Teaching new things. It is unlikely I am teaching my horse new things (besides developing our communication skills). At this stage, I am the one being taught by my horse; I am trying to learn all the things he already knows and trying harder still to learn to be an effective participant with him as I explore his knowledge. Teaching him new things, knocking some rust off some older things, and building his confidence for bigger challenges I am not yet ready for, will be left to my trainers, Tom Waters and Kerry Blackmer. Trainers are great resources for giving horses experience, "putting some miles on" and positive ones at that. I'm not sure any horse can have too much positive, successful experience. And for me, it makes sense to continue keeping my horse's learning curve ahead of mine. It will keep him from getting bored with the massive amounts of lower level work that I need, and it will keep his confidence in expansion mode, which will in turn keep my confidence in expansion mode.
Young and/or green horses. It is my opinion trainers should always be heavily involved in the teaching/training of green horses. This falls in line with one of my fundamental rules: between the two of you, horse and rider, someone has got to know what the hell they are doing (see blog post Who is Jumping that fence again?). I'm not saying the green horse + green rider scenario can't work out, but let's face it, no one can call this the best case scenario. I can certainly attest from direct, futile experiences (yes, plural, experiencesssss) the green + green equation should only be used as a last resort. I am not sure what a "last resort" situation would be in this case, maybe you are a green rider transported to wild west times, you just robbed a bank and need to make a quick getaway and your trusty reliable steed was stolen from the O.K. Corral and the only other horse available is a young green horse, so you throw caution to the wind (which you've probably already done if you just robbed a bank) and make a go of it, hoping for the best. That sounds like a pretty reasonable green + green last resort. Outside of that I'm just not sure. Feel differently? Then send me your stories of how a green horse was the BEST option for a green rider and convince me. Otherwise, I'm sticking to my guns on this one. (See what I did there? Played on my little western theme from above. Cute. Or stupid.)
Teaching you to horse whisper. Not really. But thank you Robert Redford for this 1998 classic and affording me a lifetime of ridiculous references. My favorite trainer function is, well, them teaching me how to ride, but my SECOND favorite trainer function is them teaching me how to develop, define and refine the communication between my horse and me. Trainers can help you create a more effective language with your horse. Trainers see A LOT from the ground. They see you doing things you don't realize you are doing and they see your horse's reaction. They see things you aren't doing, and your position, but most importantly they see the dynamic interaction between you and your horse, while the rider is relegated to trying to feel the interaction. Great riders can very acutely feel this dynamic interaction. I am not a great rider, I still have to look down to make sure I am posting the trot correctly. (Maybe I should work on that.) Until I develop a better sense of feel with my horse, I rely heavily on Tom and Kerry to give me feedback. Tom sees me hesitate and then sees my horse suck back behind my leg before I feel it happening. Kerry sees my left leg slipping back over a fence and I'm not aware of it until she tells me. (I have to put a lot of focus on keeping that left leg in place over fences). Often times I can feel my horse doing something evasive, but don't realize I'm causing it. Small example: when asking Bernie to give me a bigger, more forward trot, he would consistently give me a "canter depart" step before trotting on. I tried to work through it, with little progress. In a lesson with Tom, he was able to identify the problem from the ground. I didn't have enough outside contact and Bernie was able to "slip through it" and give me his canter depart step to avoid work. Add some outside contact and voilá, no canter depart step into a bigger trot. These small corrections are part of something bigger, they are helping you to better communicate with your horse. Every time you purposefully do something with your horse and get the appropriate response, or correct something and get the desired reaction and then reward for that response/reaction, you are building a language with your horse. The better the communication, the better the results, trainers can help you get there.
So, is there anything trainers aren't good for? Yes. Trainers cannot be expected to resolve every issue that will arise with your horse. You cannot hand your horse off to a trainer and expect him/her to come back to you and be perfect. Your trainer cannot be solely responsible for solving whatever is going wrong between you and your horse.
Irish Morning Mist was, probably still is, a handful. Okay, at 17.2 H more than a handful. He was my first experience on a rearing horse, Bernie being the second. I contacted the previous owner about Irish's rearing and she was flabbergasted. "He hasn't reared in years, so I never thought to mention it, I thought he was over it." Huh. Okay, I can't blame her, there was a problem and she thought it was corrected, you can't expect the seller to go through every issue, resolved or not, the horse has ever had. This also leads to yet another one of my fundamental rules/beliefs of riding: horse and rider are a UNIQUE team and partnership, and as such will develop their own unique language/communication and understanding of each other. Change one of the partners and all the rules change. The communication and trust building process starts anew. This also means each unique team will have to resolve their issues TOGETHER. It is easy to think "my horse is being bad, or does this wrong, or won't do this" and then hand him/her off to a trainer for correction. Trainers, don't be mad, I love you, but I feel like this system rarely works. What is corrected for one rider is not necessarily corrected for another (rearing example above). It goes the other way too, what one rider has a problem with, another rider may never have a problem with. Half the time your misbehaving horse won't misbehave for the trainer, so the trainer can't "correct" it. Trainers are trainers because they are great riders. Great riders get different responses/reactions from the horses they ride than mediocre riders. Trainers! I have not abandoned you, and here is where I think your expertise is crucial: have your trainer ride your horse so they can understand/correct the problem and THEN they can better help you to correct it. See how that works? You need to be involved WITH your trainer to correct issues for the you/your horse partnership to work. It does no good if your horse behaves perfectly for your trainer, he/she needs to behave for you too. And that will never happen unless you are involved with correction.
Okay, before you give me the stern gaze, the accusatory tone and charge me with being contradictory (completely reasonable, btw) YES, I did hand Bernie off to Kerry and her working students to try and solve his rearing. However, I have always known Bernie and I would have to, at some point, resolve this together. I was hoping to go about this after some more light had been shed on the subject, i.e. why he does it and what can be done to overcome it. Last I checked he is still rearing (or they have given up trying to hack him across the street), which means my courage can rest comfortably in the ring and I don't need to super glue my whip to my hand and my ass to the saddle and tackle a rearing Bernie just yet.
Its okay to cheat. Sometimes. Most of us have our regular trainer, as eventers you might have a trainer for jumping and a trainer for dressage. I work with Tom Waters, my original trainer (whom I adore) and Kerry Blackmer, my resident barn trainer (whom I also adore). Obviously Tom and Kerry are different people and have different methods and I find benefit from both. It is nice to focus on something Tom finds offensive and switch gears to work on something else Kerry finds offensive. (I can be REALLY offensive). I also gained a lot from my single lesson with Steuart Pittman, which I hope to repeat in the future. There are a lot of excellent trainers out there and I think clinics, specialty lessons and workshops are a great way to soak up some of their knowledge. Trainers are a resource and you don't have to limit yourself to the knowledge of one. I'm not saying abandon your current trainer, I never want to leave mine, they have done so much to improve my riding and my confidence and my horse "situation"; but a new set of eyes and a new perspective or a new philosophy can be useful and enlightening. If you can't afford a professional, then I suggest you watch every video of William Fox-Pitt you can find. I have two trainers and I still analyze his form. I mean seriously, does his lower leg ever move?!? No, no it doesn't.