The Upside of the Dark Side
Someone asked me recently who my most influential mentor was. Once I started thinking about it, the question became more and more difficult to answer. As a professional equestrian, I consider myself lucky to have so many role models, so many people I look up to. Some of them I have never met, but they inspire me nonetheless: great trainers who respect classical principles, like Anja Beran, legendary horsemen like Ray Hunt. Others have been my teachers over the years, for a weekend or many years of regular lessons. Yet another category consists of close friends I respect deeply, lifelong equestrians who are always willing to listen and offer constructive, kind feedback from their deep wells of experience. And, of course, the most important teachers I’ve had are all the horses I’ve worked with over the years, especially the complicated, difficult ones. So yes, I’ve been fortunate to find good mentors. I owe them more than I can ever repay, and I feel deeply grateful.
But in spite of all the help and l guidance my role models have given me, the most profound influence on my career choices and my training philosophy comes from a totally different, much less positive direction. Many years ago, when I was young and impressionable, I worked for a western trainer with several AQHA world champion titles to her name. I thought at the time my big chance had arrived, my golden opportunity to learn how to be a better horsewoman. This turned out to be true, but not in the way I had imagined.
It was a rough awakening. My new boss used methods I had never seen before and hope to never see again. She lost her temper frequently. While angry, she would kick and spur and yank horses backwards all the way around the arena. Patience was not in her vocabulary. She resorted to shortcuts of the abusive and unethical variety: drugs, blocked tails, wire tie-down bits designed to cause pain. The list goes on. She hated horses. When I asked why she kept working with them, she shrugged and said it was all she knew how to do.
While working for this trainer, I did many things I’m not particularly proud of today. Doing something because you’re told to do it is not a good excuse when you know deep down that it’s wrong. I was 19 years old, which is also not a good excuse. I stayed working for her for way too long, for reasons that would take too long to explain, but eventually I left, deeply disillusioned.
Not everything I learned there was bad. In spite of her cruel streak, this trainer had real talent and skill in some areas. Still, the most important thing I learned was that I wanted to be a different kind of horse trainer, a different kind of rider - or not ride for a living at all if she was right and abusing horses really was necessary to get ahead the horse business, especially as a woman. Working as an assistant trainer for someone who treated horses badly made me think that there had to be a better way to train horses. A fairer, kinder way, based on trust and respect.
I kept looking for that way over the course of many years, finding bits and pieces that eventually fit together and formed a path I could follow. I keep looking, because it’s still not complete and likely never will be.
I was lucky to find plenty more learning opportunities. I spent several years working for another trainer who didn’t think cruelty was a prerequisite for success. I also started to reconsider the notion that dressage was boring and stuffy. The principles I had grown up with in Germany suddenly started to make sense on a whole new level. When I went out on my own, I kept taking lessons and attending clinics whenever I could. I still do, because I want to keep learning. Yet, my deepest motivation to train horses with fairness and kindness comes from the time I spent on the dark side of the equestrian universe. Nothing can erase the images of horses tied up overnight to tire out their neck muscles, of bloody spurs and bits, of the barn refrigerator filled with tranquilizers, and the tack room filled with twisted wire contraptions. I don’t want these memories to fade, ever. They serve as powerful reminders of who I don’t want to be, of how I don’t want to treat horses. And for that, I feel as grateful as for all the positive role models I’ve been so privileged to have in my life.