Pick the Perfect Horse Trainer

Spring is the traditional time for young horses to get started under saddle, or mature horses to get a pre-season tune-up. Spring must be coming soon because my horse training roster is full and the waiting list is growing!

With all the trainers out there, how do you know who is right for you and your horse?  Here are some suggestions to make sure your new trainer will make a great addition to your team.

Top 10 Tips to Pick the Perfect Trainer

1. Interview trainers that fit your goals. Jane Cowgirl might have trained the last 5 world-champion reining horses but that won’t help you if your goal is the show jumping arena.

2. Be open-minded. Tip #1 being said, if your show jumper has holes in his basic education or you just purchased an unstarted but incredibly talented jumping prospect from Europe, Jane Cowgirl might be a great fit IF she is well known for phenomenal foundation training she gives every horse.

3. Check credibility. Though the horse training profession is largely unregulated, research the trainer’s professional credentials. Read testimonials from happy customers. Ask for referrals. Find out what her previous clients think about her services.

4. Are the facilities safe? Bear in mind that you are visiting a working farm not a static showplace. Tack may be hanging on hooks along the aisle or arena walls and cross-tie areas may show signs of recent use. Beware if the tack is lying in tangled heaps on the ground waiting to trip passing horses, or the grooming area is fetlock deep in dirt and hair! The overall sense should be neat, functional and orderly.

5. Are the facilities adequate for your goals? If you’re looking for a cutting trainer, expect to see cows. If you want your horse to jump courses, look for jumps!

6. Watch the trainer work a horse. If anything happens that you don’t understand or are uncomfortable with, ask the trainer about it.

7. After the training session, ask yourself three questions. Is the horse calmer and more confident than when he began? Has he learned something new or progressed further along the path? Did the trainer stay calm and levelheaded through any dicey situations? If the answer to any of these is no, ask the trainer to explain or interview another trainer.

8. Does the trainer consider the whole horse? Does she ask that the horse is up to date on vaccines, dental work and hoof care before the horse begins her training program? Do the horses on her farm show evidence of up-to-date health care? Many training issues are the direct result of physical imbalance or pain. A comprehensive training program addresses the whole horse: mind, body and emotions.

9. What value does the trainer offer? Notice I said value offered, not price charged. Jane Cowgirl might charge more than lower-priced competitors but if she produces better results in a shorter time, or produces results that are meaningful to you, you have gotten better value for your money

10. Educate yourself. Your horse is going to school. Do you need to brush up on your own skills in order to keep up with him? Take some lessons, read some good books, audit a clinic with a top trainer in your discipline. Book a session with your trainer at the end of the program to make sure YOU are able to cue your horse’s new skills.

11. The responsibility is ultimately yours. You are your horse’s spokesperson. He depends on you for everything. If at any point you feel like he is being mistreated or abused, remove him from the situation, no matter how many prizes hang on the trainer’s wall.

Do you have any nuggets you’d like to add?  What have been your experiences finding a horse trainer?

And by the way, if your horse needs training (and is a good fit for our program), we’ll see what we can do to fit him in!

Horse Domestication Reconsidered

Findings from Krasnyi Yar, the Kazakh site inhabited by the Botai culture, suggest that domestication of horses occurred 1000 years earlier than previously thought.  Traces of milk and meat in unglazed pottery and evidence of bit use on jawbones date back 5500 years ago.

These new findings are cause for reexamining current theories on the spread of civilation.  As we know, horses bestow miliary, trade, and cultural prowess on their riders and communities. It is commonly accepted that the spread of bronze working throughout Europe and Asia is directly linked to the domestication of horses.  Ditto the spread of Indo-European languages.  With the date of horse domestication pushed 1000 sooner, new doors open in current sociological theories.

The evidence gives me pause for reflection.  Jawbones damaged by bit use.  The thought that actions taken to subjugate these early horses would cause damage on a skeletal level is revolting.  Even more distubing is that such evidence is common through time, and even into our modern age.  Ironic that horses sped the spread of civilization, yet remain the victims of barbarism.

What will our horses tell future researchers about our training methods?  Food for thought….

Click here for more research from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History on the Botai horse culture

Click here for yesterday’s BBC announcement

Losgelassenheit and Natural Horsemanship

Breakthrough day for June!  This formerly stiff-as-a-board but quick-as-a-whip little mare learned to release to the pressure of the bit.  We’re not talking turn or tuck her head.  We are talking release negative tension throughout her entire body. This elementary lesson is June’s first step towards losgelassenheit.

…Before you say “gesundheit” let’s pull our dictionary!

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) translates the German term “losgelassenheit” as: “Looselettingness” or “letlooseness,” shortened to “Looseness….”

The USDF further elaborates:  “The supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state of the horse’s musculature that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back, which allows the aids/influences to freely go through to all parts of the horse (e.g., the rein aids go through and reach and influence the hind legs.”

For purposes of the Training Pyramid, the USDF uses the translation “Relaxation” … and the FEI uses the translation “Suppleness.”

Why pull out complicated foreign terms when we’re tallking about training a pleasure horse who will most likely never see be seen halting at X in a dressage arena?

Regardless of the owner’s goals a horse is a horse is a horse. “Dressage,” literally, is the French word for “training.” Classical dressage is the oldest, most pervasive, and most effective system of developing a horse into an athlete for war, for sport, for exhibition and for enjoyment.

Any effective training system, including what we’ve come to know as natural horsemanship, has its parallels in classical dressage. Every athletic effort between horse and human requires “the supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state of the horse’s musculature that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back, which allows the aids/influences to freely go through to all parts of the horse (e.g., the rein aids go through and reach and influence the hind legs.”  A fixed frame or headset results in athletic–and emotional–restrictions.

