Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Once Upon A Time

by Laura Crum

Awhile ago, reading some interesting horse blogs, I came upon some opinions about horse trainers and showing horses, and it made me think about the days when I was very involved with professional trainers and horseshows. In my twenties I worked for half a dozen trainers as an assistant (these were all cowhorse and cutting horse trainers), took lessons from many more, and practiced and competed with bunches of them. I learned a lot about this part of the horse training business, and I thought it would be fun to do a post on this subject and get your opinions.

I would like to point out, first off, that this era in my life is very much in the past—today I stay home and ride my own horses with my son, mostly on the trail. I don’t train or compete at all—and I’m not interested in going back to it. Funnily enough, I just talked to an old friend the other day, one who went much further in cowhorse competition than I ever did—this gal competed for many years at the national level. Today, like me, she trail rides—that’s it. Says she doesn’t miss going down the fence at all. So I guess there’s a few of us out there.

Anyway, to get back to my subject, back in the days when I was learning, training and competing with the pros, I found something out. You can learn something from everybody. There wasn’t one trainer I was ever involved with who didn’t teach me some useful tricks. I liked some trainers better than others, some I grew to actively dislike and thought they were cruel to the horses, but they all taught me something. I used what I learned from these guys to put together my own approach, which involved bits and pieces that I got from all of them—the stuff that worked for me-- and years later, when I was training rope horses for myself and my friends, I would often remember that old Joe had taught me this, or Sonny had taught me that.

The second thing I learned was that trainers rarely agree. I can count on one hand the times I heard a trainer praise another trainer’s method. No, invariably, trainers thought their own approach superior and were often quite hostile to the idea that another trainer had a good method. Trainers at the top of the pile were respected and spoke well of—because they won. However any trainer who could remotely be considered to be on the level of another trainer was competition—and each trainer considered him or herself to have a better “way”.

Mind you, trainers were not loud or boastful about this (in general). That’s not the cool trainer way. Trainers were mostly quiet and on the surface, perhaps, quite humble. It was only over time, particularly if you mentioned something you’d learned from someone else, that their deep rooted attachment to their own thinking and methods would show. If I ever disagreed, or brought up an idea I thought might be helpful, I was firmly put in my place. I quickly learned never to mention anything I’d learned elsewhere and to, in general, keep my mouth shut when working for or taking lessons from trainers. Overall, they were not open minded. Unless they asked for an opinion, it was best not to give one.

This did not mean that they didn’t have something to teach me, and, in the end, I became very adept at discarding ideas that didn’t work for me and acquiring methods that did. I started out training my horse, Gunner, to be a reined cowhorse, and rather rapidly burned out on the methods used (at that time) to create a competive bridle horse. I won’t go into the details, suffice it to say that after placing at the Snaffle Bit Futurity, I switched to cutting. I trained Gunner to be a decent cutting horse, even though I was pretty ignorant. I took lessons and rode for guys who were competitive and Gunner was just a nice horse. We won quite a bit at the jackpot club cutting level, and, again, placed at some big events. Not one but three professional trainers offered to train Gunner for free if I would allow them to haul him and show him. That’s how nice a horse Gunner was. Trainers do not, in general, offer to keep your horse in training for free.

Of course, what these guys were thinking was “what a nice horse—he could do so much more if I were on him instead of that girl who doesn’t know much.” And, of course, they were right. When I competed on Gunner, virtually every horse I showed against had been trained by a professional trainer. Even if I had wanted to go this route, by the way, which I didn’t, I could not have afforded it. I did not have the money to keep my horse in training. I worked for trainers so I could afford lessons and entry fees. When I pulled into those big cuttings I was frequently the only two horse trailer and old half ton pickup in the entire parking lot. Virtually every other rig was a long shiny multi horse affair pulled by a big dually.

Over time, the ramifications of this began to sink in. I had a good horse and I sometimes managed to get him showed. We placed and won from time to time. But it became clearer and clearer that the people who beat me, over and over, were people on professionally trained horses, either pros or people with a lot of money who kept their horses in training with pros. Were they just better?

