By Ruthie Stewart
There’s something refreshing about people who aren’t afraid to speak their mind. It takes confidence to state your point of view in horses. It’s an industry full of big personalities and intelligent, powerful individuals.
We all know people who are a huge success in a one industry that enter our realm thinking they can easily master the world of show horses. They are quickly reduced to looking ignorant and foolish because the same rules they use in their business don’t necessarily apply to the show horse industry. It takes years of experience to know enough about horses to be able to say much with any kind of certainty and a lifetime of experience to say, “I don’t know it all, but I’ve been involved with horses long enough to know I never will.” Along the way, everyone has stories that have both humbled and strengthened them, and the people who have made horse training their life are often wonderful individuals, but they are rarely pushovers. They take their careers and the direction of their industry seriously and they are looking for ways to improve and contribute to the future of the sport.
Terry Thompson is one of those people. He has been one of the top trainers in Reiners, Quarter Horses, and Appaloosas. I’ve known him for close to twenty years. I met my husband while he was riding with Terry. I’ve stayed in his home and been fortunate to get to know his amazing wife, Bonnie, his daughters and grandchildren. He has coached me, my daughter, and my husband, Paul, to so many wins we lost count years ago.
When I first saw Terry he was winning the ApHC World Championship in 2 Year-Old Western Pleasure aboard the Miracle Chip. Year after year I watched him win many different classes and events, but like my husband his main focus was reining. We’d meet him at all the major Appaloosa events and reining futurities including the Congress, NRHA Derby, and the NRHA Futurity. Along the way, we made many wonderful memories. Terry is that rare trainer who can both show and teach. He can take a horse that other people can’t ride and show it to the best of its ability and, very often, pull out a win when no one else can. He has the eye and feel it takes to find great horses and help them reach their peak. He has a knack for pairing horses and riders of all ages and disciplines – from young children to the “golden girls” that have been his loyal clients for years.
Terry has been a name in the industry since he started out as a young trainer over forty years ago. He is a lifetime member of the NRHA, AQHA, and ApRHA. He has accumulated over 250 National & World titles and in 2005 he was named the ApHC Trainer of the Year.
If I had to describe Terry, I’d say he’s a family man with many close enduring friendships. He is no-nonsense when it comes to horses, and riding with him was exhausting for me – even at 26 years-old! He’d run for miles every morning then ride all day long. His energy was hard to match then and now. Terry is hospitable, charming, funny, and he’s endured in a field where many fail because he is wise about people and horses. He loves the horse industry and by marrying his passion with his natural skills and hard work, he has lived an exciting life in a very challenging field. I admire Terry because of all he has accomplished and because he isn’t shy about telling anyone who he is or what he thinks. You may not always agree with his point of view, but he usually knows what he’s talking about; but he’s not afraid to admit when he’s wrong either.
Terry’s experience has given him a deep and insightful perspective into the customer/trainer relationship. He is bold, but he is respectful to everyone and helpful to anyone who needs him. He’s also pretty darn funny and it’s a pleasure to spend days or just a few minutes in his company. It’s always a treat to interview him and see what he’s been up to lately and talk about his views on judging.
Terry chose to become a judge to further his equine education regarding showing and staying within the rules. As he got older, judging became a way to stay connected to the horse industry and “not walk away and give up,” he says. He wanted to get as many judges cards as he could and felt that judging was the natural progression to stay active in his chosen profession. For the people who don’t agree with that he says, “Well, here’s a news flash for you. I think I’ve earned it! I’ve shown, ridden and judged enough good ones, bad ones, and handled enough horse situations to distinguish between what’s good or bad. I thought if I studied the rules, I’d become a good enough judge and a good enough horse trainer in my early career.” Now at this stage in his life, in order to stay active in the horse industry, judging is where he feels comfortable.
In his early years as a judge, Terry had his ApHC and NRHA cards. Next came his FEI card. He feels that, “As you get older, your body gives out, you’re not as agile, and your timing is off. You’re not the efficient trainer that you used to be.” Terry wanted to become a good coach. Evolving from horse trainer to judge gave him an additional tool he could use in his business to help coach his clients. His main goal is for his students to look like they know what they are doing all the time. It helps him as their coach to know what the rules are and what the judges are looking for in the pen.
Training horses is hard. Showing horses is a recreational pursuit and there are only so many recreation dollars to go around. So, everyone tries to make it a business, but the reality is there is not a whole lot of profit in the horse industry, or horse training, he says. It’s also a very complicated job and requires unique people skills. “There is never enough money to go around by the time you own a farm. As a trainer, you experience every emotion of your clients. Whether it’s divorce, a crash in the stock market, or something else, eventually, people get tired of throwing money into a hobby. It seems there is never enough money to go around when you are a trainer and own a farm and land.”
