Who you pick as a trainer can make all the difference for your (or your child’s) enjoyment and your horse’s health and welfare. A seasoned equine veterinarian offers her advice on critically evaluating trainers and their programs to find the right fit.
Amy Rucker, DVM, The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care
Hiring a horse trainer is a bit like internet dating and identifying appropriate daycare for your child simultaneously. You want to find someone who “gets” you and shares your values, integrity, work ethic, and hopes for the future. At the same time, you’ll be entrusting this person with a member of your family, expecting the trainer will protect your horse from harm as well as provide an education that combines mental and physical advancement.
A horse might be an animal of service, but he should have a life without fear that includes appropriate food, water, exercise, and shelter. Education might be the best way to ensure that life. An educated horse that is both respectful on the ground and talented under saddle is a joy to own during its early competitive years, then as an amateur or a youth horse, as a beginner or child’s horse, and finally as a companion.
Consider what would happen if you died: Would there be a line of horse trailers in your driveway with fights over who gets your horse? Or do you need to provide for his care in your will because he is a problem child with no means of supporting himself? If you lean toward the latter, an excellent trainer might be the solution to your worries.
- Most work incredibly hard and don’t have much money.
Consider the cost of land, fencing, arena surfaces, barns, buildings, machinery, feed, hay, bedding, equipment, staff 365 days a year, trucks, trailers, tack, veterinary bills, utilities, insurance, health care, and housing. As a veterinarian, I see many trainers skip their own health care but call me immediately when their horse has the slightest problem. Don’t judge a trainer by the landscaping around the farm (if it’s a beauty, it was probably paid for by a wealthy patron or family member). Judge a trainer based on the cleanliness of the stalls, the physical condition of the horses, and the person’s ability to teach horses and people.
- They have a schedule.
Each horse must be caught, groomed, tacked, worked/ridden, cooled down, groomed, and put away. The greater the number of horses a trainer has in the barn, the more assistants handle your horse. Ask how the barn works: Does the trainer do everything with your horse, or does the assistant hand him to the trainer to ride for 10 minutes? How many days a week is your horse worked, and who exercises him while the trainer is gone? Be aware of how the barn operates and be comfortable with those people and that structure.
- They want you and your horse to succeed.
Trainers gain industry recognition through championship wins or money earned at horse shows. A trainer is lucky to have one or two big champions in his or her lifetime. The naturally talented athlete is typically the one they’re most invested in training. They still train the other horses in the barn, but they don’t dream about them at night. A trainer’s personal integrity determines how much work they put into their bread-and-butter clients (horses that pay the bills and fill slots in the trailer but aren’t necessarily going to win world championships). Talk to the trainer and see if he or she is primarily focused on shows or has other interests.
- They have specialties.
While some trainers only show a specific breed in one discipline, others focus on the rider. Some people excel at groundwork and starting colts under saddle, while others prefer to finish horses and go to shows. Each trainer is qualified to do different things, but they usually have a favorite area. Talk to the trainer and determine if he or she can help you achieve your short-term goals and, then, either continue working with you or refer you to a colleague to develop a talent.
- If you are showing in a judged competition, you are paying for an opinion, and it’s political.
The truth about horse-showing is many trainers hold a judge’s card and buy and sell horses. When you’re in a lineup, the person to your left might have bought a horse from a big client of today’s judge, and the person on your right might be your judge next week. If you want to win at a high level, a trainer might tell you that your horse is not suitable and guide you toward purchasing a horse they think increases your chances of winning. Understand that trainers will charge you for their time in finding and trying horses or might receive commission from the sale. Relationships are complex, and transparency is the best guarantee that everyone involved is satisfied.
Once you’ve found your show horse, be prepared to sometimes disagree with judges’ placings and occasionally hear reference to “politics.” Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it isn’t. But if you can’t take politics, change your discipline to a timed event.
- Transparency and communication are crucial.
One trainer believed a critical key to his success was transparency between him, his assistants, veterinarian, farrier, bodyworkers, and owners. Certainly, a team approach is the best method, and nothing should be “hidden” from anyone. As a veterinarian, I want the owner to understand any health issues that challenge the horse, and that includes creating a paper trail.
