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Alpa Natural Horsemanship

Newsletter June 2013

Selecting a Horse Trainer [also read Consultation Training]

Every horse owner has their own horse dream. They envision themselves riding gracefully over the hills, enjoying the beautiful scenery as their horse confidently negotiates the terrain. Some may dream of competitions where their horse will execute the perfect spin or blaze through a set of obstacles. Still others dream of gracefully jumping over fences with a horse that is bold and responsive. While every horse owner has a dream, there is often a large gap between their present reality and their dream. Most horse owners call on the help of a horse trainer to bridge the gap between where they are and where they would like to be.  Without the help of a competent horse trainer most of these dreams would go unrealized.   It breaks my heart to see so many horses standing idly by. I see dreams unfulfilled. I see humans desperately in need of the lessons that these horses can teach.  Lessons of love and forgiveness.  Lessons of commitment and effective communication.  These are the reasons I am taking the time to write this article. The truth is the human race is in dire need of the lessons horses have to teach. More horse owners enjoying their horses more often will make the world a better place. Our relationship with the horse is reaching a new peak.  We no longer need to rely on his incredible strength or speed to do work or win wars between nations. We now need the horse to help us win the wars within ourselves and our families. I believe that this is the real reason why people become involved with horses. We all have a dream, a vision of what we want our horses to be. I think our horses have a vision of what and who they would like us to be. It is the job of the horse trainer to fill in the gap between where the horse owner relationship is at and what the dream is.  It seems these days like horse trainers are everywhere. With all of the great instruction available in the form of the internet, DVDs, and videos there is no shortage of information on how to train a horse.  Horse training is one of the last unregulated professions. Anyone can make an advertisement and proclaim that they are a “professional horse trainer”. Many horse owners have been very disappointed when they picked up their horse after spending months in anxious anticipation and thousands of dollars in training fees only to find out their horse is still not safe for them. Or they have seen their horse suffer at the hands of an abusive trainer. A short look into the world of professional horse training may help to illustrate some of the realities that trainers face every day.


A Day in the Life of a Horse Trainer

Once horse owners become aware of the business side of horse training I believe they can make better decisions about who trains their horses.  When you take a horse to a trainer what you see and what life is really like are two different pictures.  You see the trainer riding horses 8 hours a day. What the trainer experiences is somewhat different. There are chores to do, fences to fix, hay to move, and equipment to maintain. There is also a long list of clients to stay in contact with and lessons to give.  The trainer must keep between 8 and 20 horses in “training” to make ends meet. So every morning the trainer looks out into the paddock and makes some decisions. What horses do I need to train today? Based on the weather, what clients are showing up this week, what horse is most in need, the trainer decides what horses will get trained today. He knows that there are only so many horses that a person can train in a day. At the end of a long day of work it is not unusual to get 5 horses trained that day.

I am called often to work with someone’s horse at their home. I enjoy this type of work as it allows me to see how and where the horse spends his days. The gentleman that called me said he had horses in training at various trainers barns in the past. The trainer often commented on the horse’s progress. The trainer said he took the clients horse on long trail ride the previous night. Unbeknownst to the trainer the client had driven by the previous evening and saw his horse munching hay in the paddock. Needless to say that is the reason he called me and watched very carefully that he got his money’s worth as I trained his mustang colt.  So you see there is not a very good likelihood that the horse you send to the trainer is being ridden on a daily basis. There simply are not enough hours in the day.  It is easy to see why so many horse owners are disappointed when their horse comes back from a trainer. How did the horse training industry get so messed up? Both the trainers and the horse owners are to blame. Horse owners search for the lowest price per month for training thus encouraging trainers to lowball their prices. If the trainer limits himself to 6-8 horses in training, he cannot afford to stay in business.  Trainers are to blame for leading the horse owning public into believing that it takes months of “training” while the actual hours spent with the horse are not accounted for.  Is there a better way? I firmly believe there is. With the advances of technology and realistic goals I feel the horses, horse owners, and trainers can all benefit. The following are some of the suggestions to revamp the horse training marketplace.