A lot of the time they were. No question. And I really didn’t take it too hard whether I won or not; I was pretty focused on turning in a performance that I felt good about. But I couldn’t help but notice that those few folks who, like me, showed their own “homemade” horses, never seemed to get marked as high, even if they had a good run. After several years of this, I was clued in enough to understand.

Horseshows, including cuttings, are, in general, judged by people who are horse trainers. These people all know each other, and they also know all of each other’s wealthy clients. This is their business. They place each other and the wealthy clients far more readily than they place an “outsider”—its just the way it works. This is what puts money in their pockets; this is how they make a living. If Joe places Sonny, next week Sonny will place Joe. If Sonny places Joe’s wealthy client, then Joe is more likely to place Sonny’s wealthy client, and even more crucial, some day Joe’s wealthy client might move on to Sonny (and the clients moved from trainer to trainer all the time). Yes, a judge will place the outsider if he/she has a distinctly superior run. But if the outsider and the insider have similar runs, the insider gets the call every time.

I saw this quite clearly at one of the biggest events I went to. I was watching a class that I wasn’t in and saw a Nevada cowboy I’d never seen before (and neither had anyone else) have a spectacular go. Some very “in” folks showed against him, and did well, but not that well. What happened? The cowboy placed—he did so well they couldn’t ignore him—but he placed fourth, rather than the first he deserved. Its just the way it works.

And again, watching the open class at a big show, I saw a trainer I knew well have a very good go. I watched the whole class and felt sure my buddy would win or place high. He did not place at all. Afterwards I walked over to his rig and asked him, “Did you do something wrong I didn’t see?”

“Not really,” he said.

“Then why didn’t he use you?”

“Oh, he pretty much went with the board of directors.” (This would be the board of directors of the state association, many of whom, big name trainers all, had been showing in the class.)

“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked him, really wondering.

He shrugged. “I didn’t get marked today when I deserved to be, but somebody will mark me high when I don’t deserve it, and I’ll win the class. It’s just the way it goes.”

I knew what he meant. My friend was a well known trainer and though not quite as “in” as the trainers who had placed, he was plenty in enough. He was also a very talented trainer and eventually became very famous. He could make the system work for him. I was learning.

A year later I showed my horse in a biggish class (forty horses) at a fairly high level show (for me) and won the class. What happened? Well, I managed to get my horse showed, for one thing. And the judge was not a horse trainer. He was an old rancher who had got his judge’s card. He didn’t hang with the in crowd of horse trainers. He placed the horses he liked. It taught me something.

In the end, I burned out on the “political” element. And the cost. I really couldn’t afford this sport, and was spending more money than was appropriate on pursuing it. I could also see that I would never be truly successful if I persisted in training my own horse. I switched to team roping, which is judged only by the clock. And lo and behold, the political element vanished. There were lots of not-so wealthy folks winning, though, of course, the wealthy folks could afford better horses, lots of lessons, practice and entry fees…etc. But, overall, it was definitely much more fair.

Not that team roping was in all ways superior to cutting. I am not saying that at all. I could do a whole nother post on the the abuses I saw during the years I roped (which is why I don’t rope any more). But the political element was (mostly) missing. And horse trainers did not dominate the scene. After almost ten years of a world dominated by horse trainers and their so-strongly held opinions and endless competition with each other, I was ready for a break.

Since then, I’ve continued to value all the good information that I got from various horse trainers, and I’ve added the final piece to the puzzle. It isn’t going to come as any surprise to any of you when I tell you what it is. We’ve often talked about it, both on this blog and others. Listen to your gut. Its that simple. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, listen to your gut. Use your gut, and what knowledge you have, to be discriminating. Realize that no matter what any trainer tells you, there’s more than one way to get something done. If this trainer’s way doesn’t resonate for you, believe me, you can find another way to get the job done. You don’t need to be buffaloed by any given trainer’s opinion. It kind of reminds me of our discussion on this blog about feeding treats. There were hugely varied approachs, and all of them seemed to work for the people who used them. Its best to go with an approach that feels right to you.

