Riding Instructors: Can’t live with them… Should you live without them?

Finding an instructor or trainer you can live with is no small feat. Like many riders, I have struggled to find a compatible trainer that I can respect; who respects me and my horses; who understands our abilities as well as our limitations. A largely self-taught rider, I have been very fortunate in that I have always had a variety of horses of all types, ages and dispositions to work with, which amounted to a kind of hands-on laboratory of horsemanship. Adding to that, I had in my early years of riding a few decent trainers and employers who respected my abilities enough to leave me on my own to both train these horses and be trained by them. It was probably this experience of independence and self-reliance which most shaped my perceptions of the trainers I have come into contact with over the years, most of whom I haven’t even a shred of respect for.

I’ve personally seen the benefits of self-education, of trial and error, and of working without a net, but this is not for everyone. Most of us, at some stage in our riding careers will need a trainer. But finding one that is suitable can be a greater challenge than one might expect, given the considerable number of appallingly unqualified people out there calling themselves professionals. It is also one of the most important decisions a rider can make. It is only a minor exaggeration to say that we put our lives in our trainer’s hands; the least damage could be throwing away our money and learning nothing; the worst is that the wrong trainer could actually endanger our health and safety or that of our horses.

Here are just a few of the more dreadful varieties of trainers one might encounter:

The Bullhorn:

This is the trainer whose mouth can be heard clear across the farm or showgrounds. Whether shouting insults or instructions to students in the competition arena, or monopolizing the schooling areas with a voice that drowns out all others, this trainer seems bent on proving that s/he who speaks loudest speaks best.

After all, the most vocal trainer must be the one with instructions most worth hearing, right? Not quite. Avoid this trainer unless you enjoy public abuse and humiliation or want to draw unnecessary attention to yourself (and your mistakes) and gain a reputation, by association, with unprofessional behavior. A secure, knowledgeable, professional trainer doesn’t need to take every available opportunity to regale all of horsedom with their pearls of equestrian wisdom – the communication between instructor and student should be as discrete as that between horse and rider.

While a trainer with good projection and annunciation is an asset to a student, a trainer who plainly likes to hear him/herself talk at the expense of other riders and trainers is a liability, and one none of us should put up with. What’s worse, this trainer is often a bully, both to the student and to other trainers, riders and competitors. If we make a conscious decision not to give our business to these rude individuals, riding establishments and showgrounds which once resounded with the braying of these bullhorns will all breathe a sigh of relief once they are silenced.

The Barbie:

You’ve all seen her, or her male counterpart, “The Ken.” This is the trainer whose primary interest in horses is to see and be seen among the so-called “horsey set.” S/he might spend most of your lesson hour slathering on the tanning lotion and sunbathing, talking on a cell phone or modeling the latest fashions. After all, what could be a more extravagant accessory than expensive equines? And, what better way to show off that accessory than in a pair of tight riding pants and perhaps a skimpy top?

Unless you enjoy supporting the ego of some vain, shallow and frivolous twit, I would recommend not giving a dime of your money to one of these people. There is a big difference between someone who is outfitted neatly and professionally and someone who is clearly impressed with him/herself and for whom equestrian pursuits are less about horses and more about social opportunities. Such behavior is degrading to the horses and disrespectful to clients and other riders, for whom riding is still a traditional and dignified pursuit.

There was a time - and the British Horse Society still requires this - when a professional instructor/trainer would wear full riding attire – boots, breeches, gloves, hunt cap, etc. in order to give a lesson. It lends an appearance of professionalism and proves practical in the event the instructor has to mount the horse to give a demonstration to the student. Somehow, little Barbie in the bikini top or short-shorts in the center of the arena falls far short of this standard. Let’s not encourage any more of it.

The Babysitter:

This trainer is either convinced that all students are infantile morons who need to be perpetually micromanaged, or has determined that the only way to succeed as a trainer (i.e. – continue to rake in the cash) is to keep you, the student, utterly helpless and dependent upon him/her for the rest of your riding career.

This trainer is like a twisted mother bird that is so jealous that her little chicks will leave the nest, clips their wings so they’ll never learn to fly, keeping them completely reliant for life. This insidious form of manipulation can take the form of requiring schooling for your horse and/or several lessons per week; not allowing you to ride outside of a lesson; consciously or unconsciously prohibiting you from making progress; denying you knowledge and opportunity to grow on your own; belittling your ideas, opinions and experiences; degrading your confidence in your own abilities, etc., etc..

