Friday, September 9, 2011

Who's Your Trainer?

On a list serve I'm on, earlier this summer there was an active discussion about choosing a trainer. Some people get regular assistance from a trainer (this person can focus on training the horse and/or teaching riders) but even for people who do most of their own training, it can be very helpful to enlist the assistance of someone else occasionally. Trainers offer help with many issues- someone to lay out a thoughtful plan and help you pick realistic goals; maybe you've hit a bump in the road and need some fresh ideas or a different set of eyes; sometimes you just need any set of eyes to tell you how things are looking as opposed to feeling; sometimes you are ready for a different approach than the one you've used in the past or you have become uncomfortable with or even outgrown the trainer you've been using. The list goes on.
So how do you choose who to go to for help? Some of us have more choices than others but everyone should do careful research before entrusting themselves and/or their horses to another person. It's always good to start with asking around but don't limit yourself to only the well-known or big-name people. Someone posted a great quote on Facebook:
"It does not interest me who you studied with, what certificate you have, or what video clips you show, I want to know what my horse thinks of you after 15 minutes of working with you" - attributed to Ben Hart
While I actually am interested in who someone studies with and what certificates they might have (it gives some background and general impressions on approaches and certainly experience), I love the conclusion drawn. Or to quote Alexandra Kurland, "go to people for opinions and horses for answers".

So how do you know what horses think of a trainer? Peggy Ferdinand wrote a great post in this discussion and she has allowed me to re-post some of it here:

* Do horses she is working with look relaxed when she handles them? Or do they tense up and guard themselves? Do they seem to nuzzle her or otherwise feel comfortable "checking her out" when she's around? Do they stand relaxed when she is there? Do they seem to be trying to figure out what she wants, or just trying to "get through it"? If the horses she's working with are coming out of training sessions as relaxed or more relaxed than when they started, then that trainer is doing something right. And, if some horses seem to respond well to her, but others don't (or, she works well with some horses but not others)---which type is your horse more like?

* When the horses aren't doing what she wants them to do---how long does she keep trying the same thing, or trying the same thing with more emphasis/force? In other words, does she have a big enough "toolbox" to adjust her way of asking for/setting up a behavior if her first attempt or attempts aren't working? (I watched Mike Schaffer work with a big Shire mare in a clinic. She absolutely refused to give to the bit---a behavior that, with every other horse in the clinic, took him from about 5 to 15 seconds to achieve. It took fifteen minutes of him experimenting with this and that and the other thing, and finally he removed her cavesson, and presto---she gave at the poll and relaxed and he could go on with her. But my point is that he wasn't doing the same thing over and over and over. He HAD fifteen minutes' worth of other techniques he could use, without throwing up his hands and reverting to punishment.)

* Is the trainer's "discipline" for horses consistent and fair? Does she always want, and expect/train, to the same standards of behavior (rather than being more irritable at some times than at others)?

* Is she observant about what's happening to affect the horse's behavior? I watched a trainer react to a horse who was fidgeting in the crossties. She kept yelling at him, "STOP THAT!", and I actually rushed over to him just in time to avert blows from her to "punish his misbehavior". He was fidgeting, yes, but he was doing so because he'd been brought in hot and and sweat was rolling down his face, and it must have ITCHED like crazy. I took a rag and gave him a good scratch, took off the bridle, and then, he stood there very quietly. So---you want to be sure that the person you choose has better observational skills than that. They very often mean the difference between safety and grave danger, in working with horses (BTW I have no problem with a lot of the "good behavior definitions" that horse people have (I love Alex's way of describing them---for example, "Please be quiet; the grownups are talking" is just PERFECT). But a trainer must, I think, be able to assess WHY the horse is "misbehaving", and deal with it appropriately. Even better, they ought to be aware of the possibilities, and manage things so that the "misbehavior" doesn't occur because the stimulus (pain or discomfort or fear or whatever) has been headed off before the horse decides he has to handle it himself.)
The same goes for you, the rider or handler. Some people are very compassionate when working with horses, but have no patience with people! I understand this, because having a lot of compassion for a horse means we do not want to see their owners being rough or sloppy or careless because it hurts the horse. Nonetheless, the better we are at explaining things to people, the better off the horses will be. I've ridden under plenty of instructors who want to chew students up and spit them out. In that situation, I am tense and afraid of making a mistake- which makes it much more difficult to learn (the same is true for horses of course!) I prefer instructors who are quiet, methodical and patient.

So whether I'm the student or the trainer: quiet, clear and patient are what I'm after. Many thanks to Peggy Ferdinand for sharing those great thoughts.