Picking a Pro

Somewhere amid the many hours in the truck that Hillary and I have logged together in the past month (along with many WhichWich sandwiches and cups of FroYo – brain food, clearly), we had a long conversation about trainers. Specifically, details about some of the ones in the area, and why I ride with the one I do despite the fact that she’s 2 hours away. That, of course, evolved into a conversation about what qualities are important to each of us when it comes to selecting a pro to work with.

For me, it all comes down to trust. I am definitely not naive enough to try any of this without some solid professional guidance. In eventing especially, I want and need at least semi-regular feedback (or for XC – very regular feedback), and I feel like I have to be able to trust that person’s judgment 100%. At it’s core, it’s a safety issue. Sure, not all accidents can be avoided, that is the nature of horses, but having poor judgment sure can get you (or your horse) hurt a heck of a lot more often, and faster, and worse. Cross country especially is not something to be messed around with. I want someone who is just as invested in keeping me and my horse safe as I am, who knows us and knows what we’re capable of. I would much rather someone move me up the levels slowly, and take extra time filling in the holes in my and my horse’s education, than try to do things too quickly and get me or the horse hurt. If I trust their judgment and they say I’m ready, I will believe them and I’ll feel confident about it… because I trust them.

I also need someone who will be honest with me about how things are going. Blowing smoke up my butt is not helpful, and feels borderline insulting, as if I’m too stupid to know otherwise. I mean, I’m not the brightest, but I know I’m not a future 4* rider sitting on a future 4* horse. Plus, if I’m riding like crap and need to pull my head out of my butt, say so. If I need to go back to basics and re-think everything I’m doing, say so. If my horse can’t handle the level or my aspirations, say so. I would prefer someone to deliver a harsh truth 100 times over than to lead me on or put ideas in my head that won’t ever pan out. Realistic expectations and honest, open communication keep me happy. I need to be on the same page.

Of course, I also want someone that believes in my dreams and goals as much as I do. I want to be able to say “Here’s what I want to do someday… help me get there!” and trust that they will keep that in mind and help me develop towards those goals. I’m not expecting them to get me there for sure, nothing is a guarantee, and a trainer can only do so much, but I do want to feel like when they look at me, they remember what my goals are and help me make the right decisions to get there.

I also need someone that expects me to be a thinking rider. I like for things to be explained to me in depth, so that I can feel what’s going on and try to correct it myself. Or have them educate me on different questions/combinations and how to ride them, so I can execute these things when I’m on course by myself. Basically, give me the skills I need so that I don’t have to depend on them for success. I feel like a trainer should be a builder and a refiner, but not a crutch. Again, in eventing this is really important, since they can’t provide us with assistance when we’re in the ring or on course. But also since I am not in a program at a barn with a pro, I need to be able to take what they give me and go home, work on it, and be successful by myself.

It’s important to me too that whoever I ride with has a good eye for soundness-related things, and a lot of knowledge on care. Sometimes that little “hmmm… have you thought about maybe trying X?” can be the difference in night and day for a horse. That level of horsemanship is vital, IMO, especially since they see things that I might not feel.

For me, this combination of qualities has been hard to come by. In my 25+ year riding career, I’ve only come across a few trainers that I feel have really fit the bill, with the current one being one of those few.

Is it inconvenient to drive 2 hours each way for lessons? Uh, hell yes. It’s also really hard to fit lessons in with any real regularity or frequency, given that it ends up being a most-of-the-day commitment. When those are the stakes, you definitely have to want it, and you have to re-arrange your life sometimes to make it happen. I have no doubt that we’d be farther along, and probably more polished about it, if I had professional help at my disposal all the time. That just isn’t an option in my current circumstances. And I would rather get less frequent help from someone who meets all these criteria than regular lessons from someone who doesn’t. I have come to trust my trainer implicitly, so those are the sacrifices I make, and we do the best we can with the situation. It’s worked out pretty well so far.

