Can A Grassroots Trainer Compete With A Top Tier Trainer?


BACKGROUND: Recently the question was posed on-line by a blogger “How do I as a grassroots trainer compete with top tier trainers?” The blog went on to state the grass roots trainer believed the playing field was unfair.

REASONING: Some reasoning used in the blog to justify unfairness (1) Top Tier trainers were willing to offer / promote methods the grass roots trainer was not. (2) Judges / Show Management did not assess classes fairly or adhere to rules for all exhibitors. (3) The top trainers & their students were given preference at shows. An example listed included that offenses for top trainers were ignored or swept under the rug.

BLOG CONCLUSIONS: (1) Grassroots trainers and their students were competing for 2nd and 3rd places at best. (2) Grassroots Trainers & students could never compete with Top Tier trainers because top trainers often cheat the system without consequence. (3) Loss of current students to Top Tier trainers is inevitable because the students want to win.

MY REACTION: If the reasoning provided via the blogger are true, I better call off my equine career now. Here are some of my thoughts regarding the question & position above.

Some perspectives I personally believe to be true.

  1. Comparing oneself to another individual is most often futile. No two people or animals are the same nor should they be expected to be. Emulating behaviors, values, principals & methods that you admire in other individuals is a much better use of time than lamenting about what 1 person has that you do not.

  2. Life is not fair. I could expand but it would be wasting space.

  3. Positive Attitude, Hard Work & Receiving or Continuing Education are the most important “tools” any trainer at any level can ever expect to develop.

  4. Inappropriate education, lack of experience, entitlement attitude & unwillingness to learn the business starting at the bottom are the four largest barriers I see for aspiring trainers of all disciplines. Rarely do individuals become respected horse trainers without positive attitude, hard work & appropriate long term education. Developing these tools will take time and effort.

  5. No one (including judges, committees, show managers or those competing) is perfect.

  6. Not all human beings are ethical, nor do they wish to be.

  7. What goes around tends to come around. (Karma) We just may not be privy to when karma rears its head or the details.

  8. Be clear and honest with all clients about your experience, values & charges from the beginning. It saves time and trouble later.

  9. The USA does not have a National Level Horse Trainer Certification / Licensing process. Therefore anyone with good, bad or ugly equine skills can call themselves a trainer in this country. Unless a national system is implemented and regulated, there will be extreme differences in the skills, technique and quality of professional training and instruction. It is probably safe to say we will never have the uniformity of instruction and training that countries with “equine systems” have.

Addressing the Original Blog Question

To begin, I agree that competition is difficult for all involved no matter what the equine discipline. Multiple items are on the line at competitions for students and trainers of all levels. Here is where it is important to be clear & honest. I also agree that not all “trainers”, top tier or grass roots act ethically. Competition between “Top Tier” trainers and “Grass Roots” trainers is possible and encouraged. However, it is reasonable to be realistic with ones goals & evaluation of the situation.  

My goal is to be a Respected Trainer, no matter what level of competition trainer I currently fall into. By respected, I mean that: (1 The horses in my program are well taken care of, their wellbeing is always considered first. (2) All clients are worked with in an honest and respectful manner. (3) We all attempt to make the best of all situations, placing safety and learning as top priorities. (4) Each horse is well trained and behaves accordingly. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy winning classes and trips. However, a safe show without prizes is always better that an unsafe show where horse or human is injured.

Generally any trainer, if at the top of their field or not, wants to do better for themselves. Most trainers at the top have realistically worked hard to get there. “Whenever you see a successful person, you only see the public glories, never the private sacrifices to reach them.” – Unknown. It is true that some are not really trainers, some have not treated horses well, that some are lucky, some are good at faking knowledge & that some have cheated the system. Not all humans are ethical.

