Saturday, February 13, 2016

What Does It Mean To Be A Trainer?

Gail from Journey to 100 Miles posted an interesting read today about natural horsemanship, and specifically about mustangs and the Mustang Magic/Makeover. Her post got me thinking about every Mustang I've ever worked with, including a new one I saw today, and what exactly it means to be a horse trainer.

I'm not a horse trainer, not in the riding sense. All I am is an adult amateur that hasn't managed to kill myself yet. I've trained a few horses to do a few things with some moderate success, but I don't consider myself to be a trainer in any way - or at least, I didn't until I started thinking about it today.

My living revolves around the fact that I am underneath horses all day long and need them to be cooperative and polite for me. I can't always rely on my owners to do the training for me, because for various reasons they may not be able to or know how to help teach their horses to stand quietly. It expedites the process when they can help between appointments, but for the most part these horses all eventually learn the order in which things get done, and we understand each other. They know what I am going to do, and I know what they are going to do. I expect them to stand relatively quietly for me, and they expect me to be polite and not manhandle or scare or hurt them in any way. We operate on that mutual respect, and it has created a lot of really nice, polite horses that are easy for me to work on. 

A number of these horses were horrible beasts to start out with. I no longer take on bad cases (not knowingly, anyway) because I was badly injured last year trying to work on a feral donkey, but I used to take on troublemakers with regularity when I was a bit more foolhardy. I started recognizing patterns in these horses, namely that they were acting out for a few specific reasons:

1) They didn't understand what was expected of them
2) They were frightened and sometimes were anticipating something bad was going to happen
3) They were in pain somewhere and were trying to express it
4) And a few rare cases were just ill-tempered jerks for no apparent reason, but these were the exception rather than the rule

It got me thinking critically about how to help these horses understand what was expected of them. It also gave me a distinct feel for when a horse was acting out because it was in pain vs. when it was frightened vs. when it just didn't know why it needed to be doing something. 

Far and away, the worst horses I have ever worked on have been the Mustangs that have come out of the Makeover programs. I want this program to succeed, but I feel like surely these horses must be completely rushed through the training process. My owners were all told that the horses was "perfect for the farrier," and once the horses were home they all found out that this was not the case. These horses were born out on the range (unless they were born in a holding pen, which sometimes happens), and were all living a nice happy life until the day that a helicopter chased them all into a holding pen. There, their herds were split up, they were run into chutes and branded, and sorted out into holding pens until the time that they got run onto a trailer and shipped off to some gung-ho trainer who has 100 days (or less) to make the horse into the best and most broke trick pony you've ever seen in your life. And they do make them do tricks - like leap into the beds of trucks, or through hoops of actual fire, or other completely stupidly pointless tricks like that. The best tricks win the competition. (Except for Elisa Wallace who is just awesome and who uses actual horsemanship to win instead of tricks). 
100 days is not even four months. Some of these horses go through complete and total hell trying to get ready for the competition. And they tend to come out the other side acting extremely, extremely body protective. Inevitably, nearly always, the first time I work on them they act like total beasts. They rear, they strike, they bite, they kick, and they try to fall over onto you. Sometimes they act fearful, sometimes they act playful, and sometimes they act angry. But they all act out, and sometimes it takes hours to get them done the first time. It sucks for everybody. 

You thought I was kidding about the fire

So what to do you do? Well, every one takes a different approach, and the approach has to be customized to also fit the owner. It gets complicated because you have to be able to read both the horse *and* the owner, and tailor what you do to match both of them. You have to know when to hang on when a horse is leaping around trying to yank his foot away, and when to let go. You need to read if the horse is going to kick you when he's pulling the foot away, or if he's just pulling. You need to be able to feel where in his body his soreness is coming from, and if you can alter anything to fix it. Is the horse yanking his foot away because he's insecure about not having access to all four legs, is he yanking his foot away because he is bored, or is he yanking his foot away because he is sore and can't stretch the limb that far for any length of time? And what will the owner say when you pinpoint these things - how do you go about telling them? And even when you read the situation to the best of your ability, you have to know that sometimes you are wrong and the horse will completely surprise you. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. Even just today one of the young warmbloods I do went completely stiff legged and keeled over on top of me at high speed. She is usually a bit tricky to do but that completely threw me off guard, and off balance. But in time she, like all the others, will learn what is expected of her, and she too will stand quietly. Eventually, even the traumatized Mustangs turn into solid citizens. 

