When Ruthann Smith first climbed onto a ladder to braid her pony at age 8, she never imagined where those steps would take her. Today, she flies across the country, teaching braiding and turnout clinics, has produced an instructional video about braiding, and has her own line of horse care products.
Smith, 37, takes joy in sharing the knowledge she's gathered in her 25 years of professional braiding. “It's so fun. I have these ladies squealing on their ladders. All their lives, they've been frustrated with braiding, and finally they can braid beautifully and it's relaxing,” she said. “Now they can use braiding as time to bond with their horse before a class instead of turning them inside out. But what really pleases me is knowing that I'm giving horses better lives by teaching people how to stay out of trouble and be smart about working with them.”
That quieting bond has become one of the hallmarks of Ruthann's teaching. When she initially began, her clinics focused on the craft of braiding, but they have expanded into the areas of general horse care and safety. “With 12,000+ hours on the ladder watching the very best grooms and traveling to teach the clinics, I have seen horse husbandry all over the continent. I got to see how things work in all different kinds of barns. The discrepancy between top and ordinary barns is really profound. Fundamental things about horse care just haven't been getting passed on,” she said.
Smith lectures about some of her personal pet peeves, such as not walking a horse into a stall correctly; with the door open all the way and walking horses without lead ropes.
“The thing that people really get out of my presentations, clinics and video is the relationship you can have with a horse–how happy you can make a horse by just handling it properly and with confidence; by being steady and clear,” Smith said.
“People are always astounded at how much horsemanship they've learned at my presentations that they didn't expect to. It's almost like I have to hook them in with the idea of braiding or grooming myths. It's really about being able to quiet the horse when he's upset and create the ideal environment for him. It's not all about knots in their neck. It's about trying to give the horses better lives.”
Ruthann, who grew up in the Boston, Mass., area, began her career as many horse-crazy girls do, with wild and wooly ponies that she managed to convince to behave in the show ring. She first began braiding “to pay for my pony,” she said. “My mom was a single parent with three kids. She supported me as much as she could, but I had to make a go of it.”
At that time, Ruthann's mother was also happened to be best friends with the emerging Olympic dressage rider Dottie Morkis. So, Smith was able to get a taste of top-level competition and horse care early on. She began working for Morkis at age 11 to get a thorough foundation in horse care as well as lots of experience handling young horses.
“I quit riding my freshman year of high school, because I wanted to be well-rounded. Even though all through high school and college, I groomed. I took care of US Team dressage horses before I worked for Jeffery Welles and Timmy Kees at Norfield, at Ox Ridge and took care of Peter Wylde's first grand prix horses. When I finished college, I thought, ‘Well, I'll just braid for a while to make some quick money, then I'll make documentary films,” Smith recalled.
Ruthann graduated from the University of Vermont with a B.A. in psychology and began concentrating on a career in film. “I was making enough money braiding, that for a decade I would work braiding for six or seven months, and then I would work on film and television projects during the slow time,” she said.
Smith attended the International Film and Television Workshops in Maine, and traveled to Mexico to work with the director Nicholas Echevarria. She made documentaries with widely ranging subjects, from the spirit of a Mexican coastal village, to Cambodia's legal system, spiritual healing, and the braiding lifestyle.
Ruthann Smith, shown with the Paint stallion Reckless Obsession, has drawn on her years of braiding and grooming experience to put together informative presentations.
Yet, even while her filmmaking career was thriving, Ruthann just couldn't get down off the ladder for good. “I couldn't quit braiding because I couldn't get someone to fill my shoes. I really liked my customers and I didn't want to leave them high and dry,” Smith said.
“I started training people and realized how difficult braiding was for them. They were getting so frustrated! That fed a negative cycle–they would get frustrated, so the horse would start dancing around, and then he'd get reprimanded and get then upset…”
So, 10 years ago, Smith gave up her biggest accounts and began teaching braiding clinics. “It took a long time to learn how to teach braiding. I had to learn what kind of mistakes people make. I need to speak to their inclinations to make the whole process streamlined and comfortable. Other braiders used to make fun of me when I started braiding, because I always wondered ‘why do you do this,' and they would say: 'Just braid!' Heady, I was always thinking about the craft,” she said.
