In olden days, most people learned horsemanship from a local trainer or riding instructor, if not from the school of hard knocks. Today we can get our horse information cafeteria style…a little from this horse trainer, a little from that one. However, to get maximum benefit from the horse clinics and events you attend, you'll want to develop a grid through which to evaluate the trainers and their methods. Because like that cafeteria food, some of it is better for you than others.
Before the Clinic
Before heading off to the state fair, horse expo or a weekend clinic, try to learn a bit about the clinician. Trainers come in a wide variety in terms of expertise, philosophy, ability to train or teach, and ethics. Some advance work can often help you decide which trainers to observe, especially in the case of an expo where several trainers make presentations at the same time. It can also help you decide whether it's worth your money to ride in the case of a one-trainer clinic.
Begin by asking about the trainer's specialty, whether it's basic training, problem solving, dressage or barrel racing. Though we naturally gravitate to someone of our own discipline or philosophy, watching trainers with other styles helps our understanding of horsemanship. An expo provides the perfect opportunity to do that.
Keep in mind that there is no universal licensing body for trainers in the United States. Anyone can call himself or herself a professional horse trainer. Since horse training could be considered a learned art, the profession is open both to the person who is "a natural" but has little formal education and someone who has gone through a structured program. Credentials can give you some insight into a person's training, but they don't tell you much about his expertise.
Many trainers have web pages and some have produced videos of their work, so you can get a sneak preview of the person in action. This is really helpful because many trainers have developed their own lingo. Understanding their words or philosophy will help you understand what they're doing with a horse.
But don't limit yourself to big-name trainers with products to sell. There are plenty of unknown trainers who do a wonderful job but don't have a web page or any notoriety.
- Investigate or preview a trainer's program and credentials before you sign up to participate in a clinic.
- Trust your judgment and be willing to say, "I'll just sit this one out," if an activity seems like a bad idea.
- Set realistic expectations for what can be accomplished in the allotted time period.
- Put into words any new techniques you plan to use with your own horse, and review how and why they should work.
- Be your horse's advocate. If someone rides your horse in a way that's unsuitable, don't hesitate to ask him or her to step off.
- If given a chance to socialize with clinicians and participants, do it. You might be given an informational slice of dessert.
Trust Your Judgment
Homework done, you're at the clinic or expo. Observe the trainer as a person first. Consider the qualities that you think make a good trainer and keep those in mind. Pay particular attention to how the trainer interacts with any horses-his own or the demo horses. You want to see signs that he or she is a horse lover and likes people.
We're not necessarily talking about someone who pets and hugs the horse. That's fine, but ask yourself if there is a basic respect for the animal. Or do you get a sense that the animal is being used to make the trainer look good? If that horse were your child and the trainer were a teacher, would you have confidence in him, or would you worry that he or she was going to make your child look stupid? Is the trainer basically rooting for the horse to get it right or trying to do a one-upsmanship on the horse?
How do they treat the people around them or the people riding in the clinic? Do they use sarcasm or put down other trainers or training styles? Or are they looking to build the rider's confidence? Subtle things like that can tell you a lot about a person and their training competence.
Good training is often boring to watch, like observing a child learning how to spell. It's one word and then another. You really don't want to see big explosions. But expos are educational experiences wrapped up in entertainment packages. It's a difficult environment in which to train, and clinicians are often under tremendous pressure to be both entertainers and miracle workers.