by Laura Crum
I ride several times a week with a group of horsemen at my uncle’s roping arena. Some of these folks rope; some, like me, are there just to gather and move cattle and ride and generally help out. There are four or five older (70’s and 80’s) ropers who have roped all their lives and some younger folks. My son is twelve and there is another teenage boy. Some of these people are pretty good horsemen, others not so much.
I bring my son there because I want him to grow up knowing the camaraderie of cowboys on horseback working cattle, something that was very important and inspirational to me in my own childhood. And this has definitely happened and it’s been a good thing.
Getting ready to gather the cattle on Henry (you can see the herd if you look past Henry’s ears).
Bringing the cattle up the alley.
Herding a recalcitrant steer into the stripping chute with the gang.
We have experienced a lot of very positive fun here. As I did when I was a child and a young woman, riding (and later roping) with this same group. But…there is a dark side. Sometimes people give advice—pretty forcefully. And sometimes this advice is not so good. In fact, sometimes it is downright detrimental. I suffered, due to this cause, as a young person, and I have pretty darn effectively prevented this crap from being visited on my son. But it’s still happening around us.
Advice is a tricky thing. Lately I have bitten my tongue, both in real life and on the internet, on some advice I would like to give. I think the advice might save a kid’s life. But I also think perhaps the parent of said kid doesn’t want my advice. The other day at the arena, I did break down and shout some much needed advice. And that got me thinking about other situations, about advice in general, and the dilemma of whether to speak or not. So here’s my story.
There is one individual at our local roping arena who often poses as a trainer and gives advice. Not just on horses, but on life in general. I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when this happens, because this individual’s track record with both horses and life events is not one that most of us would want to emulate. And yet the sage advice (in a rather self-congratulatory tone) just keeps on coming. It’s hard to resist the comment “Don’t hurt your arm patting yourself on the back.”
This person really likes to advise the one teenage boy who is learning to rope. The advice (and not particularly good advice, to be frank) comes thick and fast. It’s hard for me to keep my mouth shut, because I like this kid a lot, and the “trainer’s” advice is messing the kid’s horse up big time.
The thing is, I am (to put it bluntly) as good or better at reading a horse and getting along with a horse than this “trainer.” My track record when it comes to having happy, healthy horses that worked well for me and lived on into a contented old age is MUCH better than this trainer individual’s particular history. I at one time allowed this person to dictate to me, and believe me, it didn’t work out to my advantage. Nowadays I no longer pay much attention to what this individual advises or thinks, and guess what? I pretty much have no problems with any of my horses.
“Been there, done that” is what goes through my mind when the “trainer” begins to pontificate. And “You’re not going to mess me or my horse up ever again.” But the teenage kid doesn’t have this background. He listens to the “trainer” and tries to do what the trainer tells him. And it is totally not working.
I usually don’t give unsolicited advice. The exception is when I see someone headed for a wreck—I’ll try to help. I figure that if it saves their life it’s worth the fact that they might resent me. I don’t pose as an expert—ever. I’m just a sedate, middle-aged rider on a gentle horse, riding along with my kid on his gentle horse. I have spent most of my life with horses, and done a fair bit of training and competing, so I do know more than you might guess to look at me. But it’s fine with me if most horse people I meet just look right past me (in my Ugg boots and cargo pants, with my horse in his mechanical hackamore). I don’t look very impressive.
Still, the other day I saved this teenage kid from what might have been a serious wreck. I only did what any experienced horseman could do—the thing was that I stepped up and did it. Essentially I shouted some much needed advice at the right moment.
This teenage boy does need help. He’s learning to rope on a not very suitable horse—too hot and not very cooperative, willing to bolt and scatter. And though the boy is a good kid, he doesn’t really have a good intuitive understanding of his horse—he is apt to think the horse is rebelling or defiant when the horse is just upset and confused. I was the same way myself at his age. It is the commonest problem in the horse world. Rider gives cues that are confusing to the horse, horse doesn’t do what rider wants and rider punishes horse, convinced that horse is defiant. This makes the problem worse—horse is now MORE confused (not sure exactly what the punishment was for) and upset, and being confused and upset makes the horse almost unable to attend to even clear cues—which rider (also upset) is completely unable to give. A recipe for disaster.