Unless you enjoy being manipulated in this way, you might want to avoid getting sucked into a cycle of insecurity, dependency, and disappointment, leaving yourself completely at the mercy of a manipulative trainer for whom your stunted growth is an asset. A good trainer will help the student progress slowly and patiently. But, the point is, s/he will help the student to eventually progress.

The Messiah:

This trainer doesn’t want students – s/he wants disciples. There is no shortage of trainers who seem to honestly believe that they are the end-all, be-all authority on all things equestrian - and they aren’t afraid to tell you “it’s my way or the highway.”

These trainers don’t have students and horses who are individuals and need to be treated as such. Instead, they envision a world full of clones that will go forth and expound whatever preposterous philosophy they put their name to, while singing the praises of their infallible mentor. You’ll hear absurd descriptions of genius like “innovator,” “founding father” and “legend.” Newsflash: We’re talking about people who train horses here, not develop cures for cancer. Let’s get a grip on ourselves. All they are responsible for is re-inventing the wheel – Recipe: take a well established classical method or technique and exaggerate it, modify it, subvert it, or re-brand it - maybe add a registered trademark symbol next to it - and viola! Instant messiah! And, like any good televangelist, they're going to need your money to fulfill their mission....

Here’s a fact: no trainer is perfect. No trainer has absolutely all the answers to every horse, every rider, or every challenge. And if they tell you they do, they’re blatant, fraudulent liars – either because they are knowing charlatans or self-deluding egomaniacs. Few of these trainers have anything more than clever marketing skills, good agents, or legions of brainwashed minions to do their bidding. Others simply have disproportionate and unrealistically high estimations of themselves. They are able to win over “converts” with their confidence and conviction in their own expertise and pre-eminence. Don’t fall for it.

Attributing infallibility and god-like “legend” status to any rider or trainer is a recipe for ignorance and stale, mechanical training. Most of them, with their pet theories and their little fiefdoms of influence will eventually do more harm than good to riders and horsemanship in advancing their ideology. These are unbalanced individuals suffering from delusions of grandeur. The riding world – and the world in general – needs more independent, intelligent, critical thinkers than it does awestruck, mindless followers. Any teacher that denies you the right or ability to think and act for yourself is not a teacher, but a tyrant.

The Name-Dropper:

This trainer (often a disciple of a Messiah) will, when asked about ability, experience or philosophy, rattle off names you are supposed to be duly impressed with. “I trained with so-and-so.” Really? Whoop-dee-doo. Wait, give me a moment to avert my eyes from your brilliance.

How, exactly, does taking a lesson with a famous trainer make one an expert? Osmosis? And what determines that all of these “names” are good trainers to begin with? Because they win prizes? Because they have their own “brand.” Please. We’re smarter than that – or should be.

I can watch a sculptor carve a beautiful marble statue – I can even take lessons from him, but it doesn’t mean I’m qualified to do it myself, or that I’d be any good at it. The same is true with horsemanship. It’s an art, and not something that can be learned by just being in the presence of greatness, following some formulaic commandments, or parroting some convincing phrases from “experts.”

Good riding – and especially, good training – is not determined by prizes in the showring. Flashy or exciting performances are often rewarded by ignorant or political judges and are seldom correct. One of our nations “top” dressage trainers – a former Olympic competitor – uses *kicking chains* on her horses to school the piaffe and passage, ostensibly because brutally whipping horses on the legs with chains “improves” their action – that is, makes them more flashy in the showring. Does this sound like good training? Apparently the judges think so, or she wouldn’t have gotten herself a spot on the Olympic team or on the pages of glossy magazines. Which is why we can’t always trust ribbons to dictate who is and is not a good rider and trainer.

The only ones who can tell us the truth about trainers are the horses themselves – and we have to learn to listen to their testimony – their body language, their physical condition, their movement, their attitude, their emotional state. It’s this simple: calm, forward and straight - a healthy, happy, relaxed, and willing horse allowed to move correctly is the only reference and résumé a truly good trainer should ever need.

The Fetishist:

Maybe it has something to do with all of that leather, but some trainers and riders seem positively intoxicated by power and the use of perverse devices in gaining dominance over their animals.

No matter what their discipline, these are people who have taken the dressage term “submission” to new, obscene levels. Whether their implement of choice is a medieval-style bit, an intricate network of straps and pulleys to contort their horses’ bodies, or good old fashioned whips-and-spurs, this rider/trainer should come with an “X-Rated” warning label.