Don’t get me wrong—it is absolutely vital and helpful to get the advice of a good trainer, or some sort of experienced horseman, while you are learning. Just don’t believe all you hear. If something doesn’t seem right, go get another “expert’s” opinion. As I started out saying, you can learn something useful from everybody. But hang onto your gut sense of what works for you, and don’t go too far against it. (I guess you could apply this to religion and politics, too.) There’s always another way to do it.

So how about you? Some of you, I know, like to compete, and I’m sure that many of you, like me, have had experiences with professional trainers and judged competition—for good or ill. Some of you are trainers—of many disciplines other than cowhorse and cutting. Has your experience been anything like mine—or has it been vastly different? What’s your take on it?


Anonymous said...

My daughters and I showed extensively for a number of years in the hunter/jumper world. We became tired of the "serviceably sound" (i.e. at best sore and at worst lame) equitation horses we saw, the primitive and coercive training methods used and the limited perspective and knowledge of most of the trainers - all they cared about was winning and it didn't really matter very much to most of them what happened to the horse in the process.

We found our way to a different approach to horses and their training, using humane methods and considering the horse and its welfare. My older daughter, who was 15 and 16 at the time, worked to retrain her jumper mare Lily (who before that was rideable only with a lot of coercive hardware) to go in a simple snaffle without gadgets. She continued to compete the mare successfully in jumpers (up to 4 feet), and in their last big class at year-end finals, they went double clear and placed third, ahead of many trainers riding their own or clients' horses. In jumpers there can be no favoritism by judges - it's just do you clear the jumps and what's your time, that's all. The mare had to be retired due to heaves, which was unfortunate as she had the ability to go much further.

My daughter, who is now 20, has been competing the rescue horse she has retrained in hunters, and has been getting some decent placings. In our show circuit, many of the judges are brought in from out of state and seem to be more impartial, although judging hunters can be a little bit like judging ice skating - there's a big subjective element.

I don't miss showing at all - I'm doing more interesting things now with my horses, and I don't miss the show grind.

Interesting post - it is true that we can often learn something from even the most repugnant trainers -if only what not to do!

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I know what you mean about jumpers being more fair. Team roping was the great equalizer for me. Judged only by the clock and the flagger. Certainly I saw plenty of classes judged very fairly, both in cutting and reined cowhorse. But I saw a lot of the political thing, too. And though I didn't go into it in this post, yes, all the half crippled horses being pushed to go on (and then thrown away like used sporting equipment when they couldn't do it), the brutal training methods...etc. These were all part of the reasons I gave up competing.

There are good horse trainers out there, no question. There are a lot of not so good trainers, too. And there is a very large group who are effective at winning but, as you say, they don't care much what happens to the horse in the process. That was what I found, too.

Laura Crum said...

For those who are interested in the saga of my son and his lazy horse, Henry, I have an update. Henry got two weeks off due to weather--this week we have ridden him a couple of times. Henry feels good. Today my son rode him and Henry was quite willing to lope. My son loped him a bit--I had him lope three or four laps, stop, then lope three or four more...etc. Eventually Henry wearied of this and tried his chosen resistance. I had my son get the horse's head up (which he was able to do quite easily) and then lope half a lap, half turn, trot half a lap, half turn, lope half a lap. My son and the horse executed this well. Then I told my son to long trot Henry. My kid long trotted the horse for quite awhile--eventually Henry tried his resistance again and my son corrected him and remained firmly in charge. We rode the horse a little while more (this was a half hour ride total and Henry's hair was warm but not wet when it was done). I thought it very successful. Henry looked like his old self almost all the time and when he did offer his resistant behavior he gave it up quickly and easily. All the riding today was done by my son (I rode Sunny, who felt good, too). I'm pretty happy with how its going. We will still have to work through the ramifications of Henry having developed this vice, but I think we're getting there. I've put a loose shanked broken mouthed bit on the horse and it seems to work well. Anyway...progress.

Susan said...

