Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Of horses, training and horse trainers

I have been meaning to write this article for a while, just never got around to it. My horse experience starts in January 2008 - 21 months ago when Dacia and I adopted two horses from a local rescue. The rescue buys these animals at slaughter auctions and then adopts them out for a fee to people like me. Some would call this a business, not a rescue but that is not my call. Be it as it may, we each paid $1500 per horse plus $600/month in training fees. As many people soon learn, training is a very flexible term, in our case the trainer trained the horses by sitting in his golf cart, smoking and watching them run around on their own. On top of that, my horse who came in emaciated and ill was turned out with a particularly unfriendly mare. After a few weeks of her tutoring, this 3-year old got all the bad habits such as ear pinning at people around feeding time. We decided that the "training" method was not up to our standards and took the horses home. For a while we sat there and looked at them, acting as human food dispensers. My horse gained some weight and we decided to hire a local trainer to break them. You would be surprised at the plethora of individuals that will come to your place calling themselves horse trainers! One showed up with a pouch full of grain and treated the horse every time he did something right. Needless to say, she was ruled out. The next one got too close to Dacia's horse and got grazed by his kick. Needless to say, she was out too. One "trainer" would not even get into the paddock, he just looked at them and said "I will fix them up for you". "No thanks!" is what we said. Then our first farrier offered some training. We said "please stick to farrying". Finally, we ran into a normal person who lived about ten miles away on a ten acre property - she took them in and did three months of training, ponying them on local trails. When we got them, they were green-broke but ridable in a mechanical hackamore, which is what she used. We took them up and down the street and on a few trails and they did alright, but as anyone with any experience will know - once you start with a trainer you never really end. So, she was called in to our place quite a few times to fix this and that, charging every time per hour what you would expect a surgeon or a lawyer to charge. Needless to say, we were done with that quickly too (our decision was also helped by me being bucked off my horse when he reared after being asked to cross a puddle of water).

So, we decided to seek out a "reputable trainer with a certification of some sort". We had already invested a few hundred dollars in John Lyons DVDs and it seemed logical to just go that route. After all, John Lyons is "America's most trusted horseman". Every year he handpicks a group of people and they pay good money to get certified under him and to have the right to use his good name with clients. However, everyone gets the certification at the end and John is not really responsible for what people do with that piece of paper.

After interviewing a few certified trainers, we zeroed in on one across the state, about 200 miles away from home, in Bradenton, Florida. This particular trainer teaches the clinics with John and Josh Lyons in Colorado and seems (or seemed) to be reputable. We came out for a private clinic (cost us about $900 for two days) and he did an evaluation with our horses. As one would expect, after the evaluation the conclusion was that both horses and us would need training. He had just the solution for us - an apprenticeship, $5,000 per person that spans six months, includes 15 "core days" and up to ten "study days" a month on his property where during core days both our horses and us would get undivided attention of the trainer. After a few horror stories about what happens to untrained people with untrained horses on trails, we were scared and hooked. We thought to ourselves, "what idiots we were to go on trail rides untrained!". We thought, "here is a guy who offers a methodology that is almost scientific, it is a question-answer communication with the horse, it all makes sense". Together we spent a few hours at the end of the weekend laughing about backyard trainers who know nothing but take your money, old cowboy "daddy taught me and his daddy taught him" horse training methods - the kind of discussion you usually have when you hire a plumber and he sees your setup at home and asks "what idiot plumber did this one???".

Anyways, the six months came and went, there were a lot of weekends of driving across the state with our horses, staying at hotels and eating out. Being that we both work, weekends were our only options, with a possibility of a dedicated vacation down the road.

However, by the end of the apprenticeship, it became apparent that weekend training in the arena was not going to cut it. (We didn't know it yet but we were coming to learn an old truth: you need to use your horse every day to get him to really bond with you and respond to you.)

At the time, we didn't know that. So, we decided to take a two week vacation and finish our apprenticeship there - we would work every day with our horses - that should make them better, right? To accelerate our progress we even left our horses with the trainer for a month prior to our vacation - so that they could get ahead with the training. Notice that the original sales pitch was that in six months we would train our horses no matter what! Well, once you get invested in the process you can't just stop. You forget what was promised and because you spent so much time and money already, it comes natural that you should spend more money, do the right thing and have the trainer work with your horses before you show up for your two weeks. The logic is that you want to come there and the horses should be maximally ready for you to learn on them.