Plus, like… if this woman has put up with my bullshit for almost 4 years now, clearly she is made of some tough stuff. Or she’s deaf. Either way, it works.

What about you guys? How do you choose a trainer? What qualities are most important to you? If you have to sacrifice something, what’s the first thing on the chopping block?

38 thoughts on “Picking a Pro

  1. I think it is REALLY hard to find a trainer that you can work with infrequently (i mean less than every single week) and still remains invested in you and your horse. Even if you BOARD with that person. They may take a more active approach in the horses and riders that ride with them weekly and put their horses in full training, but that is likely not going to be my schedule for any length of time.

    I also think that there is a certain trainer that creates other “trainers” and trainers that teach riders. I will never have $$$$$ to lay down on a made, finished horse, so I need a trainer that can teach me the skills I need to train the horse I have. Even if we are working around some limitations. Other trainers are used to having students that can just buy the talent and training and just need to learn to ride it. That is great, but it is a different skill set than what I am looking for.

    I’ve found it in my current trainer, but it was definitely a trail and error process.

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    1. Great points Emily, I have definitely experienced both. I feel that when I rode dressage/evented, my trainers seemed more focused on teaching me to be an independent thinker, and didn’t care that I didn’t have a fancy horse (grade paint horse). I think the mind set (in general terms) of the h/j world are trainers that have clients buy made/finished horses, or they put the training in themselves, and then they just teach the clients how to ride the horse, versus actually furthering it’s training themselves. Not my favorite aspect of the h/j world, that’s for sure!

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  2. If I could ride with your trainer I would too. She is a no bullshit, get things done, excellent person to train with (Seen it with my own two eyes and see how you have improved even riding when you can with her plus seen her with all levels of riders at the show, I like the way she teaches). Plus she does pick on you a LOT which I love 🙂 I wish she was closer. I wish you were closer 🙂

    I agree though. The right person is key. I have only cross country schooled with Sally but i have had friends who were schooling with the wrong trainer. You need to trust the person who is telling you what to do. Both my friends were okay but it could have ended up a lot different. One of my friends was in tears at the end of the session it was so stressful for her and her horse. Not cool.

    Even in the ring you want someone who can tell you yes it will be okay and yes you can do this 😉 I have a couple people I am supposed to have lessons with in the near future to feel out if I think they are trustworthy or not. I will do a flat lesson with them first and just see how we mesh. Finding a new trainer/instructor is not fun and esp when you are out in stickville usa 🙂

    PS Your trainer might have a case of selective hearing 🙂 HA she just ignores you at times 😉

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  3. Moving around so much for work has made this a very big sticking point for me. In my case, not having a horse means I’ve sometimes stuck with trainers that I was meh about in order to keep a half-lease on a horse I really liked, but that just made it more clear that it wasn’t what I was looking for.

    I want a trainer who will train the rider, not just train the horse and then stick you on it. I’m not one of those ammies, I want to learn how to make my horse better myself. I will never be able to buy the going AO jumper, so I need to learn how to install buttons, not just pay someone to reset them. I want flat lessons that relate to the jumping portion, not just three laps of posting/sitting/two point. And I want issues identified, and explained, so I know why it’s happening as well as what I can do to fix it.

    Since my goal is to move up, I agree that trust is a really big thing. I need to believe that if they are asking me to do something, it’s because they themselves believe we can do it.

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    1. Moving around and not having your own horse definitely complicates and already complicated subject even more. I agree with you totally on what you’re looking for, I feel the same. I don’t want to be a button pusher!

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  4. Yep, yep, and yep. I recently moved my horse twice as far away as he previously was so I could continue to ride with my trainer. I think she embodies all of the qualities you listed in your post. She started off with little money and has worked super hard to get where she’s at, so she understands that sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got (which means she’s also sat on a variety of horses). Her students may not show up with the fanciest horses or rigs when they go to horse shows, but they always look polished and put in nice rounds while also displaying excellent horsemanship.

