In olden days, most people learned horsemanship from a local trainer or riding instructor, if not from the school of hard knocks. Today we can get our horse information cafeteria style…a little from this horse trainer, a little from that one. However, to get maximum benefit from the horse clinics and events you attend, you’ll want to develop a grid through which to evaluate the trainers and their methods. Because like that cafeteria food, some of it is better for you than others.
Before the Clinic
Before heading off to the state fair, horse expo or a weekend clinic, try to learn a bit about the clinician. Trainers come in a wide variety in terms of expertise, philosophy, ability to train or teach, and ethics. Some advance work can often help you decide which trainers to observe, especially in the case of an expo where several trainers make presentations at the same time. It can also help you decide whether it’s worth your money to ride in the case of a one-trainer clinic.
Begin by asking about the trainer’s specialty, whether it’s basic training, problem solving, dressage or barrel racing. Though we naturally gravitate to someone of our own discipline or philosophy, watching trainers with other styles helps our understanding of horsemanship. An expo provides the perfect opportunity to do that.
Keep in mind that there is no universal licensing body for trainers in the United States. Anyone can call himself or herself a professional horse trainer. Since horse training could be considered a learned art, the profession is open both to the person who is “a natural” but has little formal education and someone who has gone through a structured program. Credentials can give you some insight into a person’s training, but they don’t tell you much about his expertise.
Many trainers have web pages and some have produced videos of their work, so you can get a sneak preview of the person in action. This is really helpful because many trainers have developed their own lingo. Understanding their words or philosophy will help you understand what they’re doing with a horse.
But don’t limit yourself to big-name trainers with products to sell. There are plenty of unknown trainers who do a wonderful job but don’t have a web page or any notoriety.
- Investigate or preview a trainer’s program and credentials before you sign up to participate in a clinic.
- Trust your judgment and be willing to say, “I’ll just sit this one out,” if an activity seems like a bad idea.
- Set realistic expectations for what can be accomplished in the allotted time period.
- Put into words any new techniques you plan to use with your own horse, and review how and why they should work.
- Be your horse’s advocate. If someone rides your horse in a way that’s unsuitable, don’t hesitate to ask him or her to step off.
- If given a chance to socialize with clinicians and participants, do it. You might be given an informational slice of dessert.
Trust Your Judgment
Homework done, you’re at the clinic or expo. Observe the trainer as a person first. Consider the qualities that you think make a good trainer and keep those in mind. Pay particular attention to how the trainer interacts with any horses-his own or the demo horses. You want to see signs that he or she is a horse lover and likes people.
We’re not necessarily talking about someone who pets and hugs the horse. That’s fine, but ask yourself if there is a basic respect for the animal. Or do you get a sense that the animal is being used to make the trainer look good? If that horse were your child and the trainer were a teacher, would you have confidence in him, or would you worry that he or she was going to make your child look stupid? Is the trainer basically rooting for the horse to get it right or trying to do a one-upsmanship on the horse?
How do they treat the people around them or the people riding in the clinic? Do they use sarcasm or put down other trainers or training styles? Or are they looking to build the rider’s confidence? Subtle things like that can tell you a lot about a person and their training competence.
Good training is often boring to watch, like observing a child learning how to spell. It’s one word and then another. You really don’t want to see big explosions. But expos are educational experiences wrapped up in entertainment packages. It’s a difficult environment in which to train, and clinicians are often under tremendous pressure to be both entertainers and miracle workers.
No one wants a boring, lifeless demo, not even the horse. By injecting a little humor, the trainer avoids getting too intense with the horse and the audience learns more easily. We don’t mind watching for an hour or two, if something is happening. And a little laugh is always helpful as long as it’s not at someone’s expense.
Not every good trainer is entertaining, though. And not every entertaining program is good training. You have to be discerning about what’s happening in the session and how much of it you’ll be able to replicate with your own horse.
One of the worst things you can do as a trainer is to put yourself under time pressure. Trainers are given a problem to solve within a short time period-often a problem that the owner or another trainer has spent a long time trying to work through.
