Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Horse Trainers--For Better Or Worse

by Laura Crum

Awhile ago I posted about my dilemma when I was asked to advise a friend about “Choosing a Horse Trainer” (see my March post of that title). Well, now I’ve got an update for you. And I am more confused than ever. This, folks, is why I stay home and ride my own horses and don’t hang out with horse trainers much any more.

Following the advice I’d been given on this blog, and my own instincts, I gave my friend “Mary”, a short talk on the basics of professional horse training. I talked a little about “Jane”, the horse trainer Mary was considering going to, and a bit about other trainers, including a young guy named “Bill”, whom Jane regards as her competition. (All of these names are fictional.) Well, to make a long story short, Mary went ahead and put her horse in training with Jane. I see Mary from time to time (she’s a mom in my homeschool group), and the other day I asked her how it was going. And I got an earful.

I have to tell you, it virtually made steam come out of my abused ears. I wasn’t annoyed at Mary, who meant well, but really, the whole horse trainer thing is (or sometimes is) such an ego game. Basically Mary went and asked Jane about Bill, saying some people had recommended him as a good way to get some miles on a young horse for not too much money. You can guess what Jane said.

Yep, story after story about how inept Bill was, how he’d almost gotten his students killed, wrecks he’d had with horses, horse deals where he was less than forthcoming…etc. Mary looked at me with big eyes, wondering if I’d known all this about Bill when I’d recommended him.

I didn’t know where to begin. I tried to stick to a civil, polite tone, as I said calmly to Mary, “You know, Jane doesn’t like Bill. She considers him her competition. You want to take every story Jane tells about Bill with a grain of salt. And you want to realize, you’re only hearing her side of it. Nobody’s standing there telling you how Jane almost got her best friend and assistant killed putting said friend on a dangerous horse—and of course Jane had no insurance and no money to help with the medical bills. Or the time Jane advised some clients to buy an unbroken three-year-old mare. The clients wanted a different colt, but Jane liked this filly. Said she was a good mover and would make a better horse than the client’s choice. That filly turned out to have a few issues (pretty serious ones)--she almost killed those people, and, of course, Jane blamed their lack of skill. They should have ‘listened’ to her advice. She tells a good story about that one, really makes the clients look stupid. Doesn’t bring up the fact that she picked the mare and convinced them to buy her. Jane is a good storyteller and she knows how to say just the thing that can make someone else look bad…while she makes herself look like a saint. I’ve known Jane for a few years. She’s a decent trainer, not the best, not the worst. She’s very plausible and seems humble and well intentioned, especially if you’re a new client. But she’s had her fair share of former clients who are very unhappy with her and with whom she’s not on speaking terms. Until you’ve heard their side of the story, you might want to reconsider believing her every word.”

Well, Mary, who’s been riding with Jane less than two months, went on and on about how great Jane was, and how (lets call her “Cindy”), who also trains horses, rides with Jane and is always saying how great a trainer Jane is.

I kept my mouth shut. What was the point in telling Mary that Jane and Cindy currently have a little mutual admiration society? They each go around saying how great the other is. This is oh-so-common in the horse biz. Two trainers will be “friends” for awhile. But what Mary doesn’t know and I do, having been around Jane for more years than I care to say, is that Cindy is about the twentieth such “friend”. These mutual admiration relationships never last with Jane. Eventually Cindy will say something that is less than perfectly complimentery about Jane’s horse training skills, and Jane will get offended and suddenly Cindy will be in Jane’s black books and Jane will begin telling stories about Cindy behind her back and ignoring her when she sees her and making subtle, amusing comments to her clients about Cindy’s lack of skill. I’ve seen this many times before.