    My trainer has also never once pushed “extra” costs on me, like demanding that I let her put training rides on my horse, or that I only go to shows that she can coach me at. In the H/J world especially, these kind of practices are common, and I’m so glad that I don’t ever feel pressured to pay for services that I don’t want or can’t afford.

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  5. Oh man I feel like this is such a good, albeit touchy at times, subject. I feel a possible blog hop originating here! In short, I look for a “program” that checks all my boxes. I decided awhile ago that as long as it’s feasible, I want to board where my trainer is, so the barn and care are all part of the decision, as well as a great trainer. I think it’s amazing that you are able to be so far away from yours, but are still progressing so well and steadily making progress. (P.S. I still find it crazy that the equestrian world is so small and inter-connected that I briefly met your current trainer in college and had several mutual good friends!)

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  6. Very cogent observations all around.

    Being stuck with the ‘wrong’ trainer, and feeling stuck, is no way to go in my experience. I also must haul to lessons. So for years I’ve adopted the position that I don’t ‘belong’ to any one trainer. I have had this conversation respectfully with each trainer as I started working with them, and hear what they have to say about it. So far, so good.

    It is wonderful when I find a trainer that I want to keep working with. I make sure I refer business to them when I can, to help make up for my less frequent rides. I also let them know what I’m doing, and that I’m finding opportunities to be supportive of their program. Again, so far, so good.

    Haven’t yet found a trainer who wasn’t ok to work with me on these terms. I appreciate their understanding and try to be fair to them.

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    1. And by the way, if I had a goal to do a significant move-up, or ride 1*, or something like that, I’d want one very committed and trustworthy trainer that I saw in a regular basis.

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      1. Definitely. It’s not too hard to play around at the lower levels or within your comfort zone without much assistance, but things change a lot when you start pushing the envelope more.

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        1. That is so true, and recognizing those milestones is a big part of competitive riding, in my opinion.

          And it’s interesting that in eventing ‘competitive riding’ is really riding against yourself more than the other riders, the ‘competition’, from my point of view.

          That said, my goal scores should be pretty darn competitive! 🙂

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  7. I have a person that I ride under vague instruction with on occasion. It’s always fun because he pushes me outside my comfort zone at times (never outright dangerous but sometimes I pee in my pants a little bit) and I need that, but I don’t have a trainer and it sucks. Time is my nemesis. I don’t have a lot of time available to me so to have even semi-regular instruction a trainer would have to come to me and that seems to be impossible to find where I live. I guess I will just have to win the lottery so I can quit my job and have more time to ride.

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  8. I really like this post. Until I moved barns and found a new trainer to switch from h/j to eventing, I didn’t even really register how much better the training could be. Nothing against the old barn – I got back into riding after a hiatus and was very happy there for a few years. Now, with my new trainer, I am actually astonished by how much I’ve improved. She’s fantastic, educated, very good at explaining concepts, finds the right balance between safety and pushing her students, and continues her own education by riding regularly with her own trainers (who we also have access to when she comes to town). Finding the with the right trainer can be tough but man, when you find the right one, it’s like magic!

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    1. Totally! This is exactly how I feel about it too. I’ve had much the same experience as you, although I was lucky in my h/j years to have one really good trainer that explained things really well.

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  9. I like that she pushes you a little. And you trust her enough to do it even though it’s outside your comfort zone.

    I also strongly suspect she thought you and Henry had the potential to do this and more from fairly early on, and that’s why you’re here at all. Maybe I’m giving her too much credit (it’s true, I *DONT* know her apart from what I’ve seen through you) but people don’t ‘accidentally’ end up in P/T horse trials on a horse they bought off facebook for $900. Just sayin.

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    1. Since we first met her, when we were running BN, she’s liked to say things like “I’ll remind you of this when you cross the finish at your first Prelim” and I’m like “Dis bitch has clearly fallen off and hit her head one too many times…”.

