes up everyday feeling like a little girl in love with horses… And you can too.
Still a little girl in love with horses!
My life has included a series of life-changing moments, always with a horse as my guide.
They shaped who I am and turned my life around when I wasn’t expecting it.
I’d love to share some of those stories with you…
A Hard Lesson About Responsibility
I have always been a girl in love with horses. I did horse camps, and my mom had a horse briefly when I was 7. When I was 12, my parents finally gave in to my begging and I got my own horse. Chessie was perfect for me. We did lots of crazy kid stuff and were introduced to eventing through Pony Club. After 3 years, I found bigger goals – goals that weren’t appropriate for Chessie. It didn’t seem right to push him to do something I knew he couldn’t do, so I made the heart-wrenching decision to sell him. That decision was softened by selling him to a friend and neighbor. I could still see him everyday and I expected he would be as happy with her as he was with me. Unfortunately her goals were beyond his capabilities. Her trainer pushed for things he couldn’t do, using increasingly stronger equipment. He became aggressive and miserable. He was attacking people, and I was afraid of him. One summer he was sent away to a horse dealer of questionable reputation. I never got to say goodbye.
That experience was a hard lesson that I would remember forever. Chessie taught me that I am responsible for my horse’s life experience. We all are. I have a photo of him on my laptop so I am reminded daily that horses are perfect until someone asks them for something they cannot do. I can still see his innocent face on the day I first met him. Partnership matters.
A Lesson In Possibility…
Brave Tom was my next horse. He was an average-moving OTTB with an old bowed tendon who was trained as a hunter and didn’t pass the pre-purchase exam for dressage. I didn’t care. Dressage wasn’t my main focus back then. I kept him in my backyard, played with him, did more crazy kid stuff, and took dressage lessons sometimes (because I had to for eventing). I was lucky to end up with an amazing teacher who loved working with kids, Anne Gribbons (International dressage trainer, competitor, and judge).
Tom and I went up the dressage levels and represented the USA 4 times at the North American Young Riders Championships (3 times Team Silver, once Individual Bronze). I became the youngest rider in the country competing at this level on a self-trained horse. This kind of success shouldn’t have been possible with a backyard horse and rider who were learning dressage together for the first time. Luckily I didn’t know that it shouldn’t be possible.
Brave Tom taught me that when you stop focusing on your limitations and instead focus on what you can do with the horse you love, your results can defy logic. My favorite and most-used quote came from my experience with Brave Tom:
‘Never underestimate the possibility for things to improve in ways you cannot yet imagine. ’
When you find your own special way of communicating with your horse, every moment is more enjoyable
From Natural To Professional…
It was because of my success with Brave Tom that I became a professional trainer. I freelanced for a while and was then invited to train at Knoll Farm by Anne Gribbons. I rode and trained many super-talented horses. My students and I competed at all levels and were successful regionally and nationally. One of my students was also selected to represent the USA at the Young Rider Championships twice on two different horses.
Even with this success, I often I wondered why I hadn’t met another horse with the heart that Brave Tom had. He was not nearly as talented as some of the dressage-bred horses I now trained, yet he had tried so hard for me. I was convinced that Tom really was a once-in-a-lifetime extremely special horse, until Vivaldi came along and showed me the problem might be with me.
Photo Credit: Terri Miller
Dressage and partnership
Vivaldi (Bubba) was a barely sound, ‘used-up’ and dull Grand Prix horse that was willed to me when his owner died. He was as close as you could get to an inanimate object. No other trainer wanted to ride him. At the time I thought that was ‘just the way he was’.
I hadn’t owned my own horse for many years (since Brave Tom) and with Bubba I soon realized how much I had missed it. I became aware that my ‘professionalism’ had put a distance between myself and the horses I had in training. With Bubba, I allowed myself to feel different emotions and to connect on a deeper level again. Things started to change.
On a whim I went to a Parelli natural horsemanship clinic, seeking ‘silly things to do with Bubba’ as his body was breaking down from the years of use. That clinic caused me to see Bubba with new eyes. I now understood that his dullness was actually stress. What I learned rekindled my natural way of being with a horse – something that I had consciously turned off in my efforts to ‘be professional’. From this moment I began to see a sparkle in Bubba’s eyes. He came to life and so did I. I was in love with a horse again. We were having fun. It was the feeling I used to get with Brave Tom and Chessie.
Bubba offered more in the next few years than he ever had. His body was now free of brace, his mind was open, and for the first time, he was willingly participating.
I now understood why no ‘special horses’ had been showing up for me. I hadn’t been showing up for them. It was me that needed to change. Bubba taught me to redefine what it meant to BE ‘professional’. He also taught me that partnership is integral to healthy movement.
After my experience with Bubba, I knew I had to re-think everything I had been doing.
Doing dressage more ‘naturally’ at a competitive dressage barn was challenging. Critics of my new successes were quick to point out that Vivaldi was ‘already trained’. People scoffed at the value of riding around bareback or spending so much time doing (seemingly) ‘nothing’. There were arguments about whether a horse should ever have freedom of choice during training, and of course anything bitless was not ‘real’ dressage.
This was a difficult time in my life. I was recently divorced and was broke most of the time, even though I was working 14 hour days and had a waiting list of students. I still loved dressage but didn’t feel like I belonged in the dressage world anymore. I was burned out and frustrated. I was ready for a new beginning.
