I was working in the driveway outside the barn when I met him, this giant of a man. The Live Oak leaves make a thick crinkly carpet on the dry grass, and I was toiling like a convict to turn them into orderly piles. Sweat was trickling off my knuckles and varnishing the handle of the rake, but it was hot satisfying work.
Just past the barn and through a swampy grove of orange trees, the Canadian National Eventing Team was riding. David O’Connor, my boss for the next few months, is their coach. I should have felt a kinship to them—this group of riders gathered here from all across my country—but I didn’t, not yet.
Most of them were too busy with horses or grooms or kids or dogs or fans to say hello. But Kyle Carter slammed the door of his pick-up, his stable logo prominently displayed on the side, and walked straight to me. Kyle is 6’4” and has the forearms of a prizefighter. I wondered what he wanted.
“Hi,” he said, eyes sparkling. (I later learned that his enthusiasm is rarely dampened. The only time I saw him without a smile was during his lesson with David, which I attributed to concentration rather than anything else.)
I knew of course, but I wiped my hands on my shirt and shook his hand.
“I’ve been reading your articles in the Gaitpost. I was wondering when you were going to show up.”
That really caught me off guard.
He tucked his velvet hunt cap under his arm and went on.
“After I read the second one, I told my wife there was no way you would last at Mr. Hinnemann’s stable. I called it! We have working students as well, and you can tell which ones aren’t happy or don’t get it. But you should know that there is so much you can learn just by being in an atmosphere of excellence.”
Well, at least I knew one person was reading my articles.
And then Kyle, still standing in his half chaps, explained something I’d been struggling to understand and clarify for myself.
“In Europe the 45-minute lesson format is pretty uncommon. Instead they are always watching you. The trainer will say ‘try a half-pass now.’ Or ‘follow me over these cavaletti.’ And although they rarely tell you when you are doing something right, they will for sure tell you when you are doing something wrong. That way, you learn to think for yourself. It’s mainly in North America that working students trade work for a structured lesson, where the trainer tells them what to do the whole time. That, my friend, is the difference between learning to be a professional and learning to be a professional student!”
If I think back to my four months of working 72-hour weeks in Germany, I realize I hadn’t received a single “lesson.” Yet I wouldn’t have traded that experience for 1000 lessons a week. I learned by watching and by doing. There’s no price tag on the opportunity to ride talented, athletic, well-trained horses. Mastercard might say: “Horse $100,000. Breeches $180. Lesson $100. Working student position: Priceless.”
It’s All About Understanding
That afternoon I finally got a chance to see one of David’s lessons. He was teaching Waylon Roberts, son of Ian Roberts, and one of the most talented young riders Canada has ever seen. Around here, however, his shaggy brown hair and spectacles have made him more famous as a Harry Potter look-alike. Waylon is one of those lucky few that look more at home on a horse than on the ground. David and Waylon were in the dressage ring, which gave me a chance to sit unobtrusively in the shade, out of the way, and watch.
The first 20 minutes David didn’t say a single word. He slouched in his plastic chair, dusty cowboy hat pulled low, white sleeves rolled up, eyes like a cat watching a bird. He explained later that with the students he teaches regularly, he likes to just observe them to see what they are working on, and to see if they are implementing what he’s taught them before. David’s system combines the best of both worlds: Sometimes he lets the rider just ride to learn to think for himself. But he’s also there giving one-on-one instruction.
If I could describe David’s approach to riding in one word it would be understanding. David tries to understand what the horse is thinking, what the horse is doing, and what the rider is doing.
The ambition of all trainers is to create a submissive horse—the rider should tell the horse what to do, and the reaction should be immediate. The rider shouldn’t physically or forcibly move the horse. Instead, the rider should be the brain, and the horse should be the body. The neurons fire, and the feet start to move.
Unfortunately, this is often not the case; the wires get crossed, the tail swishes, the ears go back—the horse does not understand. The rider kicks, or pulls, or both. They both become frustrated or anxious, maybe even scared. David points out that instead of forcing the horse to understand human vocabulary, we should learn to speak the language of the horse.
