Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Cavalier Quandary

Today I'm going to delve into a subject most of us in the world of professional horsemen would rather avoid. It boils down to a matter of ethics, really. This one really is near and dear to my heart -- trainers engaging in underhanded scheming to steal clients from another trainer, often through wholly unethical or even devious means. What can start as whispers begins to echo loudly throughout the industry. Mind that there are proper ways to attract clientele.

Where I come from, trainers rely on each other every bit as much as we rely on our clients. I respect my peers and deeply appreciate the ability to discuss openly things like training methods, activities for students, getting the most out of my horses and benefiting my clients. We can all compete against one another, our clients pitted against each other in the show ring, then share a dinner table and good laughs after competition has wrapped up for the day.

There is no doubt, these are hard times for many. Our nation's economy is in ruin and thousands if not millions of people are suffering. Hit particularly hard has been the horse industry. Over the past several years, friends have frequently commented to me on the imminent death of the horse business as we've known it. Sales are at record lows, as are horse show entries, registrations and to be sure, prices. Being a professional horseman has always been a tough job, not only from a physical standpoint, but due to the costs of doing business itself. We've had an old saying for years -- if you want to make a small fortune in the horse industry, start with a large fortune.

My business happens to be located in a geographic region extremely hard hit by the sagging economy. While it has never been an area known for wealthy horsemen, there was not a serious shortage of folks who were seeking training and other professional services until recently. Therefore, clients have a number of choices for training and riding instruction, yet trainers are scrambling to stay viable in a shrinking industry. With so much riding on getting those new clients into the barn, trainers seem to be more willing to come up with new ways of attracting customers. Locally, badmouthing your peers seems to be the most popular means of gaining business, if only by default.

From day one, I have sought to remain above the fray. In my office I have a sign that says, "ATTENTION: You Have Now Entered A Certified Drama Free Zone! (please leave your drama behind at the door) Thank You!" Keeping my nose to the grindstone, seeking new and improved ways to attract clientele and serve my customers, working hard to offer a place for learning, camaraderie, and fun. We have so many returning clients who continue to bring horses (and refer new riders) year after year. Some of my clients have been with me for more than ten years. I must be doing something right! It is both thrilling and humbling to have such loyal and dedicated customers...but that does tend to put a target on your back.

To my fellow trainers: Keep in mind, clients do come and go. It's the nature of the business. If you feel the need to talk poorly of your peers to a client, potential client or another trainer, expect that to do more harm than good in the long run. It will catch up with you. And actively soliciting clients who are presently in another trainer's barn is just low class. If they decide to leave their present trainer and choose you, congratulations. But let that be the client's decision without tarnishing the reputation of those who share your profession no matter how much you dislike them.

To the clients: Remember, you are free to choose who you send your horses to for training and who you have teach your children. Keep your eyes and ears open. If something doesn't seem quite right, it probably isn't. Get references. Plenty of them. There are good and bad in all professions and walks of life. Horse trainers are no different. But keep it professional. If you think your horse would do better in a different barn, you do have the right to give proper notice and remove your horse. Please make those decisions for the good of your horses and not in haste.

If you do your job well, treat your customers and their horses well, results will show themselves. You won't have to talk smack about your peers or try to denigrate them, because your business will be flourishing. Someday you might just need someone to refer a client to...or might wish to benefit from the referral of another. Food for thought.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Are You Ready...Or Are You READY?

For my first topic of 2013 (I know, I know...), I'd like to explore show ring readiness for you and your horse. I've endlessly covered similar subjects, but want to get more into actually being prepared to ride into the show ring. There is so much that goes into the decision to enter a horse show, or should, as well as preparing in the weeks and months before the show. Oftentimes, people are mislead or worse and end up spending a lot of their hard earned money taking their horse(s) to a show they are anything but ready for.

With all my clients and students, I encourage them to come along with us to small, low key local shows to see what they think. Frequently they get excited about the prospect of going out there themselves and winning blue ribbons. For those who are interested in showing, there are steps we take. If the client or student has never shown before, I make sure they attend a variety of shows based on their interests. We'll start out with small local schooling shows, then graduate to local High Point shows, followed by mid-level breed or discipline shows (which would be the "C" or "B" rated shows of yesteryear) and culminating with the big time. Not even so much Regional or National/World level shows, at least not at that point, just "A" rated shows within the breed or discipline of the owner's choice.

Then we make plans for them to begin competing at those same small local schooling shows they visited with us. I actually prefer that first shows we go for the purposes of watching aren't shows I'm competing in or having students compete in, because I love to be able to sit in the bleachers with them and explain everything, answering any questions they have. We cover everything from show clothes, show tack, rules of the show ring and what the judges are looking for. This can all be overwhelming to the newcomer, it's part of my job to make it less confusing. I can spend time explaining how we get from Point 'A' to Point 'B' in training and riding, discuss things like show ring preparation such as clipping other grooming. Generally, if they're truly interested in pursuing a competition career with their horse, they'll be hooked and excited.

