Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Helping Beginners

by Laura Crum

I read a blog post awhile ago that suggested that experienced horsemen should make an effort to help beginners. Since that tied in very neatly with my last month’s post, “Finding the Right Horse”, I thought I’d enlarge on that theme a little bit here, and bring up some more points.

First off, I’m pretty sure the writer of the blog post I read had good intentions. She’s an experienced horseman who used to be a horse trainer and she does have some good ideas. But in the light of my post on finding the right horse, I’m also sure you can imagine that my first thought was “Well, it’s a nice concept in theory but in practice it doesn’t always work out too well.”

There is a reason most of us experienced horsemen are loath to offer much advice, and it isn’t just that the advice is often ignored. Even well meant, experienced advice can cause more trouble than it solves. For instance, Nancy, the woman I wrote about in my post about finding a horse, declined to work with the experienced young trainer I introduced her to. When she then told me she was having problems with the horse that she chose to buy sans advice, I told her she needed an experienced horseman to help her. She said she had such a helper, and named a woman’s name—someone that had been introduced to me as a beginner about three years ago.

Well, OK, a person can learn a lot in three years—I’m not sure it makes you an experienced horseperson, though. What this woman is is someone who has a horse property, has chosen to take on boarders, and is happy to “help” these boarders. She has “horse camps” and the like of that. It could be fine, it could be great. She could also be ignorant as hell and do her boarders (and Nancy) no favors by “helping” them. I have no idea. And therein lies part of the problem.

What if I had been quite sure that I didn’t think much of Nancy’s “experienced helper”? I have blogged before about my dilemma when it came to recommending “Trainer Jane”, a trainer I don’t care for. But Jane is at least experienced. What if Nancy’s chosen helper is little more than a beginner herself (in my eyes) and liable to cause more problems than she solves. What do I say then? And will it do good or harm if I say it?

This is a very common scenario, since the people who are most likely to jump in and want to advise a beginner are very likely to be wanna-be trainers who know very little. Faced with an anxious mare being throttled with a hackamore and driven out of her mind with conflicting cues by an oblivious beginner rider, mr/ms wanna be trainer is perfectly likely to advise parking the mare’s butt hard and backing her up, and oh, let’s tighten that chin strap so she’ll pay attention to you. And yep, its just that sort of yahoo who most likes to proffer advice.

But our new rider isn’t in a position to decide who’s really knowledgable and who’s not. As a beginner, he/she has no tools to judge. So they take wanna-be trainer’s advice and just make things a whole lot worse. But maybe the beginner can’t see that. Is experienced horseman going to do some good by pointing out a better approach with the anxious horse?

I’m doubtful. Take the case of Harley, the ex-team roping horse I gave to a beginner. I try to provide support for this situation but I don’t have time to be a regular helper. The woman is now taking riding lessons from someone else and at first I thought yay—this is progress. Until I found out the new helper has told her to grain the horse. Harley is a QH, an easy keeper, tends to get fat, is no deadhead, and is with a beginner. Does this add up to no grain, or what? I said as much and then asked the owner why in the world her helper had said to grain the horse.

“Oh, she grains her horses,” was the response.

Well, I closed my mouth on how many different types of horses and pursuits and varying nutritional needs there are in the equine world and just said that I was real sure graining Harley was a mistake, and perhaps she should reconsider her new helper’s advice. She gave me a funny look and I saw right there that now she’s torn between her faith in her new “expert” helper and me, and doesn’t know which one she should trust.

And there you have it in a nutshell. Everybody’s an expert. Once we all start giving beginners advice, how are they to choose? One will tell them to use clicker training, and another will advocate “natural horsemanship”. A traditional horseman like me with many years of experience is just a stout middle aged lady who doesn’t train any more saying mildly that wanna be trainer who advises some pretty rough jerks on an anxious mare is probably going at it the wrong way—how is the poor beginner to know whom to listen to? I don’t look like much of an expert horseman, in my Ugg boots and cargo pants. Surely flashy young trainer has more experience?

OK, you see my point. There’s a reason most of us don’t like to give advice (and I actively avoid it), and that’s because it sometimes seems to do more harm than good. Not to mention unasked for advice on any subject can be downright offensive. However, its an interesting point and worth discussing. Have any of you been able to successfully advise beginners? Even if you’re not a horse trainer taking their money? Also, if you are a horse trainer, how do you establish that you are perhaps more knowledgable than the young flashy trainer kid down the street who uses some harsh methods? Especially when said flashy young kid wins a lot at shows. Because sadly—and I can attest to this from the days when I worked for horse trainers—some of those who use very harsh methods do win a lot—but they don’t, in general, make horses I would care to be around. Any tips?