A horse might be presented to me with the history, “They’ve injected the hocks in the past. I don’t know what they used, but it cost a lot.” However, I might inject up to three joints in the hock, using one or a combination of six different drugs. Other vets might inject drugs to relieve joint pain and enable a horse to perform but might not improve long-term joint health. If someone has me examine a horse with previous lameness issues, it’s helpful to know exam findings, diagnostic procedures and imaging, treatments (including drug dosages), and follow-up trainer/owner observations of response to therapy (degree and duration). A trainer might write me a check while I’m at a barn, but the owner should receive a copy of my invoice, including the medical record.
Be aware that some trainers are excellent with horses but have difficulty communicating with people. To be effective, a trainer must break down a complicated maneuver into small elements, communicating each element to a horse and rider so they can master that piece of the larger puzzle successfully and eventually put it all together. Whether the trainer is a quiet introvert or an authoritarian, he or she must communicate. Similarly, the congratulatory schmoozer might make you feel good, but you must decide if you’re paying someone to boost your self-esteem with flattery or be your mentor.
- Youth trainers don’t have it easy.
I appreciate a barn where the riders and trainers are respectful of each other. One trainer told me, “I might swear in a bad situation at home when I’m having trouble working cattle. But I wouldn’t swear at a school and I try not to when kids are around the barn.” What a class act!
Youth trainers are the ultimate mentors and in a unique position to inspire rowdy teenagers to be challenged and develop work ethic and leadership skills. Most trainers that work with kids are worth their weight in gold. However, I have observed some that are bullies (kids live in fear of disappointing them and believe they’ll never be successful without them). Others try to be a “best-friend,” including partying with kids while away at shows.
Simply stated, a good trainer recognizes and helps a kid overcome insecurities instead of exploiting them. Kids compare themselves to their peers, often feeling slighted if another child appears to constantly ride better horses, win more classes, or receive more praise. They might not yet understand the complexities of natural talent, horse abilities, show anxiety, hours of preparation, years of experience, or even financial constraints. A good youth trainer doesn’t pick favorites, can make all kids feel included, and will help them focus on areas they’ve improved by recognizing that success.
On the other hand, I’ve seen parents drop off uninterested kids, tossing out electronic devices and a jacket as they peel down the driveway and make their escape. I’ve also seen helicopter moms that force their daughters to ride because they love to go to horse shows and hover. If their daughter doesn’t win at all costs, they berate the trainer.
Bottom line: A parent needs to listen to his or her kids, discuss their equestrian experience, and determine their goals.
- Trainers have tremendous pressures placed upon them.
A trainer might have helped a client purchase a horse and soon after realized the rider doesn’t currently have the ability to show that horse. Or perhaps a soundness issue is hampering him. The trainer is in a bind because the new owner expects to show and place.
It takes a tremendous amount of personal integrity and people skills for trainers to handle disappointed owners properly. If the financial pressure is too intense, less ethical trainers reach for a bottle of tranquilizers or other drugs to help the horse, rationalizing that “it’s just a local show,” etc. Owners must have an open line of communication with trainers and let them know that yes, disappointments happen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re moving the horse out of the barn ASAP. Trust needs to be a two-way street, where owners truly believe the trainer has the horse and rider’s best interest in mind.
Everyone has a personal and professional life, and trainers might have other pressures. Relationships, substance abuse, young children, elderly parents, financial instability … personal issues are private, but they do affect us, and how people respond to those issues isn’t always readily apparent. When vetting a prospective trainer, you might consider surfing local court records to gain insight. Has he ever lost his driver’s license due to a DUI? Consider this if he might be hauling your horse. Repeat small claims court appearances or court cases involving “truck dealer vs. trainer” suggest financial insecurities. Restraining orders and mandatory anger management classes? Oh boy. All joking aside, if the worst happens and a trainer abuses your horse, don’t be too hard on yourself. Monsters don’t wear labels, predators are sneaky, and owners do their best to identify a trustworthy trainer. It’s a leap of faith.
- Be critical of your discipline.
