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A Trainer’s Perspective: Pet or Performance

Reader beware, this will be one of those “soapbox” type articles. Now for those younger readers who have no idea what soapbox is referring to, I’ll explain. In years gone by, when we didn’t have e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and instant access, if you wanted to make your opinion known to a street audience you would find an improvised platform, something like a box or crate used to deliver soap, and stand on it while you were giving your impassioned speech on the subject you felt needed to be brought forward. So, I am on my virtual soapbox and will be voicing my opinion in print over a common problem, a question that must be answered honestly, that an equine trainer may face from time to time, especially if they decide to work as a freelance, traveling to private and public facilities to teach and train. Is this horse your pet or your performance equine?

The life of a freelance may seem carefree to some, but over the years I have faced my share of frustration trying to educate the owners and train the equines I have traveled to work with. It truly is a lot easier to own your own facility and dictate who and what you will work with. As we all know buying a horse is far too easy. Educating the buyer about horsemanship is often a lot harder. I find it hard to believe, but I recently met a woman, still recovering from a riding accident, who bought not one, but two basically untrained horses from the Internet, sight unseen. Developing the talents, skills and knowledge, the foundations of horsemanship, necessary to care, train and maintain an equine, as it should be to be a safe, sound and sensible equine are not just a point or click away on some electronic device.

Recently on a trip to the state of Maine and in the presence of other instructors and trainers I was asked about why I now conduct evaluations prior to any commitment to taking on an equine client and their owner. My answer was simple. I am tired of being told that the owner wants a performance equine and is willing to work with me and carry out their homework on their own, but after several months or sometimes just several weeks of training sessions, I realize that the person doesn’t have the passion to learn how to produce the work themselves that needs to be done to develop such an equine. Unfortunately too often and honestly, they can’t afford to pay me or another trainer to do it for them either.

Too often the private owner is treating their backyard equine more like a pet than a performance horse. Consistent handling for behavioral maintenance and the fitness training necessary to produce or maintain the level of performance expectation has not been an ownership consideration prior to buying the equine. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I have been a freelance professional for 30 years and I have trained equines and taught riders in all sorts of backyard facilities with limited amenities. It never ceases to amaze me what can be produced with an equine if the owner puts the time and effort in. During an evaluation I’m looking for the obvious signs of that passion, that drive, the willingness to put the time consuming and sometimes physically demanding effort that it takes to produce a performance equine. Lazy people do not produce well-behaved performance equines and I don’t want to work with people who don’t want to learn and can’t seem to put the effort in on a consistent basis. What trainer does? If they want to pay me or another trainer to put the time in, then that is fine.I maintain several horses at the present for owners who simply can’t put the time in needed to do so.

For those readers who may be thinking it, yes, you can buy a well-behaved performance equine. However, as I have seen too often in my experience, if the owner doesn’t put the time and effort in, or pay someone else to do so, the performance will dwindle as the level of fitness declines and unfortunately behavior issues may arise and even injury may occur. As I wrote not too long ago, I presently have in my training again an equine that I finished for another client about seven years ago. The well behaved, sound and fit equine was sold. After nearly three years of being a pampered pet and not being kept at the level of behavior and performance fitness that should have been maintained, a problem developed and I was called. What I found was an overweight and misbehaving equine diva. The new owner, who readily admitted that they are not very motivated, has been on a learning curve with me for the past two years. Thankfully I had the full support of the veterinarian to back me up. If they don’t personally work with the equine they are consistent in keeping me working with the equine.

If you sit on your office chair all week and do absolutely nothing to promote muscle tone, joint range of motion and stamina (aerobic endurance) and then on the weekend become one of those weekend warriors who hit the tennis court, mountain bike trail or some other physically demanding sport, you are going to eventually hurt yourself. My orthopedic surgeon is swamped with business due to overexertion injuries that occur when someone thinks they can perform some form of exercise but they don’t have the education about warm-up and the overall tone and aerobic capability to do so. Unfortunately fitness is not something we can think ourselves into. A horse meandering around a small turn out paddock or even a larger field is not any different than you in your office chair. That is my opinion as a trainer. That equine needs to be doing something to produce the muscle fitness,range of motion, and aerobic endurance for you to have the level of performance you want. Once you start to produce that fitness you have to maintain it with a consistent program carried out continuously. So the question is a simple one. Do you own a performance equine or a pet? If you own a pet and want a performance equine you have two choices. You can have an evaluation with a freelance professional like me to help you develop your program to produce performance yourself at your own facility or you can ship your equine off to someone else to do it for you. If you decide to do the latter, my only caution is that you go and participate with your horse as much as possible and develop the talents and skills it will take to keep your horse at that performance level.

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