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Who's really a good clinician?

From: Adriana

Dear Jessica, first, thank you for HORSE SENSE. I can't even tell you how much it means to me, I feel that I have a true friend whose wise words are always available to me, day or night. You have helped me with so many problems although I have only written to you once before, because HORSE SENSE keeps answering my questions before I ask them and sometimes before I even think of them. So, from the bottom of my heart, Thank You Jessica!

Now here is my question, which I really wonder if you will be able to answer! I am always interested in learning more about horses and training, which is why I love HORSE SENSE so much. I try to attend three or four clinics every year. Usually I just audit but I always go prepared to watch and listen and learn as much as I can. Then I go home and try to use what I have learned when I work with my own horse. Sometimes this works better than other times!

So far this year, I have gone to three clinics and been very sadly dissapointed in all of them. One of the clinicians was supposed to be teaching dressage and better communication with horses. Well I watched him all day long, and I never saw a horse start to move better or get more comfortable or more relaxed, and I don't think the riders got much out of the lessons, because all that they heard was "Put him on the bit!", "Pull his head in!", and "Get his head down!" And "Use your seat!" I don't think that anybody including the riders had any idea what this "clinician" meant by any of that, so they just kept yanking on their horses mouths.

After the lessons they all complained that their hands were sore and their arms hurt. One girl showed me her hands, and they were all red and swollen with marks from the reins. I don't think that was the kind of dressage that I want to learn, but you wouldn't have thought this guy would teach like this from his ads and the way he talked, it was all about lightness! I felt that I wasted my money even though it was just an audit fee. I was really happy that I didn't ride in the clinic. I don't want to say the man's name because the owner of my boarding barn just LOVES him.

Then I went to two other clinics with "natural" type clinicians (two different ones). They both talked the same way, all about lightness and mental communication and softness, and they were just as mean to the horses but in different ways. One of them is real famous, and he was disgusting. He was really smarmy and kept talking about kindness and how gentle he was, but if you watched him with the horses, he was meaner than a snake and the horses were very uncomfortable around him. I'd tell you his name but I already heard that he is sueing a magazine so I don't want to say it. If you guess, please don't put it here!

So I want to know, how can I find a good clinician that I can trust? I know that you like Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance, but they never come anywhere near my area. Is there someone else you can recommend, please? I just need a couple of names of people who really "practice what they preach", and I don't even know if there are any. Please help. I know that you don't like to say bad things about other clinicians, so please change parts of my letter if you want to! But I really need to know some names, please. I can't afford to go to a lot of clinics even to audit them, and I've already learned that you can't trust people's advertising. I want to do dressage but I am really interested in the natural horsemanship ways also. Is there anyone other than you who teaches both at once? And another question, you aren't ever in my area either, how can I get you to come here and will you do clinics when there aren't any big-time dressage riders at a barn? We get more cowboy trainers than dressage ones around here sually so I hope you know some good ones.

Please answer, thank you,


Hi Adriana! Thank you for the kind words about HORSE-SENSE. I did change your letter a little bit -- the text was fine, but I separated it into paragraphs and took out one person's name and a line or two of description. ;-)

You've obviously got a good sense of what really matters: not what people say to other people, but what effect their actions have on the horses. Will it help at all if I tell you that you're not alone with your question? I get a lot of notes like this one -- five or six just this last week, most of them (I suspect) referring to the same trainer.

The problem is that the horse world is full of people who can "talk the talk" just fine: they know which words to use, and as long as they use them by the (manure) bucketful, there will be people who are fooled by the words and don't look at the substance that may or may not exist behind them. The solution is simple: learn everything you can, and always check it with THE HORSE. The horse is the ultimate authority on what works and what doesn't, and whether certain techniques are suitable or not. Horses care whether their trainers make sense to them and are kind; they don't care whether their trainers are good-looking or famous or wealthy. People, on the other hand, often care very much whether the trainers and clinicians they choose are good-looking or famous or wealthy... and quite often, they don't even KNOW whether those trainers make any sense to the horses, or whether they are kind. Some trainers, as you've found out, make a big show of talking about kindness, but their actions and the horses' reactions tell a very different story.