While a bit, whip and spurs are standard issue for every rider, they are to be used sparingly and judiciously. The same is true of auxiliary reins such as draw-reins and side-reins, or some of the milder lunging aids – some of which may have an appropriate place in a horseman’s toolkit, but are all too often, like the horses who must wear them, abused by unskilled hands and abnormal psychologies.

Take a tour through a trainer’s arsenal and observe these items in use. See anything that makes you uncomfortable? If you see unnaturally contorted animals with or without bizarre contraptions strapped into their mouths or around their bodies, walk away. If you see a trainer gleefully commanding a student to twist, kick, yank, spur or spank a horse, start running and don’t look back…

Good training is never about punishment. True “classical” horsemanship is about developing a relationship – a partnership – with the horse. But this partnership is not one of master and servant – it is of two dance partners moving in concert – though one may lead, it is never by force. The desire to impose one’s will on another through force is not something to be praised; it’s an indication of pathology, and not something any of us should tolerate, much less condone.

Maybe inadequacies in other areas of their life cause them to take out their frustrations on the horses. I don’t really know. But maybe these fetishists need to find a good therapist, or at least a more willing partner, to help work out their issues; I am sure a quick search of the internet or the personals would return plenty of willing victims. My advice to these people: get professional help, get a job as a dominatrix, or watch some videos in the privacy of your home, but please leave the horses out of it.

The Pharmacist:

For some trainers, devices and gadgets just aren’t enough. The Pharmacist is one of these. This trainer believes there is no more powerful training “method” than that which can be injected directly into a horse. Due to the availability of so many new drugs, proper training and management are “luxuries” they no longer need to afford.

In place of good management, progressive training, and ethical use of their horses, these trainers just pop a magic pill, inject a special potion or apply a medicinal unguent and science has triumphed over incompetence! Horses may have their moods altered or be made “sound” through the miracle of modern medicine, and suddenly, what was once only accomplished through years of conscientious training and management has become available at the drop of a pill.

Of course, there are many legitimate uses of medications, and I’d be the first to praise the pharmaceutical companies for the drugs that help in treating injuries, acute and chronic illnesses, etc., and I would recommend preventative maintenance for every working horse. What I disapprove of is the incessant flogging of a debilitated horse that needs to be kept on a daily maintenance cocktail of prescription drugs in order to mask its problems and keep it going, when it might be better suited by a decreased workload, a new career, or retirement. Equally disgusting is the trainer that can’t start a young horse or ride a spirited one without sedating it first – or worse, dangerously dehydrating it (the favorite showing tactic among hunter trainers.)

So, how do you know if your trainer is a Pharmacist? Here’s a tip: if the feed room door of your stable is perpetually locked, your stable may have a drug problem. If that door is wide open and the shelves are lined with bottles of mysterious prescription elixirs, powders and tablets for every horse, they may have a problem and not realize it. If horses in the barn have their own pit crew of veterinary and therapeutic mechanics just to keep them going, something is amiss.

Some trainers will even boast about their horses’ training and management induced medical issues, so long as a sponsor is willing to pay them enough for a product endorsement. Horse-related publications are filled with full-page, full-color glossy advertisements in which “Top Competitor X” sings the virtues of this or that wonder-drug that allows them to hold their ailing animal together for another competition: “If it wasn’t for this miracle ulcer drug, I wouldn’t have been able to continue competing my overworked, overstressed and obviously ailing horse.” The subtext being: I would have had to give him the appropriate rest and possibly adjust his management and training regime to keep him healthy. But, why bother, when I’ve got an ace up my sleeve: the pharmaceutical industry! No matter how sick I make my horse, I’ll never have to miss another day of showing!

This is almost the literal enactment of the phrase, “beating a dead horse.” I don’t think I need to explain why this is unethical and disgusting, and why anyone calling themselves animal-lovers would avoid this kind of trainer.

The Parasite:

This is a trainer who feeds off of you to live - kind of like the Babysitter and the Messiah rolled into one, but much more insidious. This trainer will manipulate you into spending money where you otherwise would not. Perhaps this trainer tells you that you need to take more lessons. Maybe s/he wants you to go to more shows, whether you’re ready for them or not. Maybe s/he will try to sell you a new horse (when you haven’t mastered the one you’ve got.) Or, the trifecta: s/he’ll convince you that you need a new, more expensive horse and, of course, more training on that horse, to get you ready to go to more shows. Score!