I recently bought a horse with fancy cutting bloodlines. How I got him is a story for a blog post, but he's talented and was about to fall through the cracks, so to speak. He's with a trainer right now, the first time I haven't trained my own horse. I'm not sure what I'll do with him, but I've never ridden a cutting horse and really want to. Part of me would like to show him, but I also dislike the political element of judged events. However, where I live, it isn't real competitive and for the most part people get along.
The trainer my horse is with right now competes in reined cow horse, and he's of the horse whisperer type and a friend. Most of his business is starting colts and occasionally he gets to show a horse for someone. I'd love to let him show my guy, but I can't afford it right now. I just don't know how far I'll get myself. I guess I'll see what happens.

Laura Crum said...

Susan--the best part of the whole cutting thing is that riding a cutting horse is really fun. You can enjoy the fun without competing, of course, and also at the club cutting level people are mostly pretty relaxed. However, competition of any sort seems to often (not always) bring out the "less nice" side, or so it seems to me. When I was training my own horse to cut, the hardest thing was the cattle. If you can get regular practice on decent cattle and somebody with some knowledge to coach you, you can have an awful lot of fun with it. Whether you compete or not. And I sure hear you on the "just can't afford it" front. That was oh-so-true for me, too.

Terri Rocovich said...

Great post Laura!!!!! And I agree with every word of it. I have been a professional trainer for nearly 20 years and a competitive equestrian for over 40 (oh my God I am that old) and I too have seen the gambit of good, bad, indifferent,abusive and politically motivated. The world of competitive Dressage is to this day riddled with judges that are less than impartial critics of the perfomances before them. I love Dressage and still compete in it but I pretty much know that I will always place behind any "celebrity" level rider in the class. I continue to compete for my satisfaction, not the judges.

You don't see as much of this in the world of 3-Day Eventing, because you either make it through cross country and stadium or you don't. The physical challenges and potential hazards of eventing pretty much separates "the men from the boys" so to speak and also tends to bond many of the trainers in the sport in a strong fraternity. I am very close friends with many of the top trainers in the sport and we all respect each other, refer clients and horses to each other, and encourage our students to ride in clinics with many other trainers.

Like you said Laura, we take something from every trainer we work with and it is all knowledge that strengthens our base and hopefully benifts our horses.

I think that every trainer should and/or has to decide what kind of trainer they are going to be: one motivated my money and competitive glory, or one motivated by the bond and partnership with the horse and what is best for each horse and each rider. I like to think I am one of the latter. Luckily for me my life has always been guided by a strong moral compass and I would rather lose a client than violate my personal code of ethics which always considers the animals well-being first.

Laura I agree with you wholeheartedly that everyone needs to find a trainer that fits with them and their horse on a personal level. Unfortunately for every good trainer out there, there are at least 10 bad ones. The horse that I am currently competeing, (the one that I am pictured on on the front page of this blog) was rescued from abusive "Charro Trainers" who terrorized him and left him covered in spur scabs and other scars. It has taken almost 5 years, but today Hank loves his life and looks to please at every turn.

Again, great post Laura, it is a great subject to open up commentary on.

Unknown said...

It amazing - you find this in nearly every type of competing where the judges can be subjective. Gymnastics. Ice skating. Talent shows.

I was part of a Renaissance group once and one day a friend and I decided to go to another group's award dinner. At one point during the ceremony she turned to me and said:

"Isn't it lovely. Everyone here truly deserves their awards."

I knew exactly what she was talking about.

When we set ourselves up to be judged, we truly set ourselves up.

stilllearning said...

Good post. I agree with so many of your points that I don't have much to add. Since I don't care much for the whole show scene, and won't have the money to ever "do it right" I plan to stick to the local shows and just chuckle over the results. My showing will be for me to test my progress, and I will (have to) be the main judge of how we did.

I also got very sick of the use-and-discard treatment of horses back in my hunter days. That's one of the reasons I drifted towards dressage, and trying to build up the horse more than use him up. It's disappointing to realize that competition in dressage leads to similar horse misuse.

I agree that eventers tend to be less of a closed clique in general, and there's a better atmosphere. They also have a better horse care approach in general, maybe because it's hard to fake your way around a cross country course. I've still seen too many horses hurt, as the riders test moving up a level or running on bad footing, but most of those were judgement calls that could have gone either way. It's a difficult and demanding sport.

