There was an interesting discussion on COTH the other day about riding with a young trainer. Some said a younger trainer (in their 20s) doesn’t have enough experience to really teach anyone, even if they are an accomplished rider themselves. Others said that older trainers can be so set in their ways that, when something doesn’t work for you, you are written off as incapable or difficult to teach.
Over the last 15 (or maybe even more) years, I have had 3 trainers (if any of them are reading this, you have all been incredible and have shaped me as a rider, a person, and a horsewoman in more ways than you could ever imagine. I am eternally grateful for everything you all do.) During the first 8 years of my riding career, I bounced around a lot more and wasn’t advanced enough anywhere to really get more out of how to ride a horse than kick and hang on.
The first trainer in this short line was over 60. She is a USEF licensed Steward and Judge. She had taken riders through the big eq, A/O Hunters, and some jumper classes far higher than I ever had an interest in jumping (clearly, she was a H/J trainer). She knew more about horse care than any individual person I ever met. I learned how to show horses from her, how to wrap legs, how to back a green horse, how to put changes on a horse. I got to ride 6 horses a day, 6 days a week, and I was only ever charged for my lessons and training at the shows I went to. I had supportive boarders who lent me horses more than once. She no longer rode, but there was another, very talented rider, at the barn who would ride if I was having issues.
Our lessons, which started out amazing, got more and more passive. They became predictable. We would start over a small crossrail or vertical, and then build a course. We would jump the course once, fix some things, jump it again, and mostly call it a day. When I ended up with a horse that was really complicated, I found myself scrambling for help, and I couldn’t find anyone at that barn to help me. They hadn’t changed, but I no longer fit into the program.
After 10 years, I needed to add tools to my toolbox. Leaving that trainer and that barn was one of the hardest things I ever did in my riding career, but I needed to give the very complicate horse I owned a real chance at our relationship working.
Somehow, I found myself at the other end of the spectrum. I moved to an eventing trainer who is only a couple of years older than me. I got about 10 minutes into my first lesson with her, and she pulled me into the middle of the arena. She realigned my leg and pulled on my reins, telling me what contact and connection should feel like. A new tool in my toolbox, and an introduction to a whole new sport.
Lessons were dynamic and interesting. We did grids, courses, Dressage, etc. I learned what connection felt like and how to ride a true leg yield. My old horse still wasn’t blossoming, and she was the one to have “the talk” with me. How it wasn’t fair to keep asking him to do a job that made him (and me) so miserable. How I could enjoy this sport again with another horse. Then, she got drunk with me, and we made a plan to go get May.
She trained (and still trains) with some top talent in the industry. Want to know what flat work exercises Marilyn Payne uses to increase ride-ability? Or what gymnastics Sinead Halpin rides to increase how careful her horses are in the SJ arena? I’ve ridden some of them. I met some of my best friends through her, and I met my best horse friend because she had a vision of me kicking around BN on a short, fat horse.
She took me to my first first event, and then my first recognized horse trail. She warmed me up for Dressage and SJ and walked me around XC. When I had a mental breakdown before XC, she talked me off the ledge. During that XC round, she stayed close to the start box, not so she could see any of my course, but so that she could listen to the radios to make sure I made it around ok. And she did all this while heavily pregnant. She was (and is) still excited about her career, about horses, about learning and improving as a rider and a trainer. She is still growing and improving and sometimes things didn’t always work out perfectly, but that’s horses (and horse people) for you. When the news about the husband’s new job in KY came, I gave her a hug and held back tears.
Do I miss having a trainer around almost every single ride? Yes. Do I miss having a trainer that pushed me to clinic, show, and take lessons as often as possible? Yes. But mostly, I miss my friend who was willing to take 6 hours out of her Sunday to drive me to PA to look at a yellow horse.
When I moved to KY, I debated what type of trainer I wanted. Someone at the sunrise or the sunset of their career? The truth of the matter was, I couldn’t find another young, well-educated trainer. I am sure they are out there, working hard and looking for new clients. Maybe a few were even among those who I called and emailed, but I never heard back from. Either way, I ended up with a trainer who has a resume longer than anyone I had ever ridden with before. She has a barn full of riders competing at levels higher than I ever want to see. The barn spans all breeds, but, as being both a barn in KY and an evening barn, it is made up of a majority of Tbreds.
My lessons are mostly sporadic, as our busy schedules can sometimes be difficult to coordinate. She asks me if I am going to compete, but she has never truly encouraged me to attend anything. She still trains me like I am going to be running my first FEI competition next week, but I am fully responsible for making all decisions about my horse, my competitions, and my training.
Her toolbox is vast and varied. I often tell my horse friends that she sets up an exercise that fixes a problem, without telling you to fix a problem. i.e. instead of yelling “Sit up” at me over a course of 10 fences, she sets up the Circle of Love, and it forces me to sit up. It changes my muscle memory. Our Dressage lessons are carefully cultivated to slowly build on themselves. Our first lesson was a W/T lesson where we spend the first 20 minutes simply walking and halting. Our last Dressage lesson, we were working on leg yielding at the canter and the beginning of a walk pirouette.
She expects her riders to listen, adapt, and ride. She expects horses to try. I will say she has very little patience for horses that are stubborn, nasty, or downright dangerous. She has ridden too many horses to weigh athleticism over ride-ability. This may be shocking to some, but she really likes my horse. She likes that she is honest, brave, and willing, but she acknowledges that she is a tough ride. She is careful not to lead me into fights with her, but instead, instructs me around issues to get outcomes without stirring up frustration.
Her techniques are focused around making better trainers and horses, not simply creating a prettier picture. I leave her lessons feeling like the best rider in the world on the best horse ever bred.
So if someone asked me, would you choose a younger trainer or an older trainer? I would answer, I would choose the best trainer for me right now.