The trainer blues: Dare to create a vacuum!

I’ve spoken to several horse owners lately who had the same depressing condition: The Trainer Blues. See this list to check yourself for symptoms:

  • When your trainer interacts with your horse, you frequently cringe inside or feel like apologizing to your horse
  • You’ve been working on the same issues over and over, feeling like things are getting worse rather than better
  • Your horse wants to ‘hit the road’ when he sees the trainer coming, you reassure him ‘it’ll be ok’
  • You are really interested in exploring different riding philosophies, but your trainer will hear nothing of it
  • You are afraid to ask questions, your trainer is ‘untouchable’
  • You are not sure what’s going on, but you don’t look forward to your riding lessons any more. You want out, but this seems to be the best trainer in the area.

If more than one of the above applies to you, you’ve got the Trainer Blues! We all want the best for our horses and it’s hard to resist a reputable trainer, one that everyone in the barn uses or that was recommended to us by our best friend.

On the other hand, there is no licensing requirement for horse trainers and riding instructors in the US and the industry doesn’t have a homogenous self-regulating mechanism. In other words, there trainers of all sorts of backgrounds, philosophies, methods and angles out there, with widely varying degrees of experience and qualification.

How does one bring light into the jungle? I believe it starts with asking yourselves the right questions:

  • What is the riding philosophy that most appeals to me? Or, if i am unsure:  Is there a rider I look up to, who inspires me? (Can be someone like Rainer Klimke or Tom Dorrance.) What was their philosophy?
  • What kind of riding do I want to do?
  • What’s my skill level? (that’s a tough one…)
  • What type of trainer –> horse interaction would I most appreciate?
  • Do I know what my horse’s potential is? What is his skill level?

After honestly and bravely (especially in regard to your own riding skills and the abilities of your horse…) answering these questions, you can move on to the next set of questions:

  • Does my trainer meet most of my criteria? (This is a tough one, especially if you really like your trainer personally.)

If yes, you don’t have the Trainer Blues… If No, move on to asking:

  • Which points could I compromise on?
  • Do I know of a trainer – near or far – who represents the philosophy I am interested in?
  • Is there a way I can observe this person? Can I reach out to this person to recommend someone in my area?
  • Is there an organization that can recommend a trainer? (This can be an organization like CHA, NARHA, USDF or a local endurance/distance riding club, etc.)
  • Am I prepared to do what it takes to find the right trainer?

If yes, all you now have to come up with is:

THE COURAGE TO CREATE A VACUUM

This is the number one reason I observed, why people stick with trainers that they are not in agreement with. It seems to feel ‘safer’ to do ‘something’ (as in working with the wrong trainer) than doing ‘nothing’ (as in allowing a period without trainer).

Well, let’s ask another stakeholder in this scenario: What would your horse say about this?

Our horses are much smarter, more intuitive and sensitive than many of us think. Every time you cringe while watching the trainer work with your horse, your horse cringes, too! He knows there is something not quite right. He doesn’t feel safe, if you feel worried about something. How could your horse now make any progress?

I know how hard it is to find someone qualified, who we like personally and who teaches us our riding philosophy of choice in a pleasant and non-confrontational way. I’d like to encourage you to say NO to what feels wrong to you, create this trainer-vacuum and open the door for the right professional.

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3 thoughts on “The trainer blues: Dare to create a vacuum!

  1. A great post, raises many important points to your choice of trainer or coach.

    Although it is raised that there is no licensing requirement in the US, I think this is a double-edged sword. Licensing is one thing – I think it could be valuable for trainers to be registered in some way – but I think it does not mean that all trainers must conform in what they teach. In my country the German method is the one that is ‘the accepted qualification’. In order to be accepted by our sports body, a candidate for registration is tested in his/her ability to teach in this system only, and yet may not agree with it as a system! Perhaps a system more in keeping with the French manner is more in keeping with how the horse learns, and therefore a more ethical approach to horse training – so, should it not be available for registration also?

    The master ecuyer, Nuno Oliveira (Portugal) said that in order to ride well, one should read well – we are blessed with a wealth of books and even DVDs on riding and training, a luxury many of our forebears never had. Naturally some resources are more valuable than others, but there is a wealth of wonderful material out there – so I do not feel that a rider has to be confined to a ‘trainer’, but can also undergo self-directed learning and enquiry, and indeed should be encouraged to do so. Any trainer will tell you they have also learnt from their students!