I have heard a story of a corrupt trainer who wanted his client to get rid of her horse and buy another, but she liked her horse and was reluctant, so he had an unethical slime-ball of a vet show the client an x-ray of a broken leg, tell her it was her own horse, and then euthanized the perfectly healthy horse. Problem solved, new horse bought, everyone’s happy. Well, almost everyone… I guess the dead horse doesn’t count. Who wouldn’t want a helpful trainer like that?

My other favorite tactic of this kind of trainer is to suggest that the student is somehow responsible for helping the trainer achieve success. Sometimes it’s subtle: “Buy this horse, and I’ll show it for a few years to ‘get it ready’ for you.” Sure. That’s just a nice little scam to get a free ride to the shows on a client’s dime. Other times, it’s more overt: I have known a certain vile “legendary trainer” to badger clients of his friends because they have not purchased horses for their trainers to compete: “Why don’t you own a horse for so-and-so to compete with? You’re not supporting your trainer” is the famous line.

Why, you ask? Because, excuse me, but if I could afford to buy such a horse and pay its expenses and training, I’d ride it myself! Because, it is the duty of the trainer to help his students succeed with their goals, not the other way around. That’s what he’s getting paid to do, and as a so-called professional trainer, that’s his job. I’ll support him by paying him to do his bloody job!

Only, these trainers have found a way to get you to finance their own careers. They’re leeches; if you like parasites, swallow a tapeworm – it’s less financially and emotionally damaging than letting one of these bloodsuckers get their fangs in you or your horse.

__________

I could go on. There are more charlatans in the horse industry than most of us are aware, given the rosy coverage they get in the equestrian media. But the truth is, there is nothing more difficult than finding a trustworthy, ethical trainer who has the knowledge necessary to train and the character to do it well. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. There are still good trainers out there, somewhere… and finding one may be a long and difficult process of trial and error; of frustration and occasional tears. But each new experience is a learning opportunity. Often the terrible trainers teach you the most, because you learn what not to do. Sometimes, the hardest lessons are the most valuable.

After having suffered under a string of horrid trainers, I have learned what kind of rider and trainer I don’t want to be, and where I’ll draw the line. I’ve learned to stand up for myself and my horses when I encounter methods I disapprove of. Most of all, I’ve learned when to walk – and sometimes run - away from an unhealthy situation.

We all need help from time to time, and it has been said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I am still waiting to find the “perfect” trainer myself but, in the meantime, I know with a little intellectual curiosity, dedication and patience, I can – and will - do just fine on my own.

21 comments:

  1. Thank you for and informative and amusing commentary on types of trainer personalities out there. I'm sure all of us have come across one or more of these trainers. It's good to see someone call them as they see them !!

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  2. Please. WRITE MORE! I found both your offerings incredibly educational, as well as reassuring.

    I look forward to your next post, and plan to pass these two along!

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  3. The complete lack of qualifications in people passing themselves off as trainers is scary. I'd be curious to know what readers think about requiring testing or some other form of licensing for instructors and trainers?

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  4. I wish finding a good trainer came in manual form...I have found the search to be as long and hard as finding a good pediatrition for my first born child. By the way...I love my horses as much as my kids, that is why findng someone that will treat us right is so important.

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  5. Being an instructor myself I just hope I am not being seen as one of the more amusing types you described ;)))
    I shall be back to read more!

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  6. I seem to be much in your position!
    I've gone to barns that are the 'best of the best' and ride grand prix this and grand prix that, and I can't seem to find ANYone that understands horses.
    Even worse, I've tried to look up classical dressage trainers, and all I seemed to have come up with is competitive dressage trainers with a 'classical' title! UGH. I, like you, am more into the French version of dressage... if you ever find a trainer, DO pass it on!

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  7. DIJ - will do - and same here - if you find anyone good, keep me posted!

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  8. Every horse sold to a new rider should come with a copy of this post. Well done! and oh so true.

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  9. What an excellent, informative and well-crafted post!

    As a middle-aged, first-time horse owner, I am mostly self taught, although I have had help from some more knowledgeable folks I have met. I am now to the point where I want to tighten up my skills and work on any bad habits I have developed. I ride western and my friends ride English. So I'll need to be looking for someone to work with me and my horse, God willing and the economy cooperate$.

    Thanks for taking part in the carnival.