Way to go "Laura's son" and Henry!!! Sounds like you picked the best bits of advice and made them work. Yeah! Good work on all parts :)

Laura Crum said...

Terri--thanks so much for your insightful comment. I was almost afraid to do this post, thinking you might be offended. What you say is certainly what I saw, and though I would not, perhaps, have dared to say that there are ten abusive trainers out there for every one who truly cares about a horse's well being and not just about winning (and money), this is what I, also, believe. But, of course, part of the reason trainers are this way is that there are a great many clients who only care about winning. I am very glad to hear your take on it, and even more glad to get to know you--a horse trainer who does care about her horses. Its also interesting to me that dressage judging is so much like the cowhorse events I used to compete in. Your point that the cross country jumping and stadium jumping are much less subjective certainly fits with Kate's point about jumpers versus hunters and my own experiences with team roping versus cowhorse and cutting. The more the event is "judged" by a person, the less fair it is.

And Breathe, you put it so much more elegantly than I did. "When we set ourselves up to be judged, we truly set ourselves up." I agree. For many years I tried to do as Terri said, just turn in my best performance for my own satisfaction. But in the end, for me, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't even want to be around people who were doing abusive things to horses and being unkind to others, all in the interests of winning. I didn't want to support that thinking in any way, including by my prescence. Today, I hope to continue on a path with my horses that is free of the insidious negativity of judged competition.

And stilllearning--thank you for the advice on transitions. As you can see from my "update", transistions (and I was thinking of your advice at the time) are part of the way I am working on this problem. That and the different bit, more awareness and respect for Henry's feelings, and lots of work at the long trot when the horse doesn't want to lope--these things, plus some time off for Henry so that he feels more lively and less ridden down, seem to be helping.

And everyone--I was a bit dubious about doing this post, for fear it would sound too attacking, so I am somewhat suprised and pleased that everyone who has written in has much the same take on it. I was fully expecting to be called out by those who would say that the horse biz isn't that political and it was just "sour grapes" on my part.

stilllearning said...

Laura, I'm glad you posted this despite your worries. I suspect that the followers and commenters on this blog are of a similar mind; you can tell from the comments that few of us are win-at-any-cost-ers. It's good to hear agreement from so many. But what can we do to change this? Is opting-out the only choice we have?

It makes me sad that so many unwittingly feed the monster and contribute to the cycle of horse abuse. Yes, trainers have to make money. Yes, owners want to win. But surely there's a way to train horses responsibly, encourage your clients to have realistic goals and still earn a living. Surely there are owners willing to take the time it takes. I doubt many trainers start out taking the "low road", and doubt that many owners ask to cut corners. We need to keep repeating that training horses takes time; we need to keep educating the horse world that this is a long, long-term commitment. There should be no rewards for quick fixes.

The more times and more places little pockets of people agree that the current system is not working well, the more hope that it will eventually change. So, I'm really glad you brought up the subject. (Stepping off my soapbox now...)

And yes, I saw that you'd used transitions (teehee), and admired how you made it work for your son's level of riding. He's going to end up being a very competent rider at this rate.

Laura Crum said...

Wow--stillearning, those are great points. OK--I have to admit, I have a somewhat jaded, cynical attitude when it comes to the whole competition thing. Yes, I just opted out. I have to say, it strikes me as unlikely that there will ever be widespread consensus in the competitive horse world that the horse's quality of life should be as important as winning. That every horse who works hard and does a good job should get a happy retirement. I think people who write in to horse blogs are a certain kind of people--they reflect on horses and want to do right by them, by and large. Many people out there in competitive horse world (of all sorts) really, really want to win. They don't actively mean to be cruel, they don't set out to torture horses, no. They just turn a blind eye. They accept that some things are just "the usual way its done". They don't question their trainer. And when their show horse is "used up" they sell him, saying lightly that he'll "find a good home", never bothering to check, and trying to avoid at all costs the obvious knowledge that most such horses become "trading horses" and end up at the saleyard. People don't mean to be cruel, usually, but in the interests of winning they can turn a blind eye to a lot. That's been my experience, anyway. I guess I think that unless winning is very secondary in a person's mind, abuse will continue. And since competition is so much about, well, competing (which means trying to win), I'm afraid I think that as long as we focus on competition, we will see plenty of abuse. There will always be good people who compete and put their horse first. But they will be in the minority. And they won't (usually) win as much as the sort that puts winning first. I'm sorry. I wish I could sound more hopeful. Anybody got any more optimistic thoughts?

