Are You Riding With The Right "Trainer"?
by Holly Peterson
Instructors and Trainers. These terms are used all the time: "My Instructor said...." "My Trainer made me....". They are often interchanged when discussing the person helping you ride, but there is a big difference between the two. Not all Instructors are Trainers and not all Trainers are Instructors, how do you know who you should be riding with and are you riding with the right one?
Let's start by defining them.
An Instructor by definition is a person that teaches a subject or skill; teaching an individual or group how to do something. Instructors are the ones most often teaching the Passenger Rider. The primary focus, at the lower levels, is teaching the new riders the basics. "This is a horse...stop, start, turn, heels down, head up".
At the upper levels the focus will be geared towards the Instructors agenda, correct position and rider polish; not necessarily addressing horse/rider communication or the needs of the horse.
Most Instructors have their own agenda and give a lesson according to that agenda, i.e the different disciplines, competition etc. A good instructor will know their content well and can competently explain the 'how-to' during a lesson. An excellent instructor will not only know their content thoroughly but can competently and comfortably present it during lessons. Generally, an Instructor teaches content regardless of the learning style of the individuals the are teaching.
A Trainer by definition is one who provides training for athletes and/ or horses for a specific purpose (inclusive of instructor training). Trainers take teaching the horse, horse and rider, the Instructors or any combination there of; to the next level, usually in a specific discipline. Trainers teach to the 'individual' so they may better understand the content of the lesson be and work to develop a solid path of learning for both horse and rider.
A good trainer knows their discipline inside and out and has a clear focus for the lesson. An excellent trainer knows their content well, can read and address both the focus of the lesson, the needs of the horse and (when working with a rider) the needs of the rider. They will be adept at reading the needs of horse/rider in the moment, as well as making the content understandable for a variety of learning styles, be it rider or horse.
An Instructor versus a Trainer is much like the difference between a kindergarten teacher and a college professor; both contributing to your skill set but in drastically different ways and at varying levels.
Now, just because one can train a horse for a specific purpose does not necessarily mean they are able to teach someone else how to achieve the same results. There are many world class riders and trainers who are not great teachers because they are unable to adequately express to a student what they should be feeling at a given moment, in the moment, to achieve a specific result. A twist on the old adage 'If you can't ride it, you can't teach it.' Just because you can ride it doesn't mean you can teach it either.
There are two types of trainers: the Horse Trainer and the Horse/Rider Trainer.
These trainers work specifically with the horse. Whether they are starting them, bringing them along or 'finishing ' them, their lessons and their content are centered on the needs of that horse in the moment while keeping their ultimate purpose or goals in mind.
These trainers work with both horse and rider. These trainers are often training the horse then teaching the rider how to achieve the same results by breaking down the lesson into understandable parts. These trainers are also able to work with riders and their horse without actively training the animal themselves.
There are some that would argue that the second type of trainer- the Horse/Rider Trainer, is really just an instructor. That may be true, however, you can't instruct a horse to do a flying lead change, you must train him until it becomes a learned response to the aides. Since the rider is the "intelligent" one applying the aids for that lead change, they are instructed, sometimes through baby steps, how to do so.
Someone only capable of instruction will school a horse only so well while a trainer unable to verbalize their actions will only instruct so well. The Horse/Rider Trainer is both and goes beyond the simple instruction of lesson content to actually training the correct behavior necessary for that flying lead change to both horse and rider.
There are many levels of both Trainers and Instructors. As with most things, you've got the great, the good, the not so good and the just plain awful. Be sure to check out whomever you chose work with.
Whether you 'only' trail ride or are competing at the upper levels, everybody needs help once in awhile, so which one should you be riding with, a Trainer or an Instructor?
The first thing you need to ask yourself is:
What are my goals?
If you have no aspirations beyond the occasional ride, trail ride or light showing, then an instructor would probably be a good fit. Instructors should cover the ABC's of riding basics and be able to help with minor issues at this level of riding.
If your looking to push yourself, improve the horse/rider relationship or actively compete at any level, then a Trainer would be a good way to go. A good trainer will push both you and your horse to a higher level and be able to keep you on the path towards your goals.
The second question is:
Do you have a green horse or a made horse?
Unless you are experienced working with greenies, a green horse needs a good trainer- be it horse trainer or the horse/rider trainer. Just because a rider has ridden or schooled horses at a certain level doesn't necessarily mean they can teach a green horse the 'how to'. Think of this in terms of teaching a child to walk. You don't expect a child to stand up and run the first time- you coax and help and teach them how first. The same holds true for training a green horse.
If you have a made horse, whether you chose an Instructor or Trainer really will depend on your goals. In the end, whether you choose a Trainer or an Instructor, you should feel confident in the person helping you, and be making progress towards your goals and enjoying the ride.
Author's Note: Special thanks to friends and colleagues Katie Swarthout and Nadine Joy for contributions to this article.