EAST MANATEE -- At The Longbranch, Ed McAdam de-spooks horses, one at a time.
He does it by patiently coaching riders and their horses through 53 obstacles on his 23-acre ranch and boarding facility on North Rye Road.
Obstacles incorporate anything that might make a horse skittish, including brick or wooden surfaces that clatter as the horse walks over them, rubber "snakes" on the ground, steep inclines and narrow mazes.
It's all designed to build the horse's confidence in the rider and make for a safer, more predictable equestrian experience.
"The intent is for the horse and rider to approach each obstacle, allow the horse to observe the obstacle, convert the mental action of the brain to its physical motion and proceed to advance through the obstacle, knowing that the rider is in control and confident to proceed," said McAdam, 75.
McAdam was working with Heather Roy and her 20-year-old horse, Chica Rosita, and Keri Cooper and her 14-year-old horse, Spirit. As McAdam encouraged the riders from the ground, Darinda Knudstrup of Bradenton demonstrated how
to negotiate each obstacle on her 22-year-old quarterhorse, Vision.
Initially, a horse reluctant to ride through an obstacle would follow along at close quarters after seeing Vision's example.
"Lots of horses that see Vision do it will get right up next to him," Knudstrup said.
Vision now confidently and calmly passes through each obstacle, but initially, Knudstrup helped win his trust by dismounting and leading him through the course.
It takes about two hours to complete the course, which McAdam designed and built over several years.
It all started with his kids
McAdam, a professional engineer who designed prisons and mental health facilities as well as a college campus, began working with horses in the early 1970s when his children became interested in riding.
He acquired the Longbranch property in 1994 when it was still a pasture and developed it as a full-fledged boarding facility for horses. The Longbranch also offers training, hay sales and equine products.
McAdam served as president of the Myakka River Equestrian Club for more than 10 years and served on the Florida Greenways and Trails Commission from 1992-2002, representing all Florida equestrians. In 1998, he was honored as Florida Horseman of the Year.
And no, he doesn't mind being called Mr. Ed. That's what a lot of folks call him. It's even printed on his business card.
His resume also includes time as a Manatee County building official, Manatee County wastewater manager and as director of plans and development for Bradenton Beach.
He brings a scientist's curiosity and engineer's thoroughness to his horse business. Just as he refined the obstacles for horse and rider, he also refined the vocabulary needed at The Longbranch to a mere seven words: whoa, stand, walk, turn, back, easy and up.
The idea for developing a horse de-spooking business developed from what he was hearing while serving on the Florida Greenways and Trails Commission.
Riders were saying they couldn't trust their horses outside of their comfort zones, McAdam said.
McAdam began thinking about building a confidence course for horses to allow them to appreciate and trust their riders.
The horse is not pushed to do anything dangerous. It's OK to back off, try something different and return later. To relax horses, they are taken on a trail ride away from the obstacle course.
Mastering obstacle course
Roy, who splits her time between Palmetto and Ontario, didn't attempt to ride Chica Rosita over the teeter-totter Wednesday because she thought it a little too challenging. Eventually, Roy said Chica Rosita will master the teeter-totter, walking up an incline, which shifts as the horse moves forward, allowing the horse to step down an incline.
That's OK, McAdam said, because no horse can master the obstacle course in one session.
Cooper, who lives in Lakewood Ranch, says her horse is still a work in progress, refusing to push a large ball with its muzzle or body, or to pass through the "car wash" -- a series of hanging foam plastic tubes.
"I am going to walk him though it, let him smell it and then try again," Cooper said.
Each session is limited to one or two horses.
The focus is on education, and for the horse to experience joy and know this is fun, McAdam said.
Cost is $60 per session. For more information, visitlongbranchstable.com or call 941-776-3603.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.