Pretty soon, I'll encourage them to come along with us when we're showing. I like to be able to explain the prep we do at home and what needs to be done before we load the trailer. That adds a whole new dimension to the equation, because they can get a good look at what goes in to getting there, then getting yourself and your horse actually into the show ring. Making entries, show ring grooming, getting the horse ready, getting the rider dressed and ready, warming up horses and practicing patterns, courses or tests (depending on the discipline) -- all of which has to happen before the horse ever steps into the show pen to be judged. They will get to experience the excitement of clients and students in our group competing and winning ribbons, that glorious camaraderie of attending shows with a fun group of people who love their horses.

All that said, most folks who show, or who yearn to show, rely on the advice of a trainer to help them get themselves and their horses properly prepared to go show. Even those who have been showing for years understand the benefits of having a great trainer to help them excel.  This is a very expensive sport, from the horses to the tack, from the attire to the lessons and training required. Why not give yourself every advantage you can? Your peers who you'll be competing against will in all likelihood have trainers and coaches looking out for and helping them along. Don't be at a disadvantage by trying to go it alone, especially when you're first starting out. That helping hand can save you thousands of dollars by allowing you to learn from the mistakes of others. There is nothing more humiliating than looking out of place...or not knowing your horse is on the wrong lead!

Once you've made the decision to tackle the show ring, we begin the next step. You may have a beautifully trained horse, but not be able to bring out the best in him or her. You may have an amazing ability to ride beautifully, but your horse isn't really suited to be a show horse. You may not have cubic dollars to invest in the latest $1,000 show outfit or $10k show saddle. We'll start by evaluating your horse's potential. With many horses, additional fine tuning in their training can absolutely make a difference and allow you to be competitive at the local lower levels. You'll need to ultimately decide just how far you want to go, and whether your present horse can get you there. In my barn, I'm honest about a horse's ability and just how far they can go.

While your horse is in training, I always offer my students the ability to compete on one of my lesson horses. They are all show ring ready and well trained / well schooled. Riding a lesson horse in my school program enables you to concentrate on YOU, learning what YOUR part of the job is. For youth students, I have a large selection of show clothes available to borrow at no additional cost, or I'm happy to accompany you to one of the consignment shops that carry beautiful used show attire at a fraction of the initial cost. I also provide all show tack for the horse and don't charge a fee to borrow it, either. This helps cut the costs of embarking on a show career by a large margin. Once you get your feet wet, you will be able to decide how much you want (or need) to plan to invest on this aspect of the sport.

We never make a decision to enter a show until two things are in place: First, the horse you are going to show is ready to tackle the ring. That isn't a big ordeal if you're starting out on a school horse, but can be a very major thing depending on if you're planning on showing your own horse. I never...I repeat, NEVER...want a horse entered in a show until the horse is absolutely ready to go compete. Second, until you the rider is ready to go showing. That means you have mastered the art of using your seat and legs, you can communicate clearly with your horse with soft, quiet hands and have fine tuned your riding to the point where you're looking like you belong out there. You need to know if your horse is on the correct lead at the canter or lope. You need to know how to cue and ride your horse, showing him/her to the best advantage. You know how to "ride your ring", not getting buried in a pack of other horses. If you're an English rider, you know how to nail your diagonals, every single time you trot. These little things can mean the difference between bringing home the blue ribbon and getting the gate. I see no sense in wasting my clients' money by not seeing to it that they are prepared.

If you just started taking lessons, or you just put your horse in training, and your trainer is already okaying a show for you two in a matter of a couple of weeks, you may want to take a good hard look at why that may be. Some trainers really feel the need to appear to have a lot of students coming with them to shows, regardless of whether either horse or rider is truly ready to compete. Personally, I don't care if I take one student or ten to any given event. However, I do care about looking foolish by taking a multitude of students and/or horses to a show that really still belong at home because they don't have the wet saddle blankets behind them which are necessary to ensure they meet with my high standards. Not every horse is going to be a $100,000 World Champion. Not every rider is going to be able to ride to National Championship honors in Equitation or Horsemanship classes. That does not mean you should rush out to a horse show without being ready! It's just a personal pet peeve of mine.

All of the above advice comes from spending many decades training horses and coaching riders to top show ring wins in a wide variety of disciplines at the highest levels of the sport. Tried and true methods and philosophies, inspired by wanting the best for my clients and students as opposed to ripping them off in order to line my own pockets. Such sage advice is a word to the wise no matter where you reside or who you ride with. Talk to your trainer and get a complete understanding of their own policies regarding whether or not you and your horse are honestly show ring ready. Don't let them talk you into showing before you can go out there and win that blue ribbon. Every class, every ride, every time. It may not always work out that way, but that's the goal you want to shoot for nevertheless. Best of luck to you!!