And if you’re a beginner, how did you sort out whose advice was/is worth taking? Would you be grateful if someone like me proffered advice when I met you riding on the trail and thought you needed help, or would you be offended? I have to admit, when I see something that to me looks like a wreck waiting to happen, I am often torn. Should I offer my two cents worth? Or will I only infuriate the often already frustrated and confused beginner (who sometimes does not regard herself as a beginner) and just make things worse. What’s your take on it?


Susan said...

Thankfully I'm not around this type of situation very often. I have found that being a woman often deters people from listening.

However I think you have to try. If they don't take your advice, well you tried. Now let it go.

Occasionally there are people who listen. A few years ago there was a young guy who was starting his horse on our place. I watched him for a few days as this horse at first was willing to go and gradually got to the point where he wouldn't budge. Finally I couldn't stand it and went over and began instructing him. He was able to listen to what I said about the conflicting signals he was giving the horse and do it. After wards he said it was the most enlightening experience on a horse he ever had. He and his horse continued to build confidence after that impromptu lesson.

So, I believe, you gotta try.

Laura Crum said...

Susan--You raise some excellent points. Because I, too, often feel that I have to try. Which is why I tried to advise "Nancy" when she was looking for a family horse (see my last month's post "Finding the Right Horse"). And, in the case you describe, I might have done exactly as you did. Since the person was on your place, and he must have known you had some experience, you had some claim to be an advisor.

But take the time I was hiking on the trails with my husband and son and ran into a mom and her teenage daughter riding bareback on two obviously not well broke horses. My son and I crowded into a little spot beside the narrow tree-lined trail to let the horses pass, and I spoke to the horses, as I always do--this is very helpful to keep horses from spooking at hikers. The mom, who was leading, allowed her curious mare to crowd into the small space where we were standing, such that I had to grab the bridle reins to keep the mare from climbing onto me and my son. The daughters horse then crowded the mother's horse, who kicked the daughter in the leg. I said, as politely as I could manage through gritted teeth, "Please back your mare up and don't allow her to crowd us." Well, neither one of them could get their horses to back much. I actually backed the lead mare back onto the trail myself, holding the reins from the ground. The woman made giggling noises and completely ignored the fact that she was more or less completely not in control of her horse. What should I have said?

"You shouldn't ride out here until you know how to ride better?" "Please go take a few lessons?" Any comment about controling her horse and not trampling hikers or not allowing her mare to kick was clearly wasted since she couldn't control the mare at all. She also clearly felt the mare's behavior was no big deal. In the end I said nothing cause I didn't know what to say.

So, any thoughts on how to handle a situation like that? I saw those two out riding again one other time and while I was watching the daughter got dumped (not hurt--she got up laughing). They really couldn't ride at all and the horses were taking advantage of them big time. And I still wasn't sure what I should or shouldn't say. After all, I'm a hiker in their eyes. They have no reason to believe I know anything. And they thought they were doing just fine. Under such circumstances, what do you say?

Anonymous said...

I try hard not to give advice unless asked - I'm not a trainer and have never been one although I've been around horses a long time. I do use my blog to describe how I work with my horses, and I suppose that's advice of a kind but of course people are free to ignore it.

I think it's really hard for beginners to tell good horsemanship from bad horsemanship - both in the sense of effectiveness and also in the sense that there are subcultures in the horse world that accept mistreatment of horses as part and parcel of the way they train (and usually compete). I try to steer beginners to good people, and also tell them to use their gut feel - if something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't no matter what the "expert" tells you. I also tell people to look for happy horses and happy riders/lesson students, and a sense of quiet - if the the horses and riders look tense or unhappy, or if there's a lot of yelling and/or abrupt movements by riders/trainers, something's probably wrong. I always tell beginners to watch the trainer they're considering work with a horse or two and teach a lesson or two. And you can usually tell a lot by just walking around the barn and up and down the aisles - what's the vibe in the place?

I think sometimes people just have to find their own way, and have to know enough to know that they need advice.

Shanster said...

Hard to know! I think I was lucky as a beginner to find people that were kind and about the horse when I was in NE. I certainly was not very confident at 13-17 and would have swallowed whatever anyone told me I think. Maybe if things were escalating and my horse was getting wailed on I may have looked elsewhere... I don't know. Like I said, I was lucky and found decent people who gave me a decent start I think.

Mostly time taught me... horses go much better when they are comfortable, understand and happy in their work. Things are a lot harder when advice/instruction is bad.

