Toxic Trainers

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CASE 1: Every time Suzanne Langan rode her horse, her trainer told her she had bad hands. Though she respected his input, she wasn’t exactly sure what she was doing wrong. After two years of his non-specific nitpicking, her confidence was taking a beating. Should she leave his barn and find someone else, or was he right about her riding?

CASE 2: After jumping from trainer to trainer, Nina Schenk became fed up with all her “blind dates.” At the beginning, each had seemed like the perfect match. But eventually, she felt she and her trainers were never on the same page. Perhaps it was her age and inexperience that prevented her from having a clear goal in mind when she started riding, but she knew what training styles she didn’t respond to. It was a matter of figuring out which style worked best for her. Could she find a trainer with a method she trusted? Could she afford to haul farther away from home to work with someone else?

CASE 3: When Vickie Wheeler was told her 3-year-old buckskin mare had no potential to ever show at the American Buckskin Registry Association (ABRA) World Show, she was crushed. While she had always trusted her trainer—a friend of hers for the past 25 years—Wheeler truly believed her mare could do better. Did her trainer not know how to finish the horse? Could she leave a friend to find someone more qualified?

The wrong trainer can poison your passion for horses. Before you’re infected with self-doubt or worn down by a trainer’s negativity, you may need to make some tough decisions about what’s in your best interests. Before deciding whether to stay, go or give up, consider the following questions.

Lonely horse

1. What is your relationship with your trainer based on?

Respect is the foundation of a healthy relationship. Presumably you’ve chosen to ride with your trainer because you respect his or her knowledge and skill. But your trainer needs to respect you in return. You should be able to ask questions and have the freedom to make your own decisions. Try not to get too caught up in admiration for someone. If you don’t educate yourself about the discipline you practice or occasionally listen to other clinicians, you may develop tunnel vision and have a one-sided approach to training.

Are you afraid to make mistakes every time you ride in front of your trainer? Is your stomach in knots all the time, or do you feel like you’re not good enough? If you’re constantly worried about your trainer’s approval, you may be in an unhealthy relationship. Trainers that motivate through fear can cause their riders to be emotional wrecks, and nervous riders make nervous horses.

Alan Goldberg, Ed.D., an internationally recognized expert in the field of applied sports psychology, has 20 years of experience working with equestrians. One of his clients, a woman in her 60s, sustained multiple injuries and broken bones after falling from her horse. Upon recovery, she became a hesitant rider and her trainer lost patience with her.

“When this rider became afraid, her trainer got angry, as if fear is a foreign aspect of this sport,” says Goldberg. “To me, fear is an integral aspect of this sport. Trainers need to normalize it and not put riders down for feeling it.”

Being afraid to make a mistake instead of embracing it and learning from it may hinder your growth as a rider and cause you to lose confidence in yourself.

2. Demanding vs. Demeaning

Is your trainer just being straightforward, or downright discouraging?

“I don’t care if a trainer is hard or demanding on a rider,” says Goldberg. “I think it’s fine. A good teacher, a good coach, is demanding. But there’s a difference between demanding and demeaning.”

You are likely to find more demanding trainers in situations where the students intend to compete at a higher level. At any level though, ask yourself if your trainer is providing constructive criticism to help you succeed or if it’s just criticism. If you’re on the sensitive side and take constructive criticism too personally, talk to your trainer. Give her a chance to adjust to you.

Goldberg says good coaches and trainers will assume the role of a psychologist. They should be able to recognize that each rider is different and each horse and rider combination comes with its own strengths and challenges.

“If the trainer is part of the problem, they’re the first thing I’ll deal with,” says Goldberg. “What I hope is that the trainer is [teachable]. The mark of a good coach is they never stop learning and they’re always open to feedback.”

Demeaning trainers, on the other hand, will often be closed-minded and ascribe to the theory that communication is a one-way street. They do not consider their students’ feelings, or they just never think to ask.

In Langan’s case, where the trainer nagged her about her hands for two years, her confidence suffered. Though this man was not deliberately trying to be mean, his criticisms were not improving Langan’s riding.

“Jokingly, I always told everyone that would come [to my trainer], ‘it’s all the free advice you could handle,’” Langan says. “He just couldn’t help himself. He picked on everyone for something.”

She finally decided to seek an outsider’s perspective. Langan attended a clinic with a different trainer, where she was relieved to find out there was nothing wrong with her hands. While the clinician gave specific, constructive feedback to Langan, helping to correct some of her other riding habits, she assured Langan that her hands were fine.