If the trainer is lucky, the horse or rider will be able to show significant progress within the demo time. But if the problem is complex or the horse has a lot of fear, training will naturally take longer. So the trainer has a dilemma: Should he jazz it up for the audience, perhaps skipping important steps so that the audience understands where he’s going with the training? Or should he work with the horse in the understated way that gets long-term results but also takes longer?
Then there’s the environment to consider. If you were going to train your horse in a new environment, you’d allow him time to settle in, perhaps turning him loose in the new arena for awhile prior to the session. This is unlikely in an expo or clinic situation. So the trainer is expected to work with a horse who is already over-stimulated by what’s happening around him.
When you’re trying to learn from a demo, remember that these elements-entertainment, time pressures and stimulating environments-make for an artificial training situation. Be kind and understanding as you watch the trainer at work, but also be discerning about what part is entertainment and what part of the training you want to copy.
The number one criterion for a training system is that it be safe. John Lyons has three criteria that he uses when trying to figure out if he should do something with a horse: Will the trainer get hurt? Will the horse get hurt? Will the horse be calmer at the end of the session than at the beginning?
As you watch the demo, ask yourself how the horse knows what the trainer wants him to do. Does the trainer use some kind of step-by-step process that allows the horse to build one success on another?
You may not catch onto the system right away. Often the horse catches onto the system quicker than the audience does because it’s the horse who experiences the pressure of a request and the release when he’s on the right track.
You’ll be able to observe when the horse “gets it” when he begins to give the right response quicker or on a more subtle cue, and when he relaxes. The trainer who relies on intimidation will end up with a horse who jumps to comply, but the horse will be nervous and afraid of making a mistake.
Good training has some ebb and flow, some intensity and relaxation. If it’s all snap, crackle and pop, then the horse is being used, not taught. Don’t duplicate that trainer’s methods with your own horses.
There’s a fine line between motivating a horse to do something and being too rough. Horses move in response to pressure. The threat of pressure or the pressure itself should be just enough to motivate the horse to change what he’s doing-for instance, to speed up or turn his head-but not any more than that.
In a herd situation, one horse tells another to move away from a pile of hay with a threatening look, or in some cases a few quick steps with ears back and maybe teeth bared. In the worst case, the bite connects. But then it’s over. If the pressure on a horse or student is unrelenting, something is going to break.
Look at the equipment the trainer uses and determine whether the trainer’s objective is merely to restrain unwanted behavior or to teach the horse. The more you physically restrain a horse, the more you are inviting him to resist the equipment and the less good training is going on. The idea that a horse will fight it out and eventually learn is bogus. He may learn, but he may also injure himself or someone else in the process.
So, for instance, snubbing a horse to a post and letting him pull back until he finally learns that he can’t get away isn’t a safe way to train the horse to stand tied. Neither is using leverage devices that force a horse into a certain position. The person who does a trailer-loading demo by winching the horse into the trailer, for example, isn’t training.
As you observe the session, try to determine if the horse is doing what the trainer wants in response to pain caused by equipment. If that’s the case, eventually the horse will learn to tolerate the pain and harsher equipment will be necessary to get the same effect.
As horses fight unnatural positions, they strain muscles. They may have what looks like a beautiful head set, for instance, but the tension will eventually cause lameness as they brace their necks and have to use other muscles to balance themselves.
At nearly every clinic or expo, there is someone in the crowd who knows better than the clinician-and doesn’t mind letting everyone know. He or she seems to have been everywhere and done it all, and probably is knocking most of the trainers at the expo. Ignore that person’s advice, and if you can, avoid sitting by them. You’ll get more out of the demo by watching and listening to the trainer and being able to evaluate things for yourself.
Try to avoid distracting others, too. We’ve all been in a situation where we’re chatting with a friend, only to have someone turn around to look at us, telling us that we’re distracting them.
You’ve watched all the demos and now you’re headed home, eager to put what you’ve learned to work. Try explaining your training objective and lesson plan to someone else, perhaps even someone who doesn’t know horses. Tell them what problem you’re working on or what lesson you want to teach. Tell them the steps that you’ll follow and why those steps will work. Explain what behavior changes you’re looking for, how you’ll reward the horse, and how you’ll know when to quit.
