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Working Together is the Answer When it Comes to Our Horses
By Delores Kuhlwein
Everyone is familiar with the motto, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” Even athletes like superstar extraordinaire Michael Jordan knew he was a better player when he worked together with his team.
Why should this be any different when it comes to training our horses? The landscape is changing, and the practice of trainers working together is right on the heels of a more collaborative time in our world in general. Trainers like Troy Lehn of Phoenix, Arizona, Heather Pelon of Cohoctah, Michigan, and Tina Langness of New Richmond, Wisconsin, all have gotten into the groove, too, but they have some sage words of advice about the practice.
It’s no secret the horses we show are becoming very specialized, and ushering in that era brings certain challenges.
The solution to this shift is logical, explains Troy Lehn. “Now that horses are becoming so specialized, you see outsourcing for help more often. Even though I do all-around events, there’s still events I don’t claim to know everything about, such as Over Fence classes or Pleasure Driving. If I have a horse with potential in those classes, I definitely would look to a trainer who focused on those events, so the horse and client will be given the best chance to succeed,” he says.
Heather Pelon agrees and predicts this tendency will continue to increase. “Knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a trainer can only help to improve your program. We all strive to be the best we can be in multiple events, but it’s just not possible to be the top trainer in all the different disciplines. A horse and rider are going to have quicker and better results from someone that specializes in an event,” she says.
There are other considerations too, adds Tina Langness. “A good assumption is that our horses have to be beyond exceptional in the singular events these days, so trainers are spending more time on one event or just a few. It wasn’t too long ago that I was training for 10-12 events, and now I’ve narrowed it down to 6-7. At times, that’s still too many. We need specialty trainers, just like we need specialty judges – we can’t be experts in everything. Owners also need to keep this in mind, as it takes a very special horse to be successful in multiple events. The level and degree of difficulty is much higher these days and, personally, I think we ask too much of our horses sometimes,” she explains.
The Best Way to Handle Collaboration
When a trainer and client need to reach out to develop a horse’s skills in a new area, or perhaps put finishing touches on a horse in a certain event, there should be a well-thought-out plan ahead of time, the trainers say.
Langness explains, “Some trainers may not have a strong relationship with a client, and this may be a threat to his or her bottom line. Or they simply may not have the desire to learn other events. If this is the case, a discussion needs to take place between the trainer and client to determine what’s best for the horse and the comfort level of doing so. Some trainers are not apprehensive about this practice, but it can be very intimidating to know a horse may be leaving the barn to learn a new event. This is a good topic of discussion early on, if the plan is for the horse to do all-around events or more specialty events at some point in their show career.”
Looking for someone with a similar style of training is another suggestion if you decide to do some serious sharing. “You have to look at both sides for the horse’s success and review the other trainer’s program to see if it’s going to mesh well. Ask yourself if the trainer’s going to come in and work with what we have already established,” Lehn adds.
On the other hand, if a client and trainer are not fans of sending a horse out, Lehn suggests other strategies. “A lot of times, if you have the basics already down, any kind of advice you can get from a specialty trainer on certain maneuvers is what you need. I often listen to other trainers to see how they describe things. You can take pieces someone says and add it to your own program,” he says.
Maintaining the Relationship
In addition to handling outsourcing the right way, the relationship between client and trainer is of utmost importance.
“The most important thing in a client/trainer relationship is an open line of communication and understanding,” Pelon says. “If you have a relationship with your client that’s open and honest, I don’t feel this practice should create any fear for a trainer.”
Lehn concurs that communication is a constant when it comes to taking this step. “Everyone has to come to an understanding of the goals for the horse and the client, and discussing your goals is part of that communication. It’s important when you’re sending a horse into another program to be on the same page,” he says.
Treading carefully and really thinking ahead is also recommended by Langness, who says the situation can go either way if not handled carefully. She says, “I think, for some, it can enhance the relationship because it displays confidence on the trainer’s part as well as admitting we don’t know how to do everything. However, when a horse begins to get passed from one trainer to the next, it can open up unforeseen issues such as who the horse will travel with, show with, etc.
“Training is such a volatile industry and follows trends and financial highs and lows. It’s important not to get caught up in these trends and do what’s best for the horse,” Langness continues. “Fostering an open relationship and encouraging positive communication is vital between any trainer and client. The type of training and events the horse is best suited for needs to be discussed and then goals and timelines set. These topics should be revisited often, and if changes need to happen, do so accordingly. If a horse has to go outside your barn to learn another event, have a network of people you can trust that will take good care of the client and horse while they’re away. Work together as a team and stay involved with the process,” she says.
Going One Step Further
Sometimes another alternative or step in the process might be right in front of our noses, so to speak. At any given horse show, it’s highly likely you will see a renowned trainer coaching another trainer with multiple championships under his or her belt. This often-utilized method of networking and taking lessons with each other brings unending praise in the industry.
“We are constantly learning from each other whether it’s from simple observation, discussion, making time to ride with one another, taking lessons, etc.,” Langness explains. “Nobody can claim they are where they are today by getting there by themselves. If they do, they’re not being honest. Networking with other trainers is available if you don’t burden yourself with being afraid to ask or worrying about what others think. I don’t know a single trainer who is not flattered by a fellow professional asking for advice or wanting another opinion. We all have mentors, people we look up to and admire and aspire to be like,” she says.
Pelon agrees wholeheartedly. She says, “The moment we stop learning is the moment we stop progressing as trainers. We’re always reading articles, watching training TV programs, and talking to our peers to further our education. Everyone has a certain style to his or her training program. I always say if you can read one article, watch one clinician, or take one thing out of a conversation that helps you with your program, that’s a success. Ten people can tell you how to do the same thing with a horse and you will hear ten different explanations. The only thing that matters is that one explanation that makes sense and works for you. Riding with other trainers or speaking with them can only improve your tool box as a trainer,” she says.
Remembering his dad’s words, Lehn has this to say, “I agree with the practice of working and riding together 100 percent because my dad always said, ‘you never stop learning’. I ride at home alone, and it’s hard for me not to have eyes on the ground telling me what it looks like. I improve by riding at Highpoint with Jason and Charlie and working with Rusty and Katie Green for Western Pleasure. Other young professionals and I regularly bounce ideas off each other, so I know my dad’s words are right. You never should stop learning, because it’s how you’re going to get better.”
The stars of the arena today know what the stars of the basketball court like Michael Jordan learned quickly; working together as a team accomplishes much more. The key is implementing the cooperation in a way that makes sense to everyone, including the horse, and it seems to be a practice that’s certainly on the rise.
Don’t be surprised if you see more and more of the industry’s best living by a motto like this one, penned by humanitarian Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”