I often get asked what I think of other trainers. Sometimes I have no idea who the trainer is, any more than they know who I am. You do know we all work weekends, right? And that we’re not as cool as jazz musicians who jam together at after-hours clubs?
Then, the obvious thing. The horse world is huge. Most riding or breed disciplines don’t intermingle. We tend to date within our species, so it isn’t common for all kinds of saddles to be in the same arena. About this time, the rider refers me to the trainer’s Facebook page or website. More time on the computer? You want me to read even more online, beyond the stacks of articles I pour over each week?
Sometimes it’s a question about a trainer in a photo, maybe true or maybe taken out of context, and it’s easy to jump to conclusions that don’t help horses. Besides, it’s considered bad form to speak about other trainers. Unprofessional to call others out, even the ones who make a spectacle of abuse.
But still, people ask. For the most part, I think they are looking for congruity between methods. My fantasy dinner is with Nuno Oliveira, Tom Dorrance, and Xenophon.
I am pretty careful about who I recommend. Here’s the problem for both of us as we look at websites. There isn’t a trainer in the world who raises their hand over their head and proudly states, “I train with cruelty and abuse!” We all use the same positive words. People are deceptive that way.
Sorry to disappoint you with no trainer gossip, but I am willing to share my opinions on how to tell if a trainer is good. I have two methods and the second is better than the first. Here goes.
I remember years ago meeting a trainer who didn’t like horses. It came as a shock to my then-amateur mind, but it was obvious. Horses were a means to an end for them. It was like inheriting a family business; they had familiarity but not much curiosity or interest. I’ve met an alarming number of professionals with no passion for horses since then. It’s crazy. The work is too hard, the hours too long, and horses are too unpredictable to be thinking about business plans and retirement funds in the same breath as training.
So that’s the first thing to notice. Does the trainer love horses? It should be a requirement. You never get a horse’s best work if you don’t apply some of your own heart to the process. Shouldn’t equine pros be the most besotted of all?
Sometimes I get teased by clients that I have no discretion, that I just love all horses. Why even have me evaluate a horse you’re looking at if I am just going to praise him? Here’s why; I will never praise a horse for his color or the length of his mane. I will always be aware of his conformation for your purpose. I can read past-training practices in how he carries himself now. Just because I affirm his strengths doesn’t mean I don’t see the whole picture.
Beyond the words in the ad and a vet check is the realm of possibility. That’s where the question of potential always comes up. Will this be the right horse for your goals? That answer is a quotient of passion, love, and commitment on all sides. Money and technique are never enough to create the art needed for a horse and rider to dance. Love transforms. Nothing less.
We can debate whether horses love us or not, but I’m clear that the trainer and the rider need to be united in their love for the horse. It’s too much work otherwise.
To be clear, loving horses makes the job harder. If we trainers open our hearts to horses and riders, we will pay a price for that. It makes us vulnerable to loss. Yesterday I was thinking of a mare who was my first huge training challenge. She was outlandish in a hundred ways and it was my job to help her rider build a connection with her. The mare pushed me to trust my intuition as much as technique. She passed away years ago but I miss her. You could say she is a trainer I have a lot of respect for.
Good trainers all have a mental scrapbook of horses they still think about. Maybe the horse has passed, or the rider moved on, but the concern for the horse remains. It makes saying goodbye harder. I once had to part ways with a trainer who I’d worked hard with for five years. I couldn’t follow her to her new barn and she cried that last day. I was touched, I didn’t know I meant that much to her. On the way home, it dawned on me that I was losing her, but she was losing the three of us. And it was probably the other two she was the saddest about. She was a very good trainer.
When looking for a trainer, look for love. It’ll mean they’re vulnerable but the other word for that is humble. A good trainer should possess a balance of love, humility, and confidence. Like that’s easy to master.
The second method of picking trainers is better. Let the horse do it.
I know, it’s a crazy notion but here’s how. If you can watch a video, turn the sound off. Without the sales pitch of contradictory words, just look at the horse. Read his calming signals. Does he look anxious? Are his eyes dead? Does he have curious ears? Curiosity is a sign of courage in a horse. Does he look beautiful in that horse’s natural way?
If you are watching the trainer live, count your breath as a way of not hearing external distractions. Zoom in on the calming signals again. Does his eye follow the trainer willingly? Does he occasionally lick and chew? Is his poll relaxed? Watch the horse move; does he look free?
Recap: Recommendations are often unfounded or ill-informed. Trainers can be deceptive. But everything a horse thinks is written all over him with unrelenting honesty. They’re the ones to trust.