But I kept quiet. If Mary’s happy, I guess its fine. But it really frosts me to hear Jane run Bill down, making him sound inept, dishonest and worse. I know Bill, he’s a nice guy. I’ve hung out with him at the roping arenas and watched him ride young horses. He’s pretty handy, does a decent job, means well. He’s a far better rider than Jane is these days. Yes, I’ve known him to come out of a horse trading deal to his own advantage, but not because he outright lied. People, horse trading is like that. Really. If you don’t know much about buying and selling horses, take someone with you who does. Jane, and virtually every horse trainer I know, has profited from buying and selling horses. Jane, like every horse trainer I know, was not always totally forthcoming about every little detail, particularly those details that were not in her best interests to disclose. Her saying Bill was not always forthcoming is the pot calling the kettle black.

Of course, there was no point in saying what I believe to be the truth to Mary. Jane is nice to you because you’re a beginner and look up to her. Jane is nice to everyone who tells her how great she is. Jane fawns over the big name cowhorse trainers, and is tickled when they speak to her at shows. Jane generally resents and distrusts those in the horse biz who could be said to be her equal, unless they fawn over her; she never loses a chance to make herself sound good at the expense of her “competition”. Always in a careful, subtle, quasi-humble, humorous way, of course. Jane is quite clever in that respect. Nope, no point in saying this to Jane’s admiring new student. So I didn’t. But I swear, the next time somebody asks me about local horse trainers, I am just keeping my mouth shut. End of rant.

So now, after that diatribe, I want to give a few positive updates concerning horse trainers. Horse trainers are not all bad…listen to this. Remember Harley, the high powered rope horse I helped place with a beginner, after much thought and discussion? Harley had suffered a suspensory tear from which he had failed to heal after over a year and was deemed unsound for rope horse work in the future. When I last reported on Harley (around Thanksgiving), he was doing well in his new home and looked sound to me after several months of steady hand walking and regular turn out. I told the people I thought Harley was fine for light (walk/trot) riding. Well, last week I heard that a competent local vet had pronounced Harley sound, and the owners had placed him in a training barn in order to take lessons and leg the horse up so they could use him for trail riding. The woman knew only one local horse trainer (a neighbor), so she placed the horse in her barn. The funny part? This is a dressage barn.

I can’t imagine how odd Harley must have looked in the ring, surrounded by the other students, wearing the beat up roping saddle I helped his owner to acquire for very little money. Harley is an old fashioned type QH, very thick bodied and short coupled, with that particular straight, rather inflexible carriage that is typical of horses that have done nothing their whole life but be team roping horses. Harley is a very well broke horse for a rope horse—he neck reins at the lightest touch. But he does travel like a rope horse.

“What did the trainer say about him?” I wondered.

It turned out that the trainer was very complimentary about what a nice horse he was, how well broke, what a good trail horse he would make for his new owners. This is a testament not only to what a good horse Harley is, but to what an insightful person the trainer is, to recognize the good qualities in a horse who would not fit her discipline at all. The short story is that she supported and encouraged the new owners, gave them helpful lessons, and they are now riding Harley on the trail. I am really tickled. And my hat is off to the dressage trainer who could see what a well broke animal this team roping horse is.

Positive trainer story number two: my friend and boarder, Wally acquired a three year old colt with 30 days on him—this would be three years ago. Neither Wally nor I felt up to training a young horse, so we needed to rely on a horse trainer (or two) to help us. Not something either of us liked to do—we’ve always trained our own horses. But Wally is in his seventies and I am in my fifties and neither of us is up to the job any more. So we developed a program for Smoky that revolved around lots of turnout and some training with a good hand.

We turned Smoky (who had been raised in stalls and pens—his idea of a big space was an arena) out in my sixty acre pasture, which has lots of topography—hills and creeks and rock piles—for most of his three year old year, sending him to our trainer of choice for sixty days of riding in August and September. This trainer was/is a cowhorse trainer, with many horses in his barn that were to be shown. Both Wally and I wondered how much interest he’d have in Smoky, a nice enough colt, but destined to be a rope horse/ trail horse—nothing fancy. Anyway, Smoky got sixty days as a three year old and ninety days as a four year old, with the same good hand. The rest of those years he spent turned out in the big field, running wild with my two retired geldings. He learned to handle himself-- running full speed downhill, slopping through the mud, jumping the creek, slithering through the rocks. He learned how to be a horse. As a five year old he got sixty days in the spring with his regular trainer and ninety days in the summer with a rope horse trainer, learning his trade. Then Wally brought him home and we both rode him. Wally roped on him, I rode him in the arena and on the trail. Wally took him on a pack trip. Smoky did great—we both liked him. We turned him out for this last winter (Dec, Jan, Feb) and in March he went back to the original trainer for sixty days as a six year old. Wally is due to pick him up at the end of this month and he called the trainer to ask how Smoky was doing.