All of these things got me to thinking, what does it mean to be a trainer?  I know plenty of people who have hung their $20 training ride shingle out and claim to be trainers, but whom I wouldn't personally consider a proper trainer. I always equate a real trainer with someone who professional teaches horses to be ridden/driven/worked in a specific discipline and get compensated for it (and succeeds at it), but perhaps it means something a bit more than that, Perhaps it just boils down to teaching a horse to do a specific skill for a specific reason. Perhaps I *am* a trainer and I just don't think of myself as one, because my "training" isn't really intentional or deliberate - it is just organic and happens as things go along. Or perhaps it is something completely different. Are you a trainer if you teach a horse to do a trick? If you teach a whole lot of horses to do the same trick? If you teach them a series of complicated tricks and then win blue ribbons doing it? Or something else?

What do YOU think it means to be a trainer?


  1. well now this is a provocative post. I am not a fan of those 100 day competitions at all.

    I guess in my head there are TRAINERS and trainers. Everyone who owns an animal is training it everyday. I don't see horses as different. I have my two horses and i work with them to meet my expectations. With Carmen, my young one, everything I do is reinforcing behaviours- hopefully the ones I want.

    But that doesn't make me a TRAINER and one who can work with other horses as a professional. To do that I would need a greater breadth of knowledge and understanding.

  2. It's great to hear your perspective on working with mustangs, particularly those from the Makeover. I'm a bit sad, though, to learn my suspicions about that event are valid. But I'm happy to hear you make progress with them:)

    I like your question about what it means to be a trainer. I don't think I have a good answer yet, but it's worth thinking about:)

  3. There are professional trainers, and just trainers. Professional trainers have a resume to back them up. Bigger trainers than themselves they've studied under. Significant accomplishments in the horse world. Success stories. "Just" trainers are any old Joe Schmoe who is working with any given horse to teach it some skill. There are legitimately good ones, and there are morons. Your good ones usually train their own beasts, maybe with the help of professionals from time to time. Sometimes they offer help to other people, usually for free or cheap. And it's basically like what you were saying. Every time a horse is handled it's being trained. Learning something positive or negative.

  4. thoughtful post. i think in the vaguest sense of the word, a trainer is someone who can consistently influence horses to behave a specific way. of course, that definition includes those who consistently create negative behaviors as well as those who create positive behaviors. interesting food for thought tho...

  5. I think of trainer as a job. Like most jobs, some people are better at it than others. When you're working with an animal you are interacting with it and teaching it to respond to you, that is training. But to me a trainer is someone making money off of working with horses and or riders. I think what makes it interesting is that you don't need any formal education or credentials to call yourself a trainer, just the willingness to fork over your amateur card and have people think you're worth paying for. Provocative question! I like it!

  6. I've never claimed to be a trainer. That said as a horseless rider I've had people offer me horses that need under-saddle hours because of my solid basics. But I've never marketed myself as a trainer nor would I at this point.

    Same thing with dogs. Some hear my stories and see what I've done with my past dogs and wonder why I'm not marketing myself as a trainer. IMO, there's a huge difference between taking a difficult dog and making her a good companion and helping someone else train their difficult dog.

  7. I have always respected people who work under a horse day after day after day. I have enough trouble making sure my horse more or less minds from day to day. I can't imagine risking life and limb with a whole passel of 'em.

    Hats off to you.

  8. One of your most interesting posts. I agree with a couple of the posts, all of us who interact with our horses (or other peoples) would like to hope that we are training them every day.
    Sometimes when you look back to where you have come in a year, you see that now you have a horse that has somehow turned into a solid citizen.
    No matter the dicipline, good trainers - whether professionally employed as trainers or not - have amazing powers of observation and are incredibly fussy about about the result they are seeking.
    They have a strategy about where they are going with a horse and a philosophy that guides them on how to get there and what level of pressure to use.
    To me you don't have to be a professional at all to be a 'trainer'. And some 'trainers' I have seen I wouldn't entrust my horse with at all.

  9. I always considered a trainer as someone who does it for a job (there are good and bad ones). I have trained Chrome everything he knows, but I don't consider myself a trainer. I'm just an adult ammy who learns as I go and I do my best.

    I've also never been a fan of the mustang makeover thing. I feel like it rushes them way too fast and a lot of them are too young and too small for that type of work!! How are they chosen for their "trainers" anyway?? I wish they were selected for how appropriate they are for the person they are going to instead of just randomly. I always thought it was just me that thought they were rushed because I'm the queen of taking it slow (I've probably taken things way too slow with my horse). Great post!