Harsh Truths for the Aspiring Trainer

I see them everywhere: in tack shops, showing up wide-eyed at lessons, determinedly kicking their greenies around at shows, and in amazing numbers, all over any Q&A board or group on the Internet. And most of all, in myself and everything I was – and mostly still am. Sometimes even scraping together titbits of knowledge and scraps of grazing and starting a stableyard (no judging here – what have I just done?).

People who think they want to be horse trainers.

You have such tremendous dreams, fuelled by horse novels and the romance of Hollywood and that thing you felt happen in you the first time you smelt the indescribable homecoming that is horse smell. You just want to be with them. You want to make them your life.

Of course, as a Christian, I have rather unique views on how one should choose one’s career (One shouldn’t. You let Jesus do the choosing) but let’s assume, for the moment, that you haven’t been called yet and you have to do something in the meantime to stay fed and busy while you wait on God. Let’s say you picked horse trainer.

Here are some ugly truths you don’t want to hear, but that I wish someone had told me when I was thirteen or fourteen or fifteen years old.

You are going to have to deal with being hurt. Often and rather painfully. This is just the simple reality of horses and if you’ve been riding for a while, you know this. The difference is that if you’re a trainer, you’re likely to have to suck it up and carry on.

In an ideal world you’d rest every injury until it gets better, but this is not an ideal world. If you have four horses to ride or handle in a big show on the weekend, and you come off and sprain something on Thursday, your business and your clients probably can’t afford for you to put yourself in bed with an ice pack. You will become well versed in gritting your teeth (and pain medication).

You will face the reality every day of being seriously hurt. The good thing about breaking something is that nobody is going to expect you to work with your arm in a sling (except possibly yourself). The bad thing about breaking something is that it’s part of the job for most trainers.

You will be broke. For a long time. This is possibly the second most misunderstood fact about becoming a trainer: do not expect to make money until you do something worth being paid for, consistently and reliably.

People look at me funny when I say this because I was a paid trainer when I was sixteen or seventeen. The reality is that I’d been riding multiple horses every day for about six years by that point, taking weekly lessons for seven, and shadowing my trainer – unpaid – for five. I’d been riding for twelve or thirteen years.

The other reality is that I was just good enough at it by then. Clients do not care what you want to do in the future or how much potential you have or what sob story you give them. They care about your skill: that you can consistently and noticeably improve a horse with every ride, giving substantial progress over a period of a few months. If you can’t do that yet, you shouldn’t be getting paid yet. That simple.

If serving is beneath you, leadership is beyond you. Especially if you don’t have a boatload of cash for endless lessons, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty earning lessons from your coach. Be a yard rat. Hold horses for the farrier. Fetch horses in from the field and tack them up… for someone else to ride. Feed hoeses in the rain. Do whatever you’re told and you might get the chance to fall off someone’s bush pony. Deal with it.

You want to train fancy warmbloods for dressage? Spend two or three years backing wild farm ponies and fixing remedial vices on random plot donkeys. No fancy warmblood owner in their right mind is going to give a newb trainer their horse to ride. Besides, those wild veld horses teach you more than the warmbloods ever will.
You do not have a magic touch with horses. Even if you do, nobody really cares. While it’s true that some people and some horses just click and get along regardless of the inexperience of the person and the craziness of the horse, your clients don’t care that you once rode a wild stallion on Uncle Joe’s farm that none of the totally clueless other people could handle. Horse training is about making progress and bonding with horses you don’t click with.

To compete client horses, you first have to compete your horses. Your first competition horse is going to be a mess and you’ll embarrass yourself repeatedly on it. Don’t even try use a client horse. You’ll embarrass your client, and they hate being embarrassed.

You have to deal with people. All the time. So many young people want to be horse trainers because they’re “not a people person”. News flash: horses have owners. Horse owners can be difficult. They can have opinions about how their horse should be trained that conflict with yours. They can be late, or unable to handle their horse even after you trained it, or in a bad mood or bad payers. You have to be able to deal with all this compassionately because they’re just people, just like you. You’re not above them: you serve them.

GET. LESSONS. FIRST. This is the one fact that is most misunderstood by young horsepeople. You have to ghet lessons. Lots of lessons. For many years. And you get lessons first and then you go train horses. There is no avoiding or sidestepping this: there has to be a long learning period BEFORE you can start professionally training.

There are no shortcuts in horses. “But I love them so much!” Good. Channel that love into patience and hard work. If you really love them, humble yourself, rein in your ego, practice patience, and work your back end off until you reach excellence.

Nothing can stop you. Why wouldn’t you want to hear this? Well, because it nullifies all excuses.

You, my friend, are a passionate, dedicated human being with a dream. The world may tell you otherwise, but there isn’t anything stopping you from achieving it except yourself. Throw yourself into learning and working and trying and failing. Be on fire. Grab that dream. Push aside all obstacles and go do it.

Fourways Graded Dressage 19 November

I was expecting a lot of dragoning at our first show back after Arwen’s usual six weeks off this time of year, especially considering that she had only been back in work for two weeks. So I was extremely thankful when she got off the box looking quiet and focused.