  1. The trainer should be paid based on the documented hours s/he spends training the horse. Documented hours means that the trainer provides the client with a training stragety/plan and notes on a regular basis in regards to the horses progress. These notes could be sent via e-mail. If the trainer does not educate and training the horse s/he should not get paid.
  2. Clients need to schedule lessons throughout the training period to understand how to achieve the same response that the trainer does. These lessons need to be scheduled at a time that is convenient for the client and trainer, but does not interfere with the education & training of other horses.
  3. There should be an agreed upon set of criteria upon which training goals are set. Based on the intended use of the horse certain tasks must be trained. For instance a trail horse does not need to know how to rope cattle and a hunter jumper does not need to learn how to wear a crupper. These criteria should be as specific as possible and be agreed upon prior to initiating training.
  4. A video could be made available to the client illustrating the successful completion of the above mentioned training criteria.
  5. Through the use weekly lessons and daily documentation the client should have the ability to decide when their horse has had enough training to satisfy their needs and not be obligated to leave their horses in training “by the month”.
  6. Clients should be expected to pay a reasonable hourly wage for professional services. To be an effective horse trainer takes years of experience. It is a very dangerous profession and by and large you get what you pay for. If you really do want your horse to be ridden 3-5 times per week you should be willing to pay significantly more than the “by the month” trainer charges.

These fundamental changes would benefit everyone involved in the horse industry. Only with total transparency can the full trust of the horse public be acquired.


The Education the horse receives is based on the Foundation

The most important part of a horse’s life is his first 10-40 hours of education. This is where the horse learns the fundamentals of everything that will be asked of him the rest of his life.  This is where the horse receives its education and the trainer builds a “Foundation” through teaching the Basics.  This education sets the stage for how willingly your horse accepts the lessons in the “Mounted Riding Training Program”.  To rush this training is to undermine all the training that comes after it. Far too often trainers and horse owners are in such a hurry to ride the horse that the Education on the Ground is neglected and the horse as a poor foundation.  Basically the horse has to learn Ground Manners, Ground Handling, Desensitizing, Sensitizing, Lunging, Long Lining, accepting and how to respond to pressure. Pressure is the language of communication in horsemanship. We use steady pressure, rhythmic pressure, and space pressure, in so many different ways. The horse needs to learn how to accept a saddle and bit, to move each body part in response to each kind of pressure. He must take direction without fear or objection. The more thoroughly this language is understood by the horse the calmer, softer, supple and responsive the horse will be when ridden.

The most frequently asked question by clients is “have ya ridden him yet?” I think a better question might be “is there anything else you can teach him before you ride him”? This is the better question because it emphasizes the importance of teaching the language of horse-man-ship. Horse-man-ship is about relationship. Horses need to trust in whatever the human asks. The horse/human relationship is like every other relationship; it takes time. Some trainers are better at developing relationship than others. Each horse will bond with humans at a different rate. I have had horses in training that previously have been through several trainers. These horses had kicked, bucked and ran off with skilled riders. Their problem was not in the mechanics of riding. The problem was in the horse/human relationship. These horses turned out to be great horses. It simply involves more time in developing relationship. It is often said that the fastest way to train a horse is to slow down.

A nice young filly was given to me several years ago when we were on the farm in Saskatchewan. She had been to two very good horse trainers. She had bucked off at least 3 riders. She was athletic and could truly buck! The owners had spoken with the vet about performing a spaying on her in the hope that it might change her behavior. Other experts advised them to get rid of her and let a young cowboy “hard break” her. Out of exasperation they called me. After getting bucked off myself I realized something. Every time someone, anyone, came near to this filly in the paddock she would pin her ears back and threaten to kick.  For the next three weeks every time I went to catch a horse from that paddock (which was about 7 times a day) I would first go to her and rub on her. At first she resisted. After three weeks she was looking for me.  It took me three weeks to develop a relationship with this horse. Finally it was time to start “training” again. After that training progressed without incident. She is now the favorite horse in a string of seven horses that this client owns.   What if the trainer could teach the horse nearly everything the horse will ever need to know before it is ever ridden?  He will produce horses that are relaxed, confident, responsive and a joy to be with. The best trainers “start” horses over a longer period of time.  These horses are not ridden until they have 40 to 60 hours of training. Their horses are remarkable!

