I once took a clinic with a Big Name Rider (BNR). I was riding my Trakehner gelding. The first thing she said to me after asking me his breed was, “Do you know what Trakhener means in English? Pig.” Right at that moment I realized that I’d probably thrown away $125 because this particular trainer didn’t like the breed.
In truth, I did learn two things from the experience: first, I resolved to never ride with a clinician unless I’d audited a session first and second, I got some good advice on bitting my horse.
When I told my trainer who I’d cliniced with, she’d snorted. “I could have told you that wouldn’t be a good match,” she’d said. Lesson #3: Always ask my trainer first.
I understand that temptation of riding with the trainers who come to barns nearby. I’m lucky enough to live in a part of the country where there frequently are rider/trainers with long pedigrees of success. Maybe some of it will rub off?
While I firmly believe that a fresh set of eyes and a new set of exercises is often very helpful, I’ve also experienced the flip side: different training techniques that leave both horse and rider confused and frustrated. That’s not to say that certain trainers aren’t talented . . . they may just not have a style of teaching that works with how you learn. Dressage trainer Catherine Haddad Staller rubbed a lot of people the wrong way in a recent blog post, “It’s time to train the trainers” where she spoke about her frustration at teaching clinics filled with lower level riders.
To show up for training with an accomplished rider before you are ready to benefit from his or her knowledge is bad form and disrespectful. I am often taken aback when clinic slots in the United States are filled with riders who can’t even put their horse on the bit.
To a certain extent she has a point — all levels of riders should be able to get decent instruction from their local trainers. But I’m sure that anyone who felt intimidated by riding with her will be scared away for good.
One of my trainers once told me about her experience with a BNR. “That man has made a profession out of yelling at middle-aged women,” she said. “And he only charged $250/day for the privilege.”
There certainly are trainers — Big Names and Little Names — who enjoy working with riders at all levels. Some of my most meaningful dressage lessons came at the beginning of my training of that discipline — Dr. Max Gahwyler came to give lessons at our barn to anyone who was interested. In an interview with the Chronicle of the Horse he said,
“It’s important to get the right start from the beginning,” explained Gahwyler, who was inducted in December. “I give clinics to beginner riders and Pony Clubbers. I don’t mind having kids and lousy horses. I had the same benefit when I was young.”
Certainly he had a knack for putting you at ease and creating an environment that was conducive to learning. He never made me feel small for riding my too-small grade horse; he made it possible to improve.
Auditing gives you the chance to watch, and often to learn quite a bit, while giving the trainer a test drive. Sometimes auditing is free; other times you need to pay a fee, but compared to the cost of attending many clinics is a real bargain . I audited a George Morris clinic when I was in my 20s. I learned a lot from the exercises and his instruction. I also learned that I probably wasn’t going to ride with him myself. My skin isn’t thick enough.
The most recent clinic I audited was with Mary Wanless. I had read her books and was tempted to ride but it was not in my budget. Watching for a day made a huge difference in my understanding of her teaching — and made her books more meaningful, too.
I know that in some parts of the country, when a trainer comes to town you want to take advantage of their knowledge. But if you have the chance to audit them first, you can ensure that it’s a person you can learn from.