Terri Rocovich said...

Laura, I don't think you are being pessimistic I think you are being realistic. Sadly, I agree that there will always be mistreatment in the horse world and will be those motivated by greed and selfishness.

But I think the best way to change and break the cycle is with the younger generation, doing the kind of horse activities and training that you are doing with your son. It seems to me that you have taught him that working with horses isn't always easy and that it takes time and patience and that it is all about the joy of doing. I wish every horse parent would do that.

My approach to this problem as a trainer is to change the horse world one child at a time. At my barn our motto is "it is all about fun!" and believe me this is sometimes a hard sell in a barn full of type "A" competitive, driven kids. Not to mention the parents. That is also why I stay so involved with the United States Pony Club, because even though competition and ratings is a large elememt to the USPC program, the curriculum stresses teamwork, comraderie amd horse care. The organization has a code of conduct that kids, parents and trainers are strictly held to. The USPC motto is "a happy child on a happy horse."

All of my students must pay attention to their education (minimum of a B average) and the daily care of their horse first, before they get to compete. If the parents have a problem with that (and I have only had disagreement from 1 or 2) then they find another trainer and I am often happy and eager to refer them.

Perhaps if every parent stressed that it is more about the lifelong journey of horsemanship, not the stops (ribbons) along the way that truly matters, than we could raise a new, better generation of equestrians. One can hope.

Laura Crum said...

Terri--Those are great ideas. Since I began raising my son with horses after I had given up competition altogether, the issue of ribbons and "winning" just hasn't arisen (yet--I'm not saying it won't). We have always had our horses as part of our lives, including our retired pasture pets, and we have always ridden for the pleasure of it. Horsemanship happens naturally by having to cope with what comes up. I have never given my son formal lessons, but he continues to progress as a rider. Henry's recent bout of disobedient behavior has actually resulted in my son becoming a more effective rider--as one reader pointed out (I'm sorry--I forget who), this may be, in part, why Henry did it. These old horses are pretty smart. Anyway, thanks for the kind words, and the hopeful insights. Today we plan to take the horses for a ride on the beach. Perhaps if horse people prioritized such pleasant events for horse and rider over stressful training to win some class, a better life for horses (and their riders) would result. And yet, I do know the allure of training and progressing, having done it myself for many years. I also know the fun of competing with one's friends. The "best" thing to do with our horses is not a simple equation, not by any means, and I'm not saying that there's any simple solution. But its a worthwhile discusssion.

Funder said...

I ride a TWH, and the only thing I learned from watching people show them in the South is that I want absolutely nothing to do with it. :(

I know there are a few good trainers out there, and a handful of people who really train their Walkers and then go on to win, but most people don't train at all. Just make sure the horse isn't trotting or cantering, crank the head back for the right headset, and stay on the rail. And the shows are all extremely political, even down to local levels.

Now I'm gearing up to do endurance, where the focus is about 95% on the horse's soundness. It's a nice change. I doubt we'll ever be competitive, but we'll have hours and hours of fun participating. :)

lopinon4 said...

I show primarily open and 4H shows, allowing my students this option when enrolled in my Horsemanship Program. The politics are appalling on these levels, and although I try my best to encourage students to focus on self-pride and achieving personal goals in the showpen, it's very disheartening to see this poison spreading in the show world. What a shame.
Thankfully, I think this will be my last year to offer this as part of my program, and potentially my last year teaching...I'd rather just ride and enjoy my horse before I'm too old to do so.

Laura Crum said...

lopinon4 and Funder--I see that I'm not alone. And that the politics thing is pretty universal, not just in my own niche of the horse world. I guess I always thought this was true, but its interesting to hear it verified by folks from other horse disciplines. It is a shame. And endurance does seem like a great way to compete, if one does want to compete. Thanks for the enlightening comments.