Every horse at the O’Connors’ is started in the round pen, Parelli-style, learning to trust and obey. Horses are first ridden in halters, using only a long orange “carrot stick” to steer. The stick is used beside the head, never to hit, but only to direct. The horse learns to move away from pressure. That pressure is later translated into a squeezing of the leg.
The first jump for every horse is without a rider—they jump in a halter and lead rope. The horse finds it easier to balance up and down banks, over ditches and into water without the added burden of a rider. A horse’s balance is always better without a rider, even the most talented rider in the world. It’s all about simplicity and trust. The easier it is for the horse to understand, the better his performance will be.
Every Master Has His Method
It’s interesting to compare David’s style of training to other stables at which I’ve worked. Ingrid Klimke, Johann Hinnemann, and the O’Connors are each successful in their own right, but each has a particular style, and it’s hard, occasionally embarrassing, to adjust from one to the other. Sort of like learning music from Mozart, practicing with the Beatles and then being asked to sit in with U2. The foundation, the rhythm, the balance, is the same, the end result, a beautiful composition, is the same, but the melody in the middle is different. Sometimes I’m playing the piano when I should be playing the keyboard.
I can define each of the stables I’ve worked in so far with one word. Ingrid Klimke’s would be classical; her approach is flawless, she combines discipline and love in a perfect balance. She doesn’t compromise; she takes no short cuts. She doesn’t even own a pair of draw reins—a go-to gadget for many trainers. She understands a horse must be a horse and should not be “humanized,” but also that in order to compete and excel they must be perfectly obedient. Everything is systematic.
I struggle with Mr. Hinnemann’s word. Professionalism is the first word that comes to mind. But a small clause might be added: no matter what the cost. His riding and training is unequaled, but when I look back and compare his horses side by side in my mind with those of Mrs. Klimke’s and the O’Connors’, I realize how much the latter’s horses are, well, more like horses. They are happier and freer. I can see it in their movement and in their eyes. Whether this was because of the riding, the discipline, more time in the paddocks, or some other stitch in the fabric of stable life, I’m not sure.
I realize all these descriptions apply not only to the way they treat horses, but also to the way they treat their staff. An email I got from a woman I’ve never met before shook me up, but also gave me the impetus to clarify a problem that’s been in the back of my mind.
She wrote, “I’m saddened by how much you seem not to understand what being a working student is about. In my experience, hubris is a typical male working student trait that often keeps men from getting the most of their time as working students. It’s such a shame that you weren’t able to maximize such phenomenal opportunities. I would love to see you write an article reflecting back on your experiences a few months after your return home as this, in my experience, tends to be when you finally ‘get it,’ once you’re able to get over the abusive aspect.”
And since now I’m a few months removed from Germany, I would like to reflect. In one respect she’s right of course: These were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities I experienced. And a trainer doesn’t have to be your best friend to be talented and knowledgeable, even phenomenal. Perhaps a more reserved, professional trainer is even better. Relationships are clearly defined, and there’s no cause for arguments or angst.
I would add however, that having respect for people and horses does not take away from a trainer’s greatness, rather it makes the trainer greater.
David and Karen O’Connor are proving to me, right now, that treating others with kindness is more rewarding in the long run. Respect fosters loyalty and hard work. Abuse, on the other hand, creates discontent and unfaithfulness. It can even have the ironic effect of creating dependency through weakness. Abuse is not something anyone should have to “get over.”
Reading the email I thought, “Hubris! Me?” But it’s a fine path to tread between having the fortitude to see something through and quitting a dead-end project too late. In Germany my only regret was that I didn’t leave Mr. Hinnemann’s sooner and on my own terms. However, I did learn more about professionalism than I had ever planned or wanted to. If I can combine that with a classical approach and deep understanding, I will be back on track.
This article was originally published in Gaitpost magazine in May of 2009.