I was having a discussion about horse training with a buddy of mine the other day about how people should pick the trainer that is right for them. At one point I started drawing parallels between how some people almost religiously follow the dogma of one style of training or riding without really putting much critical thinking into it. They will proselytize to others, extolling the virtues of ‘The Way’, oftentimes parroting back the very sales pitches that made them believers. As the discussion progressed I found myself categorizing the types of ‘magic’ I had run across which I believe draw people into becoming followers of one instructor or another. While most horse experts possess aspects of more than one ‘archetype’, I think they fall into several basic categories.

The Healer

The healer is a charismatic and compelling individual who tells the owner of a ‘problem horse’ that if they simply allow the healer to work her magic, for a matter of only a few moments, the horse will be cured. In fact, what the healer does is recognize that the problem with most four-legged creatures is two-legged creatures. She knows that if she avoids doing the same things wrong that the owner is doing, the problems will disappear to a great extent.  “See how I have improved this horse in just a matter of minutes? Imagine what I could do if you sent him to me for a month. Why after 30 days you won’t recognize your horse.”

The horse owner sends the animal off and 30 days later, sure as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the horse is cured. They get up, ride around, and are amazed at the improvement. They happily pay the healer, load up their newly minted ‘good horse’ and off home they go. The next ride is pretty good and boy are they happy. The ride after that, well not as good, but still, nothing like before. And so on and so on, until not too far down the road, the problems are back and they are calling the healer to come do a ‘tune-up’. The problem of course is that the horse’s issues are with the owner’s lack of training and knowledge. The healer can keep returning to ‘tune-up’ the horse until one of the three of them dies of old age, without ever addressing the real problem.

I do not believe very many of these nice folk set out to con anyone. They are usually very knowledgeable, experienced, and good at what they do. They have just gotten tired of people coming to them with the expectation that they can work miracles in 30 days, or 60, or 90; that they will return a perfect horse to the rider, even if said rider hasn’t a clue and complains to everyone in earshot about how they were conned because the horse came back no better than it left. They are people trying to make a living in an industry full of ignorance without costing them their reputations or sanity. Truth is, no one can train a horse for a person who refuses to learn to ride.

The Empath

The empath is the healer of the rider. Taking lessons from the empath is an exercise in confidence building and feeling good about the ride. They focus on keeping things low-pressure and keeping horse and rider calm. They are very popular with children, those with disabilities, and those who have had a scary experience on a horse. They are often the first riding instructor the student has ever had so everything they learn seems amazingly insightful. For the student of the empath, just feeling safe on horseback is the most important factor, followed by maintaining a good self-image; believing they are becoming better riders is what counts.

The drawback is that often the empath spares the rider’s feelings so much that they are hesitant to push them or make the demands on them that are required to really improve as a rider. They focus on what the student does right and give short shrift to the skills needing improvement. A rider can take lessons every week for a year and show very little actual improvement.

This sort of instructor is often supporting a small facility of their own or is the ‘in-house’ trainer at a larger facility. They often have a string of very calm lesson horses to feed along with their own families. Their continued livelihood relies on keeping students happy and in turn, getting new students through positive word of mouth. They cannot afford to take on only ‘serious’ students, nor can they afford to scare away anyone. They take the safer road to maintain a steady income through calm and happy, if unchallenged, students. Working with any instructor it is incumbent on the student himself to ask to be pushed; to insist that they be told what they are doing wrong and how to improve if they want to advance. The empath very often wears a different hat when working with students who have proven they are serious about riding.

The Druid

The druid, who usually has little to no formal education in equine health, says the problem with your horse is an imbalance in vitamins or selenium or this or that, needs this thing to treat ulcers this other to treat equine herpes. They might tell you you need to remove the horse’s shoes and go barefoot or take the bit out of its mouth or saddle off its back, etc. All you need to do is find ‘nature’s way’, use this supplement, trim the feet like this, or try this bitless bridle or that bareback pad and your entire problem will go away.

Now it may be true that your horse could use supplements or a different saddle or a better farrier, but unless ALL your problems come from a single cause of discomfort, infirmity, or illness, there is no one solution for everything. While behavior issues can be caused by some of these sorts of things, usually it is deeper than that. It can take a long time to find out how efficacious one or another of these remedies is; in the end, you can find yourself out of pocket for a lot of money, with a horse is no better because there was actually nothing physically wrong with him in the first place.

I think most druids are well-meaning and believe what they are saying and trying to emulate the horse’s natural state, to one degree or another, is part of good training. Keeping the horse healthy, physically, and emotionally is absolutely essential. That being said, we must remember that the horse did not evolve to carry riders. We need to protect their feet when necessary, help them to balance and become flexible to felicitate carrying our weight, and protect them from harm through the proper use of the aids.   My advice would be to get yourself a good Farrier, Large Animal Veterinarian, and Equine Chiropractor, and consult them regularly. Buy a saddle that fits the horse and rider. Learn to use the proper bit for the current riding need. Be wary of any ‘cure’ someone offers you that promises miracles.

