I started riding when I was 9 years old. My mom bought a horse from a classified ad and had it delivered a few miles from our suburban Baton Rouge home to Mr. Russ, a mostly western, mostly Quarter Horse trainer who I’m pretty sure my mom selected based solely on proximity, as none of us knew enough to have considered any other qualifications.
With Mr. Russ as my one and only representative of the profession, I quickly learned that horse trainers are gods: omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Mr. Russ knew EVERYTHING about horses.
This was fortunate because I knew nothing: he taught me to lead a horse, groom a horse, tack up, walk, trot, lope, and much more. He could sense a wrong lead from inside his house, and would yell out the window for me to fix it. When he told me how to do something, it worked every darn time. When I rode my horse right after Mr. Russ had schooled him, he felt like an entirely different animal, at least for a few moments before the horse realized it was just me again.
Mr. Russ was an old cowboy with pointed boots, big spurs, and a tough exterior… but a soft spot for kids who loved horses and worked hard to learn to ride them. He definitely didn’t do it for the money. We competed in 15 local shows a year and a handful of bigger ones, and Mr. Russ didn’t charge us for hauling or show coaching. I had never heard of day fees or prep fees or trainer splits.
My shining moment as a junior was qualifying for 4-H regionals. It was a whole state away. Mr. Russ didn’t like to go too far from his farm but he found me a trailer ride and some fancy tack to borrow, and, as we said goodbye he pressed a substantial amount of cash into my mom’s hand to help us with the expenses of the trip. I know I appreciated it then, but my gratitude for everything he did for me has grown with each passing year.
I’m writing about Mr. Russ in past tense because the story is past tense; indeed, so far past tense it seems like a different lifetime. But Mr. Russ is alive and well—and still training horses and kids—and I visit him every time I make it back to Louisiana.
It is with this background that, 15 years after leaving Louisiana, I approached my relationship with my first hunter-jumper trainer. Now an adult but completely novice in my new discipline, I fell into old habits. I quickly remembered the basics of caring for and riding horses, and I quickly remembered that trainers are infallible, not to be questioned, gods among men.
I was in for a rude awakening.
Every adult amateur has trainer horror stories, either from their own or their friends’ experiences. They run the gamut from simply poor horsemanship and care, to unethical sales practices or bogus fees, to paying attention only to the wealthiest clients and ignoring those with smaller show budgets or less fancy horses. Some of the more salacious scenarios occur with male trainers and their female clients. Not sure if this is exclusive to hedonistic southern California—probably not—but no woman wants to be a third wheel with her trainer and fellow-client-turned-girlfriend-of-the-month.
Life is too short and this hobby is too financially, mentally, physically, and emotionally expensive to be involved in a horror story, and I think most adult amateurs eventually make their way out of the truly nightmare training scenarios.
But what about the more subtle forms of a less-than-ideal relationship between trainer and adult amateur? I’m betting I’m not the only one who was once blinded by a trainer-as-God mentality, a holdover from my childhood, which worked great then but completely failed me as an adult.
I’ve been back to riding for almost three years now, and I’ve had to do some serious soul searching and make some big changes. The learning curve has been steep and treacherous, and I feel compelled to pass on what I’ve learned in hopes that it will help my fellow adult amateurs who find themselves in similar situations.
First, it’s time to leave your trainer if he or she doesn’t show confidence in you. Coaches are meant to inspire and bring out the best. Ideally, your coach should have more confidence in you then you have in yourself, so that they can push you a little outside of your comfort zone to improve. I remember being 9 years old and afraid to lope for the first time. But Mr. Russ had deemed me ready and able to lope, and I trusted him, so I loped. I think I cried both before and after that first time, but I loped. I didn’t think I could do it, but my trainer convinced me that I could, and I did. That’s how it should be.
Your trainer has the ability to greatly influence your valuation of yourself and your riding. One negative assessment can place severe limitations on your potential. I’m not talking about tough love or constructive criticism. I mean comments like “you’re not cut out for the equitation” or “you don’t have the heart for the jumpers.”
