Tips for Interviewing Potential Horse Trainers
1. Location, location, location
Just like in the real estate business, location is one of the most important factors when choosing a trainer. Even if you’re choosing a high-end professional who’s going to show your horse herself, an occasional visit is in order. One owner observed that some long-distance trainers “do the bare minimum (at a high price) because there’s no oversight. Others do a great job but send the horse back to an owner who knows far too little to keep the horse from regressing. What I personally think of most is location, then finding the best trainer for me in that defined area. I always looked for a local trainer and a chance to do some of the riding myself during the training with some voluntary advice for improvement from the trainer. If the trainer never comments on their client’s riding, even though the client is not there primarily for riding lessons, the trainer’s avoidance is suggesting no concern for the client’s safety and advancement as a rider, which, ironically, is not good for the trainer’s repeat business.”
2. Talk about town
If you’re considering a local trainer, talk to your farrier and veterinarian—two professionals that know you and your situation. Discuss what you’re trying to accomplish and ask for recommendations of two or three trainers to interview. Listen to what they say and don’t say. For example, I might not mention someone I consider to be a good trainer because I don’t think they’re interested in your type of horse, or I don’t believe you would do well in that environment. Each barn has its own vibe, with a unique clientele. No teenager wants to be marooned in a barn with people their parents’ age, and no gal my age wants to take a lesson with a bunch of talented kids that can post without stirrups all day long. Talk to people about different barns and find one where you will mesh well with the other clients.
Ask a trainer for references. Ideally, you want to speak to two or three people in situations similar to yours. These owners should all give glowing recommendations of the trainer and the facility. Make sure to listen for the “but…” because every owner has one thing they would like to change about a barn. Ask former clients why they left—was it due to not meeting training expectations, financial disagreements, or horse care issues?
3. Show and tell
Observe the trainer during a high-stress horse show. Are the clients having fun, win or lose? How does the trainer interact with clients? Is there a lot of drama or frustration? Can all the clients finish their course/class without falling off or being disqualified? Is safety an issue? Are the clients just put on the horse at the in-gate? How are the horses behaving in the stall, aisles, and warmup arena?
Watch the trainer in warmup. Does he have to ride a horse into the ground to get it to “relax”? Is there endless drilling? Is there abuse? I believe anything abusive you see in public is the just the tip of the iceberg—what is the trainer doing at home when no one is watching? The warm-up arena is the “area of extremes” where trainers might jerk on a mouth, prod with a spur, ramp a horse up—whatever they need to do for the horse to perform in front of a judge on a loose rein. I prefer a trainer who warms a horse up quietly and then relaxes as they wait their turn in the ring.
Finding a Trainer Who's Right for You
4. Schedule a visit, including lessons
Spending time in the barn, meeting staff and clients, and observing a typical workday is the best way to understand how your horse will be treated. Are you introduced to the staff by name? My favorite trainers have good relationships with their employees. Look for long-term employees that have been there awhile, as well as cheerful and knowledgeable transient help (working students, etc.). The person who feeds, grooms, and cleans up after a horse is the first person a veterinarian wants to befriend; they are in the position to know normal behavior/consumption/output for each animal and recognize any deviation from that. I like employees who like horses. I don’t want to see a horse cower in a corner or approach me aggressively when the stall door is opened. I want employees who take pride in their work and realize the correlation between a clean, dry stall and horse health. Most importantly, I hope the trainer and employees have a relationship where they discuss, not ignore, concerns. Clearly understand who is working your horse, both while the trainer is present and when she’s away at shows.
Taking lessons from a trainer is the best way for them to evaluate your riding level and develop a plan of action for you and your horse. At the same time, you can decide if your personalities fit. A good relationship is essential because, eventually, when you’re riding you will reach a “pressure point",” which is not a good situation if there’s a personality conflict between you and your trainer.
Once you’ve developed rapport, discuss whether the trainer thinks you and your horse are right for her. Give her your list of goals and roadblocks, and ask her opinion of what’s realistic. Develop a list of targets and a timeline of expected accomplishments.
5. Ask about a typical day in the barn
Sometimes I wonder why people don’t expect their horses to go lame if they live in a stall 22 hours a day, spend 20 minutes on a 30-foot hot walker, and are only ridden 45 minutes, five times a week. Most of our horses are asked to do incredible feats, yet their musculature is not developed enough to support it. In an ideal situation a trainer ‘cross-trains",’ combining arena work in multiple disciplines with trail rides or galloping. Talk to each trainer about the typical work and turnout schedule for their horses in training.
Finding a Trainer Who's Right for You
6. Safety first
Barn safety includes both the horse and the rider. It’s not just a liability sign tacked to the wall, warning about the inherent dangers of working with horses. Safety is a state of mind that begins with the smallest detail, such as leading a horse properly. How much clutter is lining the aisleways, and what’s going to happen when an inattentive or misbehaving horse drifts into it? Worse, is the barn a fire hazard?
Are people mindful of others and their safety as they go through the barn? Does the feed cart roll through the barn aisle when people are trying to tack up in the same area? Is the farrier working at the end of the aisle while constant foot traffic goes through the adjacent door? Horses don’t have 360-degree vision, and they can’t concentrate on something one person is doing while also “seeing” something unexpected zoom in and out of their field of vision.
Channel your inner Nancy Drew, and sleuth any hazards. It’s surprising what trouble a horse can get into. Check stalls for loose nails, missing boards, water units with sharp corners, and even things in the aisle near the open-top stall door. Every few years I have to wire a jaw back together from a horse that’s been playing with a blanket bar.
Observe the condition of the fencing and gates in the turnouts. Are horses turned out in groups or individually? Do mares and geldings run together? Do herd members change frequently?
Free Report: Hidden Horse Farm Hazards
Free Report: Hidden Horse Farm Hazards
Check out the footing. Maybe the horse is turned out in a beautiful pasture, but there’s a muddy sinkhole at the gate where a monster pulls off shoes? How are the stalls bedded—would you lie down in there? Is the arena too deep or shallow or sticky or slick?
Examine the tack the trainer uses. Cracking in the bends of the leather on saddles, halters, and headstalls is an easily assessed indicator of safety—and, for that matter, attention to detail.
When riding, what level of safety do you observe in the arena? Are beginners learning to trot while someone else is schooling a horse to barrel race? Does the trainer place people on appropriate horses, or are some people overmounted?
Set one-month, three-month, and one-year goals with your trainer. Break them down into smaller benchmarks to ensure your horse is making progress. If your horse is not meeting those benchmarks, have a frank discussion with the trainer. Does the horse need more time, or does he lack ability? After riding the horse for a month, does the trainer believe he’s still suitable for you or will he always be a safety issue? Does the trainer take him to shows but never feel like he’s ready to enter a class? Does the horse have soundness issues that are holding him back? Again, transparency is key for a good relationship when a horse is not performing as expected. If you can identify and address an issue, you can create a new timeline for achieving goals.
8. My favorite trainers: If the horse isn’t happy, they aren’t happy
One friend stated that she likes to observe all the horses at a barn, even the ones not in training. Do they have trimmed hooves, shelter, and adequate feed and water? Are they groomed? How someone cares for the horses on the low end of the equine totem pole might be a good indicator of the level of horse care and pride of work a trainer has. Drop by a barn at different times during the day or different days of the week to make sure the atmosphere is consistent.