When someone talks, listen -- but don't leave your judgement at home. USE IT. Watch and listen and learn, and if a trainer's "audio" doesn't match his "video", then you're going to have to believe the video. So, no matter what you hear, keep watching the horses -- and listen to them too. From your letter, it's clear to me that you are alread listening to the horses, whether you know it or not -- good for you!

Don't give up on clinics. There ARE clinicians whose audio and video match.

If dressage is your passion, and you ever have the chance to audit a Charles de Kunffy clinic, GO. You won't be sorry. And up until last week, I would have said "Do whatever it takes to get to a Klimke clinic!" Reiner Klimke was a wonderful clinician, a great teacher, a joy to ride with and a joy to watch, and the dressage world is much poorer for his loss.

If the barns in your area are more likely to bring in the Western-style natural trainers, then I do indeed have two more names for you: Curt Pate and Mark Rashid. I've spent time with both, watched both work with horses and read Mark's books (whih I recommend to you). Neither one will put on a big, flashy show for you. They're not showmen or charlatans -- they're horsemen, and they're good men to watch if you want to see an audio/video match. ;-)

You have a good eye, Adriana. When I read your description of the lessons, and you said "I never saw a horse move better or get more comfortable or more relaxed", I was smiling, because those are EXACTLY the things you should be looking for, and the things that you should ALWAYS find if the clinician is good. If you DO see these things, and the clinician SHOWS and tells how s/he is achieving those results, and, better still, if the clinician can help other people achieve the same results, and if YOU can go home and try these things with your horse and get good results and a happier, relaxed, comfortable horse, then the clinician is good. If you DON'T see those things, then, as you say, the clinician probably just has a good ad agency. ;-)

There are some warning signals you can notice -- watch for bad signs.

Bad sign: Clinician in a Hurry.

Horse-training is NOT flashy, splashy, or quick. It's also not FAST. Someone who wants to improve the HORSE will take things slowly and gently; you may sit in utter boredom (or, if you know enough about horses, utter fascination) while the trainer slowly and gently teaches the horse to lead and to move its feet in a desired direction. It's like watching putting practice -- if you're not a golfer, it doesn't seem that important whether the ball goes half an inch this way or that, but if you ARE a golfer, it matters quite a lot. ;-) But someone who wants to impress the crowd will take things fast, make a fuss, and, as you saw, use harsh equipment to create the effect he wants.

Which leads us to another

Bad sign: Too Much (or Wrong) Equipment.

Using the right equipment is one thing: if you're going to rope off a horse, for heaven's sake use a roping saddle, not a barrel saddle. If you're going to longe a horse, for heaven's sake use a proper longeing cavesson, a long enough longeing tape, and a longe whip. That's all purpose-designed equipment meant to keep the horse safe and comfortable. But TOO MUCH equipment, or the wrong equipment, should be a danger sign. What should you see in a riding lesson? A simple saddle that fits the horse comfortably, a simple bit that fits the horse comfortably, and a simple bridle that keeps the bit in the horse's mouth but doesn't tie the horse's mouth shut. It's not complicated.

Some people make it complicated through their own ignorance. Look for simple equipment used simply. If one trainer says "A longe whip is kind, a rope is nasty", and another one says "A rope is kind, a longe whip is nasty", but both use the items to send the horse out and away in the round pen, just figure that the one doesn't know how to handle a rope and the other doesn't know how to handle a longe whip, and that people, even clinicians, tend to fear and put down what they don't understand. If they use the equipment well, you can learn from them. If they don't -- you can still learn something!

