Friday’s Opinion

Recently, there’s been a good deal of chatter on a variety of online venues about the dishonesty, elitism, divisiveness and agendas of those labeled equine professionals (or even those who are far from professionals but present themselves as knowledgeable). Whether it’s brokers, trainers, instructors, breeders, show competitors, sellers, novice educators or an array of vendors who serve the market, there’s always someone quick to label the bunch with a horror story they’re excited to share (usually heard third-hand).

Admittedly, I’ve met some jerks in the horse industry during the 41 years I’ve been riding and the 25-plus years I’ve been earning income from horse training (and more recently, breeding – kooks tend to gravitate to the rare breeds, which may be a bigger reason they’re rare than the qualities of the horse). There are also some things celebrated equine advisors are doing that I find sad for both the horse and human. Fortunately, though, these are the exceptions. It’s not hard to find the gems. Most of the professionals I encounter are caring, giving and honest people who are generous with their time, expertise and help, whether money is exchanged or not.

Horse help shouldn’t be something you settle for

Where people seem to go so wrong is when they assume what they see is all there is. If you are taken, shunned, dismissed or neglected by a vendor you’re paying or a group you’ve embraced, find another and be glad to see them gone. Most equine professionals I’ve met are kind and inclusive, in part because they’ve benefited from the kindness of others in their ascension, but mostly because they ooze integrity.

The decision to add  the ‘Tips from the Professional Trenches’ section to the Horse Sense and Cents™ books really underscored the generosity of horsemen and accomplished professionals in the equine world. For the first book, Turning Challenging Horses Into Willing Partners, we identified about fifteen people as ideal contributors to the title. Of the ten that responded, all were not only gracious with their time for interviews, humble in their approach to the topic and willing to share mistakes learned along the way, but also did so with the sole objective of helping others gain insight from their experiences with the hope of a shorter learning curve for future equestrians (none were compensated for their contributions). It’s amazing how altruistic most who earn their living from the love of equines are when asked to help others find ways to be fairer to the horse.

Sure, there are some charlatans out there. It’s a circular world, though, and most get what they give in due time.

Good horse groups are out there – just look

Pony Club and 4-H are great organizations for any kid learning to ride. I was lucky to find a Pony Club located in a rural area (try making attitude work for you with a group of farmer’s wives running the show). Even if you’re a novice adult, you can learn a lot from watching the programs and lessons and connecting with other adults who may also be riders. You can also volunteer to help.

There are also organized trail riding groups, breed collectives, lesson stables, horse riding clubs and a variety of discipline trainers and instructors in almost any community.

Sometimes just attending something like a team penning or obstacle horse competition will give you a chance to get to know some of the most fun-loving and supportive horse riders in your area.

If you’re in a rural area, stop by obvious horse farms or a home with horses and strike up a conversation. Be careful if you’re in a ‘shoot trespassers’ area, but most farming communities provide a snapshot of the great things we’ve lost from our past – a community that naturally helps others without an eye toward reciprocity. It’s likely you’ll find the owner mucking stalls or mending fences and happy to share his experiences with you (make sure you don’t have an urgent appointment if you choose this approachJ).

Equine disciplines abound – find one where you like the people

When I was a kid, I started showing early. In fact, I participated in a stable show after my third lesson, crying uncontrollably when my promised mount was given to a partially paralyzed kid. Sam was a former circus horse with a brilliant white coat and a keen understanding of voice commands. He was the only horse I had ever ridden and one I figured I’d always ride. The idea of riding a horse that had actually been in the circus was so unbelievable and tremendous at the time, bragging rights seemed necessary with everyone I encountered, so the idea of others seeing me ride a circus horse in a show was critical to my credibility. I sulked that I placed second in the class, sure I would have won if on Sam – five-year-olds can be that way.

Popsie became my new lesson mount after this show. I hated her, particularly after she left a full hoof print on my right cheek that lasted for weeks. She dumped me and I responded by running all out behind her. Who knows what I was thinking (I do remember being mad), but I learned that day that horses kick.  Not a bad lesson to learn at a tender age. I made sure when I became an instructor that was a fact I presented on day one.

Showing seemed like the thing to do as an English riding student. I even competed at A shows with my cheap, short-strided mutt who arrived behind a yellow station wagon. Imagine the snarky whispers. Anyway, I’d pin over fences at shows like Farmington Children’s Services (I also was asked to leave the flat classes on more than one occasion). A flawless round was enough to make me proud with the added giggles gained from pissing off the princesses on their $30K mounts who missed a spot or two. Still, doing the same eight fence routine over and over again was boring for me.

Then I discovered eventing. It was great to find a group of people who were supportive and real. Plus, you compete against yourself and the course in this sport – not others. What a blast we all had over the years cheering on each other and seeing different challenges at every competition. Of course, the entry fee at the time made it easy to compete often (the entire day was less than the cost of a single class at a rated show). If my mutt didn’t get eliminated in the dressage phase (he liked to jump – a particular problem if there was a judge’s trailer easily avoided by leaping over the arena perimeter), we were sure to go clean in cross country and stadium.

As an adult, I guess I’ve been lucky to meet up with the right kind of horse people. Frankly, I’ve never had much patience for pretentiousness or bravado, so have some built-in radar to dismiss these types early. Still, I continue to be amazed and the depth and breadth of the kindness so many of the more accomplished equestrians offer in their accessibility and shared wisdom. It’s also wonderful to continue to meet groups of horse lovers, amateur competitors or professional equestrians who truly care about both the horses and the people they connect with.

How can novice riders find the right people?

They’re out there. The easiest way to find equestrians with character is to meet one. People tend to associate with like-minded professionals and groups. Most respected horsemen have a vast referral network of individuals who can meet your stated needs and exceed your expectations. Novices tend to focus on reading to get their information, including horse publications, books, internet sites, etc. – and this thirst for knowledge is great – but there’s no substitute for face-to-face encounters when you really want to get to know someone.  Take the time to get to learn about the players. Find out what horse associations exist in your area. Go to watch lesson stables, breeders and trainers and talk to clients about how they operate. Seek out riders who appreciate their vendors and ask about their experience and recommendations.

Horse health – stop whining and start finding

If you want to discover ways to ensure your horse riding experience is the best it can be, take the time to talk to people who can help you find the people you need. Even if you know nothing about horses, you can easily find places with people who do. Forget about your naivety with horses and trust your gut that’s served you well in other relationship matters. Usually, someone willing to listen and interested in understanding your concerns and objectives is a better bet than someone who immediately has all the answers for what you must do.

Go to places where groups of riders congregate. Talk to them. Take note of who seems to be having fun and who is more concerned with image. Discover where the learning opportunities are for you. Decide what you want from your horse experience and seek out groups who can provide this. Ask others about who’s been a good provider for them (and get second, third and fourth opinions) before you select an equine professional (or horse).

If you’re a more experience rider who’s jaded by the people and places you’ve met with your horse, look elsewhere. Just because you joined an organization, hired a trainer or decided to focus on a particular discipline doesn’t mean you need to stay there. If you’re miserable, you’re with the wrong crowd. There are tons of great people and opportunities out there for you to have fun with your horse.

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