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      1. I love a trainer who can look at a horse and rider pair and say to herself (himself) ‘these two are very capable of doing a prelim, once they pick up some education and experience’. And has reasons why this is so! 🙂 Instead of just milling through a standard lesson program that prepares someone and their horse for the standard low divisions, over and over and over. Leaving all of the potential on the table.

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  10. I really appreciate a trainer who has a “let’s work with what you’ve got” attitude. That’s not to say they won’t tell you if your goals are out of line with a particular horse, but hearing “your horse is talented but doesn’t have the ideal mind for dressage” (trust me, I know…) isn’t as helpful to me *since this is the horse I’ve got* as “you won’t race up the levels, but if you’re game, let’s just keep plugging away until we find out what works to keep him relaxed and interested.” Relatability is big for me too; someone who can appreciate that this is my hobby and is supposed to be fun and “fun” for me is finally getting a really solid and happy 1st level test out of a horse who “should” by age and physical ability be showing 3rd. I expect to work really hard, but I don’t need to pay to routinely be demoralized about my quirky horse. I like a trainer that has the ability and willingness to hop on and get an idea what things feel like from the saddle. Good all-around horsemanship is also a must.

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    1. YES, 100%!!! As someone who has never been able to afford to go spend money on a horse, I’ve always had to make due with whatever I had. It’s so so so important for a trainer to realize that, and help me make the best of the horse I’m sitting on. The only caveat to that is that if the horse I have is truly unsafe for or unhappy with what we’re trying to do, I also want them to be honest about that.

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  11. I think trust is definitely number 1. All of your points are the same as mine. But I also want a trainer that rides better than I do, and has more experience than I do. As I get older, that can be harder to find… My current trainer is only around for a few months out of the year. Now that her daughter is in school, they are in Florida longer. But I still want to ride with her because she is exactly what I need. She’s an incredible rider and horse trainer, she believes in me (way more than I do), and she ALWAYS puts the horse first. Hopefully come spring we can get back in a program, either with Eros, or maybe I’ll have my own horse by then.

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    1. Yeah, I agree with that too. I definitely want someone who is clearly better and more experienced than I am! Otherwise I feel like I’d always be second-guessing what they were saying.

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  12. Some of the best instruction I have seen or received has been from pros who don’t show much, some of the shittiest riding I have seen is by pros who take their kids to rated shows and events. For me it is going to be if things make sense to me about what the pro is saying and how it meshes with what I believe and how I ride, keeping an open mind of course. I have noticed extremely few pros teach how they ride, or ride how they teach, so this is something I keep in mind and watch all of what they correct and what they let slide in teaching or riding. Don’t just take my money and run me up the levels, but don’t hold me back to just get placings. See my potential and my horse’s, and be honest about our faults, help us improve.

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  13. Agree with the trust factor. I’m a wimp and I get stuck inside my own head too often. I need a trainer who knows when it is time to tell me to put my big girl panties on and when to back off and let me process. My current Trainer is really good at this and I’m learning to trust her and go with what she says as I work with her more.

    One thing I have found over time is that a lot of trainers have their own agenda that they push on the students, be that to show more often, buy a certain brand of saddle, feed a certain supplement etc… and that they are more focused on growing their brand versus caring about the students and horses. If you try to force me into your mold, I’m out. I don’t have a lot to spend on my hobby, time or money wise, so sometimes good enough is what I have to work with.

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    1. Yeah I don’t like having someone else’s agenda pushed on me either, especially if it means spending money on things that aren’t necessary. If their suggestions are valid, that’s one thing, but otherwise… no.

