By Diana Pikulski
Reid McClellan has been teaching Groom Elite and The Elite Program for more than 20 years. The program is designed not only to teach grooms how to care for racehorses, but also how to communicate with the horses in their charge. In 2005, McClellan began teaching the program to inmates at a number of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s farms. This year, McClellan will commence a vocational training program in horsemanship for combat veterans partnered with retired racehorses at Long Shadows Farm in Cambridge, NY. Over its history, Groom Elite certification courses have been taught at 33 tracks, 5 correctional facilities, one community college and a Kentucky breeding farm.
The Elite Program was started by Susan O’Hara, an owner of racehorses who believed that her horses would be more competitive and healthy if the people who spent the most time with them- the grooms, were trained to a level consistent with the importance of their job. The belief was that knowledge and skills-training would instill pride in them as well as make them more effective in caring for their assigned horses. The Elite Program is now a ten section course, beautifully illustrated and translated into Spanish. At the tracks that have contracted with The Elite Program, it is taught simultaneously in English and Spanish and free to licensed stable area workers.
“Grooms spend more time with our Thoroughbred racehorses than the rest of the connections combined,” said McClellan. “The foundation of Groom Elite’s teaching is that ‘happy’ horses win races, and, that happiness in a horse comes from confidence that they are safe. Calm, confident, competent grooms can provide that environment for their horses.
“At the same time, horses provide an accepting environment for their groom. Even after a bad day, a horse doesn’t ‘blame’ its groom but rather asks, ‘What are we going to do today?’ This horse-human connection provides a peaceful, harmonious day for both horse and person.”
It is this symbiotic relationship between horses and humans that is the basis for the growing number of equine-assisted programs providing personal growth and solace to human participants.
“We are not teaching how to clean stalls and brush horses,” said McClellan. “We are teaching about horse anatomy, horse physiology and horse communication. We teach the reasons why you do it the way you do it.”
In teaching grooms as well as those in the aftercare/therapeutic programs how to communicate with horses, McClellan focuses on the predator-prey relationship. Applying the tenets of that relationship, students learn how to safely handle horses, how to help an anxious horse, approach a horse in its stall, and how to move and stand a horse with clarity, confidence and precision. The student benefits from building a bond with the horse and having success in managing their horse-care work successfully.
“Even people who have been working at the racetrack for years are changed by the program,” said McClellan. “One groom said to me, ‘All I was ever told was to just keep my elbow up to keep the horse off of me. My arm was getting tired. Now, I never have a problem.’ I teach them how to give a cue and then a release. Then everyone gets into peace and harmony.”
McClellan adjusts the program when he sees fit to make is as practical and useful as possible. For instance, during the heatwave, he focused on how to help a horse avoid or deal with heat exhaustion.
“When a situation with a horse doesn’t go well, I teach that the horse isn’t doing this to you,” said McClellan. “The horse is looking for you to be a good leader. Once people realize that and accept it, they can move forward quickly improve their skills.”
While fewer tracks are employing The Elite Program at this time, its application in aftercare programs is on the rise.
“I am looking forward to expanding into more aftercare and therapeutic situations,” said McClellan. “Good handling really helps more thoroughbreds get placed in good homes and stay safe throughout their lives. The added benefit is that is helps so many people along the way.”
Diana Pikulski is the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.