Branching out into teaching gave Ruthann the opportunity to combine her two careers. Not able to meet the demand for clinics, she worked on the video to pass on her craft. “Even when I was braiding, I had my trunk full of libraries , because I wanted to make the video and I was planning all these projects. I remember the other braiders wondering ‘What is all that stuff Ruthann is carting around?' I was documenting all the things I was learning and planning how to be able to share them,” she said. In 1999, Ruthann released her Better Braiding video and tool, which showcases her teaching techniques.
“While I thought I was braiding so that I could be an ethnographic filmmaker, I ended up taking all the skills I'd learned about making films and turned the lens back onto the horses. The horse industry had an educational gap. No one was really passing on the best horse husbandry skills. So, I applied my anthropological and psychological skills to the industry in order to teach the craft effectively,” she said.
Demand for Ruthann's time exploded. She began giving presentations at all the major equestrian trade fairs. “I did trade shows for a while so that I could meet people and get them excited to take good care of their horses ,” she said.
“Last year I flew two to three weeks out of each month. I was just like all those executives who are on the phone at the gate, or trying to send a fax from the terminal. It was crazy–I'm a braider, and here I am reaching for my laptop as soon as they turn the seatbelt light out,” said Smith. “Two years ago, I said ‘Now, I've made it.' I went to Kansas. If I haven't been to every continental state, I've seen them all from a plane.”
And as her scope has widened, so has her subject material. “It's shifting more to Top Turnout™ Clinics, because the grooming is the broader, most important topic. Of course, I tuck braiding into Top Turnout™ Clinics. Across all disciplines, everybody needs to improve their grooming. I call it turnout, because it's about grooming as well as about safety and handling. Send them to the ring beautiful and level-headed for big hearts that win.” she said.
Ruthann Smith's extensive film-making experience helped her in the process of creating her Better Braiding video
“I think that the thing people most enjoy taking away from clinics and the video are the quieting techniques. If you cup your hand over a horse's eye socket and gently rub, it turns the most fearful, aggressive horses to buttercups. That one thing, even though it's so subtle and simple, is a nice tool for people to use. I give them strategies like that that to use when they need to get a little edge on the horses, without turning it into a fight.”
“She was very good and patient and thorough,” said Lisa Cook, and amateur rider from Brookline, N.H., who attended one of Smith's clinics. “She gave detailed answers beyond what she needed to, and you could really understand the answers she gave.”
Cook attended the clinic mainly to improve her braiding technique. “I finally understand why my braids have been crooked for all these years. It was so simple –tying the yarn in the slant of the braid. I finally did braids that could go in the ring at a big horse show.”
And while braiding was Cook's focus, “I would absolutely recommend Ruthann's clinics to anybody, even if they can braid already,” said Cook. “Anyone from any discipline would appreciate what she had to say. Ruthann talks about a lot of general barn safety that's just common sense, but that a lot of people don't think enough about it. You could pull a lot of knowledge out of Ruthann.”
All the hours spent on a ladder twisting hair, had set Smith's mind to thinking of more than just teaching, however. “All that time on the ladder, watching how the horses were getting taken care of, where the problems were and what wasn't getting solved, was important,” she said. “I've spent my whole life thinking about horses' hair.”
So, Ruthann came up with her own line of horse care products under the name Lucky Braids by Ruthann. She produces a Shampoo, a Whitener/Color Restorer/Dry Wash, and an Anti-itch Salve. “It amazed me that no-one had solved tail-rubbing before. So, I worked with a vet, to develop products to fix mane and tail-rubbing, slippery manes, brittle hair, bug bites, scurf and scratches to get the horses more comfortable in their skin,” she said.
“I realized, once I started to get into the product end of it with my video and tool, that most of the people making grooming products for horses don't really understand horses' needs. It's so unhealthy what they put in so many horse products–like petroleum and salt in shampoo. Now I'm trying to work for the good of the horses with products for healthy turnout.”
Ruthann's Lucky Braids products have been gaining in popularity. “I bought some of the shampoo, and liked what it did for my horse. I started using it on my own hair, and I've been using it ever since!” said Cook.
All the clinics, video and products have become Smith's business, but for her, it still all boils down to the horses. “I like to meet people who really, really love their horses. These people come to my clinics, and they've driven for hours. They may not have the most money, but they put everything they have into their horses. If I can give them some tools to help them communicate better, achieve some goals, and make the horse more comfortable, I'm delighted!” she said.