    Obtaining an understanding of how horses learn and their evolved behaviours and needs is invaluable in being fair to the horse and achieving optimum results. Science can provide information on this (for example the International Society for Equitation Science http://www.equitationscience.org), along with reading such as Dr Andrew McLean’s valuable introduction to learning theory in equitation – ‘The Truth About Horses’.

    Readers seeking a way that differs from the German Method may like to check out:
    Mark Russell from Tennessee, USA http://www.naturaldressage.com
    Philippe Karl – especially his DVDs, or clinics.
    Michel Henriquet – book ‘Henriquet on Dressage’

    For a Western approach, but much of which is pertinent to all types of riding – see ‘True Horsemanship Through Feel’ by Bill Dorrance

    For your eyes to be opened to horses in a new way, see Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling on YouTube.

    Last, but not least, I believe in personal instinct and intuition. This is something that develops over time, and some individuals are more highly developed than others. I say do not write off your personal instinct in working with horses. Frequently modern riders are not encouraged to develop their personal feel and eye for the horse, or other animals for that matter, which is why some unacceptable abominations such as such as hyperflexion (Rollkur) have lept into the ‘accepted’ competition realm.

    The rider does well to remember the horse does not see and react to the world in our way, and is not burdened with our reasoning ability, so we must remember the horse in our selection (or otherwise) of a trainer, and not be misled by fads or fiction.

    The Horses’ Advocate

  2. Very good post. We have all been there at one time or another. My feeling is that if you have spent any quality time with your horse at all, you know your animal. The trainer only knows what they see during the training time. They may ask about history and understand certain behaviors (this leads me to believe they know their job well) or they may just proceed with their own method not caring what was and only focusing on what they can do with the horse right now. Time is money after all so they are going to just get to it and get it done. Not necessarily done right though. Patience is a virtue but too many trainers are not virtuous! My thought. If your gut tells you that this trainer is not going to work for you and your horse, lose him or her and look further. The horse deserves no less than that! off my soapbox now…….:)

  3. {I might just write an article later about this but here is my long post which I’m inspired to write after reading this page!}

    You guys are so right: trainers even within one discipline or geographic region are absolutely inconsistent in quality, and they are unlicensed or uncertified. When they say they are “professional”, it just means they charge money for their time or make a living from training. It’s a real crap shoot what you get.

    Most people select trainers because they just happen to come with the stables one is at, or work in one’s immediate geographic territory. After all, proximity is important if you want regular lessons. If a trainer seems reasonably friendly, and seems to know horses much more than oneself, and already has several (or even many students) and seems “professional”, that is often grounds to begin paying that person and starting lessons.

    I am not an equine professional. Rather, I have been a paying customer of the equine profession. In the interests of consumer advocacy, I’d like to share my list of bad traits I’ve observed in trainers:

    *loud and bossy demeanor, screams and shouts (at horse or at student)
    *use of brute force on horse (horse always wins)
    *does not listen to horse’s or student’s needs, complete lack of empathy
    *no skills of observation (think the opposite of the Robert Redford character in The Horse Whisperer)
    *jaded, cynical, has a “one size fits all” approach
    *makes you and the horse do the same damn thing week after week ad nauseam without explanation as to why and without any progress plan
    *laughs at your attempts to research and read equine books, disparages the value of books and articles
    *has harsh, volatile temper or Jekyll-and-Hyde personality
    *selects wrong tack and bit for your horse
    *claims obviously harsh methods or tack as “humane”

    and…drumroll…

    *tries to sell you an overpriced horse unsuitable for your level.

    Yes, these people are still out there, collecting paying students and selling “professional” services every day.

    To all horse owners out there: don’t let others take advantage of your ignorance and insecurity. If you have found a great trainer – lucky you! If you haven’t…for millennia, humans have found some way to understand horses without “professional trainers”. Investigate, research, read everything (including equine knowledge in other countries), and be suspicious of authority. Be most suspicious of all of authorities who disparage all other authorities except their own. Do no harm, and trust your own judgement!

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