Thursday, January 20, 2011

Here's this weeks column....

Horse Trainers Responsibilities

By Janet Huntington

I heard it again a few days ago.

“Horse trainers are all a bunch of thieves. I took my horse to a trainer a few years ago and he came home barely broke. He didn’t know a thing!”

The whiner, er, I mean, complainant, had taken a young, halter-broke 3-year-old to a reining trainer, left him for 120 days, and brought him home.

While the horse rode around fine at the trainers, he completely fell apart once he got home.

“Darn, that’s too bad,” I muttered and tried to excuse myself.

I wasn’t planning on asking many questions. I’ve quit training horses. I’ve heard these complaints before, some of them about myself, and many about other trainers. My curiosity about the how, who and why of unscrupulous trainer scamps is pretty much over.

Unfortunately my escape wasn’t to be. I was going to get an earful whether I liked it or not.

“I mean the horse could run a fancy circle, but when I took him out on the trail he just fell apart,” the unhappy owner went on.“He spooked, he wouldn’t cross water and there was no way I could get him out alone.”

OK. I admit, I bit. Chomp, chomp.

“Did you tell the trainer he was training a trail horse?” I asked. “I told him I wanted an all around horse, but I wanted him to have a good handle on him, so I figured reining was a good place to start. He didn’t disagree,” was the reply.

Well of course not, I thought, nobody is going to tell you their discipline isn’t a good base, especially if your check clears.

This isn’t as greedy and self-serving a thought as it may seem. Most trainers specialize in the area of horses they do best. They are attracted to dressage, reining, cow horse events, hunter jumper, or versatility because that’s what their good at. Of course the trainer will feel the base put on his colts is a good one. And like I said, regular, non-bouncing checks have a strong appeal in a world where non-payment means you get to start feeding the horse you aren’t getting paid for.

“The thing is, most reining horses go from the barn to the arena and back to the barn again. How could your colt learn about water and riding out alone when he was trained in the arena?” I asked him.

“Well broke is broke, if he was taught right he should have been fine,” the disgruntled horse owner grumbled.

There is some validity to this argument. The trainer who taught me to ride and train reined cow horses maintained you didn’t have to take them to the field to expect them to be broke in the field.

“If your horse knows his job is to listen to you then that’s what he’ll do, no matter what you throw at him. If you expect him to get along then he should do just that,” he told me.

I agree with this concept. I also am aware the horse who is obeying me only because it’s his job is going to be hyper aware, worried and on edge, even if obedient.

If the owner doesn’t have mad horse training skills and doesn’t know his horse well enough to handle some hijinks he’s going to have his hands full.

The complaining owner is not in an unusual spot. He now has a horse who knows how to do a bunch of stuff. If he’s been with a competent trainer he is pretty easy to get around on. He walks, trots, lopes, runs a circle and a straight line and probably is stopping and turning around pretty good.

He hasn’t learned to deal with conflicting cues, uneven weight distribution or hands, and especially, new situations.

He has been taught a lot of information very quickly and he was able to absorb it all because he received consistent handling, from the same rider, in a sequence, which very quickly made sense to him.

He knew every time he was led out of his stall he would be saddled, warmed up, loped in circles, run some straight lines and do some turns.

With each sequential ride more would be asked from him, but with refinement added to the basic, stop, start and turn introduced to him at the beginning of his stay.

Flexing, bending, foot control and energy expenditure would all be added as needed and be in the control of the rider.

The young horse would learn to wait for his rider to guide every single move he made for the duration of his training.

When he gets home, be it from a positive or negative learning experience he will only know what he has been taught.

On top of it, he will no longer think for himself. He will wait for his rider to think for him. So guess what happens when he heads out on the trail.

“Where’s the arena? “ He’ll ask and his little head will sling around.

His owner will either ignore him or kick him forward.

“Where is everybody?” Same little head raises up in the air.

“I don’t want to get in trouble, what do you want?”

This time the owner feels the rising hump in his newly and very expensively trained horse’s back and either grabs a hold of his face, kicks him again or yanks at his mouth.