A good trainer can help you overcome your self-imposed limitations and prod you into achieving what you didn’t think was possible. But the reverse doesn’t hold: there’s not much chance that, within your trainer’s program, you can overcome limitations that he or she has placed on you.
Second, it’s time to leave your trainer if he or she is not tackling your riding challenges. Too many adult amateurs stay up at night stressed about things way above their pay grade. I know because I was one of them. “How will I ever get my horse to hold her left lead” is NOT something you should be preoccupied with at 4 a.m. You’re paying a professional for that.
You have enough to do outside the barn: finding time to ride, keeping yourself in some semblance of riding shape, and balancing the three full-time jobs you hold in order to pay for it all.
Look, I’m a huge advocate of amateurs learning from lots of sources: watching great riders compete, attending clinics, reading books and magazines, you name it. But if you and your horse are in full training, the buck stops with your trainer. You’re not on your own, and if you feel that way, you need to reevaluate your relationship.
When you find yourself in a tough spot, it’s your trainer’s job to tell you what to do, and your job to listen carefully and execute your trainer’s instructions to the best of your ability.
I learned this the hard way, with trainers who did not take responsibility for solving my riding problems. And I didn’t even realize that’s not how it should be until switching to my current trainer, who is GREAT at this.
I showed up at his barn about six months ago with Aria, my green mare, who couldn’t hold her lead in the corners (much less get a lead change), couldn’t make it down the lines despite being 17.2 hands, and jumped like an over-caffeinated deer: straight up into the air. Also in tow was Kingston, my gelding who knows the ropes and should have been packing me around teaching me what he knows, but couldn’t because I was terrified of him.
The three of us—me, Kingston, and Aria—were a hot mess trifecta. But my new trainer didn’t complain or cast blame. He just picked his jaw up off the ground and got to work. He came up with tools and exercises to teach Aria what she needed to know, and tactics to help me overcome my fears of Kingston, one step at a time. I know that those first couple months, he was the one awake at 4 a.m. thinking of strategies to solve my problems.
My responsibilities include showing up, focusing 100 percent, following instructions, and communicating when I don’t understand something. His job is to train me and the horses to reach our goals. It seems so simple and so obvious now. Like Mr. Russ from my childhood, when he tells me what to do, it works.
I have seen too many of my peers stuck in bad training situations because they don’t objectively assess the job their trainer is doing. And I’ve been there myself, trapped by my own trainer-as-god mentality, feeling they are above reproach and not to be questioned.
But ultimately, if your trainer doesn’t believe in you or doesn’t have a strategy to help you overcome your riding problems, they’re not doing the job.
This blog took a long time to write, as I know that some readers will think I’m being too harsh towards trainers. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take if it helps another adult amateur work up the courage to move to a better fitting trainer.
There are phenomenal trainers out there, who put in blood, sweat, and tears every single day, and who take their clients’ successes and failures personally. They are worth their weight in gold. If you have one, keep him or her close. This sport is hard, the competition is fierce, and if you want to win you have to be firing on all eight cylinders.
The relationship between an adult amateur and her trainer is complex and nuanced and not always easy, but it’s vital. I think it makes up at least seven of those eight necessary cylinders. If you have any doubt that your trainer is a great fit for you, be brave enough to look for another. Even if your trainer is perfect for others, not every trainer is a great fit for every client.
A big personal thank you to Ryan Pedigo for your knowledge, ability, passion, and dedication to me, Aria, Kingston, and all your clients and horses. Every lesson day I wake up excited about what I can learn from you!
And Mr. Russ, if you read this, know that after all these years I still I hear your signature whistle in my head every time I pick up a wrong lead. I hope you know what you mean to me. It turns out that trainers aren’t gods, but you sure were close!
Lindsey Long lives in Southern California with her one tabby cat, two Great Danes, two hunter-jumpers, and a husband. She recently returned to riding after a 15-year hiatus and is desperately trying to make up for lost time while balancing a full-time job rife with deadlines. Her goals include winning pretty ribbons, finding appropriate distances with some degree of consistency, and not losing her breakfast at the mere thought of a hunter derby course. Read all of Lindsey’s blogs.