Anyway, the advice from the trainer person is actually making the kid and his horse more confused and upset than ever. Then “trainer” starts yelling at the kid, because things are getting worse. Everything is going backwards. It’s very frustrating to watch.
So this teenager is giving his horse confusing cues in the box, due to bad advice. Rope horses find the box very stressful, anyway. It takes a good horseman to get along with a horse in the box. Despite the fact that the young boy is trying hard, what I can easily see is that he is more confusing his horse than helping him. So the horse either starts too soon or too late—because he doesn’t understand what is wanted. And then the horse is upset, and doesn’t check easily when the kid pulls on him, just basically runs through the bridle. The kid gets angry and begins jerking on the horse. The horse gets more upset—and everything just gets worse and worse, while the trainer keeps giving advice that isn’t helping. I can hardly stand it.
Anyway, for about the tenth time the horse gets out late, runs hell for leather to catch the steer, and won’t rate off when the boy pulls on him. The boy starts jerking on the horse and backing him up to punish him. Relentlessly. The horse starts scrambling backward, with the boy still jerking. And all of a sudden I feel the wreck coming. Nobody is saying anything to the kid. Trainer guy is muttering to himself about the boy screwing up, but nobody says a word to the kid.
I see the horse go down to his hocks, still scrambling backward—and I yell as loud as I can “Stop pulling on him!”
The kid hears me (as he told me later) and gives the horse some slack. The horse staggers backward another stride, catches his balance and stops, still standing up. I am 100% sure if the kid had kept on pulling the horse would have gone over backward. The horse’s hocks were scraped up and bloody from being buried in the sand.
Everybody looks at me—because I don’t usually yell at people. I shrug. “I didn’t want him to get hurt.”
Inwardly I’m thinking, what the hell is wrong with these people? I know they’re mostly tough old cowboys, but why wait for the kid’s horse to go over backward? They give a lot of advice when it isn’t helpful and then just sit here watching as a wreck is about to happen?
Anyway, the wreck was avoided, and the kid is fine—though still struggling with his horse, I’m afraid. For those who wonder why a thoughtful adult isn’t helping with this situation, it is because the kid’s dad is unequal to the task, and the person who poses as a trainer (with the less than helpful advice) is dominating everything to such a degree that the rest of us are mostly keeping our mouths shut because we don’t want to get into a shouting match with the “trainer.”. And no, it’s not a good situation. But I’ve sure seen it before.
This got me thinking about other wrecks in the making that I’ve seen with other people’s kids and kept my mouth shut about (because I thought my advice wasn’t wanted), and I thought I’d put said advice here in this post. Ignore it if you aren’t interested. Maybe it will save someone’s life.
1) Children under five years old should not be leading horses around without an adult right by their side, ready to take over if needed. Even saintly horses can spook, get stung…etc. A small child is very vulnerable to being knocked down or stepped on. And even saintly horses will learn to take advantage. It’s just not a smart thing to do.
2) It is safer to put small children in the saddle in front of you while riding a gentle horse than it is to put them up on the horse and lead them around. I learned this many years ago with my young niece. The horse only has to spook a tiny bit, or stumble, or shake, and these little kids will come right off. Contrary to what some say, riding in the saddle in front of a competent rider on a gentle horse is the safest for the very young child.
If you are not a competent rider or don’t have a gentle, reliable horse that will carry you and a child, the safest thing for the young child is to let him/her ride on a reliable small horse or pony and be led by one adult while another adult walks beside the horse ready to grab the kid (this won’t work with a big horse). Overkill, you say? I have personally known three very small children who tumbled off gentle horses while being led around. One horse spooked (a tiny little one step spook) and the other two shook themselves. The horses meant no harm. All three of these very young (less than 5 years) children were pretty traumatized by hitting the ground. (And yes, one of these three times it was my mistake—I was in my 20’s—leading my 3 year old niece around on a very sweet horse. I never made that mistake again.)
If you don’t have a truly reliable horse of any kind, do NOT put a kid up on your horse (in any way shape or form)—no matter how hard the kid begs. It’s not worth the risk.
3) Even competent teenagers need a LOT of supervision with horses. Trust me on this one. If you value your horses and your kids, keep an eye on them. Make sure things are done right. I have known SO many kids and horses that were hurt due to the teenager’s errors in judgment (my own teenage errors are large in my mind). It’s just not worth it. It sounds so wonderful to turn the horse and kid loose together, but it is not worth a dead kid or horse. And yes, I have known this to happen—more than once.