“AHHHHHHHH” shrieks our little colt and the mayhem ensues.

Or something like that.

I have been really thinking about this. The natural horse guys have tried to approach it by teaching riders to work with their own horses and develop a bond.

But you can have a real good bond with your horse, you might be his favorite person on the planet, and he will still toss you in the weeds and run for home if he thinks this plan will save him from the horse eating scrub oak.

He will still hang you in a tree when another horse bolts towards you in the pasture if he thinks it will let him run too, even if he spent six months at the trainers and never got out of the arena.

A trainer can’t make up for your time in the saddle with your horse. He can’t give him trail savvy or teach him to calmly stay at a walk when a pack a bicyclists fly by unless he was specifically told to teach these things to your horse.

Even then it won’t be a guarantee unless the horse has enough hours in the saddle to let him know life out in the world is OK.

A trainer can teach him things, but these will never be a substitute for time.

My personal riding horse is seven years old. She is a very handy little cow horse and doesn’t embarrass me coming out of the herd.

Last summer we started to trail ride. She had been on a few cattle drives, but other than that she was pretty much an arena baby.

You would have thought she was two years old. Everything freaked her out. Bushes, wind in the trees, turkeys, log drags, downed trees, water crossings, mud, high grass, need I go on?

It was pretty frustrating until I realized what she was good at. Barking dogs? No big deal. Traffic? Not even an ear flick. I can throw her in any trailer and have her haul quietly for 10 or 1000 miles. Pavement, cattle, dust devils, new arenas, flapping flags, rolling plastic bags, none of these things bother her.

It’s because these are all sights and sounds she had dealt with many times over the five years I’ve been working her. We’ve been there, done that. In those circumstances she’s as broke as they come. She trusts me to take care of her and get her through these potential frights.

So I took heart and the challenge of our new world. I knew she was going to be fine, she just needed time under saddle. So did I. It wasn’t a matter of sending her out to be trained. It was a case of me spending the hours she needed.

She’s trotting across water, dragging those logs and jumping downed trees now. She’s still a little anxious alone, but it’s simply because I enjoy riding with my friends so much. We’re going to be fine.

A trainer can only teach your horse specific elements. If we want a solid citizen it’s our responsibility to put in the time. It’s also all the fun. Experience is what creates a partner.
Now if I ever want to cut a decent check in the cutting pen I’m going to have to go get some help from a cutting trainer.

But by spring I should be able to ride to him without worrying about getting tossed in the creek.


  1. This is great!

    My mare Starlette = Arena baby turned trail horse. Took a year.

    My gelding Friday = Trail horse turning into an arena horse. Time? Unknown - will let you know next fall.

    Don't know what I like better...Starlette spooking on the trails (and much less, thank you) but having all the cues in place, or Friday spook-proof but not a clue about a cue - especially Whoa! except in a group.


  2. I loved this column. That must be why I hear so much from eventers that it's best to take babies on lots of long, quiet hacks on trails and through fields in addition to arena work...because eventually you want them going happily and confidently on cross-country courses.

  3. "If the owner doesn’t have mad horse training skills and doesn’t know his horse well enough to handle some hijinks he’s going to have his hands full."

    Totally agree with this statement! I have seen riders get really worked up the first time on a trail ride with a new/young horse. The rider seems to almost anticipate a spook or a fight.

    The horse on the other hand spends the entire ride wondering what the rider is so darn worked up about, until they finally agree with the rider that the boogeyman MUST be around the corner and they give the rider the spook they are looking for.
    Not really the trainers responsibility! That is unless the trainer was hired to take the horse and rider out on trail rides.


  4. Well said. So many people don't realize time in the saddle (or cart or w/e you do with your horse) is the main key to a broke/finished horse. A horse doesn't become quiet or broke sitting in a stall or paddock.

  5. This is great, its right along the lines of what i have been thinking on here lately. I have a mare who is awesome on the trail, nothing seems to phase. We have walk, trot, lope both leads, we can side pass and back up all on loose rein, but I want more. I want to learn to really control her feet. To pick up her shoulder or drive underneath herself. I've been looking at possibly purcasing a DVD to get some ideas. Any recommendations?

