How to Help Your Trainer

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BY Ali Loprete

Trainers do a lot for us. A good one will keep your beloved giant fuzzy equine child happy, healthy, fit, clean and competitive. A great one will also teach you how to effectively ride said equine, and win. What we pay trainers pales in comparison to the services they provide.

They are all at once the keepers of our animals, managers of their care, coordinator of vet, farrier and other wellness services, orders of supplies, trainer of the horse, exercise rider, professional competition rider, riding instructor, therapist, horse show coordinator, competition coach, storage facility for all your tack and equipment, bookkeeper, buying and selling agent, and boss to what is either an unreliable or very expensive staff.

No matter what you think of your trainer, every single one of them is personally invested in you and your horse. They want to see you learn, grow, excel and succeed. They want to help you accomplish your goals and live your dreams. Trainers are, in short, what makes it all happen. 

Once you understand this, it can feel like there is no way to truly convey our appreciation for all their hard work and dedication. Don Draper might say, “that’s what the money is for.” But life isn’t all about money. Money comes and goes and life goes on. For most trainers, money goes more than it comes. Few of them are in this line of work to get rich, and even fewer actually do get rich.

Trainers do what they do because they love it. They make sacrifices every day for the good of the horse and for the benefit of their students. They skip meals, vacations, and time with their family to be at the barn or at horse shows. They give up opportunities to travel, to live in big houses, to wear fancy clothes, and to drive luxury cars.

They are all too familiar with cheap hotel rooms and RV bunk beds, pick-up trucks and fast food. They are at the barn hours before we get there and go home long after we’ve already showered and curled up on the couch in our cozy pajamas. When trainers do eventually go home, they are on call 24/7 should anything happen at the barn. They sacrifice their bodies, their health, and their mental well-being for the health and safety of our horses. 

No matter how successful a trainer is, they could always use more help. So the next time you are at the barn or a horse show and want to show your appreciation, here are a few things you can do:

1. Help Out

True horsemanship is putting the needs of the horse above your own. Helping out around the barn is a fundamental tenet of good horsemanship. The trainer, barn manager, grooms, staff and students should all have the same interest at heart – the best interest of the horse. When everyone shares this interest, there is no act that is “below you” or “not your job”.  Lending a hand and helping out here and there goes a long way to ease tensions at the barn and show that you are a team player that also cares more about the horse than yourself. 

I am not saying you should show up at 7 a.m. ready to pick stalls and turn out horses. But there are a few small things you can do around the barn to help out. Cleaning your own tack and putting it away, folding and hanging a blanket left on the ground, picking up after yourself, sweeping the aisle, and keeping your tack trunk clean and well organized are just a few examples.

If you get off a horse and all the grooms are busy, take the tack off yourself and put the horse in the crossties with a cooler on. If your horse is just bathed and needs to dry off in the sun, take them out to graze. If the trainer is setting a new course, and you are sitting around waiting to ride, go out to the ring and offer them a hand. If a horse is running in the paddock or rolling around uncomfortably in the stall politely mention it to the staff. When it comes to helping out, there is no act too small or too large in the barn. 

2. Say “Thank You”

Saying these two small words goes a long way. It is the simplest way to show your gratitude. They should be said after every lesson, every horse show, and every opportunity you get to the staff and crew at your barn. If you walk in and your horse is tacked up for you, say “thank you”. If you get off and someone is standing there to give them a bath, say “thank you”. If someone simply fed your horse and turned them out that morning, say “thank you”. If someone tells you that you need to order more supplements, asks you to pay the braider, or tells you the horse needs a new blanket, say “thank you”. Understand that everything being done at the barn is to help you and your horse, and you should be thankful for all of it. 

Everyone working at the barn is a person that deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and should not be treated like your servant. Simply acknowledging the hours of back-breaking work of your trainer and the barn staff is important. Beyond saying “thank you”, consider making a kind gesture.

Offer to bring your groom a cup of coffee or buy them lunch. If they are standing at the ring for hours holding your horse, ask if they need a break to use the bathroom or get out of the sun for a few minutes. If your trainer is at the showgrounds until 7 p.m. the day before, refrain from demanding an 8 a.m. lesson the following morning.  

3. Pay Your Bills On Time

This is a big one, so let me repeat it. Pay. Your. Bills. On. Time. Your barn bills should be met with the same promptness and seriousness as all other bills you pay in life. If you wouldn’t stiff the electric company or forget to make your car payment, then don’t do it to your horse trainer. In my house, board bills have priority.

Why? Because if I don’t pay them on time there might not be money available for my trainer to buy the feed, hay and shavings to keep my horse well fed and comfortable. There might not be enough funds available to make payroll for the grooms, or pay rent for the stalls, or put gas in the truck.

The reality is that horses go on eating, pooping and needing care and exercise regardless of whether the board check shows up on time. The right thing to do is to pay for these services when asked, and not when you feel like it. Plus, trainers are spread thin enough as it is. Paying your bills on time gives them one less thing to worry about.  

4. Be Collaborative 

I have seen a few recent posts and threads where someone asks “how do I tell my trainer to do XYZ?” or “how do I tell the barn staff to do ABC”. When I first saw these I felt like my dog when the UPS truck pulls down the driveway, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The question of “how do I tell my trainer to do…… anything” rests on the assumption that it is your role to give them orders, and their role to do what you tell them.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you are reading this and thinking, “I pay them, why shouldn’t I tell them what to do?” then you have a fundamental misunderstanding of the services you have contracted for. 

The trainer and barn staff do not exist to take orders from you and perform services at your whim. Rather, you should view trainers as the well-trained, experienced, and qualified professionals that they are. The service of managing your horse’s care and training includes making decisions about when your horse eats, what it eats, when it gets turned out, how long it gets turned out, when it is ridden, how it is ridden, and so on and so forth on and on forever.