It is so important to first have a firm understanding of the fundamentals. I see so many horses that are pushed to perform their intended tasks long before they are ready I call these truly “broke” they are not educated therefore do not have a solid foundation and have holes in their Foundation.  These horses I refer to as “Ever Green” and are horses that develop undesirable behaviour!  Normally these horses are normally “Reactive” rather than “Responsive”!

By “broke” I do not mean broken in spirit. I mean not listening and responding to the riders vocabulary of pressure. Not simply being ridden, but moving all parts of the body on cue, on time, with light cues. All of this language can be taught on the ground by a creative trainer. The question is not how soon can the horse be ridden, but how does the horse ride after 40-60 hours of training?  My experience tells me the horse that has been thoroughly educated in the language of pressure before being ridden is the horse that will be the most confident and responsive.


My Horse does everything the trainer asks but comes “untrained” when I ride him”

Horses do of course notice the differences between their riders. As humans we tend to think of them as something akin to lawnmowers. Something that anyone should, with a minimal of instruction, is able to operate. Young, less experienced horses are particularly susceptible to becoming “untrained.” To illustrate how the horse feels try this exercise. Get down on the floor on your hands and knees. Ask ten different people to sit on your back. Have each on them rock back and forth then rock their pelvis to a fro. You will be astounded and the differences. Just imagine if you had a bit in your mouth and you allowed each of them to “steer” you around!  Some would have soft giving hands. Some would have nervous, jerky hands, some would feel encouraging and some would feel bitter and uncaring. All this comes down to what has been called “feel”. The more time you spend creatively, consciously, educating [Foundation] and training [Riding] horses the more you will develop a sense of feel. “Feel” has everything to do with how your horse feels about you and responds to you.

As soon as you walk into the paddock your horse knows what mood you are in. For millions of years horses have used body language in their herds. They are the premier experts in noticing everything about every move you make. I like the way someone once said “to a horse nothing means nothing and everything means something”. So when you take lessons from your trainer be ready to allow your horse to figure you out. The trainers’ job is to make the transition as smooth and comfortable as possible for you and your horse. Your horse is not necessarily becoming untrained; he is simply trying to figure out why he feels different when you ride him than when the trainer does.

Now let’s look at some herd politics. Your trainer has put a significant amount of time into training your horse. They have established who is the leader (hopefully the trainer), and who is the follower. Now you enter the picture. The horse instinctively asks “where does this being fit into our “herd”. Depending on the inborn personality of the horse he may assume you are at the top of the herd or the bottom of the herd. Either way he will be sensing every move you make to either confirm or disprove his original assessment. I am not implying that you need to be aggressive and dominant. I am saying the most effective horseman assume the role of the most benevolent of leaders.  What do I mean by benevolent leader?  Benevolent in the sense that he considers all the horses’ instincts, desires, and emotions while still insisting on obedient self control.


About Lessons

The importance of taking lessons with your trainer has been touched on previously. Let me emphasize how important these lessons are.  When horses are brought to the trainer they have had a relationship with very few humans. During the course of training they learn the language of the trainer. I am not talking about verbal language. Horses are not naturally inclined to many different vocalizations. Horse language is body language. Your horse has learned to respond to the trainer’s body language. Now you have two choices. You can take your horse home and retrain him to understand your body language or you can take lessons with your trainer to understand how he communicates with your horse.  How often should lessons be scheduled? If the horse is being trained 4-8 hours per week, once per week should be sufficient. Lessons should last between 60 and 90 minutes. This could include catching, tacking, warm-up and cool down, and untacking.  It certainly needs to include the Foundation Training [Ground Work].  The fees for lessons should be agreed upon at the beginning of trainer/owner relationship.


Choosing a Horse Trainer

After reading all of the above information you are left with the daunting task of finding a trainer that you can work with. Since many of the concepts are not practiced by a majority of the trainers you will have to do some searching. Start by looking at the bulletin board at your local feed store. Some trainers even advertise in newspapers. Once you locate a trainer it’s time to figure out if you can do business with him. Giving the trainer a copy of this article would be a great start. If the ideas seem too revolutionary for him it may be time to search elsewhere. Most trainers will be very happy to work for a livable wage. Many however will consider the results based documentation too burdensome. That’s okay, you, the horse owner are in a buyers’ market. There are many trainers out there that would love to help you and your horse.