The Wizard

The wizard will stand before a class of students with his magic wand in hand. He will demonstrate to each one how to hold and wave the wand and repeat the incantation needed to improve this situation or that and ‘abracadabra’… the magic happens. “What, you say you say you saw the magic happened when I did it with my horse, but you did not get the same result when you did it with yours?” the wizard asks. “Well, it is just because you haven’t got the swish and flick just right. Keep at it and you will get it. Here, just buy this wand I am selling at my booth over here and while you are at it, get my videos so you can watch me at home, repeatedly, until you get it.” The problem of course is the wizard is using his experience and air of quiet mystery to make seem like magic what is simply applied experience, gained in years of working with horses. It is not the wand that magically changes the horse; it is the person holding it that is influencing the outcome. The horse would respond to the wizard no matter what he had in his hand.

Students buy a wand and the videos and while they are at it, the pointy hat and long robes, figuring what the hell, it can’t hurt. They take them home and work with them for a while; sometime later, they are whipping their wands out for all their friends because they are convinced that what they see in their horse is a new glow that can only be magic. That or, a pointy hat, robes and DVD set appear on Craig’s List at a reduced price. The wand they keep because it is nice and who doesn’t want a wand?

I feel most of these people are well-meaning horse lovers, tired of seeing horses abused and harmed by clumsy upright monkeys with no clue what they are doing. Over time, they develop a method of instruction aimed less at the horse and more at the horse owner, which attempts to condition them to a way of working with horses that is less harsh. These methods can work very well for some and be a godsend to those who are truly clueless and have no one to turn to for help. They can also be dangerous in cases where someone attempts to apply them to the wrong horse or in the wrong situation.

The Battle Mage

The battle mage is a hardened warrior of one discipline, at which the excel. They have sweated and bled in the arena and have the scars, belt buckles, ribbons, and bank accounts to prove it. The followers of the battle mage point to his many victories and booty as proof of his skill and knowledge, proclaiming proudly they wish to be just like him. These followers might never have met their idol, nor taken any instruction from him, but by golly, they can watch him in action and absorb his magic. They emulate their idol in every way they can, down to his brand of jeans or pricey dressage saddle. They will defend his honor with violence if his methods are questioned, or worse, if he is accused of putting winning before the welfare of the horse. “How dare you say that? Of course he loves his horses, look at the money they make him. Would he risk the welfare of the animal?” or “Certainly his methods are sound, look at the all money he has won?”

The problem with this type of person is that winning is equated with good horsemanship and the two are not necessarily connected. The search for ‘perfection’ is all too often replaced with the search for the perfect score. Then there is the small problem that dressing like someone or using the same tack they do, does not make you ride like them. Actual instruction is usually required.

It is not completely the mage’s fault if his methods are harsh by the standards of some others. The demands of competition and great, as are the rewards of winning. If the judges and audiences were to hold them to a higher standard and reward more thoughtful and gentler training methods with first-place finishes and adoration, then more thoughtful and gentler methods would become all the rage. Unfortunately, these activities are money-making events. Drawing in big crowds these days requires that a large number of people be entertained and they are often uninformed as to what good horsemanship is. A rider rides, the crowds cheers and the judge marks down a 10.

The Bard

The bard wearing her microphone headset, sits astride a horse she ‘has only worked with a short time’, sometimes in the middle of 25 clients who have all paid $250 for a chance to ride with her; sometimes she is playing to an audience of 300 fans, all waiting to be amazed and entertained; sometimes it is both at the same time.  She then proceeds to ride around as she speaks authoritatively about this facet of riding or that, tossing out pearls of wisdom that magically appear out of thin air, which in fact she may just have heard someone else say once and thought it sounded good.

“We always blah, blah, blah.” She says while the audience goes “Oooh” and “Aaah” nodding in agreement, except for a couple of people who say, “Wait, don’t you know that doesn’t mean anything?”.

“And we never blah, blah, blah” she continues, as she pauses to single out someone riding with her, to draw attention to the mistake they are making with a good-natured ribbing to embarrass them for the entertainment of the audience.

The problem is, as correct and amusing as everything she says sounds, what she is saying often bears little resemblance to what she is doing on the horse. The words are right but her riding is sometimes the exact opposite. Even if what she does on the horse is right, it is almost never as simple as she makes it sound and there is in fact way more going on than can be explained with folksy anecdotes. This is all okay because the audience is entertained. Whether the folks riding with her get something out of it or not, they have already paid; so as long as enough come away believing they have some story of their own to tell or are at least having some fun, they will still recommend everyone they know jump at the next show in their area.