  6. jenny- I'm more of a book person...Cross Train Your Horse Your Horse: Simple Dressage for Every Horse by Jane Savoie is where I would start.

  7. I had a disastrous trail ride last winter. I thought lots of ground work was the key - ground work is great, but really I was avoiding riding because I was afraid.

    We have progressed so much with a regular riding schedule :)

    There is no substitute for having your behind in the saddle.

  8. One of my sister's 4-H kids who comes and rides with me a few times per week is getting to ride a good mare this weekend at a show who's been there, done that at High School Equestrian Team and god knows what. It's been interesting to point out the difference in that horse, who while trained, hasn't got the training that my little gelding has. However, I would consider her more broke, as she can do a lot of stuff without blinking an eye. My gelding is only 5, and although he's been around a bit, just hasn't had all the life experiences that mare has had.

    Trained does not equal broke, and broke does not equal trained.
    Broke is still a very high compliment from me as far as a horse goes, though.

  9. Uhh how do you talk with all your tongue bitten off? THREE years old. THREE months. Did the trainer start this horse? And totally unrealistic expectations on the part of the owner. Gee, 120 days at a trainer riding in arenas and the horse doesn't trail ride??? That's like saying I sent the horse to a reining trainer and he won't do eventing!!!! PEOPLE!

  10. Good post. That owner sounds like they have very unrealistic expectations which is unfortunate because it's usually the horse that ends up suffering.

    Tax is well trained enough now after 8 months with the trainer I let teenagers show him. For the most part he's a really good boy in the arena and I like trail riding him. I'm thinking about doing some eventing with him which means I trust galloping him out in the field. Even so, if I don't ride consistently 3-5 days a week then we're going to fight on a trail ride. Also, I've had to learn to be in the moment, calm and collected. I'm better at it now that I'm riding enough to feel balanced. You've got to put in the time and the work...a trainer can only do so much. I've never understood people who send their horses off for training and don't take lessons on THEIR horse during when it becomes appropriate.

  11. thank you mugwump! I found one used online!

  12. I wonder if these same individuals would put their kids in 1st grade for 4 months, then pull them out let them goof off for a couple of weeks and them ask them to write cursive, read War and Peace and solve abstract math equations? (all at the same time, of course)

  13. Why do people buy young horses and expect someone else to do the work,for a couple of months and end up with a horse that acts like one that is yers older and has the experience of years of riding.
    If you haven't got the time to train it yourself, buy something that is going and doing what you wnat to and spend some money on lessons!

  14. You hit the nail on the head, Mugs! I ran into this about 10 years ago, when I was working with "problem" horses. Lady rescued a Paso Fino, and told me she wanted him back to gaiting (she'd known the horse as a yearling, and he gaited then). Fast forward 2 months when I've just finished getting his feet back in shape from being mis-trimmed and am getting him really put together in the arena- the lady comes to watch us ride and is now furious because I hadn't taken him out on the trail "because she wanted a good trail horse
    . UGH. Lady, you should have included that in your directive to me. Also, I can do a lot in two months, but turning a scaredy-cat abused (underweight with horrible feet) rescue into a wonderful gaited horse in two months? puh-lease.

  15. There are people who specialize in trail-training (one I've heard the best about is Anne Wyland of Ancan Morgans in Michigan.) She trail rides all her horses (the ones that are broke), the young ones, her super-fancy stud, etc.

    But there is something to be said for just making yourself do it. I went through this with my mare in 2009; I wanted to ride her on the road but I was just plain scared because she can be spooky... We went 50 yards the first time, there were a couple of times we didn't even make it out of the driveway, we had to get over a rather extreme fear of trash cans, but the more we did it the better we got at it, and I discovered that she's actually a great road horse for a quiet road. She's very watchful, but it's in a protective sort of way.

    So yes... the trainer can't do everything; the owner/rider really has to be committed to riding the darn horse...