I grew up watching TV, believing equally in sports where horses jumped seemingly impossible obstacles and Western movies where they galloped through ravines and down mountains. As an adult I question the sanity of some of the maneuvers required at the pinnacle of most disciplines. Very few horses are top athletes that can perform at the highest level. Great trainers help horses realize their potential, but no amount of work can elevate a horse to a level he’s not physically or mentally capable of achieving. Observe the longevity of soundness in horses in your sport. Be an activist in your sport. For example, lobby sponsors to add money to Maturity classes (instead of Futurities, which are reserved for young horses) and reward horses that are brought to their potential over time. Find a sport in which you can be successful and have fun and that has different levels of competition.
Do not accept practices that make you uncomfortable simply because “everyone else does it and you have to if you want to win.” For example, a friend of mine has spent years lobbying for legislation to end the “Big Lick” shoeing as well as soring practices that have caused controversy and negative feelings toward Tennessee Walking Horses. She has chosen to support the barefoot Walking horse classes, promoting their naturally wonderful gait.
Critically evaluate how a horse is challenged mentally and physically when training. Decide at what level you would like to participate, and work toward that goal. Communicate with your trainer about any practices you deem unacceptable. One trainer told me, “Unfortunately there are many ways to abuse a horse, and some of them are not very obvious.” People draw the line at various places in their own mind on acceptable behavior, discipline, and workload. Visit the barn, observe the trainer at work, ask questions, and discuss training methods so you both will feel comfortable working together.
- Be realistic about how much you want to invest.
Owners invest in horses financially, physically, and mentally. What’s going to make you happy, and what are you willing to do? Financially, I recommend considering your health insurance deductible as a base line for annual training expenditures—hiring the right trainer could make your horse experience safer and protect you from injury. I think it’s reasonable to spend that amount of money annually to have a trainer make sure my horse and I are a safe team. If your favorite trainer is priced out of your range, discuss alternatives such as having your horse in full training for a month and then bringing it to the trainer for weekly lessons.
Where is the barn located, and how often can you ride? Are you riding for fun or as a social outlet? Are you seriously trying to advance as a rider? If you just want to have a great time, you can jump on a horse once a week and hop over a few fences. To develop muscle memory and advance your skill level, you might need to ride multiple times and even horses a week. Before hiring a trainer, determine how much time and effort you can afford. You might need to hire a trainer that lives in another city or even state. That relationship will be very different than hiring local, involving a high level of trust and adjusting personal riding expectations accordingly.
- What are your goals?
Write a list of short- and long-term goals, including reasons you don’t think you’re reaching them. This exercise helps you realize why things might not be working out. But don’t let it bring you down! Your issues are a starting point for discussion with a trainer. As you progress and re-evaluate, your goals will evolve.
- Is it everyone else or just me?
A friend pointed out how often people react badly when their horse isn’t the picture of perfection. Perhaps it’s a communication issue between rider and horse or an attempt to advance past current abilities. Other times it’s a physical lack of ability.
If you’re consistently disappointed, find a trainer to evaluate you and your horse frankly. Be willing to consider that you might need a different type of professional help. “People initially come to me with their horse problem, but a lot of times we end up dealing with their emotional baggage,” a trainer once told me. Because her barn has a safe, nurturing, and nonjudgmental environment, people often talk to her about their issues. She helps them realize their personality patterns and deal with them in the equine area of their life. Some people have issues with depression, and inconsistencies in their energy levels and demands are confusing to the horse. It’s common for riders to have a lack of confidence, leading to an inability to be a leader or gain respect. If someone gets pushed around by a spouse, kids, or co-workers, they usually get bossed around by their horse, too.
Sometimes when I ask a client how things are going with their horse, they describe what they like to do together, the horse’s personality traits, and problems with their relationship. If I’m not paying close attention, I wonder if they’re discussing their horse or their spouse. Separate your relationships, and don’t try to substitute your horse for failed relationships with spouses or children. Realize that to truly build a partnership and love a horse, you must respect his parameters and let him live in his world.
