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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Silva

Red Flags: Ten Things Trainers Say

How I sometimes wish we could explain things to our horses this way!

If you want to become a better rider, you will need help. Books, videos and podcasts provide useful information, but they’re no substitute for working with a trainer on a regular basis. Progress for you and your horse will be difficult without the kind of one-on-one guidance and feedback an experienced professional can provide. After 30 years of working with horses full-time, I still take lessons as often as I can. You should, too - but not every trainer is right for everyone. And not all great riders are good teachers, or good at working with horses that are different from what they’re used to.

To make things more complicated, professional horse trainers are humans, with a wide range of personalities and teaching styles. Finding the right match can therefore take some trial and error, but there are a few phrases that I consider red flags. When you hear your trainer say one of these, take a step back. Ask for clarification. Ask her to explain. If she can’t, or if the explanation falls short of what you can accept, be prepared to ask yourself whether you want to keep working with this person.

1. “Crank that noseband tighter!”

(OR: “Use a twisted-wire snaffle!” OR “Let’s put him in draw reins.” )

These are shortcuts - ways to make a horse’s frame or rein contact look correct from the outside. Cranking a horse’s mouth shut and forcing him into a round frame via draw reins is the equivalent of putting duct tape over your car’s “check engine” light. It takes care of the irritating flash of red on your dashboard, but it won’t fix the underlying problem. If your horse is struggling with accepting contact, trying a different bit can help - e.g. a loose ring vs. dee ring, or a double-jointed snaffle vs a single-jointed one. On the other hand, changing to a more severe bit, e.g. to a twisted-wire snaffle because he doesn’t “respect” the milder version, won’t teach him anything other than that bits cause pain.

Shortcuts work in the short term, if at all!

2. “You need a different horse.”

(OR: “You would do so much better on this nice horse I happen to have for sale!” )

I’ve said this a few times over the last thirty years, for legitimate reasons, like concern for an inexperienced rider’s safety, or when a horse’s athletic abilities are no match for his rider’s goals. If you want to earn your USDF bronze medal, a gaited horse won’t get you there, and it would not be fair to ask him.

Thelwell's take on an unsafe horse-rider relationship.

On the other hand, if you feel comfortable on your horse and have goals compatible with what he can do, why sell him? With enough time and effort, unlikely horse-rider pairs can develop into solid, harmonious partnerships. I stay away from buying and selling horses, mainly because I am no good at it, but also because it can create a financial conflict of interest, i.e. an incentive for me to discourage an owner to keep the horse she has already. I’d much rather help build a good horse-rider relationship than help break it up. Ask yourself whether your trainer is recommending a change of horses for a valid reason, or for a sketchy one, like a sales commission.

3. “You are not a good enough rider for this horse.”

Yes, I enjoy showing a talented horse, but this is not what most of my clients pay me for. It's about them and their horses, not about me and my ambitions.

Often, what follows is a variation of “Your talented horse would be so much better off with me, the trainer, riding him and showing him!”

Again, it may be a legitimate thing to say. If your horse experience is limited, and if your horse is green or has behavioral issues that make him unsafe for you to ride, it may be true, at least for now, and your trainer is just being realistic. But if your horse is a pleasure to ride, he can, with your trainer’s help, teach you to become a better rider.

Don’t buy into the argument that, if you keep riding your talented horse, he won’t reach his full potential as a show horse and, therefore, will not be a happy horse. I love helping horses reach their potential, especially when they come to me without the expectation of having any. However, the reality is that horses don’t care about whether or not they win ribbons, as long as they are ridden in a way that’s comfortable for them and makes sense to them.

4. “You have no idea how to ride. You will never be any good.”

Making students feel terrible about their riding is part of a common teaching strategy that comes from boot camp training in the military. Where I grew up, in Germany, riding schools used to be part of the cavalry, so the military style of teaching lingered on for a long time. Some instructors still practice a version of “tear them down before you build them up.” Others tear their students down because it makse them feel better. But students can’t learn if they’re feeling terrible. Yes, it’s good to be realistic, but there’s a difference between realistic and negative. An overly critical instructor undermines a student’s confidence. A student without confidence can’t learn. I know. I’ve been there. Of course, the other extreme - teachers who never, ever criticize their students because they don’t want to make them feel bad - is wrong, too. There is a middle ground where learning happens: a positive, constructive teaching style.