He says horse training is more profitable when the trainer generates sales and, consequently, commissions. He says clients view horses like golf or boating. Terry is quick to tell his clients they won’t make any money in horses, just like they wouldn’t make any money golfing or boating. The enjoyment from horses must come from learning something with a goal to show and do well. He believes that a trainer really needs to be a part-time psychologist. They must understand that with people come all their problems. You have to take all their good and bad and fit it into a horse that meets their standards, and you’re not always right. You have to trade them in or out, and everyone who gets into the horse business goes through a horse trader or two. Every trainer encounters the “green horse and green rider” dilemma. “I’ll never understand why anyone wants to break a horse. That’s a sure way of getting hurt and getting out of the horse business. I don’t believe that young children should be doing that. We all have to learn where we fit and there is a place for everyone in the horse business. We all can’t be at the top. You have to find where you can make a living – coaching, training, judging, or something else. You have to be smart enough to know where you fit.”
Thompson says the horse industry needs to improve the way it markets itself as well as directing trainers and clients on where to go to meet their needs. Many non-pros don’t check out their trainers sufficiently before they hire them. There are a lot of young horse trainers Terry feels could be good if they went out and bought five or six lesson horses and gave lessons. This would allow them to learn how to work with clients and horses. Giving lessons and going through the basics helps young trainers figure out how both horses and people can reach their potential, or understand why they might not reach their potential. There are people that say, “Come hell or high water, this horse will work. I can tell you from experience, a horse can be trained to go in the pen and perform for four minutes; however, any problem it has, it will still have.” Once it’s established a horse doesn’t have the ability, that fact has to be accepted. Natural talent cannot be trained. Thompson surmises that’s where all the early problems with abusive training methods began. “Just like me; I couldn’t hit a fastball. I could catch a fastball, but I couldn’t hit it. I had parts missing. Often in the horse industry people think horses are like cars and you can turn a key and go, but that’s not possible. Horses are complicated and wonderful animals but some can only do so much. That’s what we need to be conveying to the public. We need to put new people with trainers who can help them. Some new people who go to a person at the top of the industry end up getting the 12 year-old apprentice who doesn’t know much more than the client. I understand the apprentice needs to learn something, but that’s discouraging to people and they often feel like they aren’t getting enough attention so they get out of the horse business. It’s the same with horse traders discouraging participants. They are quick to take the check but are they willing to take the horse back (if there is something wrong)?”
Thompson says there are many things people should check out carefully when choosing to show horses. Word of mouth and getting input from other people is a good idea. This is especially true when finding a horse for a child if mom and dad are very busy. He adds that horses can be very dangerous, but they can also be very kind. He says, “Let me tell you horse trainers; we only get the newcomer three to five years. If their experience isn’t good, they don’t want to stay in the business. That’s why newcomers should check out trainers more thoroughly.”
Another subject Thompson is passionate about is the judges’ monitoring system. He says every other organization that has rules has monitors as well. He points to other organizations such as golf and auto racing as examples. “I don’t think lining up in front of judges gives them integrity. Education and being accountable to the public is a better way to establish integrity amongst judges. A monitor just makes a judge aware of the rules. If a judge shows up at a big show and doesn’t know the rules, the monitor knows.” Terry acknowledges that some judges don’t like this system. They say, “‘They are trying to tell me how to judge.’ They are not. They are disappointed that you don’t know the rules or how to judge. Sometimes there are discrepancies in a scored class such as western riding or reining. The judges get a chance to review the ride to get it right. Exhibitors seem to be insulted by this method; some want to be judge by politics.
“That‘s why I love it when there is a monitor where I judge. I think it’s great because first, they can clear up all problems and second, I am accountable.” He thinks it’s the best system he’s seen. He doesn’t want to be the only judge not prepared. He knows he will meet the monitor, go over the events and he will be prepared. Many times he has reviewed the rules and other judges will see him doing that and say, “When did that change?” If the public wants judges to be prepared and professional, the public should demand a good monitor and be more aware of what a monitor does, he says. “Showing shouldn’t be judged out there in the dark by some Joe Blow who doesn’t like to be monitored or those who prefer politics in their judging. If the monitor is no good, get another, better monitor. I’m passionate about this!”
My husband Paul has just returned home from the ApHC National show in Fort Worth where he won the non-pro reining. I asked him what made him choose Terry as a trainer so long ago. “His talent brought me to him and his personality kept me with him. I loved the company that he kept and his great service. Also, the people in his barn were always nice. As a coach, he explained things well and his horses were easy to ride. He is unique, too, because he doesn’t blame the non-pro when things go wrong. As a person, Terry is opinionated to some, but I tried to learn from what he’d say and he’s rarely wrong. He made horses fun and easy.”