I hear you about the everyone thinks they are an expert part. I like to think if I was in trouble or struggling and someone offered advice I'd take it.... and I think generally if it makes sense to me, I'll try it.

Maybe if it was offered with an explanation or cause and effect. Something like "if you do X, it will result in Y".

On the flip side I've been asked advice with other animals, people don't take it and end up with problems... and yeah. It is MADDENING with a capital M...

Guess I'm with Susan and you gotta try... even tho' you may end up with another grey hair or two...

Funder said...

I was in the minority on the original post you're referencing - I didn't think beginners would benefit from random unsolicited advice. I got a LOT of absolutely horrible advice early on!

I think beginners have to watch, listen, and ask why. If the answer is any variant of "because that's how it's done," then keep looking.

I think you have to be extremely tactful to help out a beginner who's having trouble "in the open." It's so frustrating to have a misbehaving horse, and the wrong bit of advice at the wrong time can make it 10x worse!

Laura Crum said...

Funder--That is exactly why I wrote this post. Because the idea of experienced horsemen offering to help beginners sounds "pretty", but the reality is not always so charming. Just like you say, many people will offer advice who don't know much, and how is the beginner to choose? Well, I guess I'm repeating myself--that's the same thing I said in the post. But, again, I don't offer advice unless someone asks me, and even then I'm pretty reluctant, unless they truly seem open to whatever I might say.

Kate--I totally agree with what you say. The cowhorse "subculture" took for granted (usually) many methods that I consider pretty darn cruel in retropsect. But at the time, as a beginner, I assumed these so knowledgable people must be right. I agree that you should go with your gut (even if you are a beginner), avoid places where horses or people look closed and not happy, and if there is any obvious use of harsh methods or any yelling, then consider carefully before you buy into that trainer/situation.

Shanster--I did ride with some abusive trainers in my twenties, and like you say, it took me awhile to realize that I just didn't approve of what they were doing--however much more they knew or how much they won. It is very hard for a beginner (especially a young beginner) to make that call. I think Kate's advice is good. And yeah, I don't much care for unsolicited advice from someone who thinks they know more than me (and maybe they don't--and don't understand that I'm doing what I do after a lifetime of working with horses--I've already sorted through some of the options they suggest and moved away from them). So why then should I behave this way to others? Shouldn't I respect that they may be quite happy with what they are doing and don't need/want my input? Of course the flip side is that maybe if they're open to what I say I could actually do some real good, as Susan did, maybe prevent a bad wreck, or at the least a miserable horse.

Its a difficult question. That's why I wrote the post. I'm really interested in the insights you all offer.

Promise said...

I think the last time I offered someone advice, I simply asked if they'd like help, in what I hope was a non-threatening-you-look-like-you-and-your-horse-need-it, sort of way.

It is definitely touch and go, and as stated already, depends on the person, and the situation. And, don't forget, a lot also depends on how the subject is approached.

I know I used to work with a trainer that I despised initially, because I hated the WAY she taught - but I was about 16 with a VERY green mare and I needed help. I felt she was a bit of a nagger. I wanted to have her correct something in my lesson, and then explain to me why it would be more effective to do it her way - not have her correct me over and over and over ad nauseam.

She was amazing, but her approach to teaching wasn't for me, and often resulted in me tuning her out.

Finally, my mom pulled her aside at a horse show where my mare and I were having a terrible time both in and out of the ring, and said, she needs your help, but she's not hearing you. Try telling her this way. And she then outlined a way for her to try to get her message through. It worked, and she actually found it so successful with me, that she tried it on other students, and eventually had a paradigm shift in her whole teaching style.

Susan said...

I've been in the hiker situation also. Once while up in the mountains, I passed a dude string. One girl was riding her horse "English," meaning the poor horse was having a hard time climbing the hill because the girl had the reins so short. I really wanted to tell her to put some slack in the reins, but I was just a hiker and kept my mouth shut.

Maybe it's because I'm older, but I'm finding it harder to keep my mouth shut in situations like that any more. Maybe I'll have to do a blog post about the over use of spurs, especially on the heels of inexperienced riders.

Susan said...

Also, I have more sympathy for horses than riders.

Gayle Carline said...

I've only been riding for 11 years and always had an experienced trainer to help me. Most of the people at the ranch are working with one of the trainers, but sometimes we have boarders. Some are very knowledgeable, some very green. Would I VOLUNTEER to help the green ones? No. Would I answer their questions if they asked me? Yes. Usually, my only interaction is to ask their friends and families not to touch my mouthy gelding, not to scare the other horses, not to do the millions of things non-horsey people do around horses. I do ask them nicely.

Laura Crum said...