5. “Your horse is stubborn/naughty/a piece of s##t/ a bad horse.”

Translation: the trainer is frustrated and does not know how to help this horse, or help this rider get along with her horse. Abusive language about horses often leads to physical abuse of horses. I also don’t like to hear anyone talk about horses in generalizing terms. like :”all mares are bitchy/Arabians are crazy”. It’s not that simple. Let’s try to do better. Let’s try to be more constructive. We can describe behavior we’d like to change in a way that encourages solutions, instead of blaming the horse. “He refuses to come on the bit!” sounds like a personal attack the horse launched against his rider. We can reframe this: “He braces against the bit and hollows his back. It may be because my hands are too unyielding, it may be for some other reason. How can we help him understand he doesn’t need to do this?”

Helping a horse find the way forward and down takes patience and feel. And time.

6. “Because I’m the trainer, that’s why.”

Trainers are human. They learn and they make mistakes just like everyone else. Of course they do. I know I do. Stay away from trainers who don’t want to explain why they use the equipment they use, or the methods they use, or why they want you to change your position a certain way, or why they want your horse to practice certain exercises. I encourage my students to ask a lot of questions that start with “Why?” We can follow instructions without knowing why, but we can’t really learn.

7. “There’s no reason to be scared/apprehensive/doubtful/discouraged. Just do what I say!”

Riding is an emotional endeavor for most of us. Fear and anxiety are real obstacles for many riders. Dismissing these emotions is counterproductive. It’s also disrespectful to the student. Teaching is a two-way conversation. If a student has emotional issues that keep her from progressing, it’s part of her job to let me know about them, and part of my job to help her address them. If these issues go beyond what I can deal with, I may suggest the help of a good sport psychologist. But I won’t dismiss these emotions as not valid.

8. “My colleague X is a bad trainer/has no idea what she is doing.”

(Or: “My other student X is a terrible rider.”)

A trainer who talks badly about other riders or trainers behind their backs will say bad things about you behind your back. You can bet on it. Some students feel flattered when a trainer tells them things like this. They feel like they belong to the trainer’s inner circle now. But I hope we’ve grown up since middle school. I hope we’ve learned that cliques are not cool.

“9. Use your outside rein. USE YOUR OUTSIDE REIN! USE YOUR OUTSIDE REIN!!!! “

Yelling is never good teaching. Again, it comes from the military roots of riding schools, but getting yelled at has never made anyone learn. I know. I was yelled at as a child in Germany, riding in group lessons with ten other kids who got the same treatment. It did not improve our riding.

Yelling is also disrespectful to the horses. They have sensitive ears. I really like to keep the tone at my barn civil and pleasant, between people as much as between horses and people. I think the horses like it better, even if they can’t understand the words.

10 . “Your horse needs a new saddle/ new supplement/new gadget-thingy . . . which I happen to sell and can give you a good deal on. If you don’t, you are an irresponsible, uncaring owner.”

This is another instance where selling something may create a conflict of interest. Yes, the saddle should fit, but there are many good options to improve saddle fit, from using a half-pad with shims to reflocking or adjusting the tree to purchasing a used saddle from a friend. Don’t let a trainer, or a saddle manufacturer’s customer service rep recommended by your trainer, tell you otherwise. You can be a responsible horse owner and not spend $5000 on a new dressage saddle. The same goes for feed and supplements, for body work, therapeutic boots, etc.

This long list begs the question: why do trainers say such things? Yes, a few trainers have their own interests in mind, not yours or your horse’s. And yes, some trainers are great riders, but not good teachers. That said, the vast majority of professional horse trainers are neither abusive nor in it for the money. Most of us are are good people who choose to work with horses because we love them. Then, in spite of our best intentions, we find ourselves immersed in an equestrian culture with firmly entrenched traditions, teaching styles and business practices. We feel we need to sink or swim. But there is a third way: we can change the culture.

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