Q&A with Cliff Schadt

Don’t let the cowboy hat fool you – trainer Cliff Schadt takes a thoughtful approach to the horse and rider relationship.  His methodology is a composite of a diverse equine education that has included rodeo riding, hunter/jumper, natural horsemanship and everything in between.

Schadt recently returned to his Long Island roots for a two-day clinic at Red Barn, where he shared his ideology with participants, walking horse and rider combinations through a series of trust-building exercises.

More than just preach, Shadt also practiced – hopping on problem horses and working through their issues, even putting on an impromptu brideless riding demo.

Schadt kindly sat down for an interview with us to share a bit more about himself and his work.


Q.  What initially drew you to horses?

A.  I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t drawn to horses. I am a second-generation trainer – my uncle, David Josiah, and my mom, Judy Schadt are trainers – so from the time I hit the ground I was on horses.  Horses have been a major part of my life and taught me more about myself than probably anything else.


Q.  What was it like to work with Buck Brannaman and what were your main takeaways from his ideology?

A. One of the most influential moments for me was when Melanie Smith Taylor, the Olympic jumper rider, invited me to her farm for a week while Buck came to start her babies.  Each year she would sponsor riders from around the country, from all walks, to come and be part of that process.

Buck’s approach was about leadership rather than domination.  He taught me to have a structured plan and methodology to what I’m doing rather than a chaotic approach where you essentially wrestle a horse into submission.  I broke my first pony at 6 and started breaking horses for clients at 13 but was going about it any which way I could.  Working with Buck helped me to develop a system that keeps me safe and the horses happy.

Schadt and Lisa D’Urso’s Cricket working on personal space issues.


Q.  How has working with Candice King impacted your training style?  Has it changed?

A.  I wouldn’t say it has changed, but when two people with similar backgrounds and outlooks collaborate it reinforces the whole system and makes it stronger.

One of the nicest developments in working together is the fact that I’m able to develop these horses from the first ride to the first show and then watch them progress as Candice further develops them in the show ring.   It’s really neat to have that continuity.  It used to be I would get one going, spend a couple months with it, then hand it off to the owner.  Now there’s a lot more structure and these horses get to stay in the program awhile.


Q. Are you ever met with any resistance by the Hunter/Jumper community?

A.  I think for a lot of people cowboy is still a dirty word.  Sooner or later most hunter/jumpers have relied on a cowboy to help sort out some problems but it’s often the case they don’t want to know what happens – they have visions of bad things going on behind the barn.  I try to be as transparent as possible – anybody that rides with me or has a horse come to my barn can visit at anytime, I’m not worried you are going to come see something bad.

Having Candice come into the picture has also been huge in lending credibility to the cowboy aspect.


Q.  Do you consider yourself more cowboy or natural horseman?

 A.  At the end of the day, in my heart, I’m a cowboy.  I’ve lived a cowboy’s life – competed in rodeos, roped wild cattle in Montana – so it’s a part of me that’s always going to be there.

Natural horsemanship is a little bit of a misnomer.  I think there’s good horsemanship and bad horsemanship.  Natural horsemanship is counter intuitive – horses are an apex prey animal and we are an apex predator so to put them together, especially when you strap the hide of a dead animal to their back and metal in their mouth – to say that’s natural just because we wave a stick at them and do this and that is a bit disingenuous.

I just want to be known as a good horseman.  For me, I want to be the kind of guy that can jump one around in a class, go work a cow in a cow horse class, fix a problem horse or break the babies.  There’s versatility and a well roundedness to that and that’s important to me.


Q.  Has there ever been a horse you couldn’t work with?

A.  Every horse I’ve worked with has been made better to some degree.There are horses that are never going to be right for the general public and potentially dangerous once out of my hands.  I try to be very honest with clients; I will tell them if a horse may not be right for them.

It’s very easy to get caught up in ego and want to fix every horse.  There are some horses out there that are just very difficult to deal with, just like there are some people that are very difficult to deal with.


Q.  Where do most training issues stem from?

A.  We create 99% of the issues that horses have.  Whether it is the way we stable them, ride them or lead them – it can be a myriad of things – it all starts with us.


Q.  What are the most common complaints you hear at clinics?

A.  Horses being behind the leg and not wanting to go forward, what I would refer to as being “stuck.” Symptoms of a stuck horse are rearing, bucking, crankiness, swishing their tail and flipping their head.  All of those things are symptomatic of a horse not understanding that the leg means forward.  That is the most common issue I see.


Q.  What would you consider to be your biggest breakthrough moment with a horse?

A.  There have been a lot of horses I’ve had some major “aha” moments with.  There was one filly though, Bar 17, that stands out.

As a teenager I was chosen to start the 2 year olds at a camp in upstate New York.  There were 10 horses that I had at my disposal to make mistakes with, get bucked off and everything else, but Bar 17 was explosive. I had to tie her to a tree before I could get off or she would kick and jump on top of me.  I rode her all summer but couldn’t get her to improve.

There was an old man there, Ray Eli, who was one of the most amazing cowboy types I knew in my life. The problem was, he wouldn’t tell me a lot.  That was kind of the old school way, they just let you figure it out.  I finally got to the point where I knew I was going to get really hurt so I started to ask questions, call people and do whatever I could to gain some better knowledge because just being brave wasn’t working.  That was when I learned you have to be better than yourself.  Wherever you are at the moment, you have to look to people that are better than you and chase knowledge as much as you can.

It was a sold out crowd!


Q.  What do you love most and least about your work?

A.  The thing I love most is starting and developing young horses.To be able to see a young horse that I laid the foundation for go on to be super successful – it doesn’t matter in what discipline – is very satisfying.  I love that I’ve had the opportunity to start horses for simple backyard people to Olympic riders and everywhere in between.

The part I like the least is seeing horses I’ve had a part in starting or developing fall into the wrong hands, fall by the wayside or become misunderstood.  The horse pays the price for that.

I also hate the drama and politics of this business.  It really bothers me.  I’m a person who believes if everyone took the time to care about others more than themselves, behaved more compassionately and sought to help one another more this whole business would be better for it.


Disappointed you missed out on the clinic?  Don’t worry!  Shadt and his partner, jumper rider Candice King, will be returning to Red Barn in mid May!





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