Sunday, October 13, 2013

Beware of Horse Gurus

                                    by Laura Crum

            And especially beware of horse trainers who think they are gurus. You know, the sort that imply that somehow their wonderfully in depth understanding of a horse (in their own opinion) makes them enlightened in all aspects of life. If you study these folks closely, by the way, their own lives are usually a train wreck. And the biggest red flag of all? It’s when the horse trainer/guru states oh-so-publicly that ego has nothing to do with what said trainer is proclaiming/doing. These folks are the most ego-driven of the lot.
            This is so obvious that I would think it would go without saying, and yet over and over again people are sucked in and deceived by these self-proclaimed “gurus,” whether in the horse world or the spiritual world. People, wake up! Those who know don’t talk much, and those who are busy telling everybody how wise they are don’t usually know much. This is a good rule of life, in any discipline.
            So the other night I went to a party at which several horse people were present. There is a reason I don’t often go to parties, and it was demonstrated to me this particular evening. I was just returning from the bar with a weak gin and tonic in my hand, when I got sucked into a conversation with a friend. And before I quite knew what happened, several other people joined the group and I found myself listening to a local horse trainer expound about a recent disaster.
            I’ve known this horse trainer for years—let’s call her Trainer Jane (not her real name). At this point she’s a somewhat stout middle-aged woman (like me), who has her assistants do most of the riding—and all of the difficult riding. Jane mostly gives lessons to beginners these days. And even in her prime, she was not quite the great hand with a horse that she would have you think. She has no particular claim to have done well in the show ring, or really, anywhere at all. But to hear her tell it she is a horse guru. A completely egoless horse guru. Yeah, right.
            There wasn’t as easy route out of this group, so I listened to Jane’s story. All about a horse she supposedly broke and trained and made a nice riding horse out of, then sold to someone who essentially got bucked off and hurt badly. Jane’s take on this was just enthralling some of her fans, who stood near her.
            Jane was oh-so-nobly blaming herself for this catastrophe, but not in the obvious way. Oh no. It was not that Jane had failed to get the horse properly broke…of course not. It was that only Jane had the skills to work with this hot horse. The new owner, his trainer, his friends (all competent horsemen), were just not up to the task. Jane blamed herself for selling the horse to people who clearly weren’t horse guru enough to handle the critter. Only Jane was competent to deal with this horse.
            At this point I was rolling my eyes...but I kept my mouth shut. What I would have liked to have said was this: “It’s a common problem. Horse trainer essentially steals a ride on a difficult horse, and the horse looks pretty broke, but it isn’t. Horse trainer sells the horse to someone who isn’t expecting to have to steal a ride (and in western horse lingo “stealing a ride” means doing everything just-so in order to prevent a difficult horse from acting up), and the horse comes unglued and does something violent. One of the first things I learned when I worked as an assistant to some pretty effective horse trainers is that you don’t steal a ride. Good horse trainers sort out what a horse has really got—they don’t just ‘get by’ the horse. That’s asking for exactly the kind of disaster that actually happened.”
            But of course, if I had said this, Jane would have become unglued and totally defensive. In her view it was not that she had failed to train the horse effectively—it was rather that others (including quite competent trainers) just didn’t have Jane’s horse guru skills. In the past I have seen exactly how hostile so-enlightened Jane becomes when her methods or thinking, or her all-wise guru stance is questioned in any way. So I didn’t say anything. And I rather quickly found a way to wiggle out of that group and rejoin my husband and son for a game of pool. Problem solved.
            Except it bugs me. The horse world is so full of these people who are constantly posturing about their amazing horse training prowess—in the same breath in which they proclaim themselves free of ego. Does anybody else see the huge contradiction in this? The basic underlying message is always “I know more about horses than anyone around me…and by the way, there is no ego involved here.” To top it off, usually the individual’s actual track record with horses (let alone people) isn’t all that great. I find this both irritating and a huge disservice to all the beginners that get taken in by these “horse gurus.” Pose as wise and knowledgeable, and hey, presto, the naïve newcomers to the horse world who honestly want to learn will assume that you ARE wise and knowledgeable, and never stop to take a look at what this so knowledgeable trainer has actually managed to accomplish with horses in his/her lifetime. Or even consider what a train wreck this person’s life has been. These horse gurus are feeding their egos and their pocketbooks on the admiration of those who are relatively ignorant about horses, without really doing much to deserve it. Believe me, I have seen this over and over again.
            I know, it’s no skin off my own back. I’ve been around the block, and I’m not going to have my chain jerked by a guru of any sort, horse themed or otherwise. I imagine many of you who are reading this feel the same. But do you, like me, find it just a tad bit offensive when you are faced with this particular brand of hypocrisy?