What about Certified Trainers?

There are a number of big name horse trainers that have developed “certification” programs. Receiving certification is akin to getting a seal of approval from a well known trainer. The education involved may require anywhere from a few days to a few years of working within a mentors program. Certified trainers usually charge more and they have a right to. They have spent thousands of hours and probably thousands of dollars to achieve certification.

The question is does your horse care if your trainer is certified?

All of horse training can be boiled down into a handful of principles. Different big name trainers may utilize these principles in different ways, but they are the same principles. When you watch a famous trainer on RFD-TV you may assume that trainers certified by this trainer would be just like him.  Not true.  Each person has their own style and their own way of doing things. An analogy may help. Suppose you decide to take up karate. You decide that akido would be a great style of karate for you. Your best friend also decides to join the akido class. If an outsider were to look at the class he would see everyone doing the same moves. If an expert in akido watched the class he could see an infinite number of variations between individuals. Each class mates strength, range of motion, sense of balance, and timing are different. Now let’s go back to the riding arena. As I stated before, horses are experts at body language. Just because someone is certified by a famous trainer does not mean they will achieve the same miraculous results. They may even be better! Or they may be worse.

I like to describe horsemanship as a “way”. You cannot teach someone a way. It must be learned true enough. But it can be learned only by living it. Living a skill and performing a skill are different. Living a skill involves incorporating the knowledge, skills and savvy on a cellular level. You will know and recognize the trainer that lives the “way”. S/he will be the one with the smallest ego and the biggest heart.  S/he will be the one with the least amount of time for small talk but will answer your questions and will have the best horses. S/he will be the one with strong opinions that is always hoping to be proved wrong. They may or may not be famous to anyone except the horses under their care. This is the trainer you are looking for. You may find their ad in the newspaper. You may meet them standing around the loose horse pen at the horse auction looking for a diamond in the rough. Either way you will know them when you meet them.


Respect your Trainer’s Opinion

Sometimes people just fall in love with a particular horse. The saying goes that love is blind. People bring horses to trainers that are ill suited to the owner. It may be an issue of temperament. Temperament consists of attributes. Attributes have to do with a horse’s personality. Trainers can change behaviors, but are much less successful with changing attributes and personalities. After evaluating your horse and working with it your trainer should be able to tell you if your horse will be a match for you and meet your needs.  Too many times horse owners insist that this is the horse for them. After months of training and a few injuries most of them wish they would have listened to the trainer during the first evaluation and after several hours of education.  The incompatibility may be experience. Pairing a nervous, hyperactive colt with a mostly sedentary middle aged novice rider is a recipe for disaster. The same could be said of a very calm, quiet, slow horse being paired with a young cowgirl/boy type. S/he will always be wishing her/his horse would move faster and be more athletic. The horse can always get more athletic, but it may never be the athlete the young cowgirl/boy always wanted. Of course the final decision is always up to the horse owner. Just be willing to make a lot of compromises in your horse/human relationship and keep you medical insurance premiums paid up.

A middle aged couple brought me a four year old gelding a several years ago. The husband saw a piece on RFD-TV about Palomino Morgans.  He decided then and there he had to have one. He went to a breeder and spotted a handsome gelding that had been “started”. When the horse stepped off the trailer it was apparent that the horse was afraid of everything, especially humans. I worked with this horse for a few months and the out of town owners would stop by occasionally and inquire about his progress. I more than hinted that the horse was very excitable. I could not get a good read on the experience of the intended rider so I did not push the issue.  In a conversation with the breeder she said that the horse had been purchased not started, by another owner. After attempting to train it himself he returned the horse to the breeder.  “Most Definitely a bad sign”.  In subsequent phone calls I tried to make the case that maybe this was not the horse for them. They would not hear of it. They insisted they had owned difficult horses in the past and they could handle them just fine.  Finally after many hours of training the owner was ready to ride the horse. I demonstrated the horse and he performed very well. I had developed his confidence to an acceptable level over a long period of time. The owner rode the horse around the arena as I attempted to teach her a one rein stop. I kept saying “use only one rein at a time”. Each time the horse would get nervous she would pull back on both reins, making the horse even more nervous. The owners wanted to go on a trail ride and I reluctantly agreed. Throughout the ride they rode behind me. I could sense when the horse was nervous and when she would pull back on both reins against my insistent instructions.