Horses can achieve their athletic best only when their physical framework is supple enough to transmit energy efficiently to the rider’s chosen task, regardless of what style of saddle they wear.  Unfortunately, this can be taken to the extreme. EVERY discipline has their offenders who persist even through threatened action at a regulatory level.

Detractors of natural horsemanship often point accusingly–and sadly, accurately– to well-intentioned novices who overuse flexions and one-rein stops to the point of abuse.  The result are horses whose necks are disconnected from their bodies. Their backs can can be rigid, their hindquarters trailing, but their heads and necks flop back and forth like some macabre bobble-head toys.  Such horses are difficult to ride and fall far short of their athletic potential.  They may even end up injured, or worse.

June “knew her flexions” when she first came. She was quick to snap that neck around.  But she bent through muscular effort, not release.  She stiffened to the bit and locked her back, even as she curved her neck. The intended antidote was instead the pathology.

For June, it all changed in that lightbulb moment.  The bit used to mean tense yourself and twist.  Now it means release your body and mind to what comes next.

NOW we can begin an athetic adventure!

Thoughts on Natural Horsemanship and Horse Whispering

The Horse Whisperer. Both history and the pop culture notion of natural horsemanship paint an image of the silent, mystical horseman whose mere presence calms the wildest equine outlaw. By using skills invisible to the average human, the horse whisperer inspires the most savage horse to willingly submit and perform any feat.

People attributed this ability to “whispering” after the sensational 19th century “horse tamer,” John Rarey. Among other things (primarily immobilizing the horse with a leg strap), Rarey would gently blow into a horses nostrils or ears. With this, a myth was born that grew along with the development of natural horsemanship as we know it.

But ask the successful modern day “horse whisperer” her or his secret. The key to success with horses (just as with people) begins with LISTENING.

The effective horse trainer “listens” with every sense available. The more acute the trainer’s awareness, the more accurate the understanding of the horse which emerges. Natural horsemanship is based on using the horse’s nature to make the right thing easy. To understand the horse’s nature, we need to listen.

I once read an insightful forum post by a backyard horseman. In convincing a novice to send a young horse to a professional horse trainer, she pointed out that the pros can see a wreck coming well in advance. They perceive the signs of the impending explosion and can prevent it from happening.

The horse trainer in this scenario is listening to the horse more sensitively and more completely than the novice. The pro can see the look of concern growing in the horses eyes, can hear the speed of the hoofbeats slightly increase, can feel the horse’s tension mounting. The pro can immediately redirect the horse to defuse the situation before it gets worse.

The novice, whose “listening” is still rudimentary, doesn’t notice these details. She continues on. As the horse’s tension and confusion increases, so does the “volume” of his nonverbal communication. If the novice still doesn’t “hear” the horse’s concern, the horse starts “yelling:” bucking, rearing, bolting, kicking. The horse’s training backtracks and someone could get hurt, simply because the human wouldn’t, or couldn’t, listen.

Natural horsemanship and classical dressage training share the tenet of starting in lightness. When you apply an aid, begin with the lightest suggestion, increasing in strength until the horse responds. The horse learns to listen for the whisper of communication, knowing that it will increase to a “shout” if ignored. No one likes to get yelled at.

The effective horse trainer “listens” the same way she “speaks.” Listen for the horse’s lightest whisper.

Horses are generally happy to listen back.

Natural Horsemanship and Cavalry Mounted Shooting

Natural horsemanship pops up in the most unexpected places!

Mark and I stopped in at the National Conservation Center for their Autumn Conservation Festival. The Center is located almost next door to Mark’s house, which we’ve been prepping for sale throughout the summer. Throughout the early 1900’s, the Center acted as a bustling Cavalry Remount Station. The 7th Virginia Division E Cavalry set up their encampment and performed demos throughout this weekend’s festival.

One of the training drills resembled our medieval reenacting game of Behead the Enemy and the increasingly popular cowboy mounted shooting. Horse and rider race down a line of head-high balloons trying to shoot them at speed.




A cavalry officer on a novice horse unwittingly demonstrated a foundational principle of natural horsemanship: work with the horse’s instincts to make the right thing easy. In this case, another rider on a seasoned mount flanked the spooky horse throughout the run. The novice horse gained confidence from the veteran’s nonchalance in the face of gunfire, smoke, and popping balloons.




I guess you can take the natural horseman out of the training arena, but you can’t take the training arena out of the natural horseman. Even on “non-horsey” days natural horsemanship pursues us!

Antietam Battlefield Ride

I had the horse trailer hooked up and loaded by the time Mark got home from work. We grabbed the horses and a chilled bottle of Monavie and headed down the road to meet Scott and Noel at the Antietam battlefield for an afternoon trail ride.

I brought Lucy. We believe so firmly in building a solid foundation in our horses through a variety of cross-training. Even though this phenomenal Thoroughbred mare has the mind, talent and movement for the show hunter arena, she needs to be a horse first and foremost. I looked forward to seeing how she would handle the traffic, pedestrians, and ever-present monuments, placards and cannons around the battlefield.

What an amazing trail ride! The reality of the bloodiest battle of the civil war entwined with the sun-soaked afternoon and the joy of riding wonderful horses with great friends. The horses were champs. Lucy soaked in all the new sights like a sponge. She has such an incredible mind!

We explored a corner of Antietam we’d never seen. The wide, well-kept verges welcomed long, fitness-building trots. Dolly the Belgian even gave Mark his first triumphant steps of canter! Our loop covered paved roads, grassy verges and mown paths. The battlefield monuments provided plenty of fodder for creative training challenges.

The four humans joined in a refreshing Monavie toast as the sun set and horses happily munched hay. That Lucy just impresses me more and more all the time!

Thanks, Scott, for this great shot of Mark, Dolly, Lucy and I!

Trail Ride at Antietam Battlefield