And Along Came Monty
I heard about an 11 year old Lipizzan that was being given away because he was ‘crazy’. For me, this would be a perfect horse to test my new theories on! With an attitude of openness, skepticism, and common sense, I restarted him using the natural horsemanship (Parelli) techniques I had learned. My thought was: ‘Let’s see if this stuff really works or not’.
In 2003, I took Monty and some other training horses to spend two months in Florida for the winter season. After only 6 weeks, I had decided to never go back. Through a combination of coincidence, generosity from others, and courage, I followed my heart and accepted Pat & Linda Parelli’s invitation to study with them in Florida and Colorado. I lived in horse trailers and tack rooms for the next three years. I was way out of my comfort zone and in heaven at the same time. I was questioning everything and letting the horses tell me what worked and why. Sometimes you have to give up what you’ve got in order to get what you want.
Monty was a challenging horse. He was the first horse in 13 years to buck me off. He kicked me, he ran away from me. He caused me not only to do things differently but to think and BE differently. The connection that developed between Monty and me was one of the most special connections I have ever experienced with a horse. Monty taught me about being completely authentic in my communication and I am a better person because of him.
Finding My Voice
As a passionate teacher, I had to reconcile the often opposing information between ‘natural’ and dressage and find a way to explain it to others.
I knew the value of having a system to follow and after almost 20 years as a trainer I suddenly found myself without one!
Around 2004 I chose a name for what I do: Dressage Naturally. Back then, the terms natural horsemanship and dressage were rarely used in the same sentence, yet to me it felt obvious and necessary to combine these areas of knowledge. I began writing a book, but ‘that voice’ (you know the one) in my brain kept asking: ‘Who do you think you are to have this authority?
I stopped writing the book a million times because of that question, even though I had already presented in front of thousands of people and taught clinics around the world. My courage to continue came from the obvious results I was seeing. ‘Problem’ dressage horses were transformed. Students thanked me for giving them the missing piece that they were looking for and for changing their lives. Writing the book solidified the principles and priorities of Dressage Naturally and created a blueprint students could use.
Writing the book taught me to silence the inner critic, and to quietly,
consistently focus on the task at hand.
Finding My People
In 2007 the book/DVD: Dressage Naturally… Results in Harmony was released. The first printing sold out in just a few months. I found my community of like-minded horse lovers and created a place where we all could belong. The book has since been translated into German (Cadmos publishing) and Polish (Galaktyka publishing). It became the first book specifically about combining dressage and natural horsemanship. It remains a ‘go-to’ resource on the subject and paved the way for others to follow.
In 2010 my partner (and eventual husband) Dana and I envisioned, created, and released the Dressage Naturally Video Classroom, which now has hundreds of training videos to support every part of the DN process. It remains the most comprehensive resource on doing dressage naturally with one voice guiding you. In 2013 we created and released the first of several signature step-by-step online courses in the Dressage Naturally Virtual arena, Finding The Sweet Spot Of Healthy Biomechanics. The empowering, transformative process I had developed while teaching group clinics lent itself beautifully to the online learning platform and set itself apart from the growing number of informational resources popping up on the internet. In 2014 and 2016 we added The Upward Spiral Of Successful Gymnastics and the Habits For Excellent Horsemanship courses. In 2018 I hand selected the first DN Licensed Instructors.
Horses & Life
This process of letting go, beginning again, and finding my voice was a series of life-lessons. It was a journey that required discovering and changing long-standing unconscious patterns of thinking that took me away from my authentic self. Self-criticism, judgment, doubt, and avoidance of change could have stopped me in my tracks many times, and I am so grateful that I trusted my heart and yielded to the force pulling me forward. It is impossible for me to separate personal development from the process of doing Dressage Naturally. When our minds and bodies are not in harmony with each other, horses get confused.
This journey of self-discovery has taken me to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan Mexico with Toltec shaman and author Miguel Ruiz (The 4 Agreements), and across hot coals with Tony Robbins. I have jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, rock climbed in the Shawangunks, run a marathon, travelled the world by myself, have had out-of-body experiences, and I continually challenge myself to be the best me I can be.
The way I live my life makes me better for my horses and my way of being with my horses makes me a better person.
For The Love Of The Horse…
Transforming the horse business:
My new way of delivering value to students is what allowed me to discard the factory training model that I grew up with, and instead, gave me more options for a healthier lifestyle for my horses. This new model allowed me to love being in the horse business again. I know the cycle of frustration many professionals experience when trying to make a living doing the thing they love the most.
I learned that to make the world a better place for horses,
I have to help the heart-centered professionals thrive.
In 2017 I created the For The Love Of The Horse: Transform Your Business seminar and Mastermind Program. Its mission is to make the world a better place for horses by supporting heart-centered equine professionals. They learn how to add more value to their programs and serve their students on a higher level. I help instructors find their own voice and create fulfilling, sustainable, and profitable businesses they can LOVE, while putting the horse first.
Life In The Temenos
I no longer strive to fit into the traditional model of a ‘dressage instructor’. I continually recreate my life in the horse business on my terms, in a way that brings me the most fulfillment. I love being able to empower, educate, and inspire students from all over the world, both in-person and virtually!
I live in Ocala, Florida with my husband Dana, where we run Dressage Naturally together. We share our space with an assortment of horses, dogs, cats, and some overly friendly crows. My horses have freedom, friends, and forage. Every day I wake up feeling like a little girl in love with horses and each morning begins with sacred horse time. I continue to strive to be me, to be happy, to live in integrity, and do my best to be true to myself. I know I am responsible for creating my experience.