Friday, Feb. 23, 2024

Learning To Balance Our Time With Our Passion

Scott Hassler, Ingo Pape and I each enjoyed participating in the interaction between the 60 or so trainers present at last month’s seminar for trainers of young horses at Hilltop Farm in Maryland. We certainly had some flashbacks from our own career tragedies and triumphs.
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Scott Hassler, Ingo Pape and I each enjoyed participating in the interaction between the 60 or so trainers present at last month’s seminar for trainers of young horses at Hilltop Farm in Maryland. We certainly had some flashbacks from our own career tragedies and triumphs.

One of the many subjects that came up during the dinner discussions was the issue of properly dealing with the owner/client who is your employer and source of income. Although some of my best friends are horse owners, I know the relationship between horse owner and horse trainer/instructor can be a balancing act for both parties. Sometimes the only person who feels that way is the trainer, and the owner is unaware of the other’s discomfort.

When you start out in the horse business, you’re usually trying to please everyone because you’re not really sure where the boundaries are between your expected availability and your right to privacy. Horses are at your mercy all of the time, and they’re completely dependent on your support 24/7. This is something every horseman understands and respects.

Problems start, though, when the owners who leave their mounts in our care start to think that the horses’ schedule also applies to them. Some think nothing of calling all hours of the day and night to chat about their horse, since the trainer is a “horse lover” too and must be interested at all times. If the trainer or stable owner isn’t at their beck and call or is distracted, it’s sometimes seen as an insult.

In the beginning of your career as a horse professional, it’s very difficult to separate your private time from the time with the horses. As long as this is dictated by the horses, we rarely mind, but when our time is invaded by lonely people who think trainers are also psychologists, baby sitters and a source of free advice about everything, it’s time to put on the brakes.

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During one of the seminar dinners, a young trainer carefully broached the subject of what to do to set up these boundaries, since her husband was becoming irritated with the late calls and the interrupted dinners.

I was amused at how some of the trainers said they had solved this common problem. One sets up “office hours,” just like any business. She gives her clients a couple of hours each day when she’s available to talk about their horses. And only then. Another trainer announced that, during lessons, she’s happy to talk about horses, otherwise she charges for every minute of advice, just like a lawyer. That sure cuts down on the small talk, and people get right to the point!

Another subject we touched on is how inventive we can allow ourselves to be in the training process, without putting ourselves at risk legally. To state an example: You think a client’s horse would benefit from some free schooling over jumps to increase his flexibility and inspire his mind. Do you just put up the jumps and let the horse have at it, or do you call the owner first and tell them what you’re planning, because there is an additional risk in-volved in free schooling?

As a trainer, you’re certainly expected to make decisions about what’s appropriate for the horse at any given moment, but when a horse canters and jumps loose, you don’t have the same control as when you’re riding. Horses in general are an accident waiting to happen, but you sure don’t want to appear as if you helped the horse along in his suicide mission!

In this country, more than anywhere else in the world, we have to be very aware of the possibility of a lawsuit, often in cases when there is no real “villain” and no true wrong-doing. It behooves the trainer to think twice before following his instincts to have the horse enjoy a free-schooling session, and perhaps you need to get permission in writing for anything above and beyond the run-of-the-mill workout.

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I spoke privately with one trainer who has one student who drives him insane with the constant comments during her lessons. Yes, we’ve all had the chatty ones—who feel compelled to give a running commentary on how they feel at every moment and what they think is going on. It’s the most annoyinghabit a student can have. It’s impolite and disrupting, and it immediately telegraphs to the horse that the rider isn’t focused.

Dialogue isn’t always a good thing, and a riding lesson is a perfect example. Effective riding is impossible for a student whose mouth is flapping, creating an excuse for not being able to concentrate and make a true effort. The reason such a student has trouble making progress is that most of the time they listen only when they’re talking!

Another topic in our more private talks was how to handle commissions. Handle them straight, I advised. Let your clients know that for you to be involved in the search for and training of a new horse, you’ll expect to receive a commission once the horse is bought. If the client values your time and advice, he or she will agree. If you’re good at your trade, their money will be well spent, and they can depend on your continued support and help.

Watch out for the buyers who proclaim they want to do their own thing, but then use up your time with videos of their adventures on the Internet and on horse-back while on the horse hunt. Or the ones who’ve found the perfect horse but want to “pay you for the day” to check it out. That can become a catch-22. If you nix the horse, your motives are suspect, because they’ll think you’d rather approve a horse you found, and if you bless their choice, whatever goes on later will beyour fault. Just say no and wish them luck.

At the end of the seminar, we each gave a little farewell speech with some advice. My “pearl of wisdom” was to encourage them always to own at least one horse. Nobody is immune to having a horse removed by their rightful owner, but as trainers we all understand the emotional toll such an event can extract. If you have one horse of your own, nobody can tell you when to show or when to sell him, and your sanity stands a much better chance in times of stress.

Training horses is a labor of love, but for the passion to survive through the years, we have to learn to conserve our free time and avoid the pitfalls of the trade.

Anne Gribbons

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