Tips for Interviewing Potential Horse Trainers
- Location, location, location
Just like in the real estate business, location is one of the most important factors when choosing a trainer. Even if you’re choosing a high-end professional who’s going to show your horse herself, an occasional visit is in order. One owner observed that some long-distance trainers “do the bare minimum (at a high price) because there’s no oversight. Others do a great job but send the horse back to an owner who knows far too little to keep the horse from regressing. What I personally think of most is location, then finding the best trainer for me in that defined area. I always looked for a local trainer and a chance to do some of the riding myself during the training with some voluntary advice for improvement from the trainer. If the trainer never comments on their client’s riding, even though the client is not there primarily for riding lessons, the trainer’s avoidance is suggesting no concern for the client’s safety and advancement as a rider, which, ironically, is not good for the trainer’s repeat business.”
- Talk about town
If you’re considering a local trainer, talk to your farrier and veterinarian—two professionals that know you and your situation. Discuss what you’re trying to accomplish and ask for recommendations of two or three trainers to interview. Listen to what they say and don’t say. For example, I might not mention someone I consider to be a good trainer because I don’t think they’re interested in your type of horse, or I don’t believe you would do well in that environment. Each barn has its own vibe, with a unique clientele. No teenager wants to be marooned in a barn with people their parents’ age, and no gal my age wants to take a lesson with a bunch of talented kids that can post without stirrups all day long. Talk to people about different barns and find one where you will mesh well with the other clients.
Ask a trainer for references. Ideally, you want to speak to two or three people in situations similar to yours. These owners should all give glowing recommendations of the trainer and the facility. Make sure to listen for the “but…” because every owner has one thing they would like to change about a barn. Ask former clients why they left—was it due to not meeting training expectations, financial disagreements, or horse care issues?
- Show and tell
Observe the trainer during a high-stress horse show. Are the clients having fun, win or lose? How does the trainer interact with clients? Is there a lot of drama or frustration? Can all the clients finish their course/class without falling off or being disqualified? Is safety an issue? Are the clients just put on the horse at the in-gate? How are the horses behaving in the stall, aisles, and warmup arena?
Watch the trainer in warmup. Does he have to ride a horse into the ground to get it to “relax”? Is there endless drilling? Is there abuse? I believe anything abusive you see in public is the just the tip of the iceberg—what is the trainer doing at home when no one is watching? The warm-up arena is the “area of extremes” where trainers might jerk on a mouth, prod with a spur, ramp a horse up—whatever they need to do for the horse to perform in front of a judge on a loose rein. I prefer a trainer who warms a horse up quietly and then relaxes as they wait their turn in the ring.
- Schedule a visit, including lessons
Spending time in the barn, meeting staff and clients, and observing a typical workday is the best way to understand how your horse will be treated. Are you introduced to the staff by name? My favorite trainers have good relationships with their employees. Look for long-term employees that have been there awhile, as well as cheerful and knowledgeable transient help (working students, etc.). The person who feeds, grooms, and cleans up after a horse is the first person a veterinarian wants to befriend; they are in the position to know normal behavior/consumption/output for each animal and recognize any deviation from that. I like employees who like horses. I don’t want to see a horse cower in a corner or approach me aggressively when the stall door is opened. I want employees who take pride in their work and realize the correlation between a clean, dry stall and horse health. Most importantly, I hope the trainer and employees have a relationship where they discuss, not ignore, concerns. Clearly understand who is working your horse, both while the trainer is present and when she’s away at shows.
Taking lessons from a trainer is the best way for them to evaluate your riding level and develop a plan of action for you and your horse. At the same time, you can decide if your personalities fit. A good relationship is essential because, eventually, when you’re riding you will reach a “pressure point,” which is not a good situation if there’s a personality conflict between you and your trainer.
Once you’ve developed rapport, discuss whether the trainer thinks you and your horse are right for her. Give her your list of goals and roadblocks, and ask her opinion of what’s realistic. Develop a list of targets and a timeline of expected accomplishments.
- Ask about a typical day in the barn
Sometimes I wonder why people don’t expect their horses to go lame if they live in a stall 22 hours a day, spend 20 minutes on a 30-foot hot walker, and are only ridden 45 minutes, five times a week. Most of our horses are asked to do incredible feats, yet their musculature is not developed enough to support it. In an ideal situation a trainer ‘cross-trains,’ combining arena work in multiple disciplines with trail rides or galloping. Talk to each trainer about the typical work and turnout schedule for their horses in training.