I will not go into the gruesome detail of what happened during the vacation, but will mention that by this point the trainer had a group of people in the apprenticeship with their own horses and problems and he had also gone into a starting of a business where he would buy quarter horses from Idaho, train them at home and sell them to people as finished horses for quite a handsome amount of money (he was actually gone to Idaho for a week out of the month we paid him to train the horses - his hired apprentice supposedly worked with our horses that week). During that process he had maybe lost some interest in us being that we were the pesky little people with constant problems and questions. Compared to training his horses in peace and quiet and selling them for handsome profit, we probably looked pretty unappealing.

When we showed up at his property, it was dead of summer in Florida, our horses were sitting in a small round pen in mud up to their knees, covered in flies and my horse had lost a huge amount of weight - he looked like a rescue case again. Being nice and polite that we are, we did not say anything. We did get the trainer to move my horse into a shaded stall and he slowly gained back some lost weight. Needless to say, the whole property was filthy, overgrown with grass, covered in huge puddles of water from the excessive rain we had received and most of the horses looked filthy and plain pitiful.

After my horse spent a few days of our vacation just resting and eating, we started on the work. The remaining days were alright for one big exception: my horse would rear when frightened. We put him through a few basic situations and were able to bring out the behavior. I complained to the trainer but he dismissed it by saying that my horse is the best horse on his property and that he would always pick him for the trail ride if he had a choice. Being a beginner, I believed him. My wife's horse had by then had a problem he had always had - pulling on the bit in a direction opposite of where my wife would ask him to go. The trainer blamed my wife's lack of riding skills on this one. She apparently had "below average timing". At that time we never went back and questioned him on his statements that a truly trained horse should "move automatically when I pick up the rains, no questions asked". He claimed our horse was trained so this should be the expectation, right? Well, being beginners, we did not dare question our fearless trainer-leader.

At this point I need to mention that all the horses on his property also had bad feet and were constantly lacking water - to this day it is not clear to me if this was his training method (break their spirit by withholding water and food) or was it pure negligence.

To top our experience off, the trainer took us to the trail head on the last day. We got there, he told us to leave the horses in the trailer (it was around noon on a hot Florida summer day) and he took us on foot to show us the trail (why? I don't know!). 45 minutes later we came back to the trailer (we were starting to worry about the horses in the trailer boiling in the heat but he wasn't worried at all so we went along thinking he knows better than us), we got the horses out and mounted them. Finally, we thought, a trail ride! We had trained for this in the arena for months! Well, it was not to be. We rode around the trailer a bit to get the horses accustomed to the new situation and then "called it a success" as the trainer put it, and went home.

When we got back to his place we decided to leave the horses for two more months of training at his property. At this point, the trainer swore, "they are ready to be trail ridden". However, to get the most of their training, it would be wise to leave them for at least a month or two. We opted for that and with the $2,100 for that month, our total bill with this trainer was around $14,000, without all the expenses of every single trip across the state (gas, hotel, food etc...). We thought, one more month and we will be enjoying the trails!

Well, a month later we had another $900 private one day clinic (see, that's excess of $100/hour the man charges for his services!) and we went to the trail one more time. You guessed it by now, we never rode on the trail, just around the staging area and the trailer. But, we took our horses home, happy and thinking that we will be on the local trails soon!

What happened next was interesting. A few days into our horses being back, we started riding them in our backyard, where they live day-to-day. I decided to take my horse through a puddle, he braced and I could feel he got very nervous. Not wanting to provoke another blowout I dismounted and proceeded to put the halter and lead rope on and asked him (using a stick) to go through the water. To that he violently reared twice and kicked out at me, missing me by a foot or so. I decided to not dare devil anymore and call it quits so I started walking towards the barn. As soon as I made another step, he reared up again. So, there I was, at least $22,000+ later in training fees (first and second trainer together) and I have a rearing, violently dangerous horse! My wife did not fare better either, her horse is not spooky but braces on the bit and pulls in the opposite direction every time when asked to turn in a trot. He has learned this behavior so well that he is willing to take the rider into obstacles, trees, bushes, rocks etc., knowing that the rider will soon give up on the request and the horse will be let off the hook from working. In my opinion, both behaviors are almost equally dangerous, only my horse's rearing is very violent and looks very scary.

Do you want to guess the reaction of our trainer when told about our problems? Well, you don't have to - I will tell you. To paraphrase him: " I am proud of the training I did with your horses, they are good horses. You should not have played roulette by asking your horse to go through a puddle.". He also got very offended that I was questioning his expertise. Gee, you think $14,000 later I would have the right to ask what was done with my horse during the two months of training at his facility. To this day I received no answer - he was pretty unwilling to share what exercises were done with our horses during the training. From what anecdotal evidence we have from other apprentices, the horses were always ridden by his hired help, not him. He denied that claim too, saying that he personally works with every horse on his property. Funny as it may sound, during our two weeks vacation there, he never worked with anyone's horse. In fact, come to think of it, we only saw him ride a horse once or twice.