In fact, not having to worry about all these decisions yourself is the very service you are paying for! If you wouldn’t call up a lawyer or a doctor and tell them how to do their job, then you don’t do it to a horse trainer. 

I get it, it can be hard to drop off that giant fuzzy equine baby of yours and give over complete control to some else. It can be tough to trust a new trainer, a new groom, or a new barn manager. Not only do we love our horses to death, but they are expensive, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable investments. Even so, that does not justify insulting your trainer and their staff by dishing out orders.

When a new horse comes under a trainer’s care it is standard to have a discussion about the best way to care for the horse with the owner and, if possible, with the prior trainer. This is the time all of the horse’s needs and the owner’s preferences should be discussed.

From that point forward, the care and management of the horse and the instruction of the rider should be approached as a collaborative process between trainer and student. You might be surprised to learn that trainers want to hear your feedback. They might ask you “what do you think of this?” or “How do you feel about that?” These are the appropriate times to share your thoughts and collaborate.

If your trainer doesn’t ask you these questions, then feel free to bring up issues on your own. For example, rather than ordering your trainer to turn the horse out more, explain your concerns. Try something like, “I noticed my horse has been very fresh the last few times I have ridden. I wonder if it has anything to do with his turn out. Do you think he could benefit from more time outside?”

In this way, you are identifying your concerns to your trainer in a polite way, and you are showing your willingness to collaborate. Approaching an issue in this way leads to an open and honest conversation among two people that both have the best interest of the horse at heart.

You might be surprised to hear some other suggestions from your trainer about how best to approach the issue – perhaps the horse needs to be ridden more, or needs to work harder when being ridden. Or perhaps there was a recent change in weather, or change in the horse’s health or fitness that can account for the freshness. Together, you and your trainer can discuss the potential causes and come to an agreement on how to fix the problem going forward without the awkwardness of you dishing out an order.

5. Be Realistic & Be Honest

David O’Connor recently said everyone wants to go to the Olympics. Whether that’s true or not, we can probably all agree that not everyone is going to make it to the Olympics. When discussing your goals and dreams with your trainer, it’s important to be realistic and understand that improvement is a process and does not happen overnight. Riders that reach the ultimate level of competition have put in thousands of hours of time and hard work to get there.

Since we are being realistic, we should also recognize that riders at the top levels are usually very fortunate financially, have dedicated their lives to accomplishing their goals, are coached by the best riders and trainers in the world, were given the right opportunities, somehow avoided career ending injuries for themselves and their horses, and also had quite a bit of good luck. More often than not, riders will face a myriad of obstacles when it comes to reaching their goals. Financial constraints, time limitations, lack of opportunities, other interests, and plain bad luck are just a few.  

When a trainer discusses your abilities and goals with you, it is in your best interest to listen, to be honest, and to be realistic. The sixteen year old student jumping 3’ that also plays on the high school softball team, has a five-figure budget for only one horse, and comes to the barn for less than two hours at a time is likely not going to make it to the Olympics.

That truth has nothing to do with the student’s talent or ability – she may be a very good rider. But without more financial support and willingness to dedicate most of her time to training and gaining experience,  the odds are not in her favor.  That is not to say that this student does not deserve to accomplish her goals. She absolutely does. But the goals she sets with her trainer should be attainable, realistic and fulfilling. 

Don’t compare yourself to other students, other competitors and other barn mates. Instead, focus on doing what is best for you and your horse. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Your trainer can gauge your progress better than anyone. Trust them. If they think you can accomplish something, then you probably can! 

6. Be Patient 

Patience is perhaps the most important quality you can have when it comes to training horses. Progress can be slow, and it can often feel like for every step forward there are two steps back. It’s important to understand that horses are not machines, they are not computers that can be programmed, switched on, and always run the same. They have physical ailments and emotions that can cloud their ability to focus and learn. They are affected by pain and anxiety just as much as any human. But what’s worse is that they can’t communicate it to you as easily. 

Figuring out how to best manage a particular horse and keep them comfortable and winning is truly a mystery. Trainers, vets, farriers, barn managers and grooms seem to speak a special language that helps them decipher what the horse needs and wants. But the process of figuring out the answer is rarely simple and never quick. It often takes trial and error, and many attempts at new things before a horse’s quirks, preferences and ailments are discovered. During this time the best thing an owner or student can do is be patient. Give your horse time to adjust, be open to trying new things, and trust that your trainer and their team have your best interest at heart. 

7. It Takes Two

Some of you may have read this article and thought, “I’ve tried all these things, it’s not working!” If that is the case, and you feel your trainer is not willing to engage in a collaborative process with you, then perhaps it is time to leave and find a new trainer. The truth is that sometimes emotions get in the way and communication breaks down to the point that two people can no longer have a meaningful relationship.

If you have been ordering your trainer around for years, paying the bills late, never showing up on time, and making unrealistic demands, then chances are they no longer want to engage in a collaborative process with you. Likewise, if your trainer is unwilling to listen, not interested in hearing your concerns, and failing to offer any meaningful solutions, then chances are that you no longer want to engage in a collaborative process with them. Sometimes, the best option is to move on and start somewhere new with a blank slate. 

About the Author
Ali Loprete is an attorney, an amateur rider, and the owner of Old Country Farm. She is the daughter of professional trainer, Andrea Sgro-Loprete. She rides her horse Amicus in the Amateur-Owner Hunters, and trains with her mom when in New Jersey, and with her life-long friend, Ed Copeland, when in Wellington. When she is not in court, at the office, or on horseback, you can find her sitting with a Jack Russel at her feet while she works on her next book.