How Sam Sees It said...

I'm with you on that, and I've got a "friend" who is the same sort of person. I just shut my mouth and walk away.

AareneX said...

I had a former "friend" like that...but I was young and didn't know better at the time. Sigh. Wasted a bit of time there, finally got out and figured out how much I'd learned NOT to do. Bigger sigh.

The peeve I've got right now is "trainers" on the internet/fb pontificating about what's wrong with everybody else's horse, and telling people (including young/uninformed people) how to fix problems "the right way" including euthanizing all horses who kick, bite, or buck...AND dissing the input of experienced veterinarians because "they just want your money."


Laura Crum said...

Sam--You are so right. I used to argue with these self-proclaimed gurus, and I have learned not to do that. It does no good--the beginners still think the guru is enlightened...they just think I'm a mean-spirited non-believer. If I make a good point, it's just ignored. So I keep my mouth shut...with the exception of the occasional blog post.

Laura Crum said...

Arene --I'm with you. In general, if anybody asked me (and its fine if they don't), I would suggest avoiding any form of internet advice. Its just too hard to sort things out accurately this way. Some internet advisors/facebook friends can be helpful, and some will be supremely unhelpful...and how is the poor beginner to know which is which. If you stick to advisors you meet in real life, you at least have a chance of evaluating how effective they actually are at training horses, and whether they are people that you wish to associate with. I can spot a "poser" a mile away in real life, but I have been fooled in a big time way in the past when it comes to the internet.

Unknown said...

I agree, it's very unfortunate that new horse people get taken in this way. And you know I'm with you on the eye rolling about egotistical hypocrites. I hope that most people truly interested in horses persevere until they know enough to ignore that sort of shit, as we all did. Probably not always the case but I bet every experienced horse person waded through their share of fools to get there.

Personally I am all for learning til I go blind and deaf, and then I guess it'd be time for Braille and SL. I don't care what discipline the horse info/wisdom falls under, if it's valuable to me and my horse I will take it on or learn more to see if I should. There's not enough time in life to learn everything for yourself and I've learned some really valuable things by paying attention and listening to the REAL gurus out there. Of course, they are generally the ones not claiming to be anything special.

Laura Crum said...

Bird--I totally agree. The real gurus are exactly what you just said--"generally the ones not claiming to be anything special." I have learned a LOT from this sort. And, like you, I had to learn to ignore the plethora of advice/wisdom from those who love to pose as trainers/teachers, but don't actually have much to offer. The sad thing is that I took a lot of this bad advice when I was younger, and it not only did not help me in my work with horses, but it actually hurt both me and my horses. It took me a long time to gain enough knowledge that I could tell bad advice and poor teachers from what was truly helpful.

gillian said...

Stealing a ride! I have needed this term for so long and not had it. Thank you.

Dom said...

What an interesting point! The world does seem to be filled with these people. I tell my clients that my goal isn't to be able to ride your horse, it's for YOU to be able to ride your horse.

Laura Crum said...

gillian--I love that term, too. It's an old cowboy phrase.

