What Trainers Do You Like?

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.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning upcoming Concept Clinics. 2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

44 comments

  1. This so good. It should be on every tack shop door, every bag of feed, every tube of wormer, every vet’s bill, every horse’s bill of sale…you get the idea.

    (The other thing about your pre-purchase comment, in a nano-second, your perfect horse could sustain an injury that doesn’t end it’s life but makes it un-ridaeable,-jumpable, -dressageable — you need to plan ahead for a humane response before you buy that horse.)

  2. That’s pretty much my stance on other trainers too, and, come to think of it, my fantasy dinner. Thank you for putting this out there-it’s something we can all do with hearing more of.

  3. You just get it! Maybe you can come live here so I can ask you questions and get your perspective whenever I need it. Thanks again for answering the obvious even when we don’t know the question!

  4. It has been much easier to identify the trainers I didn’t care for doing just what you said – watching the horse. In that regard, we have pretty much been doing the training of our OTTB on our own for several years. Finding your writing, blogs and books has helped reinforce what i wanted by articulating what was in my heart, so for that, and this article, I say thank you again.

  5. So blessed to have a trainer who ALWAYS puts the horse first, who isn’t afraid to speak the truth and who knows the bio dynamics of horses. And above all who loves horses regardless of breed, discipline or type. Perhaps you and she were separated at birth!

  6. Another great blog – just found one of your earlier ones – 11/27/15 – Women, Bravery & being old grey mares. Honest – Such a good article and such wonderful comments! Worth going back and re-reading. Sent it to my daughter (sent 3 years ago too) figured she would get much out of it also!
    I always get my horse fix from you (VERY VERY important to my life). I no longer go to the barn getting my daily exercise that way – BUT my dog & I do our thing up thru the field & along the woods morning & night – well, usually – past few weeks theres been too much snow so we have to cut back! But feeding the wildlife morning & night – keeping feed places cleaned out – keeps me moving – which is important(you know). Supposed to be another snowstorm coming Tuesday – sure do hope things become springlike SOON! (NYS) Snow still kneedeep & crusty on top.

    • Oh, I love that old post, too! My prairie is dead dry here, less than a dusting of snow all winter and hay will be dear next summer… I’d be grateful for some of your snow, to keep you and the dog on the job. Thanks, Maggie. I always appreciate your comments.

  7. Wow, I love everything about this, as I so often love your columns. I think this advice also extends to choosing boarding barns, for those of us who have to board (or even choose to, in rare and wonderful circumstances). Through incredibly good luck, my horses and I ended up at a wonderful boarding barn where the barn owners have the qualities you describe in good trainers, and the horses all display the kind of contentment and security that make all the difference. What’s so great about this is that all the boarders, and even the trainers (some of whom are also boarders, others not) who work with the various horses and riders here, seem to share the same ethos, so that we have somehow developed a remarkable little community of people who really care for our horses, and by extension, each other. There is no better basis (and maybe there is no excuse for anything else) for working with horses than the kind of deep love you describe.

    • Tracey, your barn sounds wonderful…boarding might be more important than training in some ways. Good for you to have found such a home. Great comment.

  8. You are so wise, Anna. As are many of us. But you have the ability to articulate in a way that resonates deeply and that I value so very much.

  9. As always, well-said, Anna!

    Loved: “A good trainer should possess a balance of love, humility, and confidence.” And, “Let the horse do it.”

    Would that any person to whom we (or, our loved ones) willingly turn over our trust, have that balance! That would be a dream!

    As far as letting the horse pick your trainer, I agree wholeheartedly! Who’s more honest and, when you think about it, has an agenda steeped only in their instincts?

  10. Dear Anna, I asked you that very question. You couldn’t be my trainer so I wanted the next best thing, one recommended by you. There are lots of online trainers and I was sort of hoping you’d say one I could use who worked along the same principles as you. I am not as experienced as you at sorting out the wheat from the chaff, that’s why I was at your clinic for your opinion. HERE lies another REALLY good reason you should do videos, podcasts, a riding manual and audio lessons. Come on now, you’ve been home a couple of days now, we are all waiting. 🙄….. as I type I also think perhaps you’ve cracked it already. I do still feel like you are on my shoulder as I ride, I can’t seem to shake you off, you’re like an old school live feed. And as you so eloquently say, listen to your horse.

    • I would know more about what’s available online if I could only get ahead, taking dictation from my Appaloosa… but I’m slow. 🙂 Lessons by video available now!! (Page describing them up next week and I’ll post it to the NZ page.) Say Hi to Harley for me.

      • wait what ?? How can I find this page and video lessons ?? What is this NZ page ??

      • It’s a FB page about my NZ tour, if we’re friends, I can add you. And this weekend I’ll have a new page for lessons up on my website, annablakeblog.com

  11. You bring the best of humanity to your ‘work’. You are inpirational and a wonderful teacher. Thanks Anna.

  12. Oh my, so beautifully put ! I love how everything you say always comes back to how it is for the horse, not how it is for you ( the human) because you are perhaps offended he has turned his head from you and that, apparently, is rude and disrespectful . A few months ago I tried using a ‘method’ from a hugely popular trainer, and in all fairness he does seem to genuinely love horses. However, my little gelding was tense and fearful throughout the whole 10 min session, much of the work is based around maintaining your horses attention and if he is distracted you force his attention back to you.. I finished up because it was almost too painful to push ahead. Had I read your amazing post of calming signals before then it would have been a much shorter session, he was trying to tell me it was too much but i didn’t understand that and was being told he was blocking me and being rude.! Funnily enough he walked away from me the next morning and was jittery for several days after !! You have no idea how much I regret that little effort. I so wish I had been able to get away to your clinic when you were recently here in New Zealand. I constantly scour resources to learn as much as i can about body language and calming signals. I have a lovely mare who ( I now realise) has been trying to talk to me and tell me I have too much energy for her. I am finding I care less about what i can get my horses to do, and more about just having them relaxed and happy to be with me.

  13. Anna, My fantasy dinner involves a bottle of wine, watching the sun dip behind the Rockies, and listening to your unending wisdom. We could invite your aforementioned threesome so that you have time to sip some wine between your pearls. I came to horses late in life, and had my introduction as a volunteer in a therapeutic riding setting. I came to know horses as the magicians who transformed the lives of those with mental, physical, and emotional challenges. My initial respect turned to love and then passion. Perhaps this beginning helped me to align with trainers who shared the passion and focused on partnership, not domination (lucky break for me). I think letting the horse choose is essential, and applies beyond trainers to farriers, and vets as well. Thank you as always for helping to keep me on track!

  14. What beautiful words. Funny I kind of relate this to my work as a midwife. Midwives love women and know their strenghts.We find a way to connect and bring out the best in then so that they in turn do their best for their babies and their birth. I can see now how love can be the key to true connection and understanding despite sometime outward challanges in personality and behaviours! (Women and horses) Very special sentiments, thanks for sharing with us.

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