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?