Dom--One of the things I most admire about you as a trainer is that you are always quite clear that the goal is for the client to be able to successfully ride and get along with his/her own horse. I wish more trainers were like you.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

The best trainers I know don't trumpet what they do, nor do they play the self-effacing fake game.

Shooting holes in fake gurus was one thing the late rec.equestrian Usenet group was notoriously good at. Any guru who survived the Wreck's critique probably was the real thing. Most gurus didn't survive. The wars were pretty epic, too.

I've thought about going into training, but I don't have a big enough ego to make a lot of money at it--plus I'd want to take longer than most folks want to deal with. I also don't do gimmicks like stand on the horse's back, lay them down, or anything like that. Plus, really, all I've got to point to for my schooling results is Mocha, and in my book, that's not enough.

Heck, G's college students brag more on how they perceive they are "training" the horses they ride than I would, or did when I was lessoning...their Facebook page is full of them congratulating themselves. Yikes.

Anonymous said...

Here's another guru trick I've seen demonstrated more than once: take a horse at a clinic, usually a green, confused youngster, and put him in a situation he's not ready for, scare the heck out of him, pressure him until he freaks out and then give a big lecture about what a difficult, spoiled, poorly trained horse he is. It's so dramatic, and so unfair to the horse.

I made the mistake of taking my horse to a clinic like that once. He was green, but willing, pretty level headed most of the time. What he didn't have was any experience away from home and away from his little herd. I was able to ride him, and he had pretty good manners. The "cowboy" guru took him to the round pen as an example of all the wrong things that happen when you don't pay $1000 to buy his tapes. Of course I was accused of stealing a ride every time I got on him because he wasn't used to the noise, lights, and a screaming temper tantrum amplified by a microphone. I'm not a professional trainer, but I know you can't teach a horse something new when he is terrified.

There's more to the story than that, but needless to say it's a sore spot with me and I agree with you about the ego. After that, it took me 30 days to ride my horse again. I've plodded along slowly and we get along pretty well without the guru. I'd rather have an honest cowboy riding my horse, even if he seems a little rough, than someone like that who deliberately misreads the horse and lies to the audience about what he's doing.

Laura Crum said...

Joyce--Isn't it amusing (sort of) how people who are new to horses are so full of themselves after a year or so of riding? Instant trainer. Yikes is right.

redhorse--Yes, that is the page I'm on, too. I dislike these posing horse gurus--pretty much all of them. And I, too, have learned quite a bit more from some cowboys who might have seemed rough to the novice horseman than I have learned from all the horse gurus out there--including the internet divas. I am not a fan of clinics--it's what you do on a day in day out basis that counts in my book, not what you can accomplish in a weekend. I think your experience at that clinic is just exactly why I never had any interest in such an event. Just a chance for horse trainer/guru to do a lot of posing, not a way to further one's horse's training, for the most part.

horsegenes said...

Well you know where I have been with trainers and how trainer shy I am at this point in my life.

My horse shoer - whom I adore and who is quite a hand - told me years ago that he would never hang his trainer shingle because "all trainers are liars and thieves". His sour attitude came from working with a very well known rope horse trainer for 14 years. It took me atleast 5 years for me to understand that he was pretty much right on. I guess I have always had to "touch the stove" to make sure it was hot.

At this point, the "janes" don't exist in my world. I just ignore them and move on. Not even going to give them the satisfaction of getting my attention.

Laura Crum said...

horsegenes--I hear you. I feel exactly the same. It does still irk me when I see well-intentioned people who are new to the horse biz getting taken in. But I guess we all have to learn this lesson for ourselves. Couldn't help the post though--maybe it will wake one or two up.

Mindy said...

