A horse’s heart and soul

LONGMONT – A realization came to Emily Johnson while studying equine science at Colorado State University that set the course for what she would do with the next phase of her life.

“I realized that I didn’t want to learn where a horse’s tendons and ligaments were but where their heart and soul were.”

To honor the insight, Johnson set out to bring her passion to life by opening Mountain Rose Horsemanship Training in 2006 at the age of 21.

Today she maintains a 40-acre ranch in Longmont that includes paddocks, a riding arena and a pen used for instruction. With four employees, four lesson horses and space for 15 horses to board during training, Johnson offers horses, horse owners and horse lovers the opportunity to learn how to be “their best selves” from each other.

“I first started out as a horse trainer, but horses get trained to a specific human not to humanity,” Johnson explains.  “Training a horse is about building a trusting relationship with a human.  To serve the horses, I needed to teach people how to teach them – starting with how to understand their psychology and behavior.”

Horses are prey animals by nature, according to Johnson, and polar opposite from what humans, dogs and cats are: predators.

“Picture an unexpected object in your house – a mouse running across the floor. A dog and cat would go investigate it because predators have the luxury of getting curious,” she says.  “Prey animals, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. It’s all about survival for them. If a horse gets curious about a mountain lion and goes to investigate, it gets killed.”

An additional difference in the psychology of prey animals versus predators comes from the basic principles of pressure and release.

To predators, pressure is a pleasurable way of connecting physically with each other. We like standing close, touching and hugging. “I get home and my dog runs to greet me, rubbing up against me while I pet him,” Johnson explains.

Prey animals, however, are all about safety and survival and move away from pressure.

 “If someone is standing next to me and shifts a few inches away or toward me it’s no big deal.  But prey animals are attuned to all shifts.  They move away from pressure.  Sheer fear is their reaction to it.”

Prey animals actually learn from releasing the pressure.  

For example, pressure can come from pulling on the reins to stop a horse. As soon as he/she responds by stopping, the pressure is released to reward the animal for stopping. Releasing the pressure actually creates a horse’s desire to repeat the behavior when pressure is next applied. Doing so increases the horse’s feeling of safety and survival.

Johnson teaches students to think like a prey animal rather than a predator.

“Take a woman who’s bubbly and excited to get close to a horse,” she says, explaining the downside of that behavior around a horse. “The horse gets nervous and fearful around that energy.”

Through MRHT, Johnson, sole owner, offers horsemanship courses like earning respect and building rapport; clinics that range from equine first aid to trailer loading; and private instruction.

“She teaches way more than riding,” says Feather Berkower, a student for the past three years. “She’s a phenomenal master at this – at understanding their language.  It’s like she’s a horse herself.”

Since Johnson went into business already owning horses and equipment, startup costs were about $20,000. “My father was an angel investor with a payment plan that was better than any other source.”

Since she had worked as a barn manager, a horse trainer and been immersed in the horse community before founding her business, Johnson started out with clientele. She’s now putting effort into marketing.

“It was a big step getting our Web site, www.mountainrosetraining.com, up this last year.”

MRHT revenues for 2008 reached almost $100,000, making it the best year to date.  Although business was down 25 percent in 2009, the company remains profitable, according to Johnson.