Now this trainer is a real laconic, cowboy kind of guy, he never says much. Getting him to talk about your horse is like pulling teeth. Not this time. Trainer went on and on about how much he liked Smoky, what a nice horse he was, how he wished he had a million like him, how much he enjoyed riding him. And he said, “This horse rally likes his work.” All this about our humble little rope horse in the reined cowhorse barn. It tickled me.

Here is a trainer who appreciated the time we took to make the horse. Who agreed with the long turnout periods. Who wasn’t in a hurry to get somewhere with the horse (of course, it helped that we weren’t in a hurry) and who appreciated the point of just making a nice all around horse who would/will never be a showhorse. A horse who has been one hundred per cent sound throughout his training, and has a good chance to stay sound. So, thanks, Gary—we really like how Smoky is turning out, and a great deal of it is thanks to your patient skillful riding. And for those of you who are interested in the sort of schedule that works to make a sound, well broke horse who likes his job, the above is an example of something that will/can do the trick. (God willing and the creeks don’t rise, of course.) No, this is not a schedule for showing your three-year-old at the snaffle bit futurity—that Holy Grail of so many cowhorse trainers. This is a schedule for the long haul—and once again, I so appreciate the trainer who can respect this goal.

Yep, horse trainers—you got to love em and hate em in about equal parts. Or so I think. Anybody else have a differing opinion or a story to share?


Joy said...

You would love my horse "trainer"/brother. He is amazing with horses. He speaks their language and they love him. Always patient.

He got a rangy, athletic paint horse who had been "trained" by a "cowboy" ( my friend is an actual cowboy, btw).

This horse did not trust. Anyone. The first time E got on him, he had to back the horse some 200 yards to the arena.

The paint is now a happy, competant rope horse who loves and trust everybody. I would never use another trainer.

He finished Willie for me, only over a 6 month period, and Willie has never forgotten what he learned. And that is priceless.

I loved your positive examples. They made me smile!

Maryannwrites said...

I just audited a Parelli clinic taught by David Lichman and it was great. There were several other certified Parelli trainers there, too, and they all had the greatest respect for each other. I think the scenario you described was a good illustration of the mistakes some can make when they are not professional. You don't talk dirt about your competition, no matter what you think of them

Jami Davenport said...


What you said just about sums it up. Plus, people get so passionate about their current trainer of the hour, that it's best not to get involved in trainer recommendations at all.

Laura Crum said...

Jami--you are so right. When "Mary" first asked me about "Jane", I basically said nothing. But then I decided I owed Mary a little straight talk, as she had asked my advice--and some folks on this blog recommended that I do this. I am now rather sorry I did talk to her, as all it resulted in was that she basically told trainer Jane that I had recommended her competition, and Jane then proceeded to talk the guy down (and no doubt talked me and my advice down as well). Whatever. But its not something I enjoy or want to be involved with. Which, as I said at the beginning of the post, is why I'm mostly a "horse hermit". I find all this infighting between trainers and fans of trainers very irritating. There is more than one good way to train a horse. Lots of ways can/will work.

Maryann, --Sounds like you met some nice people. I am not a big fan of the Parelli method of training, but there are those that love it. Just like I said above--there are many ways to train horses--its not as if there is one "right" method.

