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About the cover



Talking Horses

Doing the Right Thing

The trainer’s biggest challenge: Being honest with himself.

by Scott Thomson

  thomson

 

Last month I talked about the kinds of qualities you might look for in a good trainer to help you and your horse.

For all the trainers out there, I thought it might be interesting to follow up with some opinions on why it’s so hard to be a good trainer.

The greatest challenge to anyone who wants to be a trainer is something that you will never hear discussed, and most in the business won’t even admit it exists. The very basis of the job starts with an enormous conflict of interest, the conflict of how you balance honesty and doing the right thing with making a living.

What is this inherent conflict? Very simply, it starts with the fact that not all issues with horses are training issues. But, as a trainer, your livelihood comes from fees for training. Can you really ignore that and be objective, even offer alternative solutions, when evaluating a situation with a horse or rider? If you do, it may appear to devalue your service and will certainly cost you money. Isn’t it easier — and more profitable — to say any behavior is a training issue, then sign someone up for a bunch of lessons, or take the horse and “train” it for a few months?

Even all the clinics, training shows on TV, YouTube videos and how-to CD’s imply that all issues are about training, and if you buy that trainer’s products, use their method or take your horse to them, any problem or performance shortfall will be magically trained away.

The fact is, issues with horses can be driven by physical limitations, conformation, medical problems, diet, ill fitting or inappropriate equipment, or, dare I say, the owner. To look past any of these variables and go right to “it’s a training problem and I’ll fix it” seems wrong, but I understand why it happens. It’s hard to put food on the table by suggesting a solution that doesn’t involve your service.

These are a few situations I’ve faced that illustrate this conflict, where the right solutions would potentially (and did) cost me thousands of dollars of income.

An owner came to me with a horse that was exhibiting some dangerous behavioral problems. The rider had owned the horse for many years without any real problems. The owner was eager to fix the problem but also to learn some new techniques, and it would have been easy to create a nice “annuity” for my business with regular lessons. However, after a couple of sessions, I felt this was not a training issue at all, but an indication of a particular medical issue I had seen before. I suggested rather than spending any money with me, have the vet check the horse for this issue because if it’s there, it can be resolved with surgery. The horse did indeed have this problem, the surgery was done, and the owner is still riding and enjoying the horse.

In another case, an owner brought me a horse with a rearing problem. She was convinced it was a training issue — all of her riding buddies said so, so it must be the case. She even said the magic words, “I don’t care how much it costs to fix.” After the very first session, I told her this was not a training issue. My suggestion was to get a true equine dentist in to evaluate the horse immediately because what I saw was a horse trying to avoid the pain and discomfort of the bit. After full dental work and a few weeks of the owner riding without a bit in the safety of her small arena, she was able to return to her bridle set-up with no more rearing or resistance.

A new rider went to a breeder/trainer to look for a horse. An honest horseman would have looked at this person and the horses he had available, and should have said he didn’t really have a horse appropriate for your age, skill and interest. But, that would mean no sale and no income from lessons. So, he convinced an older beginner with no riding experience that the best thing to do is get a young horse (he had plenty of those around — surprise!) and grow and learn with it. After several big wrecks and some injuries, the owner came to me looking for training to make the horse safe. Sadly, I had to say this was not a training issue at all but simply a bad marriage that required getting a different horse better suited for a beginner who just wanted to ride.

The stories go on and on like this, situations where changes in diet, a new saddle, a bigger trailer or some chiropractic work have solved what were thought to be training problems. In most businesses this kind of honesty and problem solving is truly appreciated, and results in the kind of referrals and reputation that can build a profitable business (sadly, in the horse business, often it does neither). If it should be good for your business, other than the obvious loss of predictable income, why is it so hard to actually do it?

Well, there’s a second part to this conflict — the human. It is far easier for an owner to believe training is the problem (or the solution) because that line of thought is not at all threatening to the person (unless the person has already spent a ton of money with other trainers).

When you start to talk about things like diet, medical issues or equipment, in many cases it will be taken as some sort of criticism of how the owner cares for their horse. Care of an animal is something very personal, and anything perceived as a commentary on care becomes a criticism of the person and not the animal. That doesn’t sit well with most owners, so it can be easier for a trainer to just avoid those issues.

Likewise, if you talk about things like a horse’s age, maturity, conformation, physical limitations or temperament for a particular use, you may hit a nerve with an owner that gets interpreted as saying they bought the wrong horse or, worse, they don’t know much about horses. Oops, there goes another client out the door.

If in your assessment as a professional trainer, you feel a horse is quite good and well trained but the owner is at the root of the problem, it is a challenge to go in that direction without making an owner feel they are not as skilled or as knowledgeable as they thought they were. No one likes to hear that. No one likes reality to come into their dreams.

No matter how much has been written and proven about the nature of the horse, personality and learning differences between individual horses and different breeds, and the physical and mental requirements for various disciplines or activities, many people still believe you can train any horse to do anything. That being the case, it only makes sense to think if something isn’t going well, it’s about training or the trainer and nothing else.

Maybe the work done in cognitive science and the way our own brains work to protect our emotional and physical well being can help to understand this conflict of interest for a trainer (see, for example, the thoughts of Janet Jones, PhD in the July issue of Equus). Looking just at the concept of the “self-serving bias” — where we believe our abilities, skills or behavior lead to our successes, but our failures are the fault of someone else or some set of circumstances out of our control — it’s easy to see why one could focus just on training or the trainer as the problem. It leaves the owner immune to criticism and comfortable with their beliefs, even if they’re misplaced.

No easy way for a trainer to navigate these waters, which is probably why so many don’t even try. There isn’t much in the training career manual that prepares you to deal with these complexities. If the owner thinks it’s a training issue, then that’s what it is – and get out the checkbook. Nobody gets offended, the trainer generates some income and everybody is happy until the next time the horse acts like a horse.

 

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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