One more thing, while I'm on this subject: Don't let "loaded" terms affect you. "Bit", "spur", "whip" are not necessarily negative terms. Neither is "rope". A longe whip is for signalling -- it makes the trainer's arm longer.

A rope, used by a Western trainer in the same context, is just the piece of equipment that he's comfortable with, and that he uses to make HIS arm longer. The longe whip isn't for beating the horse, and the rope isn't for beating or choking the horse.

Now, if you find someone who actually does those items to scare or punish the horse, then that person is misusing those items. Someone who scares and punishes horses can do it with a whip, a rope, a bare hand, a toy bunny, or an oven mitt. It's the trainer's intention and actions that make the simple items fall into the category of "communication" or "abuse". And you need to watch closely, because a horse that's being sent away with a longe whip may be quite happy because he understands the message and knows what he's supposed to do -- whereas a horse that's being held tightly while someone rubs him between the eyes or pats him very loudly on the neck is a horse that is frightened and/or resigned, NOT comfortable or pleased.

Nasty equipment is a different matter. Simple equipment is designed for communication and comfort; yes, it can be misused, but it's not necessarily a sign of trouble ahead. If you see extra ropes, pressure halters, twitches, auxiliary reins such as draw reins, inappropriate/severe bits, tack that doesn't fit or suit the horse, etc., be very, very wary, and start to walk in the direction of the door. Or, if simple equipment is used unsuitably, be wary. If the trainer or clinician doesn't seem to be aware of the effects of equipment fit and equipment adjustment, be extremely wary. And be on the lookout for the final

Bad Sign: Wrong Assumptions and an Adversarial Attitude.

Trainers/Clinicians/Instructors are there to Help Educate Horses and Riders.

Education is teaching, and teaching can't involve abuse or wrong assumptions or an adversarial attitude toward the student, whether that student is human or equine. The student must be given the benefit of the doubt, not just once but over and over again -- especially if the student is a horse. If a trainer "explains" that horses are sneaky, deceitful, and spend all their time and energy (a) trying to get out of work, and (b) trying to outmaneuver humans so that they can win a power struggle with their owners/riders, then you may not even want to stay and audit -- just cross this name off your list forever, because you've met someone who has absolutely no idea how horses' minds work.

The adversarial attitude often goes along with the above-mentioned assumptions. But it's made more complicated by the fact that a trainer can be extremely adversarial while still smiling at the audience, patting the horse, and talking about kindness. This is where you observe the horse and its reactions, take notes, and begin to develop your own judgement. ;-)

I don't think you've wasted your money on any of those clinics. Your money may not have bought you a good, useful clinic experience, but it bought you something just as valuable: support for your critical sense, and a clear idea of what you do NOT want, and what you will NOT accept for yourself or your horse. And you learned all of that without putting your horse in harm's way.

Auditing is a wonderful choice, and I hope you keep going to clinics.

Eventually you'll find a clinician who makes you feel that you need to be in that ring with YOUR horse, and then you'll be ready to sign up the next time that person comes to town. But auditing can let you learn what clinicians are like (as opposed to learning what their advertising is like), for a low cost, without hurting yourself, your horse, your bank account, or your principles.

If you can possibly manage it, ALWAYS audit before you ride with someone! If you know that someone is absolutely wonderful -- and yes, there are a few absolutely wonderful clinicians, but not as many as there were, now that we've lost Dr. Klimke -- then go ahead and ride without auditing, but those wonderful people will not be angry if you choose to audit them first. If you're auditing one of my clinics, come and say hello. I won't be in the least offended if you want to audit before you ride -- I'll just think that you're wise, and in any case you'll be following my advice, so how could I NOT approve? ;-)

Oh, and the way to get me to your area is to ask for a clinic information packet, discuss the information with your barn manager and perhaps the managers of a few other area barns, and then schedule a clinic. It's not all that complicated, really. And don't worry, I think that the colt-starting and problem-solving work are every bit as much fun as the classical dressage. ;-)


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