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  14. One of my favorite things that my trainer does is scheduled check-ins. We go sit in the barn lounge with a cup of coffee, talk about what my goals are with my horse, then talk about how to realistically get there. I’m a planner, so those formalized “planning meetings” make me feel really good knowing that we’re on the same page and working towards a common goal- we do these several times a year, both during show season and then looking forward to next show season. And like your trainer, she’s pushed me and encouraged me to improve way more quickly than I ever have before. I’ve benefited from some great technical training in the past, but I’ve never had someone to say “I know you’re better than this” and PUSH for more in such a positive way. And like everyone has already echoed- trust. If she tells me to try something, I have complete trust that it’s something my horse and I are safely capable of doing and so I am comfortable pushing those boundaries.

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  15. Great post! As someone who has never really had a trainer in a traditional sense (although actively working to change that haha) I still really appreciated a lot of the points in the post. I have very specific ideas about what I want in a trainer, although currently I’m fairly limited by both my location and my budget. I admire your dedication to making it work with your current trainer (who sounds perfect for you!) despite the distance 🙂

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  16. As you know I’m right there with you. Now to see where Annie and I end up under her infrequent tutelage…

    In all seriousness I think way too many people get sucked into “drinking the koolaid” with a new trainer/barn/program… As someone that’s been there and done that (multiple shirts and hats to prove it…) I now have a better awareness of what I like and need from a trainer. Im too tired to try to ponder and articulate it into a post though. And you pretty much captured it all 😂

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  17. I am 100% with you on what I’m looking for in a trainer. Recently, I have had to change trainers after riding with the person I (re) started riding with 2.5 years ago after a 20 year hiatus (she moved to a new barn) and–to be honest–I’ve never had to shop for a new trainer. I had one trainer growing up and then got back into riding with my most recent trainer.

    Honestly, the thing I dislike the most about the horse world is all of the drama that happens between these trainers…my trainer growing up did not suffer fools lightly (a nice way of saying she hated pretty much everyone) and, thus, I would have NEVER considered riding with anyone but her. In hindsight, I am pretty sure that not EVERYONE was terrible but her attitude prevented me from ever riding with anyone else. Same is kind of true with my most recent trainer but not nearly to the degree as my childhood trainer.

    Nonetheless, when you are not a pro and are trying to learn, you simply don’t know how to judge the quality of the training program. I can make my best guesses based on my experience but, ultimately, this is such a qualitative sport. My basics have come down to: 1. Know what the fuck you are doing 2. Keep me safe 3. Teach me proper riding 4. No shortcuts 5. Yell at me if you have to 6. If I’m doing a good job, tell me but only when I deserve it. 7. Be respectful of my bank account (sadly, I didn’t win the $1.6B lottery last night). 8. Please, please just be a good person.

    Great post! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and it’s nice to see everyone else’s thoughts on this 🙂

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  18. Great thoughts, both in the post and the comments. I’ve been really lucky since I started eventing here that my trainer is also my horse’s owner. It’s nice when she knows the horse inside and out and can drill down on you. It also gives me an added bit of confidence that she knows how he’s going to handle something, especially as I ride at these lower levels. The push works that way too – she looked at us last summer as I was jumping 2′ and thought BN looked big and was like, “Oh, y’all should run a Novice 3 Day.” What. Now, a year and a half later, I’m like, HUH, okay that sounds… fun?

    I’m both lucky and unlucky that she’s not a full time trainer – she only has 4 students, she has a FT job, a family and those things take priority. I’m also the only student who shows. The balance to this is we’ve found another trainer locally who has a similar style, but travels and shows a lot more, and my trainer is comfortable letting us go with her so we get to compete even if she can’t make it.

    I think having someone who believes in me/us so wholeheartedly has been huge. She trusts me to haul myself, take myself places, school alone and not f up her horse… it makes me want to work harder to make her proud.

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  19. I’m right in line with everything you wrote. Even though I only ride dressage, everything you mentioned still applies. Especially knowing, as Walter Zettl used to say, how to push the horse to the edge, but never over the edge. It takes a supremely well-educated and experiences trainer to know where that edge is.

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