Conclusion

My wife and I think we did the right thing by seeking to educate ourselves and train our horses. We sought out trainers, paid them handsomely and put in our time (you can imagine our house was in disarray most of the time since we traveled every weekend to train and worked throughout the week, we had also packed on some weight due to lack of time to exercise). It is not like we paid people to train our horses and went off to the beach or sat on the side and whined all the time.

So, here is a list of things I have learned in the 21 months of horse ownership:

1. Just because someone says they are a horse trainer, does not mean they are.
2. Just because someone has a certification in horse training, does not mean that piece of paper carries any weight.
3. Just because you pay someone a lot of money does not mean they will do a good job.
4. When your trainer does not show up on time or shows up on time but starts late with your session, it is a red flag - you are paying him for this time and he is using it to do something else.
5. Next time you enter into a deal with someone, get all the details right - in our case a "core day" was actually three hours of training time. We heard that now the trainer shortened the core days to 1.5 hours length. You got to wonder why it is called a core DAY, don't you?
6. When you show up at someone's facility and your horse has lost 200 lbs and looks pitiful, call the authorities and take your horse home. Take lots of photos of everything and later you should probably consider legal action against the trainer, if nothing else just to teach them a lesson.
7. Your trainer's facility should always be in tip-top shape, clean and inviting. The grass should always be cut, the manure should always be cleaned out of pasture or it should be spread to dry. Lack of any of these is a red flag and shows disrespect for the paying clients.
8. Your trainer's truck should be neat and clean - not a pig sty. It shows attention to detail on his/her part. The only reason I mention this is because the trainer asked us to drive his truck once and boy, I got to tell you, my horses stalls looked cleaner than that.
9. The appearance of the training facility is a direct measure of the respect the trainer has for his clients. (see 7. and 8.)
10. Even though you think you are a beginner, don't let someone walk all over you with their "knowledge and experience". When things don't sound right or you have a gut feeling about something - go with it and voice your concerns.
11. Don't be worried about looking like the typical whining client that everybody hates. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets all the grease.
12. When you see someone else's horses without water and food, assume the same thing will happen to your horse tomorrow when you are gone. To lazy trainers you are not special. They will feed and water your horse on time just because you are there. Once you leave, the practice will stop and they will revert back to their routine.
13. Maybe your trainer does not believe in brushing or bathing the horse once he or his helpers are done riding. They may not believe in picking/cleaning their hoofs either. But, if you do, make that known to the trainer and demand that it happens. If not, leave.
14. Any trainer who will not email you or call you daily to report on the progress of your horse's training is not worth your money. The trainer should be able to produce a log of daily exercises done with your horse and demonstrate these on demand successfully.
15. Beware of promises. When the trainer says "your horse will do this when he is done with training", write it down and ask for the trainer to show you what has been taught before taking the horse home. Or show up periodically to check on the progress yourself by asking the trainer to demonstrate the exercises worked on. It is very easy for the lazy, dishonest trainer to promise a lot and deliver nothing, as in our case.
16. Horse clinicians are people who scare you into spending money on DVDs and clinics. Most of them barely ever ride. My trainer's horse had not been ridden in months and was only "tuned-up" before demonstrations and clinics. He who does not ride every day...
17. Most of your horse's problems come from lack of use. Use your horse!
18. Do not be a human food dispenser. Don't make your only interaction with your horse be the act of feeding him/her. It will not end up well for you.
19. If you can, have a pasture for your horse. That way he can feed himself and you are eliminating the "love for food" portion of your relationship with your horse.
20. There are good horses out there. But, the majority are bad and spoiled and definitely not worked enough.
21. Trail training starts in the arena BUT it does not end in it. Beware of any trainer who tells you that he/she can train your horse for the trails in the arena. They are either incompetent, lazy or plain lying.
22. You need not tippy-toe around a truly trained horse. They should do what you ask them to do without any fuss. Beware of the trainer who is constantly keeping you only in "safe" areas where the horse is dull and bored. Once you take the horse out to a new area, it might be a new horse you are dealing with. They should be trained everywhere!
23. Everyone is doing natural horsemanship now and most of these people laugh at the cowboys working cattle on ranches. Apparently these brutes beat their horses into submission. I don't know what is the truth (never been on a ranch) but I do know that a cowboy spends days in the saddle and comes home at night to tell about it. Whose horse would you rather have, the arena clinician's or the cowboy's?
24. Ask your trainer to video-tape his sessions. He should invest in a good, inexpensive camera - if he is truly competent he should have no problems showing you what he did day-to-day.
25. Go with your gut feeling. This applies to people and horses.

My $0.02.
Ognen