Some years ago, I acquired an unbroken 4 year old mare.
My intent was to start her myself, but I soon realized I was in over my head. I did a word of mouth survey to find a cowboy to start her.
The cowboy I found was ridiculously good looking and had an abundance of charm. He was known as the last resort for problem horses and some very reputable people recommended him.
After some hair raising bronc sessions, he did bring this little mare around and gave her a good start. He earned my admiration for this, and my business.
The cowboy's facility was the restaurant equivalent to the simple diner and lacked many of the amenities of the Hunter/Eventer/Dressage world from which I hailed. It was a nice change, in a way, and seemed refreshingly unpretentious.
He offered a multi horse discount and I was horse poor. I moved my old mare and 2 year old warmblood to his place.
I like to believe it was my divorce and years of associated stress that effected my judgment so badly, but who knows? This was my first foray into full time training.
I'd never experienced negative barn politics, popularity contests or mean girl behavior, even though I was a competitive rider and owner with over 20 years of experience.
As mentioned, the cowboy was very good looking with a small business. He wove a compelling story of overlooked talent with horses, and career obstacles due to petty jealousies and rivalries in the show world.
I was vulnerable. I was drowning in the abyss of personal annihilation that sometimes accompanies divorce. However, what I tolerated and allowed with regard to my horses and this man, was inexcusable.
One day, I arrived at the barn and my mare wasn't there. The cowboy told me she was at a nearby hunter barn. The trainer there needed a walk/trot school horse and he thought she would do well there, since I rarely rode her.
I was shocked that he made this decision on my behalf, but accepted his explanation that he was trying to help me financially, and they were going to pay for her care. After checking on the facility and the trainer, it turned out to be a good answer for her, and a nice way for her to semi-retire. This was still a red flag, and I missed it.
The cowboy's clients were mostly women, and many didn't spend much time at the barn. Of those who did, some remained only a few months. Controversy was the prevailing theme in client departures.
Clients would leave because they said he didn't ride their horses enough, was too harsh with them when he did, and didn't care for them properly when they got hurt.
I was blind to this, perhaps because I was able to ride 4 days a week and lived on the property (the cowboy didn't own it). I doctored any wounds or issues myself and I helped the cowboy with his client horses, sometimes in trade for training when I was short of cash.
It never dawned on me that my participation was part of the problem. People brought their horses to this guy for him to train, but he was letting me, an amateur, ride and school them. He sometimes went on vacation without informing clients, for up to 2 weeks. During this time, I or another person the client's didn't know and weren't paying rode and cared for the horses.
Other people rode the training horses, too. Some of whom were just visiting the barn for the day. He would take friends on trail rides, using, you guessed it, his client's horses.
This trainer was married, but maintained a female fan club that vied for his attention. They were harsh to newcomers or women whose only fault seemed to be their appearance and the resulting attention shown them by the cowboy. It was weird.
There was an ongoing popularity contest at the barn. If someone pulled their horse out of training, no matter the cause, they became the villain of the month and were then shunned and vilified to anyone within earshot.
I started paying close attention to what was going on with this cowboy trainer when one of my horses began showing signs of physical and mental stress.
My 3 year old colt started developing attitude problems and showed clearly that he hated his job and his trainer. As I began questioning the problems with this nice young horse, I unwittingly entered the danger zone.
I became the target of vicious gossip, and the cowboy began treating me with barely concealed hostility, while still taking my money each month.
I went to a clinic with friends and enjoyed 3 days in a different atmosphere. I had a blast and remembered how much I loved horses and riding. I also realized that it stopped being fun a long time ago at the cowboy's barn.
The big six lessons I learned:
1. If your horse seems to get hurt regularly, consider another trainer.
2. If you feel like you have to compete for attention, consider finding a different trainer.
3. Enforce your boundaries. If you are paying a trainer to ride your horse, you have a right to know if he has anyone else riding for him and their background.
4. If anyone at the barn fails to treat you with courtesy, take it up with the trainer. If the trainer doesn't resolve the issue, find another trainer.
5. Know exactly what you are paying for and have it spelled out in a contract.
6. Most of us do this for fun and relaxation. We spend a lot of money to enjoy horses. If you aren't having fun at your present barn, find someplace fun.
Remember, life is too short and horses too precious to put up with bad trainers.
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