California Riding Magazine • July, 2011

Christa Petrillo
Total Horsemanship Training
From blanketing basics to beach gallops, young trainer does it all.

by Kim F. Miller

You never know what the ringing phone at Christa Petrillo Total Horsemanship Training may bring. One day earlier this year, the phone message went something like this: "Can you get us a horse that can rear, gallop off with an unfamiliar rider, and stand quietly amidst whizzing vehicles and explosions?" Another day it was a request for six matching, "majestic" horses that could gallop on the beach carrying large, oddly shaped objects on their backs.

These requests, of course, are from the movie and commercial industry, which has increasingly embraced Christa's talents as a horse trainer and film-set wrangler. Since training her first horse by herself at the age of 15, the now 28-year-old Christa estimates she has trained 1,000 horses. Training horses for the very specific tasks required in movie work comes relatively easy to Christa as a result of the remarkable breadth of experience she has accumulated.

Early on, Christa earned her certification as a Josh and John Lyons Certified Trainer and she recently became a Lyons Legacy Performance Accredited Trainer, of which there are only about 20. This accreditation reflects Christa's abilities to train high performance precision movements including canter pirouettes, one-tempi lead changes and passages of the dressage world and the sliding stops, spins and roll backs used in reining.

Photo: Erpelding Photography

The movie work and the high performance elements are definitely exciting, but the bread and butter of Total Horsemanship Training has always been and continues to be exactly that: total horsemanship. Christa does everything from starting youngsters to correcting bad habits or behavior issues in older horses. Equally important, and per the Lyons training method she uses, Christa teaches horse owners to continue whatever she's started when they take their horses home.

Much of her success comes from understanding how horses think and react. "I consider myself an equine behaviorist," says the personable Christa. "I want to train a horse according to its personality. This enables me to train them and communicate with them on a higher level." Knowing that a horse uses both binocular and monocular vision, for example, gives the rider an edge in anticipating what might startle their horse. "This kind of vision means that objects can change and shift in a horse's view," Christa explains. Understanding this, she adds, can help riders determine when their horse is genuinely spooked, rather than behaving badly without cause.

TMI? Never!

Christa trains and teaches at her facility in the Northern California town of Winters, at clinics throughout the year and she makes appearances at several equine get-togethers, including last month's Horse Expo in nearby Sacramento. She also teaches a weekly classroom study course. In any setting, her instruction covers every aspect of horsemanship, starting with the most important: safety. Small things, like removing a horse blanket correctly, get overlooked in the education of a surprising amount of horse handlers, she notes. "You should always unbuckle a blanket first from the hind end, then move forward. That way, if your horse spooks, there is a lot less chance of him getting tangled up in loose straps.

Don't Try This At Home! Safety is a huge part of Christa's training program and she stresses that rearing is absolutely not something she normally teaches any horse to do. The horse pictured here, Glory, needed to rear for her movie work.

"When it comes to the maintenance and management of horses and how to do things properly," she continues, "I share a lot of little things that I've learned over the years that help prevent accidents."

Christa laughingly relays that one student accused her of teaching her too much. The client was looking for a new horse and it took her eight months to find the right one because "now she knows exactly what she's looking for."

In Christa's program, there's no such thing as knowing too much. "Knowledge enhances everything we do with horses," she says. "And, it makes it all more interesting." Having ridden every imaginable discipline and type of horse, Christa has never had a problem staying passionate about her work with horses. Imparting that passion to students is one of her gifts as a horsewoman.

Nutrition is a big part of the Total Horsemanship approach and Christa's research in that area led her to add Petrillo & Petrillo Herbs to her menu of offerings. Unlike most of what's available to the equestrian market, these are not pre-mixed packaged herbs, but raw herbs sold in bulk. "Pre-mixed herbs lose their potency and make it more difficult to give your horse the right amount," she explains. "With raw herbs, you know exactly how much of each you are giving and the potency is stronger."

Christa welcomes students with a wide range of goals for their horsemanship. She can train horse and rider for competition in any discipline or the very different success of a relaxing trail ride.
Her popular, annual horse camping and trail riding clinic is all set for July 8-10 in Pt. Reyes National Park.

The movie work that Christa began doing early last year is a great test of her skills. It's also flat-out fun. "Taking horses to the beach is something I'd normally do on a vacation, and now I get a chance to be paid for it!" It's not without pressure, though. "It requires the horses to do spectacular things perfectly," Christa reports. In addition to the safety of the human and equine cast members, there's a lot riding on Christa's abilities. "If the horse makes a mistake and messes a shot up, that's a lot of time and time is money."

The movie she worked on earlier this year, Bloodline, was due out late last month. One of Christa's exhibition horses, Glory, earned her movie credentials on that film and she stars in another, Hemmingway and Gellhorn, as the mount of "Captain Zarra" in this Spanish Civil War-era love story between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. This HBO film is expected in the spring of next year.

For more information on any aspect of Christa Petrillo's Total Horsemanship, visit www.christapetrillotraining.com or call 707-688-4358.