When Craig Rideau was a kid, he could hop on a horse and ride all day.
As an adult, Rideau watched expert riders control their horses and realized how much he had to learn.
That led him to the LSU AgCenter Master Horseman program, an eight-week course that teaches basics and advanced elements of horsemanship.
“You see other people doing it,” said Rideau, 54, of Eunice, “but when I started the Master Horseman program, I saw that I could do it, too.”
Master Horseman courses are tailor-made for those like Rideau, who enjoy riding but want to better understand their horses. The courses also create an educated population of equestrians who can then teach the next generation of riders at 4-H horse camps and barns and trail rides across the state.
“They might not be proficient. What they have is a desire,” said Neely Walker, the AgCenter equine specialist in charge of the program. “They have a desire to work with others, but they may not have the understanding.”
The AgCenter Master Horseman program was the first of its kind across the nation. It began in 2002 when former extension horse specialist Clint Depew and other extension agents decided to create educated volunteers for 4-H horse camps around the state.
“They didn’t have a problem getting volunteers,” Walker said. “But they didn’t have a uniform voice. They all had different horse experience. When you don’t have a uniform voice and don’t know the same things, it’s difficult to get everyone on the same page.”
A uniform voice would better prepare the 4-H’ers who depend on horse camps as they get ready to represent their club and Louisiana 4-H at horse shows, Walker said.
So far, the program has educated more than 1,100 riders, she said.
Based loosely on the Master Gardener or Master Farmer model, Master Horseman training consists of one hour of lecture and two to three hours of riding instruction per week for eight weeks. At $225, the program offers an affordable way to learn skills typically handed down from rider to rider in an informal setting or through more costly training courses.
Each hands-on class covers basic training techniques that lead to complex maneuvers. Students gain confidence and knowledge of a little horse psychology, said Howard Cormier, AgCenter Southwest Region equine agent who teaches Master Horseman programs across the Acadiana region.
Horses, like people, are looking for a leader, he said.
“Horses can read personalities,” Cormier said. “They can read your thoughts.”
Master Horseman classes teach a gentle approach rather than a firm hand.
“Make the right thing easy and make the wrong thing difficult — but not unbearable,” is the overarching principle taught in the program, Cormier said.
The course covers basics, like nutrition and health care for horses, and putting horses into a trailer and retraining bad behavior.
“We work up from the very basics all the way to some very technical things, like lead changes or lead departures and higher-end maneuvers,” Walker said. “We want to be able to appeal to a variety of disciplines. Every horse needs to know how to move all of its body parts.”
Before completing the class, each student must present a 15-minute demonstration of a lesson learned in the program.
“For a lot of the people that is the scariest thing they do,” Walker said.
While terrifying for some students, learning to pass these skills along to others is one of the Master Horseman program’s reasons for existence. Program graduates must volunteer 20 hours in an equine program, Walker said.
She hopes they all continue teaching, even if it’s only in informal settings.
“The idea is increase education to horse people across the state, and that way they are helping other people even without knowing it,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big audience they are helping. If they help their neighbor, then we have accomplished something.”
After eight weeks of work, each student receives a Master Horseman certificate, but Cormier reminds students that true mastery is elusive.
“A true master horseman, they are few and far between,” Cormier said. “If anything, it should teach you that you don’t know very much.”
Because the horse world is so expansive, there is always more to learn, Walker said.
“We hope to instill through our program lifelong learning,” Walker said.
Since 2004, when he took his first class, Rideau has risen to the program’s highest level, Wrangler, which only one-third of participants reach. It took Rideau a few years to perfect the complex skills needed to earn that rank.
Now he competes occasionally with his show horse, a quarter horse named Shiner. And he regularly teaches at 4-H horse camps and shares his knowledge with teens.
“This is for us to learn, but the LSU AgCenter is doing it so we can teach the kids,” he said. “That’s the main focus of it.”
Kyle Peveto is assistant communications specialist with Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the summer issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
Master Horseman program participant Francis Richard, left, of Grand Prairie, watches as a 4-H’er reaches to pet his horse during the Acadiana 4-H Horse Camp at the SugArena in New Iberia in May. Richard told the boy it’s important to reward horses when they perform a skill correctly, such as petting. This builds the horse’s trust in the rider. Photo by Olivia McClure
Nash Hebert, 4-H’er from Vermilion Parish, practices filling a syringe with help from LSU AgCenter 4-H agent Hilton Waits, right, during the Acadiana 4-H Horse Camp at the New Iberia SugArena in May. Photo by Olivia McClure
Master Horseman program participant Linda O’Connor, left, of Mamou, shows a 4-H’er how to swing the rope to get the horse to move in a circle. By raising his arm the rider is signaling to the horse to move in that direction. He uses his other hand to create energy that the horse will move away from and go in the direction the boy is pointing. As this game is played more, the horse will begin to respond to the rider as soon as he points in a direction. Photo by Olivia McClure