I Talked to My Trainer (and Lived)

Having productive conversations through tricky situations.

By Erin McGuire

In a time where we are so connected, why does communication seem so distant? Texts and emails leave intention up for interpretation. Phone calls are devoid of face-to-face contact. It goes without saying that effective communication is essential to any relationship, and that certainly includes trainer-student.

There is bountiful research showing that communication improves when both parties listen with open minds, are mindful of the emotion behind their words, and monitor their body language. An exciting topic can be brought to life with tone and hand gestures just as a touchy subject can go downhill faster than a freight train when neither party listens. But… the horse world is a world of its own. It’s an investment of our time, effort, money, energy and emotion. When something rocks the boat at the barn, it’s an attack on all of the above. Likewise, our trainers invest their lives in this sport. When something is amiss, it affects their livelihood. Us amateurs choose to participate in this sport, and our trainers choose this as their career. Mutual respect is necessary.

I have been with my current trainers for almost a decade. We’re past “like” family—they are my family. Communication between us, from serious discussions to casual chit chat, is free-flowing. But it hasn’t always been this way. Once upon a time I shook in my boots, afraid to ask a question even for the sake of my education. Thinking of my junior self, I sought out one of my trainers and without any introduction asked, “What advice would you give to students on how to communicate with their trainer?”

He didn’t think twice before answering, “The student has to ask questions.”

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

AHA! My inner mental skills coach devoured this. It’s one of the foundations of my practice: I have my clients brainstorm what they can and cannot control pertaining to their sport. Asking questions is within their control, the answer is not.

My trainer continued “If the student doesn’t ask a question, I can’t give an answer. It’s their job to ask, it’s my job to answer. If I can’t answer, that’s my problem.”

Indeed, communication is a two-way street.

However, this two-way street is not always open for traffic. As much as us amateurs want our needs heard, we need to be mindful of our trainers’ lives. Face-to-face, one-on-one communication is an excellent notion but not appropriate during lessons, at the in gate, or on off days (#Monday). Would you want your trainer calling you at 4 am to discuss serious matters as they’re up and getting ready for a busy show day? For discussions requiring time and focus, contact your trainer before your chat to arrange an appropriate time to meet. Come prepared with questions and be open minded to answers.

Why do these discussions require so much formality and prep? Well sometimes the answer isn’t as easy as, “No, you can’t school in a pink zebra print saddle pad.” Let’s look at some common, tricky situations when it comes to communication at the barn.

The situation: Amateur rider feels stagnant in their lessons and wants to work on different things. Rider is struggling, and frustrated when things go wrong.

The communication question: How do I talk to my trainer about lessons?

What is it you want to work on? Be specific. Reach out to your trainer with a targeted goal in mind to start your conversation. “I am struggling with long bending lines at horse shows. I would like to practice more ‘off my eye’ rides at home,” or “I am intimidated by daring jump offs. I’d like to become more confident executing competitive track and pace at home.” In your lessons, be receptive to your trainer’s feedback. Verbal performance feedback is either instructional or motivational. The best performance feedback is positive; for example, “heels down for a longer leg” is positive instructional feedback while “don’t stand on your toes” is negative instructional feedback. Instructional feedback refers to “how to” cues and is still considered positive even when it’s constructive criticism. Listen to what your trainer is telling you to do and how to execute. If they tell you to put your leg on to create power from behind—put your leg on and feel the change. If you don’t understand, ask for clarification. Take note of the motivational cues your trainer gives you such as “good job.” It’s an indication you’re doing it right. While motivation is an important part of coaching and learning, your trainer does not owe you praise. However, your trainer should never give you negative-motivational feedback such as “you’re a failure” or “you can’t do this.” RED FLAG. Research shows this is NOT motivational and takes away from learning.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

The situation: Pony mom is concerned about her daughter’s fears and show nerves. Daughter idolizes trainer and is afraid to tell the trainer she’s scared. Mom doesn’t know what’s overstepping and what’s advocating for her child.

The communication question: How do I talk to my trainer about my child’s nerves?

Although they wear several hats, your trainer is not your child’s sport psychologist. They are not expected to provide one-on-one coaching to strengthen your child’s mental game, but they can be an influencer. Your daughter’s nerves may be stemming from physical needs (practice) or mindset needs (mental skills coaching) or both. The answer will be unique to each athlete. If your daughter expresses show nerves, take note of the nature of her concerns before approaching her trainer. Ask your daughter’s trainer for their recommendations on nerve management. If the needs are physical, discuss ways to increase the quality of your daughter’s practice—is it more lessons or “homework?” If the needs are mental, ask if your daughter’s trainer has a preferred practitioner they can put you in contact with. It is not your trainer’s job to tell your child “YOU’RE NERVOUS!” That rarely helps. Instead, encourage your child to be honest about their nerves (easier said than done, I know) and ask you child’s trainer for guidance.

