BY JESS CLAWSON
One of the benefits of living in the heart of the east coast horse country is that there is no shortage of trainers in the vicinity. That is a great gift, and having many options allows me the luxury of being able to carefully consider the pros and cons of different instructors during my lifetime of riding. For new equestrians though, it can be more difficult to suss out the right trainer from the available options. Here are some guidelines to identify good and bad signs when looking at trainers, something that can be useful for all horse enthusiasts and punters.
They Always Put the Horses First
This is the most important thing I can think of in any trainer or horse owner in general. I’m not going to get anywhere near a trainer who puts money, a win, a sale, or anything else before any horse’s well-being. It doesn’t matter if the horse is an international derby winner or a retired pony. The barn exists for the horses, not the other way around. This means that the trainer also has to be good about managing client expectations and not jeopardize a horse’s soundness or mental health to meet a client’s training goals. Not all horses progress at the same pace, and a good trainer knows that and acts accordingly.
They’re Educated in Their Discipline
I don’t particularly care if a trainer has gone to college or not. What matters to me is that they have spent their time learning from the best. If they have been working students or assistant trainers for a well-known, well-respected athlete, that’s wonderful. Not everyone has that opportunity, but everyone can read. Have they read the most influential works by the experts in their discipline? Do they take the time to watch videos of trainers who can explain things well to both horses and riders? Do they enjoy talking about that with you? That’s a very good sign.
It also helps if they’re educated in pedagogy. Riding is a complex sport, and it’s hard to know how to explain to someone else what might come naturally to you. A good trainer will have taken it upon themselves to learn how to teach well. Yelling at students until they do what you want is not good training. You should be learning from, not surviving your trainer.
Their Social Media Presence is Professional
It’s 2020, so scout your prospective trainer on social media. Are they posting cool resources and articles? Lots of nice pictures of happy-looking horses and riders and a clean, safe barn? That’s a good sign. I like trainers who take the opportunity to educate outside of lessons through their Facebook page and who foster a happy barn family.
They Take SafeSport Seriously
I want my trainer to have taken the time to understand how SafeSport works and why we need it. It shows they have integrity and care about the future of the sport as well as the children in it.
Their Priorities are Out of Order
Horses first, right? So what if a trainer is trying to keep expenses down by buying low-quality hay? Or perhaps using ill-fitting saddles because they have to keep a sponsor happy? Or insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach to horse management? With any of those scenarios, it’s unlikely that your horse will be happy and healthy under their care. The trainer should have the courage to advocate for the horses at all times, including to the owners, because that’s their job as a professional with a leadership position.
They Don’t Think They Need to Learn More
I’ve talked to several trainers who responded with a blank look when I ask them what books they recommend or who they ride with. I’ve even been belittled for my insistence that we need to read about the sport we’ve devoted our lives to. I want my trainer to be pushing for more knowledge and education constantly, passing that along to me and other riders, and seeking out expert help when they need it themselves. Every trainer I know and respect who still rides also still takes lessons sometimes. Any trainer who doesn’t think they need to do that, doesn’t think they need to read, might have too much invested in their ego and not enough in their education.
Their Social Media Presence is a Drama-Fest
It’s not about whether their Facebook posts have misspelled words; it’s about whether they are using their platform to bash another trainer, or former clients, or to stir the pot in the local scene. If they’re complaining constantly online, they’re going to be doing the same thing in the barn. That’s a tough environment for learning or relaxing.
The good news is, even with those parameters in mind, I’m lucky enough to still have plenty of trainers nearby to choose from. Here’s to a great year of improving our skills and knowledge as an equestrian community.
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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