Promise--That is also a very good point. I am not known for my tact--I'm a very direct person, and some people don't care for this. Its one of the reasons I don't offer advice unless I think someone really wants my opinion. Others may be far better fitted with skills that would allow them to advise beginners without offending them.

Susan--Yeah, I hear you about the horses, but since I don't like my toes stepped on, I try not to step on the toes of others, if you see what I mean. Also, I don't know if there's any point in annoying someone who doesn't want your advice. It may only cause them to beat up the horse they're riding--and yes, this has happened to me. I told my tough old cowboy uncle he shouldn't beat a horse because he (my uncle) had given the horse conflicting cues, and he just beat on the horse harder. I learned to keep my mouth shut around him after that. It only made things worse.

Gayle--I'm like you. I set clear limits (politely, I hope) about what people can do with/around my horses and I don't generally volunteer advice unless I'm asked. But every now and then these gray areas come along, as we are discussing, and its hard to know what's best to do.

seabrooks said...

I really, really like this post because it outlines the biggest problem I had as a "raw" beginner - I am decidedly still a beginner!
But when I was first getting into horses, I got involved with "the wrong sort".
I thought I was getting an introduction into the horse experience by an "experienced horseperson". She had good background; she had high level show experience as a youth, briefly worked as an assistant trainer at a very prestigious barn, and taught lessons at a childrens beginner barn. She was friendly, cheerful, and great fun to be around. She did a lot of very generous favors without ever outright asking anything in return. I often felt I "owed" her.
What I got into was a deep emotional and financial relationship with a irresponsible, neglectful hoarder.
I ignored a lot of warning signs; like the fact she never stayed at the same stable for more than a year. That she never seemed to have the money for routine care like vaccinations and farrier work. That she easily lied in sale ads; everything was always greenbroke, up to date on farrier, deworming and vaccinations and often a kids horse.
Did anyone speak up to me? Well, yes. First a dull whisper, and then louder, and finally a roar.
Did I listen? No, my "friend" had a lot of excuses, justifications, and she just "loved" horses. Other people were "mean" and "out to get her" and I believed her and I defended her.
Arabians, old horses, young horses, broodmare, etc were supposed to be skinny.
Her stallion never escaped - the barn kept turning off the electric fence to save money.
A little tranq would take the edge off a horse in the auction ring, especially if they had never been to town.
She had to rescue every poor free horse with obvious medical issues, even though she couldn't afford to get a vet out. They'd get better with time and love. She'd get medical help eventually. It was much better than the horrible, awful slaughter truck.
So & so just called the SPCA to get back at her.
She was delusional. She deluded me. I won't hesitate to say that my relationship with her ruined my life. I in just under two years I lost everything starting with my self-respect and ending with my independence.
Did I wake up eventually? Yes.
Because the things kept adding up.
People kept talking, some tactfully, some politely, some rudely, some aggressively. But they kept talking despite the fact that she brushed them off, defended herself with a sob story or just got very nasty.
I got an education whether I wanted it or not because every time I looked at her actions or those poor suffering horses I heard those words.
I started out doing research looking for a way to defend her from those horrible "hurtful" people, and I ended up learning even more about how wrong everything was.
Eventually I didn't see daisies, dandelions, precious ponies or future show stars, and I saw sad horses in dire need of some basic realities, like food, training, and medical care.
So yeah, I want to say, SPEAK UP PLEASE.
It's very hard right now, because I did burn my bridges with my adamant defenses. I am forever tainted because of the things I did or enabled or just allowed to happen. Many reputable horse people will not even speak to me anymore, because of things I personally said to them or because I was such a close "friend" of hers. Still more hear about me because she is still out there and she has a new excuse for the past two years - me.
People are talking about me.
But, I deserve it, I honestly do.
I stopped, and I get a chance to change and maybe even make up for the horrible things that I was a part of, because people talk.

Laura Crum said...

seabrooks--That's a very interesting story. If I understand you correctly, you are now grateful that so many people offered you advice about your "friend", even though you initially resented said advice, and argued with the advisors. In your case, it sounds as though your "friend" was truly abusive, rather than an ignorant beginner--anyone who keeps taking on more horses than they can feed and care for is abusive in my eyes. Especially if they lie and drug horses to sell them...etc, as you describe. So the question changes to whether we should speak up when we see what we consider abuse, something that I've blogged about before. And yes, I think we should. I think that if we see a well meaning person deceived by an abuser, yes, we should do our best to point reality out to that person, though it may be a thankless task. And thank you for telling your story. You seem to have the courage to admit your mistakes and start over and that is a rare form of grace. Good wishes to you.