The situation: Adult amateur switches barns and joins a fantastic team with facilities and a trainer she loves. There is little to complain about; however, the trainer suggests she gets a new horse. The trainer believes a new horse will allow the client to be more competitive, but the client loves her horse and doesn’t want to ride anything else.

The communication question: How do I tell my trainer that I don’t want a new horse, and wish to keep mine?

One word: goals. What are your goals? Are they to do the best you can with the horse you have? Or are they to do the best you can with a horse that suits your needs? Both options have their strengths, but sometimes the two avenues do not cross. Approach your trainer with an understanding of your goals. If your horse is a kind, older 3’ guy and your goal is to enjoy him, say so! If you are content to ride your ride with him and stick to his capabilities, keep on keepin’ on. And give him a carrot because he sounds like a good boy! However, be mindful that he may not fulfill your other goal of one day jumping the 3’6” at the national level. Likewise, if you come to realize you have bigger goals than your horse is able to support, ask your trainer what the next steps would be.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

The situation: Junior rider wants to move up or try a new division. Sees other riders in her barn moving up and feels as if she’s capped.

The communication question: How do I talk to my trainer about moving up or switching rings?

It is your job to ask questions. It is your trainer’s job to answer. Ask yourself: is moving up a goal you have for your progression as a rider or is it fueled by comparing yourself to others in your barn? If after soul-searching you truly want to move up, ask. “I’d like to do the 3’6” eq next show season,” or “I’d like to try jumpers.” Your trainer cannot read your mind. After asking, listen to what they say, and remain open for discussion. Perhaps there’s a concern with your horse—he cannot do what you’re asking. Perhaps there’s a skill level component—you are currently not prepared to jump the 3’6” eq, but if you diligently practice technical tracks in lessons you can be ready. Perhaps your trainer did not realize you wanted to switch disciplines but now that you’ve prompted, they’re able to talk possibilities. The discussion could go in a number of directions, but it starts with you asking the question. What happens if you and your trainer don’t see eye to eye? Listen with an open mind. Your trainer is a trained, paid professional and has logical reasoning behind their beliefs. You choose to train under your trainer’s guidance, so trust their judgement. You cannot control what your trainer says, but you can control how you respond to it whether you like what they say or not. If your trainer says practice more, it’s time to get to work. If your trainer says your horse is underqualified, explore options like rechecking goals or moving forward with a new horse.

The situation: You, the client (either parent or rider) are unhappy with something. Anything. Fill in the blank.

The communication question: How do I talk to my trainer about conflict?

Mutual respect. Save the gossip for reality TV and go to your trainer directly. Maybe it’s the care, maybe it’s training, maybe it’s questioning if your horse is right for you. Whatever your concern may be, it is open to the table. BUT! You’ve got to go to your trainer, no matter how uncomfortable the confrontation may seem. You wouldn’t want your trainer gossiping behind your back, so show the same respect to your trainer. The conversation may go in a variety of directions, but the only way to find a solution is to address the disconnect with the person who can do something about it.

Regardless of your level or involvement in the sport, conflicts arise and discussions need to happen. Your trainer has many super powers, but mind reading isn’t one of them. You—as the client—have to ask your question (or at least start the conversation) to give your trainer an opportunity to respond.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Remember: both you and your trainer have made a choice, not only to choose this sport but to choose each other. Your communications are two-sided, yet you and your trainer are on the same team. If something isn’t right, it affects both sides. Both parties must listen and be heard for the conversation to flow. You, the client, can control your expectations and actions. Your trainer, the professional, can control their response using their expertise. And everyone should have the ability to control their emotions.

For serious chats, schedule a time where both parties can be engaged. Come prepared with your goals in mind. Respect is key—you don’t want your trainer dismissing you just as your trainer doesn’t want you calling on their day off. And when in doubt, add leg.

Erin is an amateur equestrian and professional mental skills coach. She sometimes competes in the high amateurs and smaller grand prixs with her longtime partner Kasarr, if the weather is nice. If she’s not working or riding, you can find her with a book or teaching a group fitness class. After completing her masters degree in applied sport psychology with her thesis addressing confidence intervention and maintenance in athletes, Erin began offering virtual mental skills coaching through Remarqueable Athletics Solutions LLC. Think of Erin as your personal trainer for your mind: she’s an athlete empowering other athletes from the inside out. All sessions are completed via phone call or video chat. RAS caters to equestrians and works with other sports, as well.

You can learn more at Remarqueableathletics.com or follow on social @Remarqueableathletics.