A 14-year-old girl who’s been riding a pony buys a 4-year-old Thoroughbred mare just a month after the mare won her last race. A week later, the mare bucks her off into the arena fence, breaking her arm.
A middle-aged woman, whose two years of riding experience consists of weekly lessons on a kind schoolhorse, buys an 18-hand, high-octane, 4-year-old warmblood. And, after being unable to control him one day, she never rides him again.
A 19-year-old girl has had a storybook childhood with her 14.2-hand, Morgan-Quarter Horse gelding. She’s foxhunted him, she’s won children’s jumper classes with him, and she’s won horse trials at novice and training level. Now she wants to move up to preliminary level, but the kind gelding falls after nearly flipping at a maximum-sized table fence and then is eliminated for refusals at three events in a row.
Clearly, the first two individuals bought horses that weren’t suited to their experience or their ability. The third person attempted to make the biggest leap between eventing levels with an honest and generous horse who simply wasn’t capable of answering the course’s challenges.
What’s the common thread between them' They lacked the skills they needed. But, if they’d had the advice of an experienced, reputable trainer, their experiences could have been a whole lot safer and happier.
To Help You Learn
The reasons to seek the advice of a trainer go far beyond finding a perfect steed. A trainer will help you learn to become a better rider and a horseman, and help you and your horse progress together.
Think about riding in comparison to other sports. Sure, anyone can pick up a golf club or tennis racket and aim at the ball, but how do you become good at skiing, golf or tennis' By taking lessons from a professional.
If you’ve participated in any organized athletics, you’ve worked with a coach. Coaches direct their athletes’ training to improve their strength, skills and performance in competition. It’s the same with a trainer.
Sure, you can learn a great deal about riding and training horses by reading articles (like this one) or books and by watching equestrian DVDs. But almost everyone learns best from hands-on experience, directed by someone who knows what they’re talking about.
Why are people often wary about or unwilling to consult with a knowledgeable and reputable trainer, either to help them find a suitable horse or to train that horse' Why will they hire a professional to fix their plumbing, but not their horse'
Usually, it’s money. They’re paying for a horse, so why do they have to pay for lessons, too'
Of course, how much money you spend on training varies. The least expensive end is to spend $100 or so for a couple of lessons a month. That could be all you need to give you direction and push you forward, especially if you work diligently when you ride alone. The other end of the scale is to put you and your horse in full training at a trainer’s barn. That will likely cost $1,000 to $5,000 per month, depending on the trainer, the discipline and the location. For many, the lower end of the scale is just right — regular lessons with a good instructor.
The second reason is the belief that all professional horse people are crooked, sometimes comparing them to the stereotypical used-car dealers. Certainly horse shopping is a buyer-beware situation, but that’s largely because even the most knowledgeable and ethical trainer can’t change the fact that horses can get hurt, go permanently lame, get sick or die, or decide they don’t want to jump anymore — at any time. Fortunately, most trainers are reputable and will do the best they can to help you with your horse. (Next month, we’ll tell you how to choose one.)
The third (and most likely) reason is a misguided self-evaluation. Owning one horse that you took on a trail ride once in a while for 20 years doesn’t give you the same level of expertise as someone who’s trained dozens, or hundreds, of horses and riders.
Everyone should consider instruction and training throughout their riding career. That’s one of the reasons our Olympic team has a coach. It doesn’t have to be every day or even every week, but an outside eye can give you pointers that will help you progress as a rider more quickly and more safely.
Remember that training horses isn’t a straight line, a neatly planned trip from point A to point B to point C. There are lots of detours, and it’s often three steps forward and two steps back. But that’s OK. One of the most enthralling aspects of riding and working with horses is that you never know it all. If you open your eyes, your ears and your mind, you really can learn something from horses every single day.
Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor. John completed the Jersey Fresh CCI** in 2006 and also has decades of experience in dressage, steeplechasing and foxhunting. 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. John has written two books: ”John Strassburger: The things I Think Matter Most” and ”George H. Morris: Because Every Round Counts.”