- Safety first
Barn safety includes both the horse and the rider. It’s not just a liability sign tacked to the wall, warning about the inherent dangers of working with horses. Safety is a state of mind that begins with the smallest detail, such as leading a horse properly. How much clutter is lining the aisleways, and what’s going to happen when an inattentive or misbehaving horse drifts into it? Worse, is the barn a fire hazard?
Are people mindful of others and their safety as they go through the barn? Does the feed cart roll through the barn aisle when people are trying to tack up in the same area? Is the farrier working at the end of the aisle while constant foot traffic goes through the adjacent door? Horses don’t have 360-degree vision, and they can’t concentrate on something one person is doing while also “seeing” something unexpected zoom in and out of their field of vision.
Channel your inner Nancy Drew, and sleuth any hazards. It’s surprising what trouble a horse can get into. Check stalls for loose nails, missing boards, water units with sharp corners, and even things in the aisle near the open-top stall door. Every few years I have to wire a jaw back together from a horse that’s been playing with a blanket bar.
Observe the condition of the fencing and gates in the turnouts. Are horses turned out in groups or individually? Do mares and geldings run together? Do herd members change frequently?
Check out the footing. Maybe the horse is turned out in a beautiful pasture, but there’s a muddy sinkhole at the gate where a monster pulls off shoes? How are the stalls bedded—would you lie down in there? Is the arena too deep or shallow or sticky or slick?
Examine the tack the trainer uses. Cracking in the bends of the leather on saddles, halters, and headstalls is an easily assessed indicator of safety—and, for that matter, attention to detail.
When riding, what level of safety do you observe in the arena? Are beginners learning to trot while someone else is schooling a horse to barrel race? Does the trainer place people on appropriate horses, or are some people overmounted?
Set one-month, three-month, and one-year goals with your trainer. Break them down into smaller benchmarks to ensure your horse is making progress. If your horse is not meeting those benchmarks, have a frank discussion with the trainer. Does the horse need more time, or does he lack ability? After riding the horse for a month, does the trainer believe he’s still suitable for you or will he always be a safety issue? Does the trainer take him to shows but never feel like he’s ready to enter a class? Does the horse have soundness issues that are holding him back? Again, transparency is key for a good relationship when a horse is not performing as expected. If you can identify and address an issue, you can create a new timeline for achieving goals.
- My favorite trainers: If the horse isn’t happy, they aren’t happy
One friend stated that she likes to observe all the horses at a barn, even the ones not in training. Do they have trimmed hooves, shelter, and adequate feed and water? Are they groomed? How someone cares for the horses on the low end of the equine totem pole might be a good indicator of the level of horse care and pride of work a trainer has. Drop by a barn at different times during the day or different days of the week to make sure the atmosphere is consistent.
What type of horse person are you?
Horses are wonderful, and we are lucky just to be around them. Our entire lives can be a quest to become better horsemen and horsewomen and improve our understanding of horses, our communication skills, and our riding abilities. Part of our responsibility as owners includes our horses’ education, because it plays a major role in determining their lot in life.
In my opinion all horse enthusiasts fall into one of two categories:
Group 1, when something really bad happens to a horse, will ask, “What can this horse do for me? (Will I still be able to show him? Can I still ride him? Will we make it to the finals next week/month/this year?).”
Group 2 will ask, “What can I do for this horse? (Can we save him? Will he live without pain? What quality of life will he have?).”
Of course, many factors determine which category you occupy. But people tend to drift toward one or the other end of the spectrum. If you know where you stand and believe a trainer has a similar mindset, then most of the boxes you’ve checked off on your “interview list” become a moot point.
Finally, remember that the barn is your happy place. You go there to divest your disposable income and your free time in exchange for quality equine enjoyment. No matter your interests, find a trainer that helps you and your horse be happy and safe.
Reprinted with permission from The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care/TheHorse.com. Find more veterinarian-approved horse care information at TheHorse.com.