Equestrian for everyone:

Rancho Rio sets out to teach horse owners new tricks

BY KASEY MEREDITH kmeredith@bakersfield.com

For as long as she can remember, Judi Burns has made horses a part of her life. She’s raised a few of her own, rode the hills near Cody, Wyo., and, if you look closely, her earlobes are adorned with dangling silver stallions. But becoming co-owner of Rancho Rio Equestrian Center almost a year ago wasn’t just about her love of horses. Burns had a vision of spreading that connection to horses to those who were just getting started. “There are horse communities everywhere,” Burns said. “Bakersfield is no different.” Her mission was to make Rancho Rio an accessible spot for helping riders get in tune with their horses, developing a partnership with the animal. Although there are many stables in Bakersfield, Rancho Rio is one of the largest, hosting approximately 180 boarders. Since taking over, Burns has addressed the expected updates — cleaning the stables, adding new signage and making various beautification and repairs — as well as helping further her vision through new workshops. She has brought on David Ellis, from Visalia, to teach lessons in cowboy dressage and natural horsemanship techniques. Ellis, originally from Oildale, is a five-star Parelli instructor. Parelli Natural Horsemanship is a program that focuses on equine psychology and communication skills. (Instructors are rated from one to five stars.) The main principle of natural horsemanship is to ask your horse to do something rather than

demanding or commanding.

Cowboy dressage, a discipline combining Western traditions with classical dressage concepts, lends itself to the philosophy of natural horsemanship.

“It’s like being able to have that first real conversation with your child,” Ellis said of natural horsemanship. “It’s a joyous feeling, feels like you’re talking to the horse.”

Some see horses just as a tool, Ellis said, which is perfectly fine. But for those who want to develop a bond with their horse, natural horsemanship, which uses subtle cues and movements rather than yanking on the reins, is practical.

“It’s amazing how much precision entrances us,” Ellis said. “And I enjoy the synergy between the horse and I.”

These subtle cues aren’t only applicable in the dressage arena, which Rancho Rio has, but also in training a new horse or trail riding.

Florence Marshall-Darrow has been riding for more than 20 years, but finds workshops like cowboy dressage vital, as she’s constantly trying to hone her horsemanship skills.

Marshall-Darrow recently bought a mustang (wild horse), which is a challenge to train, but by employing techniques she’s learned at Rancho Rio’s workshops, she feels confident.

“It’s like a conversation,” Marshall-Darrow said. “I’m always looking for ways to make me and my horse in tune.”

Every horse is different and even those who have been riding for decades have room to learn, she said. But for those who haven’t, horseback riding isn’t just about buying a horse and heading out on the trails.

And with the valley being a golden pathway to the rugged, golden trail riding terrain of Kern County, it’s tempting to do just that.

Emily Stevens has taken her speckled beauty from the mouth of Hart Park to Lake Ming numerous times.

“We’re a very horse-friendly town,” Stevens said.

Stevens, who at first competed in English dressage, now primarily takes her horse for casual trail rides. Yet the natural horsemanship techniques she’s learned at Rancho Rio’s cowboy dressage workshop pay off, helping her navigate obstacles she might find on the trails.

“It gives you an opportunity to work on your skills,” Stevens said. “You can buy a horse, struggle and not know what to do.”

Burns wants to make horseback riding accessible to those who are interested in getting into it and is determined to make Rancho Rio the epicenter of it. Creating workshops and competitions is only the beginning, she said.