Finally we made it back to the barn. The owner was praising me up and down about how well trained the horse was. I was feeling pretty good until……until someone opened the door at the end of the barn. The horse dropped his shoulder, spun and ran. The owner fell off injuring her spine fairly seriously.  I received a call from the husband of the owner a few days later saying he wanted a trainer that was a little more “cowboy”. After a few months with the new trainer the owner is still not able to ride this horse. So much expense and heartbreak could have been averted if the owner’s had simply understood the hints as real warnings.


Before you take your horse to the Trainer

There are a few things to take care of before you take your horse to a trainer. The first thing is to make sure all your horses vaccinations and deworming are up to date. Keep a file on each horse so that you can easily reference when vaccinations are due. Your horse will be exposed to a number of horses from different areas. It is in your best interest and most notably the stable owners best interest to make sure all horses are current on vaccinations and deworming. The consequences of a disease outbreak in a stable are horrendous.  That means just one case of a disease such as strangles can effectively put a stable owner out of business!  Out of respect for the stable owner and other horse owners make sure your horse is up to date on vaccinations.  Another important detail is to have your horses feet trimmed if possible. Many horses that begin training have never had their feet handled. If that is the case let the trainer know. Within 10 hours of training the trainer will probably insist that a Ferrier trim the horses’ feet. For a horse to move properly it is important that the feet be properly balanced. The analogy would be like you going to play basketball in high heels. It is just much safer and more comfortable for the horse to learn with properly trimmed feet. If your horse has had his feet handled the ideal time to have them trimmed is one week prior to initiating training.  This gives him time to adjust to the new feeling of a recent trim. As your horse progresses through training your trainer may suggest having your horse shod. If he is to be ridden in rough and rocky country he will probably need to be shod. Different horses have different feet. Some horses may never need shoes for their given use. Others may need shoes almost constantly. Your trainer should be consulting with the Ferrier on each horse so they can determine the best option for each horse.


Fees for Training

As expressed above I have some revolutionary ideas about how the horse training industry needs to change. To keep transactions totally transparent the owner should know how much it costs to board a horse at a training facility. That monthly boarding charge should be the only base or “fixed” fee. The training of the horse should be paid by the documented hour. What is a documented hour? It consists of an hour of training in which the trainer records what was accomplished during that hour. The horse training industry needs to move to an accountability model. Whether we look at public schools or the medical profession or large corporations no one is willing to pay for anything but results. Why should it be any different in the horse training industry?  How much per hour should you expect to pay a horse trainer? That depends on the region of the country, the reputation of the trainer, and the basic law of supply and demand. For a rough idea consider how much an entry level corporate manager earns including benefits. Sounds like a lot of money doesn’t it?  That is the reason there is such a shortage of qualified horse trainers. After a year or two of training horses they realize they need to find another profession in order to feed their family. If you want an honest, trustworthy horse it is well worth the expense. I learned years ago that a thousand dollars goes a lot farther with the horse trainer than it does at the hospital emergency room. The investment you make in the training will be amortized over the life of the horse. You may be enjoying your horse for over 20 years. If you spend $2,000 to get him properly started. That amounts to just $100/year.  It is quite a bargain when you look at all the horses standing around pastures, not being ridden or enjoyed because the owner feels deep down inside that their horse is not the horse for them nor can it be trusted.


Putting It All Together

There are thousands of horses that are not being utilized to their full potential. These horses were originally acquired as a result of someone’s dream. These dreams need to be recaptured for the betterment of the horses and the horse owners. Many horse owners could use the services that a professional horse trainer can provide. The horse training industry has traditionally been less than ethically transparent. With some fundamental changes the faith and trust of the equine public may be restored. Some progressive trainers will welcome the changes and others will continue doing things the way they always have. In the long run the cost of quality training is more than recouped in the form of safety, enjoyment and usability. By looking at a new paradigm in the training of horses we can recapture the dream, the vision and the magical horse/human relationship that we all started with.  


If you have a trainer that you are happy with “Keep that trainer”......

Bottom line Don’t “Ever” let go of your dreams!