“It really doesn’t matter how skilled or experienced the trainer is,” Goldberg explains. “If that trainer makes you feel bad about yourself or unsafe, they’re not a good coach for you. You’re paying too much [mentally] for their so-called expertise. My feeling is that the glue holding any kind of teaching together is the relationship you create with your student. You have to create a relationship where they feel safe, supported, and that you believe in them.”

3. It’s not you; it’s me.

Are you and your trainer really a good match? Did you do your homework to find a trainer that is right for you and your horse? It may be difficult to admit, but you may be responsible for not clicking with your instructor. When choosing a trainer, have an idea of the type of riding you are interested in doing. Audit clinics or attend local shows to see potential trainers in action. Ask riders you admire who they train with or who they recommend.

Try not to place all the blame on your trainer if things are not progressing the way you had hoped. Maybe your horse is not cut out for the events you want to participate in. You have to consider form and function when selecting a horse and sport. A short, stocky pony will not have the conformation to successfully compete against an athletic, long-legged Thoroughbreds and warmbloods in jumping classes. Give yourself, your horse and your trainer a fair chance by starting out in the right ballpark.

In some cases, you realize that you may never progress any further with a particular trainer. It’s OK to move on if you have exceeded the level of expertise of your trainer, based on realistic expectations or recommendations from other instructors.

Unfortunately, in Schenk’s case, she learned what type of trainer she needed through trial and error. At age 11, her first instructor had a more conservative natural horsemanship style of training. She refused to let Schenk show a 15-year-old Arabian in a curb bit because the trainer considered it a device used to bully a horse. Based on the horse’s age and level of experience, Schenk believed he should have had the training to work in a curb. Wanting to become more involved in showing, she tried another trainer that could get her into the show-ring. After riding with the second individual for some time, Schenk found this woman was completely opposite and more “old-school,” with a rough approach to training. Though her experiences helped her decide what she wanted to do, she had wasted years of training, confusing her horse and herself.

“I’ve learned to look for someone who is willing to help me reach my goals and will be patient with both me and my horse,” Schenk says.

4. Is your trainer in tune with you or just your horse?

You may know trainers that are great with horses and turn out some high-quality performers, but if they can’t explain their method to the rider, they are not good coaches. If you want to send your horse to someone for training, this might work well for you. If you want to be part of the process and ride with an instructor, you need to find someone who can give articulate directions.
5. Should you trust your trainer or trust your horse?

Look at the connection you have with your horse. Is your trainer encouraging that relationship?

“This is a very sophisticated doubles sport,” Goldberg explains. “Riding well involves maintaining this kinesthetic, emotional connection to your animal. You can’t ride well if you’re thinking [too much].”

Goldberg says toxic trainers can fill their riders’ heads with doubts, which becomes evident in and out of the show-ring. When riders and handlers are thinking or doubting, they are not connected to their horse and are likely to make mistakes.

Instead of receiving encouragement, Wheeler was told her mare had no potential to be a standout in high-level competition. The trainer could not get the horse to progress and called the mare a lost cause. It was hard for Wheeler to hear the horse she was so in love with would not get her where she wanted to go. Due to her lack of confidence, she avoided showing the mare as a 2- and 3-year-old.

However, Wheeler was just not convinced. Though she knew her friend would feel hurt and insulted if she left her training program, Wheeler took the risk. She started training with someone else and went on to claim several championships at the ABRA World Show and Buckskin Congress.

“I had something to prove when I left,” says Wheeler of her former trainer. “I had been friends with her for 25 years and she was someone I respected and thought highly of in the industry,” Wheeler says of her former trainer. “But I started doubting my abilities there. I decided to rely on my gut feeling. It was hard because it changed my friendship, but it worked out for me and my horse in the end.”

Decide whether your trainer is nourishing your relationship with your horse or contaminating your confidence. Diagnose the problem areas and determine the causes. If the relationship can’t be improved, your best solution might be to move on.

About the Expert


Alan Goldberg, Ed.D., is an internationally recognized expert in the field of applied sports psychology. He specializes in helping equestrians and other athletes at every level overcome fears and blocks, handle competitive pressure and perform to their potential. He is the author of numerous books, including Sports Slump Busting and his latest (with David Grand), This is Your Brain on Sports: Beating Blocks, Slumps and Performance Anxiety for Good!

A freelance writer from Woodstock, Ill., Lisa Kucharski enjoys recreational trail riding and competing in open pleasure shows.


This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

5 COMMENTS

  1. UGH!!! I am glad I do not have a trainer. Trouble the way “I” see it, is that people do not have their own place/barn/pasture, so they are not there with their own horse to really get to know their own horse. You have to learn to know how to do things, afterwards, let a experienced horse person give you tips or tell you what would better.

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