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  10. Wow! Quite an eye-opener. I've been lucky myself although I've heard horror stories about trainers like the ones you describe. I came relatively late to the riding game and while I ride English, I have no intention of competiting and I do it only to challenge myself to become a better rider. When I think about, it seems that I beat the odds.

    Excellent stuff, keep it coming. :-)

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  11. adam, you are indeed lucky to have avoided the worst of the industry! it's true, once competition is removed from the equation, trainers tend to be less difficult :-\ there are some real winners out there, but luckily there are also some truly great horsemen too, even if it takes a little effort to find them....

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  12. Along the same lines, about a year ago our barn received three borders who had all, at the same time, quit their trainer at another (very pricey) barn. Among the usual bad stuff, the trainer was adament about never letting them ride their horses anywhere outside of the arena because supposedly "it would mess up their heads".

    So naturally their horses were a bit unnerved by the new atmosphere (we're pretty laid-back and mostly trail ride). The rest of us worked on "de-programming" them (in a nice, supportive way) and in a year, they were all a lot happier- horse and rider.

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  13. that is too funny, but sadly also common... i remember one rider telling me her horse was too expensive to ride outside of the arena! it's a horse! nature designed him to handle exactly that!

    oh well, glad you were able to rehabilitate them and get the out where the good riding is :-)

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  14. My greatest moment of joy was watching one of the horses, a Friesian, rolling around the arena on his back, whinnying for joy (at least he looked very happy to me). Sure, the horse looked a mess after rolling around in the sand but it reminded me of a happy little kid being allowed to jump in mud puddles.

    The owner finally felt confident enought that it was OK to let a horse be a horse (within proper limits). Sure, it was a pain grooming him afterwards but just to see his happy attitude was something.

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  15. ha ha - they'd probably die if they saw my filthy beasts!

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  16. It's nice know what to watch out for.

    How about a post on how to identify a good instructor?

    My favourite statement from an instructor in support of his teaching quality starts out:
    "No one advertises that they teach badly. No one ever claims that their work is "unclassical."..." You can read the rest here:
    http://www.woodsdressage.com/lessons.html

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  17. hi george, that's a good idea for a post, though identifying a good instructor is something of an art, once one sorts through all the bull!

    it's so true that instructors all have a similar script they seem to read from when trying to promote themselves, and few live up to their promises... i'm curious, did the instructors in your link live up to their advertisement?

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  18. Just an update...

    I recently had the experience of actually seeing some these types of trainers in action when I worked as a ring steward at a local show (I was "volunteered"). It was a real eye-opener and I felt so sorry for some of the exhibiters who were definintely not having a good time (hey, isn't this supposed to be all about having fun?).

    The worst was when a trainer led one of her students (a lady in her mid-20s) and basically shoved her into the ring very quickly. It was clear that the lady was SCARED (although the horse wasn't acting up). It kind of reminded me of the bull riders coming out of the shoot.

    The lady actually did OK after she loosened up a bit and the horse was clearly experienced and basically took care of her (sometimes horses can really save us). Naturally the trainer was yelling at her all from the sidelines, pointing out everyting that she was doing wrong.

    I can't think of a better way to completely destroy a rider's confidence.

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  19. adam - ugh! there are some real winners out there :-\ i just don't know why anyone would subject themselves to that - and pay for the privilege!

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  20. I read this post with a sense of trepidation after I realized the nature of it... kept waiting with a bit of fear to see if I'd show up in your list.

    Luckily though, I did not! So that's a good thing, at the very least. I am afraid I have elements of the "Name dropper" but fortunately I only drop the names of my favorite trainer from my childhood... who of course, no one has ever heard of, so they nod and we go on our merry way.

    I'd love to see a post in which you describe the ideal trainer -- what sorts of qualifications would you see? Unfortunately I feel like many of my students begin to hang on my every word as if I am the be all and end all, but I know for a fact that I'm always telling them, "That's a good question, let's figure it out.", so I don't think I'm leading them into the behavior...

    anyhow, thanks again for such a great blog! I've been loving it and am SO GLAD to have discovered it :D

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  21. hi kathryn,

    i don't think that counts as 'name dropping' ;-)

    and i'd love to do a post on the ideal trainer - or at least what i think the ideal trainer should be.

    i know what you mean about students automatically taking everything you say as gospel - you hope they trust and respect what you teach them, but are still independent enough to ask questions, think critically and function on their own. it's a tough balance to get right. that's probably the best thing a trainer can do for a student - give them the tools and the confidence to think through and eventually solve problems on their own :-)

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