My cousin and I crippled one of the nicest horses I ever knew when we were about fourteen—catching him one day without adult supervision. We left the corral gate open when we went to get the horse and he ran from us, tried to make the hard turn to get out that open gate at a dead run, and hit his hip on the gatepost. He never really recovered from the resulting knocked down hip. Any horseman worth his salt would have seen that the horse meant to evade capture and made sure to shut the damn gate. But we were young and dumb and didn’t think of it.
4) Its great to teach a kid to saddle and bridle and tie up his horse. But don’t assume he’s done it right. Check. Because the horse that gets away and out on the road because he wasn’t tied correctly, and the saddle that slips under the horse’s belly, and the sore back or sore mouth from the incorrectly adjusted tack are just too much of a downside.
5) Don’t allow another person, trainer or not, advise/teach your kid unless you believe (with good reason) the trainer to be truly capable and kind and has your child’s best interests at heart. If you are not a horseman yourself, get an opinion from a knowledgeable horseman you trust on any given “trainer.” Try to remember that ANYONE, absolutely anyone, can call themselves a horse trainer. Many of them do not have much to offer. This goes for people who call themselves horse trainers on the internet, too. And for folks who give clinics. Including folks with a “big name.” It is really important to make a thoughtful judgment on whether any given “trainer” has knowledge and/or a teaching style that would benefit you/your child. So much harm can be done by a poor trainer whose motivation is not the best. Horse trainers are motivated by ego and the desire for ego gratification just as often as they are motivated by the desire to do some real good. Many so-called horse trainers have never really had much success training horses. Others have found very cruel ways to become “successful.” This is sad, but absolutely true. Oftentimes a knowledgeable horseman who does not pose as a “trainer” will be far more helpful and far less motivated by ego when it comes to giving needed advice. See my post above.
If you have no knowledgeable horseman that you trust to help you choose a trainer--and sometimes we all need help from a trainer--here are some simple guidelines.
Do you feel comfortable talking to the trainer? Does he/she treat you like an equal? Or do you feel patronized and/or manipulated? Trust me, this is key. It will not work out in the end if the trainer has no respect for you as a person.
Are the trainer's own horses happy, healthy, mostly sound, mostly working well into old age? Does the trainer find good forever homes for or keep his retired horses? If you can't answer yes to all of this, avoid the trainer.
Does the trainer have clients who have been with him/her for years and who are happy and relaxed around the trainer and will give their good opinion of him/her readily? Again, if the answer is not yes, avoid the trainer.
Finally, does the trainer have clients like you? If you just want your child to learn to ride well in a supportive atmosphere and every other client is someone who competes avidly at reined cowhorse, say (insert other disciplines here), it is unlikely in the extreme that the trainer is a good match.
6) Just because someone calls themselves a trainer or has a riding school or gives lessons doesn’t mean they have any real ability with horses. Nor does it mean they are trustworthy or have good judgment. Nor does it mean that their horses are reliably good kid’s horses. Do not allow anyone to put your child on any horse that you do not absolutely know is a reliable horse unless you have a good reason to trust this person (as in you actually know them, not because they have some sort of “trainer” title). The number of kids who I have known to be seriously injured (and yes once, killed) on “school riding horses” is significant. It is a very real danger.
7) And finally, do NOT buy into the notion that helmets keep you safe. They don’t. Helmets protect your head in the case of a fall (sometimes). There are great many other ways besides a traumatic head injury to get injured or dead when you fall off a horse. Helmets are a good thing—don’t get me wrong. My kid wears one. So do I. But by far the most important thing you can do to keep a child safe while riding is to be sure he is mounted on a reliable horse and that the person supervising uses good judgment.
The biggest problem I have seen lately concerns a local riding school where the ill broke horses have bucked off and injured numerous kids. But the parents still send their kids there to ride, thinking the kids are “safe” because they are wearing helmets. It really upsets me. (See my above point.)
I could think of lots more, but these are the ones I’ve seen lately—and kept my mouth shut in the interests of not offending. So I’m putting my advice out there in this post in the hope that it might help somebody. Everybody is welcome to ignore said advice. Please add your own thoughts/advice in the comments.