Developing your system

Earlier today I pointed out a story in the New York Times about solving problems using local knowledge and resources.

The gist of it is solutions from the outside are often poorly implemented or accepted by the recipients–even if those people really do want improvement.  Anything that is not part of one’s routine can be a stretch to accept.

Horses are no different.  Something that is accepted as obvious in one part of the world, can be taken as complete heresy in another.  And many areas, with many different “systems” produce fine horses and fine riders.  But sometimes, regrettably,  some areas repeatedly produce really terrible ones!  Trainers and riders use the resources available, often repeating patterns by rote, “because it is done like this.”


These patterns may or may not work–but they are often repeated nonetheless.

If, as pointed out before, one of the characteristics of successful people everywhere is ruthless self-evaluation, then that process should be first on the list.

Here are several–totally imaginary–barn models and how they seem to work–or not!

Professional A has a very successful training program, a happy family and a group of satisfied clients, some of which show quite successfully on a local level.  Professional A never gets on a horse. Broken arm in trailer accident in her twenties does not allow her to ride.  Her clients must do it all.  The ones that show all have very good horses.  Most of which have been purchased at considerable cost from active barns in the south.  The median cost is four times what people locally “like” to spend–these are “made” amateur horses from Europe that did not work out in the more competitive regions.  Professional A’s program is working–no cure necessary as long as enough clients have the ante-in necessary.

Amateur B has a full-time job and a long commute.  He keeps his horses at home in a herd group at low-cost per horse, but a lot of ultimate cost.  Amateur B has a history of producing frightening and spoiled horses that are no fun to be around–and lots of them!  Amateur B has many, many horses in the field and none of them get much professional work–it is too expensive.  And when one does go in for work is it likely to be  a wreck because so very many unattended to problems surface when an alternative program is enacted.  What’s the cure?

Professional C has a long career and a great “out-of-town” image.  Many high quality horses peer out of Professional C’s stalls.  Clients from out-of-town appear at regular intervals to train, increasing her status.  But none of these expensive horses seem to progress up the levels, and none of the clients actually do very well at the shows.  However, Professional C is actually getting some nice scores on the one, expensive, horse she likes to ride.  How is that working for the clients?

Amateur D also has a full-time job, and someday he dreams of being a top-level judge.  He puts lots of effort into networking, attending seminars, judging local shows.  But there is never enough time to really ride or train with the regularity to get “to the next level”  (Upper level judges now have to have a string of very, very good scores–four at 65% at the lower FEI is nothing to sneeze at.  You really have to have a good horse, and be able to pilot it, to rake those numbers  in.)  So even though he is successful, he wants the next level and it is nowhere in sight.  What is the answer?

Professional E likes to show.  She will enter four horses in two classes each on every day available.  She gets really good scores on horses she has trained herself, well into the FEI.  But her clients never progress and they are frustrated at the expense of showing not so successfully.  How could this be different?

Professional F likes to train.  A lot of young horses have come and gone through the barn over the years.  Some are nice, some not so nice.  Professional F will work with anything, citing sympathy with her clients “not being able to afford it.”  The selection process sometimes looks like dumpster diving, but the training is good–a lot of her off-breed horses have beaten the local warmbloods.  What should she be doing differently?

Professional G finally convinced her clients to purchase some nice young warmblood stock.  Now it is time to put them to work.  None of the clients have any experience with young horses, but they are used to it being cheap.  (A young horse is much less expensive to keep than an adult in work)  The clients are not in the habit of budgeting for full-time training.  They are going to do the work themselves.  Is this likely to work?

Amateur H makes a lot of trips to the vet.  She has a nice trailer and a large, expensive, pickup.  All of Amateur H’s  horses are lame, some very sick.  (If a horse in a town without possums is going to contract EPM, it is hers.)  She spends thousands at the state vet hospital every month and the horses then sit in the field recuperating.  When she buys a horse she does not ask for help and its front legs are so crooked that arthritis is already setting in.  She says she can deal with it.  She likes the horse and if it does not work out she has space.  Is there a smarter method to success?

All of the examples above have strengths in their training programs.  But most of them have a fatal flaw. Even the cheapest of them are still spending a lot of money–or their client’s money.  The only one that is really working for the clients appears to be the first example.  Professional A sets clear entry parameter--you are going to need to spend a good bit on a horse if you want to show.  Then time put in on the student, NOT the student’s horse.  (Sad fact, most trainers are not very good riders–and it doesn’t do you THAT much good to put any, but a very, very good rider on your horse for upper level work.  In fact, it may cause harm)  And sometimes the “not so good” trainer is not even working the horse (time spent holding a longe line and a cell phone does not count).  But you KNOW if you have had a riding lesson!

So, if you want to show with high scores, you are going to need a very good horse that is trained, and then take the time to get the training yourself.  Dressage horses do not ride themselves.

If you want to make and break your own, do not choose a warmblood as your trial project.  Pick something small and mellow.

If you want your horse to be good at trail riding, take him or her to someone who knows how to get a horse to cross streams and logs.

If you want your horse to know Prix St Georges, take him or her to a known Grand Prix trainer–better yet, buy one that already knows it!

If you want your horse worked, go to someone who likes to work horses–the person who can make any mutt into a decent citizen.  (Hint–then don’t bring the mutt, get something good!)

The client is ultimately in charge of the program–because they choose it.  Doing horses is a lot like arranging a good diet: the skillful lesson that was easy and makes you feel satisfied right after, might in fact be the TV dinner of the horse world.

Real progress, like real food, takes time and effort and money and thought.

The take home message is have a look at the parameters of how you, and each person you might use, works their program.  Look hard, then be honest with yourself about what you actually know how to do. And more importantly what success you have had in the past.  If you are not happy with it–change something!

Any other approach is a lot like going into a big box store and just buying a big box.  It might be helpful to have had a glance inside before you take it home. . . .

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