Welcome to Red Tail Ridge, a natural horsemanship farm, the home and business of Lee Ann Lutz, multi-dimensional artist and web developer for Esoteric Orange. As you can see, she’s great at web design, but her real passion in life is horses and horsemanship. At Red Tail Ridge, on a leased 63 acre property, Lee Ann keeps her own horses, boards and cares for others’ horses and teaches natural horsemanship. You might call her a horse whisperer, but she considers herself a horse listener. She’s learned to communicate subtly with horses, using their herd instincts and sensory systems. This is neither hypnosis nor simple conditioning of responses but a live, direct communication with an intelligent creature in alignment with its natural inclinations. The result is a surprisingly inspiring interplay between radically different minds — that of a predator and a prey animal.
Lee Ann’s passion for horses goes back as far as she can remember. As a child in Bluff Park, Alabama, just outside Birmingham, She rode horses through the woods as far as the state highway and back, several miles alone at age 9, day after day. That ended when she was 12 and her parents moved to Tuscaloosa to teach in the public school system. She lost her old school, all her old friends and, most disappointing, her access to horses. The passion of her life was squelched then and she went decades without understanding why she felt unfulfilled. She didn’t ride again until the late 1990s, when she was living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with a husband and two sons.
A work friend invited her to go riding on her fortieth birthday and Lee Ann realized what she’d been missing. She wanted so badly to be around horses that she volunteered to clean stalls at a local horse farm and soon enrolled in hunter-style lessons—a traditional, formal manner of maneuvering horses over jumps in an arena. The relationship between horse and rider was not the main consideration in this discipline.“The attitude was ‘You’re the human and the horse does what you tell it to do,’” she recalls. “Kick ‘em to go, pull one rein to turn, and pull back on both reins to stop.”
When she saw Pat and Linda Parelli, founders of Parelli Natural Horsemanship, performing with their Savvy Team, she was inspired by a new approach to horses.
“At the beginning of a tour stop in Georgia,” she remembers, “the Parellis and several well-known European and American students and instructors came into the arena, and released their horses—about ten of them. The horses just ran around free, behaving as a herd does, establishing dominance and a hierarchy. As the herd came together as a unit and developed a rhythm, the team motioned to them using universal body language and all the horses trotted right to their person and stood calmly beside them as the crowd cheered. I was just amazed. I’d never seen horses behave like that. I cried so much that weekend. I’d just never seen the possibility of relating to a horse as a willing partner. These horses wanted to be with and please their human counterparts.”
Natural horsemanship plays on the natural herd instincts of every horse. By nature, horses are herd animals and are very social. Each herd has a distinctive order of seniority among members. Anytime a horse separates or a new horse joins, the herd reorders itself and the ranking of each horse can change. Most horse behavior relates to establishing and maintaining this hierarchy from moment to moment as all the horses converge in various activities. These are reflexive actions for the most part, and the reflexes are sometimes violent, but horses mostly communicate their intentions before acting. The key is to listen to what they’re “saying” with their eyes and body language.
The horse is also willing to form a herd with a human and natural horsemanship teaches humans to assume the role of the herd leader with one or more horses using psychology and body language.
In this process, a new relationship develops between horse and human. The horse is not then like a motorcycle to be driven around, but a communicative partner sharing a conversation; open to subtle communication and powerful physical coordination. The key is for the human to become the leader of the herd through consistent body language and leadership.
“Horses shove, paw, bite and kick to establish dominance,” Lee Ann explains. “First, they look at the other horse’s body, possibly wrinkling their nose or laying their ears back, and if the other horse doesn’t move, they’ll bite, charge or kick him. It’s not nice, but we can communicate with body language and matched energy and the horse will respond because it wants to synchronize with the human just as it does with individuals in the herd or with the entire herd.”
By first listening to the horse to understand its concerns, then following and synchronizing with the horse, the human can gain the confidence of the horse. At that point, the horse is more willing to coordinate with what the human wants to do. The effective horse/human relationship alternates from the human’s being the leader to allowing the horse to be responsible for its own role while the human is neutral, and vice versa, a conversation maintained both on the ground and while riding.
Her eyes opened to a new paradigm, Lee Ann began using Parelli approaches in dealing with her own horse at the hunter barn, listening to her horse and following what made sense to her. This did not go well with her peers, but she kept listening to her horses. After a clinic with Parelli instructor Neil Pye, she attended a few clinics with Parelli Professional Carol Coppinger, then found Dan and Gretchen Thompson, who became her mentors in the Parelli program for many years until their retirement from teaching. Recently, she hosted a clinic with Dan and Gretchen’s daughter, Three Star Licensed Parelli Professional and Horse Development Specialist, Emily Thompson.
In 2010, the horse business where Lee Ann rode and worked went up for sale and Lee Ann bought it. She renamed it Red Tail Ridge after the hawks that sail above the hills, her own and her sons’ red hair and several chestnut horses on the farm. Today, though still an avid student of Parelli, Lee Ann teaches in her own style, based on her years of experience listening to horses, working with mentors and remembering her own mistakes along the way. She studies with instructors in various disciplines, incorporating both riding and ground work (directing a horse on foot). Her lessons are offered as intuitive sessions combining what the horse and human each need at any moment for deeper communication. She employs farm hands, teaches lessons, coordinates clinics, boards horses, communicates with horse owners and works with veterinarians and farriers, on and off the farm all day, every day. It’s a lot of hard work, but she’s grateful for it. She’s living a dream from long ago, atop a mountain in Bluff Park, Alabama.
With the recent news that her leased property is being sold, Lee Ann has found new working space on a freshly renovated farm just across the neighborhood, 15 acres of pasture with enough stalls for her business and 2 barns, a lighted arena and riding trails. And for the first time in five years, Lee Ann won’t be living on the farm itself. She’ll be operating Red Tail Ridge at the new property and living nearby in a house belonging to one of her boarders.
“I’ll be glad to go home and not still be at work,” she admits after living beside her barns for several years. But the new house is on a huge property with riding trails everywhere. “I’ll keep my own horses there,” she says, “and ride them around in the woods exploring nature.”
“Ultimately,” Lee Ann says, “I’d like to use the farm for broader purposes, to provide space and social connection for many people to do many things. I see it as being like a well, where everyone can find what they need in community.” In July, she hosted a Feng Shui workshop at her new living quarters and several aikido sessions at the farm to acquaint riders with new perspectives on posture, balance, softness and managing the reflexes of security and insecurity. “I’ve provided studio space for a folk artist recovering from bladder cancer. It’s gone!” she says. “I like to see people come together and understand one another, gain confidence and do what they love in a supportive environment–all surrounded by the power and gifts of the horse.”
Watch for future posts from Red Tail Ridge, including features on Emily Thompson and more on horses.