Sending the horse to the trainer: Things to consider
The idea for this blog has been in the back of my mind for a while, but the other day as I was about to cross-post a different blog on a blog directory, three titles of articles written by other folks caught my eye. Each of their blogs was mocking/sarcastic comments about horse trainers and their cliché attitudes towards clients. Sadly, there was a lot of truth in what was being written.
Nowadays the general public has limited time to spend with their equine partners. Scenarios such as a spring tune-up, continuing education in an older horse, “maintenance” training, or starting a young colt, will create a need for folks to send their horse to a horse trainer.
When it comes to discussing the typical client/trainer relationship there could be many tangents, but in this blog I’ll keep it to three main areas of focus: Respectful Relationship, Asking Questions and Behind the Scenes.
Keep in mind that in the USA, anyone can literally hang up a sign and say that they are a horse trainer. That being said, even if someone does have the talent and ability to work with horses, does not automatically mean that they will/can run a business successfully, have the ability to clearly communicate with people or teach the human student, or that they have the human resources skills to be a quality boss.
As with many things that involve humans and tradition, certain behaviors within the professional equine industry have wrongfully (in my opinion) become accepted by the public. I have personally been subjected to (as a student and client), and had to work under (as a working student and employee) these impolite and often boorish behaviors. They are completely absent of anything remotely professional or respectful- often to either the human or the horse.
Even if behaviors among horse trainers have become “the norm” and have been conventional for years, such as using disrespectful language with clients, a lack of clearly defined billing procedures/costs/over-billing clients, and a defensiveness towards explaining training methods/plans for clients, does not mean that they are or should be customary behavior and continue.
Because the equine industry is flooded with “horse trainers” it is very difficult to “get a foot in the door,” which can be the root cause of the “starving trainer” cliché. Commonly due to a lack of business background or grandiose but unrealistic business plans, inadequate budget, over-spending tendencies, and the inability to market appropriately, there is often a constant anxiety the trainer is feeling. Horse trainers can be some of the most stressed-out professionals I’ve ever encountered. With that constant stress, their emotions and patience are like a swinging pendulum; clients never know “who” they’ll encounter on any given day.
Another contributor to the stress is the lack of consistency in the horse market. So with no guarantee ever of a paycheck, it is a highly initially romanticized job that in reality is nothing of the sort. The burden and distraction of continual financial stress takes a toll on the professional, which is often displayed in their rough, gruff, degrading attitudes and hurried mannerisms towards the horse and human alike.
As the client you have a choice who you give your hard earned money to. Every time you pay someone, you are reaffirming their business practices and behavior. Plus you are putting your horse at the ‘mercy’ of the trainer. I have yet to encounter a disrespectful, rude trainer towards people, who suddenly becomes polite when around the horse. If a professional is unable to be kind, patient and respectful towards the client, they certainly are not going to be that way towards the client’s horse.
Sometimes the relationship between a client/trainer can evolve or devolve; just because you started with a trainer and all was well initially, honestly continue to evaluate the relationship every few months. If you see dramatic and negative changes in the professional’s behavior, you as the client have NO obligation to stay with the trainer. Remember it is often your horse that will pay the “ultimate” physical and emotional price and it may take years to “undo” what has been done by the disrespectful trainer.
Just as with buying a horse, starting a new endeavor such as working with a horse trainer will require effort, energy and research on your part. Just because someone offers a service that is of interest to you, does not mean that your personalities will be a good fit. I also suggest to people to go and watch lessons and training being offered by the potentially new horse trainer. By visiting and auditing in person, and watching a variety of scenarios, you’ll get the most “honest” version of what they’ll offer.
If the trainer will not allow you to watch, WALK AWAY! There should never be any secret “behind the scenes” training or coaching that they are unwilling to share with a potential new client.
If you are able to audit a lesson or training session, go with your “gut” instinct. Even if you have limited experience, if something about the overall “picture” does not seem right, trust the little voice in your head. Horse training or riding lessons should be positive, supportive, engaging and done with the encouragement of the trainer. If you’re witnessing any crude, aggressive or rude behaviors by the professional, WALK AWAY!
Other questions to ask include the frequency of communication between trainer and client during the horse’s training. Many folks send their horse to the professional and don’t hear from them until a bill is sent every 30 days. (Although an uncommon practice, I personally update folks via email every few days to keep them in the loop. This also allows them reference points to re-read when their horse returns home and they want to better understand what training has occurred and how I approached working with their horse.)
Sadly I have frequently heard trainers berating clients for inquiring about their horse’s progressive. The trainer that becomes immediately defensive, or that takes a question from a client as a critique, has a “lot” of other things going on. Horse trainers are famous for intimidating their clients into submission, and sadly treat the equines the same way. As a client, there should be no fear to ask questions or understand what is happening with your horse.
That being said, there’s also a “line” that needs to not be crossed by the client. There are some trainers can be overly friendly. In some cases clients mistake the kind behavior and conversations with the pro and unknowingly take advantage of the trainer’s time and energies. Clients are often unaware that mixing the professional and personal friendship with the trainer can lead to another range of issues.
Another part of asking questions is to learn what will go “on” behind the scenes when the owner is not present.
Behind the Scenes
Due to many of the factors addressed earlier in this blog, there seems to never be enough hours in the day for most trainers to get everything accomplished. Therefor (and often not through malicious intention) the trainer will take on too many horses or responsibilities in an attempt to “pay the bills.” This can lead to a lack in quality time spent with each horse, or more often, to the trainer resorting to having other folks work with clients horses. This could be grooms doing most of the handling, working students or assistant trainers warming up/schooling/cooling down horses, etc. The problem is that no two trainers/riders are the same, even if they learned or are using the same style/technique of training.
So if a client has sent their horse to be in training with Professional X, due to that person’s ability, if the horse is mostly being handled by assistant Professional Y, obviously there’ll be a different outcome in the horse’s training. I have witnessed at a multitude of facilities and among various disciplines, this to frequently be the case, leaving the clients in the “dark” about who is actually doing most of the training with their horse.
Keep in mind that every moment a horse is being handled, groomed, worked with, ridden, etc. is an opportunity for them to learn something. Although at larger facilities it is not possible for the head trainer to do “everything,” if you know that other employees will be working with your horse, go and WATCH those who handle the horse, to make sure they are folks you’d trust and agree with their training practices.
I suggest once a week if possible, but at least bi-monthly, go and watch your horse being worked. It will allow you enough “gap” in between sessions to see progress or any red flags or concerns. Again, if your horse is suddenly displaying things such as an unhealthy drop in weight, signs of stress, worry, anxiety, etc. YOU need to make the decisions to find a better fit from another trainer that is willing to work WITH your horse, his personality, ability, maturity, etc.
“Breaking up” with a horse trainer can be incredibly uncomfortable, stressful and lead to a lot of gossip within the local horse community. So what. I am here to tell you that in the long run, YOU need to do what is best for you and your horse, irrelevant of what works for anyone else and their needs. Just because one trainer “gets results” with one horse does not mean that the same trainer will be a good match for your horse.
So please, push tradition to the side, and spend some time searching for a quality, respectful, kind and of course talented trainer for you and your horse. It may take more effort and patience than you realized, but in the long run you’ll not only save money but you’ll be happier with your horse’s progression and results.