The owner of a barn I boarded at is one of those so-called "horse guru" people. She thinks she knows everything about horses and even has a sign on the side of her truck that says "dressage trainer." Yeah, right. She has two horses she's scared to death to ride, yet she feels free to dispense all sorts of unasked for advice. When anyone would ride in the arena, she would sit on a bucket in the middle and tell you everything you were doing wrong. When I broke my foot and had a friend riding my horse, she actually had the gall to say "why can't you ride like that?" There were so many comments that came to mind but, being non-confrontational (or a coward), I didn't say anything. A couple of days later, she asked me if I'd mind if she used my horse to take dressage lessons, apparently forgetting that she's a self-proclaimed dressage trainer (cuz it says so on her sign). REALLY? I, of course, told her no, though what I wanted to ask her why she didn't just use one of her own obnoxious, untrained horses (one of which is 15 years old). Needless to say, I got out of there as soon as I could. It was such a relief to be away from that horrible woman.

RiderWriter said...

Ah, yes, I'm afraid we are all familiar with the "PT Barnums" of the horse world, as there are FAR too many of them! Poised and ready to strip as much money possible from as many "suckers" as they can round up. Well-to-do middle-aged women, in particular.

I just had to help my daughter buy a used car, and was very nervous about setting toe in that arena. Buying a horse would send me into a complete tailspin, I'm afraid, and they there would be the trainer, farrier, vet, etc. Everyone I know has different opinions on the folks around here. Heck, I sent my neighbors to my vet with their new dog and they couldn't stand her (just her personality, they had no problem with the medical treatment), so a lot of it comes down to personal taste, too!

Laura, I bet you were just standing on your tongue, just like when you were at that rodeo training recently and had to watch the young guy listen to the idiot trainer. I don't know how you do it!

Laura Crum said...

Mindy--Yep, that is exactly the sort of person I am talking about.

RiderWriter--Now that is funny. Because I am not known for "standing on my tongue" (great phrase). I am much better known for speaking my mind--sometimes to the dismay of bystanders. However, I have learned (it took awhile) not to bother speaking when it will do no good at all. And this was one of those situations. The people listening were fans of this "horse guru" and they would only have shrugged off anything I said. I wasn't going to waste my breath or emotional energy.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Britain isn't such a land of 'guru trainers' however there are some guru-types nonetheless. They seem to crop up more in sales than training - however they can do just as much damage.

A few years ago "one of our leading younger competition riders" (= young woman whose family have land and money to support her full time hobby) tried to sell me a "quiet riding horse". It wasn't, of course, and I suspect that it had been sedated for the test ride. I had the beast on a few days trial during which the handful of rides were alarming, mainly as the horse was remarkably green and fearful for a ten year-old. When I sent the horse back, the vendor turned on the truck driver (a skilled horse handler) accusing him and me of maltreating the horse. After all she was a 'guru' so in her head we must be wrong. Perhaps eventually that horse found an owner with time and money to get him trained well. Or he will have been sold on multiple times frustrating, frightening and hurting people until finally sent for dog food.

A lady at the barn was sold a very pretty mare last winter. However it proved to be such bad head shaker through summer that euthanasia is likely to be the best thing. We're sure that the vendor knew about the problem. But she is a 'guru' so people who ought to know better, the owner included, want to believe that she couldn't possibly have known. Rather than just being another dishonest horse dealer.

Laura Crum said...

WHP--The buying and selling of horses is so fraught with dishonesty. It's really very sad. Particularly because innocent people and horses suffer due to the unscrupulousness of these dealers/gurus, who, of course, will never accept any blame for the bad endings. It's always somebody else who wasn't "horse guru" enough to properly handle the animal.

GunDiva said...

It took until I worked for one particularly barn boss for me to understand that if someone has to tell you how good they are, then they're not good at all. I had had the pleasure of working for a really good barn boss who just went about his work and his horses were fine, then we got this new boss who spent the entire summer (several summers, actually) telling us how great he was with horses while having one or two select wranglers put the hours in on his horses. It didn't take long for me to sort out that his horses came UNGLUED when he went near them.

Laura Crum said...

Well said, GunDiva. "If someone has to tell you how good they are, then they're not good at all." I would add that if someone has to point out how free of ego they are, the opposite is inevitably true.