We were good and early into the warm-up; I anticipated having to ride her down from a dizzy height but she was excited, not hot. I had a nice, settled horse when dressage coach S. arrived and roundly kicked our behinds for half an hour. Arwen, apparently, is not the only unfit one (although mercifully I have not gotten utterly obese, unlike her). We were out of puff but focused, educated and ready when S. bounced off way too energetically to get on like her third horse of the day, leaving my fat beast and I to waddle panting up to the show ring.

Arwen was great. She concentrated, she put her head down, she didn’t blow through my aids and she was as usual exceedingly obedient. We did gallop around a few corners like a motorbike but hey, who says one can’t randomly do a spot of showjumping mid dressage test?

Fat neck looks fab anyway

We had 61.25% for Novice 3, where she pleasantly surprised me with some nice counter canter and I sort of forgot some of the test and added a trot-walk-trot transition. But it was a fabulous transition, so there’s that.

Novice 4 we had two very messy halts but the rest was quite solid for 62.25%. Considering my goal was to get over 60% and thus grading points in both tests, I could not have been happier. Plus dragon beast looked incredible.

I finally learned to plait!

Glory to the King.

Taking Up the Cross

​ Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. – Matthew 16:24

The past two months was really a journey in following this verse for me. Our minister preached about this concept somewhere in mid October, and I prayed with all my heart that Jesus would give me the strength to do exactly this. That I would do it, come Hell or high water… and that’s pretty much what happened.


So lots of bad stuff happened:

  • Olive came down with a neurological virus, possibly herpes. She was very very sick and had to be quarantined and intensively nursed.
  • Milady then got strangles, followed by Exavior, Titan, and Destiny.
  • Because we now had TWO outbreaks at the yard, we had to shut the whole thing down for two weeks. Yep, no lessons for two weeks. That was a financial kick in the guts.
  • A friend kind of turned on me. Personal stuff, but it always leaks into the yard when my emotional state isn’t perfect.
  • We had a massive hailstorm and the lightning damaged our gate, borehole pump, and power supply.
  • I lost the ride on my beautiful Nell.
  • Magic colicked. Again.

    Yes, again

    What’s God’s own stableyard to do faced with such catastrophes? Well, pray and trust Him. And well… Romans 8:28.

    • Olive recovered beautifully and not a single other horse contracted her thing. As a result, we’re tightening our vaccination program and have instituted a quarantine period for all new horses. Olive and my mom also developed an amazing bond, which is so great for the floof because she never really connected with me.
    • Not only did all the strangles horses recover without any abscesses bursting, Milady’s 5-day-old foal didn’t get it! Also I am probably going to pass the illnesses section in my exam, which I had been worried about…
    • My mom and dad told our yard mascot cookie lady prayer warrior awesomeness about the financial whack of losing two weeks’ lessons. She declared that we would get the money back and went straight to battle on her knees. Shortly thereafter, a client that had been owing us for months paid. Mom called to tell her that she’d overpaid a little – turned out she’d paid us by “accident”. I don’t believe in accidents.
    • The outbreak and all its drama drew me closer and closer to God; without the strength I gained from that, I doubt there’s any way I could have coped with the personal stuff.
    • The hailstorm brought with it the best rain we’ve had in three years. Now we’re up to our eyeballs in grass for the cows and horses.
    • I thought Nell’s new owner was some spoilt rich kid until I spoke to her mom. She’s a special needs teenager, someone who needs a beautiful, loving horse even more than I do. Nell is going to be an instrument of God’s power in her life – just as she was in mine. Nell’s price is also letting her retired owner replace his wrecked vehicle and is helping towards his medical bills.
    • Gutted about Nell, without a good dressage horse, my future career seemingly in tatters, I prayed: “Lord Jesus, if it’s not Your will for me to compete extensively myself, if I should conserve those resources for the kids, then please don’t let me ever have a good horse again. But if it’s Your will, please, send me one.” I prayed this ready to face the fact that I would never go up the levels: I just don’t have the money to build up the yard for everyone that needs it and own a good dressage horse, and I know which one I’m choosing. Hours later, Nell’s owner called: in return for schooling Nell, he wanted to pay me a commission. I couldn’t bear to accept money for the blessing Nell has been, so I refused it. “Okay,” he said. “Then you can come and pick out any young mare you like to train and show.” I hesitated; I didn’t know if I wanted to go through this heartache again so soon. “No, you don’t understand,” he said. “This one will be yours. In your name. You keep her.” Then I just cried, out of gratitude to him, out of awe of the dynamic and real power of God and His plan in our lives.
    • Magic’s colic was so bad we had to box him and take him to Witbos, the vets that fixed him last time. On the way there, I desperately called on everyone I know and a bunch of people on Facebook that I don’t to pray for him. We all prayed, and when we unloaded him, that horse was fine. The rather puzzled vets scanned his healthy guts, kept him under observation for two hours, and sent him home because there was nothing wrong with him.

    Nothing wrong with this

    We will praise God no matter what the storm. Because our God is faithful, our God is powerful, and our God is in charge.

    The condition for a miracle is difficulty. The condition for a great miracle is impossibility. And that’s exactly what we have seen.

    Glory to the King.

    I think this is their way of praising Him