If you can’t explain it in words, you probably won’t be able to train the full lesson. You’ll head out to the arena with good intentions but without the specifics necessary to tell the horse exactly what you want.
That’s not to say that training is all or nothing. You may have learned what not to do, which can be a valuable lesson. And you may have picked up some tips, or perhaps something subtle, like how someone handled a rope. You’ll be able to apply bits and pieces, but don’t put yourself under pressure to train like the clinician after watching one session.
Riding in a Clinic
Let’s say that you’re not just going to a clinic, you’ve decided to ride in one. That’s a big step and most people are nervous-or at least excited-when the time comes.
It’s natural to want to do well, but remember that this is learning time, not showing-off time. Don’t become upset if your horse doesn’t perform as well as he did at home. That’s to be expected. Remind yourself that you’re there as a student and you’ll relieve yourself of a lot of pressure.
That said, don’t put your safety into someone else’s hands. Whenever you ride in a clinic, you’ll be a little out of your comfort zone. You’re likely to be asked to do things that you haven’t done at home, and that’s okay within reason. But don’t put yourself or your horse at risk.
Pay attention to your intuition. Don’t chide yourself as being silly or chicken if you don’t feel comfortable doing a particular movement.
We’ve heard plenty of horror stories about people riding in clinics and living to tell the tale, but just barely. In almost every case, they said they had felt unsure about following the trainer’s advice but they pushed that feeling aside and later wished that they hadn’t.
Clinicians don’t set out to get people hurt, but they might assure a rider that he or she will be safe in a situation that really isn’t well controlled. This often happens when riders are asked to drop their reins, for instance, especially in an arena with many other riders or loose horses. In a situation like that, you need to be able to steer your horse out of harm’s way-or risk a broken kneecap when a horse tries to kick your horse.
It also happens when riders are asked to switch horses and perhaps the other horse isn’t as well trained as yours or you’re not skilled enough to ride it. And, contrary to popular opinion, horses can get out of control on a longe line, so being on the longe won’t automatically assure your safety.
Sometimes fatigue is a factor. This is particularly the case in a jumping lesson, where the trainer may not realize that you or the horse is feeling tired. “Just one more jump” may be one too many. Don’t be afraid to say, “I think I’ve had enough for today.”
In some clinics, people ride in groups. Other clinics are a series of private lessons. In the private-lesson situation, if you feel that you’re being asked to do something too challenging, talk with the clinician and ask if he or she would help you with an alternate lesson.
Sometimes the trainer offers to ride your horse. Remember that your horse is counting on you to look out for him. Most of the time, the trainer is going to do a good job. But that’s not always the case.
Do not allow the trainer to “straighten him out” in a way that you don’t approve of. If it looks like abuse to you, ask the trainer to get off the horse. One ride by a professional isn’t going to “fix” anything, so don’t let anyone get carried away working with your horse.
Use your common sense and remember that the trainer is just another person. If you feel a little intimidated about asking to bow out of something, think how you would handle it if it were the bus driver who asked you to take a bridle off your horse, rather than a famous clinician. You are still the person in the saddle. Try to keep a friendly tone and tell him you’d like to “sit this one out,” the way you might at a dance.
Friends may try to pressure you to ride beyond your comfort level, but don’t allow yourself to get talked into something you don’t feel safe doing. You are the customer, and though the trainer may be the expert, you are the expert about yourself and possibly your horse.
All that aside, be prepared for some emotional ups and downs during a several-day clinic. Usually, the first day starts with high energy. But by the end of that day, the adrenaline rush has disappeared and people sometimes feel like they’ll never get anywhere. The second day is usually a lot of work, but things often fall into place by the third day.
If you have an opportunity to socialize with the trainer and the other clinic riders, take advantage of it. Riders often report that something clicked for them during a discussion over lunch. Best of all, you may discover that, whether trainer or rider, horse lovers often become friends.