Thinking Into The Future
Ruthann Smith never stops thinking of ways to help people and horses. She currently sees an alarming void of knowledge and education in horse care, even at the top levels. And she's trying to think of ways to remedy that.
“There's a whole generation of riders who had successful junior careers as the ‘leg-up' generation as well as equine program graduates. They're training and teaching, but they didn't put the time in on the horse care and getting to know what the horses need,” she said. “They spent their time at the ring or in the classroom, so they don't understand what they're missing. The focus has shifted to the ring, and that's where people think the value is. They want to win more than they want happy, shiny horses.
“When I was a kid, I was proud to bring a round, healthy, shiny, beautiful horse to the ring. That's what thrilled me. People aren't teaching the riders how to bond with their horses. They want the relationship, but they're not learning how to develop it by taking good care of their horses. I think the people who are really proficient at what they do are in the upper echelons; they're taking care of good horses, but there's not a lot of passing it on outside that very small world. There aren't many programs who teach the nitty gritty of horse care. There are plenty of places that teach the business of horses, but it all comes down to the fundamental stuff. You can't take shortcuts, you really have to spend the time on the ground.”
With that in mind, Smith is developing seed monies for a “Top Turnout ™School.” She envisions top show grooms sharing their knowledge about grooming, bandaging, handling, lunging, troubleshooting soundness issues, and time management. Graduates will know how to get horses to the ring well-prepared and on time. She hopes to conduct the program in Spanish and Portuguese as well.
Other topics Smith sees as integral will also be taught, such as braiding and exercise riding, versus training. “Everyone who goes through the program will learn the fundamentals of care, safety and handling. It sounds basic, but I've traveled the continent, and this school will address things I know to be commonly done wrong or not enough,” she said.
Smith encourages everyone to act locally as well. She believes that one visit to a top show barn could encourage young equestrians to take better care of their horses, and to seek out the knowledge to help them do that. “I am confident that just touching a well-rubbed-on coat will incite currying. When people see a hoof pick in each back pocket and hanging outside each door, they can begin to appreciate the importance of picking feet. When they see old bridles tied neatly in perfect condition, they start to understand the value of cleaning leather properly. To raise the standard, we must share knowledge,” she said.
At the U.S. World Cup Dressage League Final (FL) in February, Smith sponsored the Lucky Braids Top Turnout Award. She spent the weekend in the barns with the grooms and their horses to choose the winner based not just on their horse's appearance, but also on the way they worked with their horses.
“The idea was to bring to light what happens on the ground behind the scenes. It is the foundation of what goes on in the ring. Happy horses win,” Smith said.
“It was really fun to see how rich the relationships were between the grooms and their horses. They were able to take their horses' particular quirks and play into them to make their horses feel really confident. One groom confided in me that her trainer had never complimented her on anything, and after that week, he thanked her and told her that what she did had a lot to do with the horse's successes. Everybody benefited from that. Each horse had their own thing that needed to be catered to, and they did that. You could see that the horses loved their grooms. It was nice to be able to reward the best work, because the grooms work really hard.”
Ruthann Smith has spent a lifetime studying sound horsemanship- both as a groom for top international horses and as a renowned braider. Quietly twisting manes atop a ladder, she watched and learned in some of the best stables in the world.
As her passion for great grooming grew, Ruthann became focused on researching, collecting and sharing the best practices of the world’s keenest horsemen. Ultimately, Ruthann used her vast experience to develop exceptional equine grooming products to help raise the bar of horsemanship.
The knowledge she dispenses and the products Ruthann developed solve age-old grooming issues. Making quality horse care easier, they have received the highest honors in the equine industry*. Her Lucky Braids for Top Turnout coat care and braiding products are the best, most versatile, cost-effective and easiest solutions available on the market today.
Now Ruthann offers her LOVE, LOVE Guarantee. If not totally thrilled with a product she developed, Ruthann will refund you in full, regardless of where you purchased it.
It’s her life’s mission to empower horses by educating, motivating and equipping their people to be true horsemen. You can access Ruthann’s tips at: The Grooming Resource on LuckyBraids.com, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and her Horsemanship Clinics.
*After testing 350 products, Lucky Braids All-In-One Horse Shampoo was named product of the year by Horse Journal, the “Consumer Reports” of the industry. They also named Lucky Braids Shampoo and Whitener Spray Top Pick for greys and whites. Lucky Braids specialized braiding yarn also got stellar reviews.