Jami Davenport said...

I had to drop in and offer my two cents on this one.

First of all, Seabrook, good for you for admitting your mistakes. I'm sorry you had to learn the hard way. Hang in there, most horse people will notice that you've changed and cut your a break. Your former friend only has clout with others like her, people you'd most likely not want to associate with anyway.

Laura, I don't give advice either. I've found it isn't usually wanted. Most people want validation, not constructive criticism. One friend of mine wants to teach her young horse to collect. I tried to tell her you can't collect without building up srength behind. She ignores me and continues down this path, having no clue that collection is a razor in a monkey's hand.

She won't spend a penny on getting help from a good trainer. She goes out and watches these backyard trainers and tries to figure out what they're doing then repeats it. Now she's decided to get a bitless bridle. I have no clue where she picked this up or why. I just smile and say "that's nice" and offer no suggestions of my own. Some person she met out riding is going to work with her little gelding now.

I just keep my mouth shut and smile.

seabrooks said...

Laura- Exactly. I am really thankful that people often offered me advice, often unasked for, frustrating, upsetting advice. Because, who knows, it could have been worse. I would say, yes, she was abusive, but I didn't know enough to separate the different kinds of abuse. I didn't understand how quickly in horses simple neglect becomes abuse.
She never could have become outright abusive without me, though. I gave her resources to neglect more horses; I supported her financially so she had more money to buy horses, I lied to friends and family about how many were her horses, I helped her rent a pasture so she had somewhere private to put as many horses as she wanted where those knowledgeable horse people no longer had eyes on her. My own horses were kept equally with her horses.
I was an abuser; because I was a well-meaning beginner with good intentions educated by someone I really trusted with a decent history of horse experience.
As you said, there are a lot of people out there giving "advice", if people like yourself don't chip in and make people think about the advice they are getting and present alternatives, well, what future would I have had?
It must have been horrible to talk to me; I'm a generally well-educated person in other respects, with the ability to turn a phrase and argue persuasively and competently. I am passionate, and enthusiastic. Worse yet, I was blindly repeating her words, while improving them in terms of phrasing and vocabulary. It was probably like trying to convince someone the sky is blue, while they threw your words back and you, and tried equally hard to convince you that the sky is really orange. What an ordeal it must have been to keep trying.

Jamie-Thanks. I have some hope because, well, all I want to do is be with horses. I have had three good instructors since then, all of whom I vetted more carefully, and all of whom I take with a grain of salt. It must also be terrible to teach me now; because all I do is ask "why?" "why?", and after every session I go home and google everything I learned and come back and ask "why?". Thankfully, I have found people with patience. One dropped me like a hot potato, no explanations after only two months; word must still be going around, but I am getting better, my horses are healthier and happier than I can remember, and I keep trying to make things better for me and for them. I'd really suggest that you keep suggesting that girl to hire a good trainer, even if she won't. Eventually, even I listened.

Laura Crum said...

seabrooks--I understand your point. I may do a post on this next--since I had the experience lately of hearing someone recommend a trainer that she had previously told me was abusive (and I had reason to know this was true). I did not know what to say and am still wondering. In the light of what you say, perhaps I should have spoken up.

I would also say that its best to understand the situation before you jump to conclusions about abuse/neglect. In your case, you had reason to know your friend was truly abusing these horses. But, for instance, I have one skinny old horse in a pasture who gets free choice equine senior delight and free choice grazing. He is thirty years old, and I am trying to decide when his quality of life is no longer good enough. His coat is OK, his eye is bright, he is sound, he still enjoys his chow. But if you drove by and looked at him, you'd say he was too thin. The truth is that I am doing all I can do for him, and I will put him down when it doesn't seem that he can enjoy life any more. So I also think people need not to point fingers unless they understand the situation.

HorseOfCourse said...

I find this a very difficult topic, because there are not any easy answers.
If people ask for advice, I will give it - as long as I feel comfortable in doing so.
Otherwise I observe, and think.
To a certain limit, where I still can keep a good conscience in not speaking up.

Laura Crum said...

Horse of Course--That's exactly how I feel, too. If I'm asked I will usually give my opinion--unless for some reason I feel uncomortable, as you say. But when I'm not asked, I am really hesitant to proffer advice. Unless I feel I need to speak up. And I often find this hard to determine. I will do a post on Weds on this subject. I think it is important. If someone in your barn was using rolkir (sp?)to train, would it be your impulse to tell them you thought this wrong? I have been faced with situations of this sort many times, and I remain confused. Will it do good to offer advice/opinions to someone you know is not open to them? Will it do harm? Its complicated.