by Laura Crum
Today I have a tricky question and I hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts. Cause I, for one, am majorly confused.
Last week I was asked by a casual friend who is a novice horseperson with a green horse (not the best combination, I know) if I would recommend a particular horse trainer she is considering working with. I know this trainer—lets call her Jane Doe. I never rode with her, but I’ve known her for many years, bought a couple of horses that at one time were in her barn; long ago we showed against each other in the local cuttings. We’ve always had a friendly “talking” relationship. And I was absolutely stymied as to what to say in answer to the question.
Here’s the problem. Jane Doe is a competent horseman, she’s been in the horse training business a long time. She has the same cowhorse background I do, and like me, she is now middle-aged and stout—unlike me, she has a bad back. She does not get on colts any more, she has her assistants do it. Jane doesn’t actually ride much at all any more. But she can talk the good talk.
OK, nothing wrong with that, necessarily. Except that I happen to know that Jane put her assistant (and best friend) on a colt that had some major issues and said assistant got bucked off hard and put in the ICU for several days—and of course Jane had no insurance and no money to help with the bills.
Well, OK, a lot of trainers are in this position, I know. But I didn’t think it was too responsible of Jane. Nor did it argue that she had very good judgement when it came to reading horses.
Jane has made some decent horses over the years. And she’s had some colossal failures. I think this can be said of most horse trainers. By and large, I don’t disagree with her methods. She’s well intentioned towards horses and people, I believe, but perhaps a bit blinded by her need to be the “expert”. Again, something that can be said of a lot of trainers.
And then, I was at a party with Jane not too long ago. Privately she confided to me about her bad back, and how she could hardly climb on the horses any more, even broke horses. She described trying to ride her old (broke to death) show horse when the mare was fresh and how this was a “harrowing” experience. I understood, of course; I would be in the same boat. But I’m not calling myself a horse trainer. (And I also happened to know that Jane is currently trying to sell the old show horse and is representing the mare as gentle for kids…uhmm, you can’t have it both ways. A horse that is gentle for kids should not be “harrowing” for an experienced rider to cruise around the pasture when the mare is fresh.)
At this same party, when a group of folks were gathered around, Jane proceeded to make fun of a young man who is just starting out as a horse trainer in this county. Granted, the guy is young and has a lot less experience than Jane. And Jane’s way of making fun of him was subtle. She just kept telling stories about things he’d done with horses and letting her audience infer how clueless he was compared to oh-so-knowledgable her. The other people had a fun time laughing about the young trainer. I wasn’t particularly amused.
I kept my mouth shut (for once), but I thought to myself that said young guy (who I know) isn’t afraid to climb on a colt, unlike Jane these days. He doesn’t put his assistants on to take the falls. A broke horse acting up would not scare him. Unlike Jane, he still rides the horses that are put in training with him. This guy is well intentioned and pretty handy. He may not have Jane’s experience, but he rides a lot better than she does now.
Jane’s main event nowadays is giving lessons and clinics. She’s good at this—very patient with beginners and kids. Jane feels very comfortable with people who clearly know less than she does about horses. She loves standing safely on the ground instructing other folks in “Horsemanship 101”. And she’s very respectful of big name trainers who have achieved far more than she has in the showhorse world. But anyone who might remotely be considered an equal renders Jane defensive and wary, eager to prove that she is the knowledgable horse guru in these parts.
Now this isn’t an uncommon trait in horse trainers. And Jane is never boastful. No, she’s quiet and seems humble; she just makes the occasional pointed comment or tells the occasional quasi-humorous story that essentially puts down the opinions of her peers. Like many people with fragile egos, Jane takes a lot of pride in keeping her mouth shut. She told me once that when she went to clinics with bigger name trainers she never asked questions or gave her opinion, she just listened. This was meant to show how humble and what a a good student she was. Of course, what this said to me was that she was too invested in her own ego to take a chance on looking silly. Because the way a person learns most is to ask questions and be willing to discuss ideas. But one can’t do this if one is afraid of looking less than knowledgable.
Jane and I have always gotten along pretty well over the years we’ve known each other. Nonetheless, I’m aware that Jane isn’t very comfortable around me. I think she can tell that I don’t buy her oh-so-much-more-knowledgable-than-thou pose and it bothers her. I have pretty much the same background in the horse biz that she does, though I never hung out my shingle as a trainer. I think she finds this threatening. I’m willing to bet that when I’m not around, she tells slighting stories about me, too. I can’t say that I really like Jane.
So, where does this leave me when it comes to recommending Jane as a trainer? I’m not sure. If my friend (lets call her Mary) just meant to take lessons, I could honestly say that Jane is very good at giving lessons to novices. Many of her students part company with her as they get more experience—I think because of some of the issues I’ve described here. But Mary also wants to put her green horse in training with Jane.
Should I tell Mary that Jane is very unlikely to ride the horse herself? (Except, perhaps, when Mary is around.) That it will be Jane’s assistants who will ride the horse day in and day out. Mary doesn’t know this. Again, this situation is not unique to Jane—when I worked for a well known cowhorse trainer, there was one little Appy mare in his barn in whom he was not much interested. I was the one who broke and trained this mare. For six months no other human being rode her besides me. (Of course, the trainer collected his big monthly training bill.) The owners never knew about this (partly because they did not come around). This mare turned out fine, I did a good job on her…but you see my point. Should I tell Mary that this will happen in Jane’s barn? Should I tell Mary that I think Jane has a few, shall we say, personal issues? The number of former clients who are not on speaking terms with Jane is considerable. Mary is a forthright person, just like I am. Shall I warn her that Jane seems threatened by people who do not act properly subservient?
And if I do, and Mary says, “Who would be better?” then I’m stumped. Because I don’t actually know who would be better. That young guy Jane was making fun of in her subtle way…he is lacking experience and he doesn’t have a very good facility. The best known cowhorse trainer in these parts is very hard on horses. You see, I know all these guys. Jane is far from the worst of them.
So, I remain puzzled. When Mary called me up and asked me the question, I blurted out something inane. I think I said, “Jane’s fine, if you don’t expect too much.” When Mary said, “Would you recommend her?” I just said, “She’s OK.” Typical horse trainer talk. But later I went round and round with myself. Was I doing Mary a diservice? I wouldn’t put a horse in training with Jane. Not just because I know she doesn’t ride them (and isn’t actually a very good rider any more), but because I know that at bottom, I don’t really think I could get along with her and her too fragile ego. But I’m not sure if this would be a problem for Mary.
I do know a horse trainer or two that I really like, but none of them happen to be in this county. My friend and boarder sent his young horse to one of these guys, but it’s a three hour drive from here. Mary wants someone local, where she can show up once a week and take lessons.
I wish I knew the perfect horse trainer to recommend in this area, but I don’t. So, what do you think? What should I say, or not say? How do you guys evaluate a horse trainer? Do you run across this “trainer ego” problem, too? Should I let Mary work out if she can get along with Jane and not predjudice her against the woman? Is this more my issue than a real problem with Jane as a trainer? I’m confused. Those of you who are trainers feel free to tell me your views, too. I’ve never been a horse trainer (despite the fact that I was assistant to half a dozen) and am perhaps too willing to take a negative view of something a trainer may believe is no big deal. What do you think?