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Choose Wisely

Maybe your horse trainer should be considered along with other important life advisers.

by Scott Thomson



Selecting someone to become intimately involved as an adviser in some aspect of your life can be a challenge. Finding the right therapist,

fitness instructor, financial adviser, lawyer or life coach is no easy task because it has to start with you admitting certain things about your life and yourself. If you can’t do this, then you’ll probably make some poor decisions about the people you seek out for good counsel, the people who can really help bring the improvements you need.

For riders, finding the right trainer can be every bit as challenging as the search for any trusted adviser, perhaps more so given the deep emotional bonds many have with horses and the inherent risks of riding them. In many ways, the right trainer encompasses the best of all the other advisers you let into your life, with the added requirement he or she has to understand and relate to your horse as well.

I get asked how to go about this search a lot, and as much as I’d like to just say “pick me!” the best I can do is tell people what I was told years ago, advice from a mentor that has pretty much guided all my decisions when looking for help in improving my knowledge and skills with horses.

  • Don’t choose a trainer who only tells you what you want to hear. If your ego or emotional make-up requires you to be constantly told how great you look in the saddle, how sweet and smart your horse is, how beautiful your clothes and tack are, then you’ll probably never advance with your horsemanship. Somewhere along the line, truth has to come into the equation. You don’t always look good in the saddle, sometimes you do really dumb or dangerous things, and sometimes your horse is pretty plain and acts like a dink. The best instructors know the moments that deserve praise, but are also willing to say when things go off the rails.

  • A trainer who doesn’t start with safety and well-being for you and your horse is going to get you hurt. There is no way to sugarcoat the fact riding horses is a dangerous activity no matter how skilled you are. The sequence of growth with horses should always be safety and knowledge first, then fun. This involves your equipment, your fitness, your basic habits, as well as the fitness, conformation and suitability of your horse. It also involves a good assessment of your skills and goals, and whether the facts fit the beliefs. A good trainer needs to push you in order to improve, but should never move you faster than your skills or the physical and mental abilities of your horse. If you don’t hear this balance early on from a prospective trainer, best to look elsewhere.

  • A good trainer judges progress by what the horse is saying. The best trainers spend as much time looking at the horse as they do at you because the horse never lies about his understanding of what is being asked, your ability to communicate and how it feels physically. It’s a frustrating thing with horses, but often you feel like you’re really getting something, but underneath you the horse is saying “I’m really confused, you’re really annoying me and whatever it is you’re doing hurts.” Your trainer should have no problems telling you what he sees even if it conflicts with what you feel.

  • A good trainer should give you a “why” for every “how.” If you’re not getting the how and the why for both you and your horse, then you’re wasting your time. You’ll never achieve real feel and communication if you don’t understand the why behind the how, and your horse will never give you the kind of softness and responsiveness you want if you don’t understand what he has to do. Humans, especially today, mostly just want the how because the why usually involves more steps and more time. And the “whys” should have some science and current thinking behind them, not just “this is the way I’ve always done it here on the ranch.” If you’re getting the old “keep your heels down, more left rein, sit up straight, etc.” shouted to you from afar, you’re not learning a damn thing.

  • The horse comes first because he has no other options in life. A really good trainer always tries to see things from the horse’s perspective, and strives to get you to understand that. The best lesson I had was when I rushed to the barn one day, aggravated by being late because a client meeting had gone on too long, and jumped out of my car and sprinted across the parking lot. I didn’t want to lose any of my lesson time. The trainer stopped me and sent me back to sit in my car, simply saying I’m not letting you get on my lesson horse when you’re that wound up. There was no way I was going to be a good riding partner for her horse that day, and she called me on it. Perfect!

  • A trainer should mean a lot more to you than just someone who gives you a lesson. Your trainer should be deeply involved with you and your horse and should be thinking of ways to help you even when you’re not having a lesson. New techniques, new products, new science, a different or more creative approach to help you over a hump, a better way to tie things together to help you and your horse understand and progress – these are all the things a good trainer should be thinking about for you. If you only see the trainer as someone to put some miles on your horse or give you a lesson every now and then, you’ve set your bar too low and you’ll get exactly that much benefit from the relationship.

  • If you’re not interested in learning, why bother. To put it another way, if you think you know more than your trainer or you aren’t willing to listen to, try or practice what he or she is trying to teach you, then why are you actually taking up this person’s time? I have to say life today is making it hard to be a good trainer no matter how hard you try. Every person who knocks on your door has been to a million clinics, seen every YouTube video, watched hours of RFD TV, and read every book in the library. I call it the “worshipping at too many altars syndrome.” Guess what? If you can’t open yourself up to the trainer in front of you, don’t waste the person’s time and look for another option.

  • Don’t get hung up on buckles, ribbons or credentials. Many of the best teachers, coaches and mentors were never the stars in their respective disciplines. In fact, sitting on the sidelines, watching and observing an activity, can give you a better set of eyes and a better feel for what success looks like and how to teach it. If you want to compete in a specific riding discipline, then, of course, you have to work with someone who knows that discipline – at some point. But all riding disciplines, and all good horsemanship, have the same basic foundations in terms of how the horse learns and moves, and how the rider has to lead, be a partner and work in concert with the horse.


Don’t think a good trainer has to have a closet full of trophies to be able to look at you and your horse and figure out how to help both of you improve. There are a lot of people who believe the worst coaches or mentors in any activity, especially the physical ones, are the ones that were the best at it. It’s easy for them, but that doesn’t mean they can make it easy for you – and making it easier for you to understand and accomplish is what makes a trainer the best for you. Value the relationship with your trainer – it may save your life!


Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship
and foundation training. You can contact him at hsthomson@msn.com or (575) 388-1830.



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