Candor Is The Key To Finding The Right Horse Trainer

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Working with a trainer is a lot like marriage. It’s a relationship, and even though your relationship with your trainer probably isn’t going to last nearly as long as the one you have with your spouse, both of you have to work at it.

Of course, a huge difference between your relationships with your spouse and your trainer is that the latter is a business deal. Even though you may become friends, you can never get away from the fact that you’re paying him or her. And that means that if your training relationship fails, it can leave nearly as sour a feeling as when a marriage fails.

For a training relationship to work — for the student to learn, progress and be pleased, and for the trainer to look forward to teaching that student — both parties have responsibilities. The trainer must assess and understand the needs, strengths and weaknesses of the horse and rider and must develop (and constantly adapt) a plan for pushing horse and rider forward safely. And the rider must respect the trainer’s knowledge and advice during the lessons, then be willing and able to utilize and incorporate that advice and direction when working on their own.

In other words, the trainer must have useful things to say and do, and the rider must listen to those words, accomplish the exercises, and translate both into action.

The Search Begins

You’ve come to the realization that you have a problem you can’t get past on your own. But there isn’t a trainer at your stable and you haven’t trained with anyone for years. So you have no idea how to find someone with the expertise, the personality or the facilities you need. The good news is that finding an instructor isn’t nearly as hard as finding a spouse.

You don’t have to hang out in bars or register with an online dating service. But you can hang out at equestrian competitions. The trick is that you want to watch the warm-up areas, not the competition rings. Note the trainers whose knowledge impresses you, whose style or technique you like, and whose horses and riders go correctly — which might not always be the trainers whose students are winning ribbons.

You can also go to the websites of local and national equestrian organizations. Often they’ll have a list of trainers or instructors. On local websites, they’re generally people who’ve paid to be listed (in other words, there’s no evaluation of their qualifications or ability), but often these listings include information about the discipline or disciplines in which they train, plus other business or personal information. But three websites — the U.S. Dressage Federation, U.S. Eventing Association and the American Riding Instructors Association — provide information on trainers they’ve certified.

Word of mouth is frequently the best way to find (or avoid) a trainer. Reputation is huge in the horse world, and the people who act professionally and train correctly usually deservedly earn a good reputation. Ask your horsey friends or people you meet at shows.

Similarly, you can launch into the worldwide web to search for the perfect trainer. You can find all sorts of local, regional and national Internet bulletin boards, on which you can start a thread called, ”Who can recommend a trainer in East Nowhere'” or something similar. You’ll probably get some pertinent information and a lot of responses that won’t help at all.

Once you’ve found a candidate, call and make an appointment to go to the barn to meet him or her and to watch them teach a lesson or two. You may even be able to bring your horse and take a lesson as a trial.

Don’t be anxious about doing this reconnaissance — it’s combination between a job interview and picking a school for your child. Trainers are used to putting on ”the dog and pony show” for prospective clients, and if you find one who isn’t, well, you probably don’t want to work with that person anyway.

The Examination

Before you go to meet a prospective trainer, be sure you have a really good idea of what you’re looking for.

The No. 1 characteristic of a good trainer is experience. It’s a truism that to teach anything well, you have to have studied it and done it, preferably many times. A really good trainer isn’t just one chapter ahead of you in some book on riding. A good trainer has studied the craft of horsemanship, in theory and practice, and has trained numerous horses and riders.

But experience with horses is relative. The higher the level at which you wish to perform, the more experience in training and competition your trainer needs. Someone who’s never ridden above first level can’t possibly train you or your horse in the Grand Prix movements. But a beginner or a novice rider will only be confused by a Grand Prix dressage rider or an A-circuit hunter/equitation trainer. In fact, it’s by working with beginner or novice riders that younger trainers develop their own abilities.

And, unfortunately, competition experience isn’t necessarily an indication of teaching and training ability. An accomplished competitor can be a genius on a horse’s back but unable to communicate to others how to accomplish the things he or she does. An accomplished competitor could also have achieved those heights aboard experienced horses and under the direction of a top-notch trainer, meaning he or she has little idea of how the horse learned to achieve those feats.

Similarly, a paucity of a high-level competitive experience doesn’t automatically mean someone can’t teach other people how to do it. The horse world has many gifted trainers who haven’t competed above a relatively low level but who have studied their craft and are blessed with tremendous powers of observation and communication. Therefore, they understand how horses think, react and move; they can quickly see and evaluate strengths and weaknesses; and they can direct riders to address them.

Characteristic No. 2 is attitude. A good trainer, at any level, truly loves working with horses and with people who ride them. And they’re always interested in learning more about training and about horses and their care. A good trainer has something of an artistic attitude, and training horses is as much an avocation as it is a vocation to them. They have an open mind, believing that every day they can learn something about horses.

A poor trainer is someone for whom teaching and training is just a job, something they do just to make a living. It’s something they’re doing because they can’t do anything else or because they don’t have the gumption to think of anything else to do.

Characteristic No. 3, personality, is intimately related to No. 2. And that’s because, no matter what you’re doing in life (including marriage!), you mesh better with some people than with others. Of course, the personalities with whom you mesh well can change with the situation. The type of person you’re married to may be nothing like the type of people you like to work with. Sometimes you can have an instant chemistry with someone, and sometime s it takes awhile for you to come to appreciate them (just as it often does with horses).

And so you want to be sure that whatever trainer you select likes to work with horses like yours. Some trainers have preferences or even prejudices toward or against certain breeds or types — someone who won’t allow mares in their barn, a dressage trainer who won’t deal with Thoroughbreds or Arabians, a hunter trainer who isn’t interested in young or green horses, an eventing trainer who shuns short-strided or placid horses.

The trainer you want to work with is one who sees working with any horse-rider combination as a horsemanship challenge, as a puzzle to be solved by them and you, regardless of the breed or type of horse you’ve brought to their ring. You should, however, always remember that some breeds are more suited (and welcomed) to certain disciplines than others.

This is another example of the self-honesty you must bring to your trainer search — about what you and your horse really can do.

As we discussed in last month’s article ”Having A Trainer Is A Really Good Investment,” your trainer is usually looking out for your best interests and your safety. So, if the trainer you’ve chosen insists that your beloved Dobbin isn’t suited for the job you want him to do, it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do so that your relationships with your horse and with your trainer succeed.

Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor. A graduate A Pony Clubber, John has decades of experience in eventing, steeplechasing and dressage. As editor of The Chronicle of the Horse for 20 years, he covered six Olympics. With his wife, he operates Phoenix Farm, a breeding/training facility in California.