We all also have pet peeves about how others in the industry operate. My college professor formerly said, “Even a monkey can train the really good horses”. He is correct, a few horses are just that good & get to the top in spite of their trainers / riders. It’s one of my pet peeves when an unskilled trainer gets lucky with a horse of that nature, & ends up stealing a client. (Life is not fair.) I’ve even had an instructor lie to potential clients at a show, claiming my training work as their own. (Not all humans are ethical.) When the truth comes out that the other instructor or trainer was simply lying or lucky, it is hurtful for their reputation. One can remain a respected trainer by maintaining integrity in these types of situations.

Often, the formerly lost client horse returns (karma) to get unscrewed & re-started. This can be a tough situation as we could be tempted to spread word of those failures around. All of this however, is part of the horse training business. In times of dealing with pet peeves, repeat the phrase “not my circus, not my monkeys.” My advice would be to go on with life and ask “What can I do to improve my personal training / teaching skills?” (Develop training tools.)

Some thoughts on competing with trainers of all levels:

(a) Work on yourself first. You might be an excellent rider yourself, but do you have the skills / experience of training & riding more than one horse to the level you desire to compete at? Producing a number of horses to a level of consistency in a particular discipline is a good start to reaching that goal of competing with top trainers.

(b) If you are in doubt about your preparedness, or the competition horse(s) preparedness, ask another industry professional you trust. You may have to pay for that evaluation or extend a similar professional courtesy to the evaluating individual. This is the same concept as doing your homework or double checking your numbers. It also is a good way of keeping egos in check by consulting your peers.

(c) Converse with owners or clients and think about realistic competition goals. Make a list of tangible goals such as run the pattern clean, jump the fence height we’ve been jumping at home. Once these goals are consistently met, stronger goals can be set and achieved. Start at the small shows and work your way up. If you are not winning at the smaller shows, chances are that more skills are needed to compete with top trainers. It is worth mentioning that smaller shows can serve as a confidence builder for clients. A word of caution is that it is easier to be a “big fish in a little pond than a little fish in the big pond.” Discuss the pond concept with clients and owners.

(d) Talk to the client about show expectations prior to the show. What are your realistic expectations of the horse? What can clients expect of you? What are you willing to do or not willing to do to win? Do your actions and decisions protect, honor & preserve the health of the horse?  These are things you do have some control over and they can and should reflect on you as the trainer or instructor.

(e) Never assume you will or will not win. Rarely is there ever a perfect pattern, run or course. There is potential to do better than a top trainer or worse, it all depends on those items of positive attitude, hard work & learning through experience.

(f) Know the rules. There have been many instances where I have sat in the judging chair & watched as trainers of all levels sent in students or rode in horses in the wrong equipment. This can be an automatic no score or huge penalty, depending on the class or show. If in doubt, ask show management about rules & read the current rule book. Even if you & your horse have the best ride of the show, a judge is not allowed to reward it with the wrong equipment worn or wrong pattern performed.

(g) Be gracious. If you do happen to have the best ride or client ride of the day, be thankful and ask what else your team can improve upon. If you place 2nd – last place, use it as a learning opportunity. Be grateful for what you have achieved. Check the score sheet, ask the judge, scribe or ring master what items could be worked on before the next show. Then, go work hard at those items!

(h) Educate your clients and owner audience.  This is especially important in our current culture of instant gratification. Horses take time to develop, period. Tell clients (honestly) about your work. Tell them (truthfully) what you value as a trainer and why and how you can help that horse & rider team. Always maintain integrity. You concentrate on being you and let others concentrate on being them.

(h) All the other stuff (bigger trailer, more money, more clients, the other trainer is a cheater) is BOLOGNA. Everyone has barriers and obstacles, some have fewer than others. How we deal with those challenges is what defines us.

Final Thoughts: We can’t control what others do or all circumstances. We can’t control all competition factors or make every single show variable equal. We can be responsible for educating & improving ourselves. We can be an instrument for positive change in any organization. We can control our actions & reactions. Concentrate on what you can control to work toward equal competition success.

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work & learning from failure.” – Colin Powell