These clinicians have spent many years of their lives studying and practicing to become as good as they can be at what they do. Some of them are truly gifted riders and teachers. For years they recorded grainy videos of their techniques and carried copies around in their glove compartments as they drove down dusty roads to reach little facilities that hosted clinics for a handful of riders, barely making enough money to keep their horses in feed. As time went on, they developed a core following of fans. Perhaps a news crew catches them on a good day working with the right horse and their “when I was young, ‘so-and-so’ taught me something that changed my life” story makes it on the air. They go from barely being able to get 6 riders to attend a two-day clinic, to having a hundred or more, all waving fists full of cash and begging to be allowed into a two-hour session; the stands are filled with people laughing at their jokes and adoring them. Can we really blame them when they allow too many into a clinic to allow any real time to be spent with any of them? Can we fault them for wanting to cash in, just a little, on the years of hard work and sacrifice they have lived with? There is no telling how long their fame will last, so they rush to make the most of it. Their clinics become a show with clever sayings and wise insights, even if sometimes not their own; not as much useful information, but as long as the people are amused. Maybe, just maybe, some of them will take something home with them that actually helps with their horse. Personally, I would much rather have worked with them before they were famous; back when the clinic was just 6 riders.

The Arcane Master

The arcane master surrounds himself with old books and diagrams of the anatomy of the horse. He takes on a few apprentices at a time, dazzling them with his miraculous feats of horsemanship, and promises they too can become a master someday. All the apprentices have to do is put in the years to read, study, reason, experiment, observe, and practice; in short, dedicate their lives to the art. The students usually hear the part about becoming a master themselves and sort of tune out the rest. After a few months of work, they discover, “Hey, this is hard. All I wanted to do was learn a little magic.” They read some and listen a lot and try to make sense of old tomes of ancient knowledge with varying degrees of success. Sometimes they end up having to hack the manure fork to bits with an axe when they try to animate it to clean the stall for them. Sweeping the broken shards of their studies under the trailer then slipping quietly away. “Oh look the bard I like so much is in town next weekend.”

Here’s the catch… How do you tell the arcane master from just some grumpy old guy who thinks he knows it all? Studying something for a long time does not mean you have mastered it.  Being able to quote the ‘old masters’ does not mean you understand them. Sometimes a formidable countenance and absolute certainty of one’s own knowledge is completely undeserved. Having your own facility and an international following does not automatically make you a good teacher; it makes you a good self-promoter.

Good or bad these people have little patience for those lacking the dedication they themselves have put into their given study. They tend to have only admires or enemies as they leave little room for any to find a place in between. They are convinced their way is the right way and pity those who cannot see that; sometimes loudly.  If you can find a good one and have the drive and dedication to take on the goal of mastery, they are the only ones who can really help you along that path, but it is a long hard road.

The Sage

The sage knows that every rider’s talent is a unique combination of knowledge and experience that is constantly evolving, and cannot be duplicated exactly by any means whatsoever. The riders themselves must quest after the ability they seek, and what they choose to emulate, even in their ignorance, will determine much of what they accomplish. The sage seeks, and often shares the enlightenment discovered by others, but knows that everyone’s path must be their own. Therefore, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. (a warning against letting seeking the ‘Master’ distract you from actually seeking the enlightenment you think the Master can give you.)

The sage casts about, looking at several ‘arts’ and attempts to gather from the wisdom of each something he can distill down and try to make sense of it. Sort of the a la carte method of learning.  The problem with this method is it is constantly evolving and that makes it hard to teach to someone else sometimes. In other words, the sage is ever a student and will never call himself anything else, no matter what he achieves. He will teach something with absolute certainty, then a month later say, “So I was reading this old book by Brigadier Louis Deadguy from 200 years ago and I have completely rethought this part.” If you like the challenge of adapting to this ever-evolving training method, this is the teacher for you.

You can recognize the sage as they are the person who is a near-endless source of wise quotes, most of which come from people who have been dead for several centuries.

This person has likely tried all the other forms of magic at one time or another and decided none is the correct answer. They have favorite methods of working with horses but likely said methods are a mixture of a lot of different arts. Dedicated to seeking ‘enlightenment’ and ‘perfection’ they are never satisfied.

The Student

The study of the art of horsemanship is a long and difficult one. It takes years of dedication if you ever want to be able to say you have ‘mastered’ it. Not all riders will bother. Most will learn only as much as they need to, to be able to take part in whatever activity they enjoy. It is human nature to seek easy solutions for the problems we experience and it is no different with horses. We are drawn to anyone who appears to know the answer, but getting that knowledge from them is not always as easy as asking.

While all these trainers have something to offer, there is no magic healing nor good feeling nor potion nor wand nor battle tactic nor epic tale nor words of wisdom that will magically turn you into an accomplished rider. There is only theory, application, observation, and practice.

Who should you go to for help? Look for insight and wisdom everywhere, from everyone. Trust your instinct and analyze everything you see, read, or hear with a critical mind. Try many paths and then hold to the one that leads you where you wish to go.