Joy--Yes, I was tickled to have two happy horse trainer stories to balance my annoyance with the whole "Trainer Jane" scenario. I guess I spent a little too long competing in the cowhorse/cutting horse world--I got pretty jaded with the trainer "schtick". It does not take more than a taste of that same sort of behavior to tick me off. I'm just not patient with it at all. Thus my rant. I do honestly think that all the ego and competiveness that I've seen in that world is a real negative--both for the people and the horses involved. But there are horse trainers who are not like that--as my positive examples show. Its great that you have such a trainer in your life.

Unknown said...

Give Mary the same time you give your horses to figure things out. She'll learn. As a newbie, I did.

It's tough when you come to horses late and get so much conflicting information about everything from shoes to trainers. Then, from people who really do know - they are so burned from these situations, they won't say a thing.

In effect, you are hosed as a newbie. Time has to be your teacher.

From the lips of this newbie, just be honest in your advice and let her take it in. In the "soak" all truth reveals.

Laura Crum said...

You're right Breathe. I probably did more or less what I should have done--except get so annoyed when Mary recounted Jane's stories about Bill. If I wasn't so burnt out on trainers being competitive (that was just the right word), I'm sure it wouldn't have bugged me so much. But just like I said to Joy, I think I've had a few too many encounters with that kind of posing in my life. A better person would just let it go and figure Mary would sort it out for herself. You're so right. I'll work on it.

stilllearning said...

I still believe that you did the right thing in giving real advice, even if Mary wasn't ready to hear it. Getting sucked into a trainer's orbit seems to be a right of passage for a lot of riders. When the glow has worn off, Mary will hopefully learn to make her own judgements of people, and will appreciate that you gave an honest opinion. In the meantime, you gave it a shot. I recall that you hesitated, but cared enough to want to warn Mary. The fact that she didn't benefit from your warning is not your fault.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, stillearning. I value your opinion. I was starting to feel like a real idiot for letting off steam in my "rant", since, as you and Breathe correctly point out, its really no skin off my back. I did my best to tell the truth--this isn't my problem. I guess I just found it annoying--it pushed all of my buttons to hear how "Jane" had run Bill down. Maybe I'm better off staying in "hermit mode".

Shanster said...

I'm glad I'm so local... my trainer... well, she has a full time day job. Her barn and horses are her 2nd income so maybe that's why her place is not like Janes place?

Her main focus is dressage and she prefers Holsteiners as her riding horses.

Her Dad was a cowboy - her brother is a cowboy who runs a few head. She has old, retired QHs in the pasture along with her warmbloods and used the QHs as schooling mounts before they retired.

Her clients who come for lessons on the weekend include a couple people who use dressage as a helpful tool for their trail rides, jumping, eventing etc. They include Arabs, QH, TB, warmbloods, paints, mustangs, draft crosses.. you name it. I've seen western saddles on horses in a lesson many times.

It remains small and local and really friendly and she is currently helping her sister to find a good solid trail horse...

It's nice to be around the diversity and the lack of "MY sport is the best" or "there is only ONE sort of horse to be had"

Her mom is that way too.. she's the one I started riding with back in the 80's. We were all at a clinic yesterday and while my trainer's mom was tacking up her GIANT grand prix horse, there was a little, sorrel mare poking her head over the stall door sweet as could be.

Carol was quite taken with her and asked about the mare and if the mare's owner knew what a wonderfully sweet horse she had... even tho she was a small, stout, western horse.

It's really nice to be around people who recognize nice horses no matter what their breed or background! I feel very fortunate that way...

And it seems Mary didn't really "listen" to what you said. I think there are others who would have been turned off by the negative speak and been able to be a little more subtle in asking Jane what they thought of Bill as well as taking things with a grain of salt once you shared your experiences on the topic.

No wonder you feel put out. I would too!

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--I'm just too quick to get annoyed, I guess. Your trainer sounds really great. I, too, love horse people who recognize a good individual horse--even when the type is far removed from their own discipline--and there are a lot of horse folks like that out there. Thank goodness.

Shanster said...

Hey - we ALL have stuff that pushes our buttons and annoys the livin' hell out of us!! I don't blame you for being annoyed at all... we feel what we feel. ;)