BY JESS CLAWSON
Some elements of life with horses seem to be so elemental that we forget to see them, like a fish not noticing water. In times when showing is such an important mark of success to so many, it’s easy to lose sight of the horse itself as a participant in the process—a key teammate whose opinion matters.
Claire Gordon-Neff has built a training and showing program in Boulder, Colorado that prioritizes the emotional welfare of the riders and the horses at Front Range Show Stables. “We recognize that horses experience an enormous emotional range,” Claire explained. “We’re taking it one step further, to develop their emotional betterment and create a training program that is truly collaborative with the horse. In our program, our horses know they’re heard.”
This approach has been successful for Claire who notes that her horses are performing at a higher level with fewer injuries. “We have happier, healthier horses who need less medical intervention, and have fewer training and behavioral issues. We’re constantly aware and attuned to the horse’s experience of all while maintaining horse show goals and exceptionally high standards of care. The two ideologies aren’t antithetical at all. We’re just prioritizing the animal and constantly working from a place of empathy and understanding.”
Claire’s experience in the horse world is one to envy, but not just because of her success. She grew up riding in Washington State with Alicia and Cristina Adamson, who were very important mentors to her. They created the sort of warm, safe, happy environment Claire focuses on now for her own young riders. They also taught her and other youngsters in the barn to consider the “why” in horse behavior. “They created a small crew of tiny horse trainers,” Claire laughed.
When the Adamson sisters retired, Claire, about 14 at the time, experienced a real loss in their absence. “I needed them,” she said. “They were so important to me.” But missing her mentors didn’t stop her from learning everything she could about horses and the business. She moved to another program and took on a junior assistant trainer role. “I became a professional on the first breath of my 18th birthday,” Claire remembered. “Why would I do anything else?”
Even though she knew exactly what she wanted to do, Claire moved east and attended Connecticut College while working for Mystic Valley Hunt Club and later, Rabbit Hill Farm. “That’s where I really started evolving my craft.”
She moved from Connecticut to Colorado five years ago, and took some time to reflect on what she wanted her own business to look like. “I wanted what I had as a kid: a safe, healthy, warm, positive environment for these riders to come up in and for these animals to develop and teach the kids. And I wanted a competitive east coast style horse show program. That’s what we’ve created, and that’s what I’m proud of more than anything else.”
Claire believes this sort of environment is especially crucial at this moment in time. “These kids have very few options that are emotionally and physically safe – where they can have supportive role models, undertake a great deal of responsibility, and can be competitive in the show ring, knowing what it takes to go out and win while being a good partner to their mount,” she said. “But they also need a place that’s their safe space when they have a bad day at school or just need an outdoor space to process. Kids need us more than ever. They need adults they can trust, who can provide some mentorship and leadership opportunities – across ages and abilities. I watch them flourish in this environment. It’s really cool to see.”
She is also conscientious of the environment she’s creating for her horses. Her location near Boulder gives her access to a number of alternative therapies and practitioners. In addition to chiropractic care and acupuncture, horses in her program receive other therapies centered on their emotional health, including myofascial release. “We give our horses the opportunity to have a voice in their training program. We listen if they’re communicating in a way that’s unusual and we listen if they tell us they don’t want to do this job. They’re always doing their best to communicate what’s amiss, and it’s our job to hear it.”
Claire remains invested in keeping the space happy, positive and drama free for both horses and riders. “All a horse wants is connection. They want to feel safe. They want to feel understood. They want the same things the rest of us want, they just don’t have the verbal tools to communicate that,” she explained. “It’s my job to create intuitive, sensitive, thoughtful riders who don’t put their own agendas ahead of their horse’s. Horses really do have the most generous spirit. It’s our job to nurture it, not reduce or change that spirit. I feel a great responsibility to be the advocate of the horses. I have a deep soft spot for those who come to my farm from a bad situation and can relax or find a person or job they love.”
Her program is currently comprised of around 20 horses with room for a few more. Front Range Show Stables recently relocated to a private farm in Boulder County, Colorado. The 35-acre property is a luxury facility complete with a heated barn with eighteen large stalls, three round pens for ground work and young horses, tack rooms, ample turnouts, an indoor arena, and an outdoor ring that features Colorado’s picturesque Front Range as the backdrop. Even better is that Front Range Show Stables boasts pasture turnout—a rarity in Colorado. “It’s a place where horses come to take a breath, and love their life and job.” Claire said.
Front Range Show Stables also includes two assistant trainers. Rider/Trainer Tara Broms and General Operating Director Alex Heimann complete the team. “Those ladies make my world spin. They are incredible collaborators, colleagues, and friends,” Claire emphasized. “We are fully a team of three. Without them, none of this would be possible.” Tara joined the business in January of 2019. Alex was Claire’s first customer in Colorado nearly four and a half years ago and recently became a professional. “Alex and I have always wanted to build this together and this year she became a professional. She’s worked so hard and very much earned her P.”
The team at Front Range Show Stables works hard to ensure that their Colorado-based program has the best of each coast while capitalizing on local resources. “I feel so lucky to be here,” Claire said. “There are great things happening in Colorado and I’m thrilled to be part of it.”
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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