Choosing The Right Horse Trainer: 13 Critical Questions Every Rider MUST Ask NOW

Whether you’re just starting out in your equestrian pursuit or you’ve been in the saddle for years, if you’re a junior rider or an experienced professional, somewhere along the way you’ve encountered one more horse riding trainers/instructors that have had, or may continue to have an everlasting and unbelievable influence on the way you ride, what you’ve accomplished in the sport, and how far you can go.  Having the right connection with your instructor is critical to your ability to learn and advance in the sport.  Good trainers with the ability to take students and their mounts to the next level of riding and break through barriers they never believed possible, are priceless.

In the same way that a great trainer can make your horse riding experience extraordinary, the wrong trainer can cause a lot of stress and drama in your life, set you and your horse back, break down your confidence and diminish your enjoyment of the sport.   The horse industry is a big one, but it’s also very small at the same time.  It’s based on careers, reputations, achievements, and unfortunately sometimes, a lot of gossip.  At times you’ll find most trainers in and around your area are either loved or hated, depending on who you ask, but never in between.  Even if a person has never used a particular trainer, their reputation can and will precede them as being brilliant, terrible, strict, or talented.  Finding the right trainer, not just for you but your horse can take a lot of time, and be a struggle.  A lot of times cost and location can be a big factor.  Sometimes you will need to take the time to work with and get to know other trainers to really decide if they are a good fit.  It can take a few weeks or even a few months to find your stride with a new trainer, but finding the right one will make all the difference.

How to know if you’re working with the right trainer

It can be confusing at times to know if your trainer is the right fit for you.  You may like and enjoy a particular trainer personally, but find that the progression in your riding has come to a halt (no pun intended) or that your horse’s progress has become very stagnant.  They may be a great rider, but not an effective teacher.  You may have goals beyond the experience of your instructor, or their training methods may just not work well for you and your horse.  To help you make a solid decision, here are the top 13 questions you need to ask yourself about your trainer and why, to help you know if you are where you belong, or need to move on.

1. Does your trainer listen to you?

This is a big deal.  Your trainer may listen to what your saying, but not really hear it.  You have goals, expectations, fears, and struggles in your riding and your trainer needs to really listen to what you want out of the sport, because, lets face it… its what is going to make you happy. Your trainer should not be following their own goals or agenda for you and your horse, despite the fact they think you are Rolex material or not… if you don’t want to train to that level, or have reservations about anything, or want to ride dressage instead, they need to listen, pay attention and help you to make it happen.

2. Does your trainer put you and your horse’s best interests first?

This one is very important.  Horse training and instruction is a full time career if not a business for many trainers, and it is a very difficult one to make a living at.  You need to make sure that your trainer is always putting your best interests above their own, especially their monetary ones.  This could be anything such as pressuring a student to enter a show because they may get an additional trainer and trailer fee.  Pushing a student to purchase a horse that is not right for them so they can get a “finder’s fee”.   Working on what your horse specifically needs to work on so that you have an easier time riding the horse and so you can advance, and not so the trainer can show him.  Allowing your horse time off to rest or heal even if it means a break in lessons.  Not pressuring you to use a farrier, vet, or horse professional, or to only promote products and tack that they are endorsing or earn commission on, that they find the best fit for you and your horse’s needs on all levels, whether it benefits them directly or not.

3. Does your trainer have enough experience?

Your trainer doesn’t have to have shown Grand Prix jumpers, in Rolex 3 Day Eventing, or have trained with olympic caliber dressage trainers.  You don’t need a trainer named “George Morris” or “Carl Hester”, even though it would be nice.  Your trainer needs enough experience to help you achieve your long term goals (or even your short term ones), and enough experience to keep you safe.  There are many amazing trainers that have an amazing ability to bring out the best in their students and have what it takes to help them advance and really enjoy the sport.  You don’t need a big name trainer or coach, if you have the right trainer who has enough experience to take you where you want to go.

Sometimes you may love a particular trainer and have learned a lot from them, but you have outgrown their experience.  You’ve advanced to a particular level where their experience, or rather limited experience won’t be able to get you much further.   If you want to ride up to FEI level in dressage, then you will need an experienced trainer who can take you and your horse up those steps.  If you want to ride in the top rated hunter/jumper shows, you need a trainer with the talent of helping you improve up to that level.  Your trainer needs to have been there, know what it takes, know what type of horse it takes, and how to plan ahead and work toward your goals.  You may even find that certain trainers excel at certain disciplines and my find that having two trainers, one for jumping and one for dressage may work best to your advantage, or you may find an amazing trainer who has endless experience in all areas of riding and showing.

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4. Does your trainer manage your expectations?

We may all think the world of our horses, and at times riders will believe that they are more talented than they really are.  It is up to your trainer to be honest and blunt about your riding abilities, about the experience and potential of your horse, and the ability to reach the goals you are looking to reach in your riding.  If you want to event at higher levels, your horse can’t be afraid of water.  If you want to compete in western speed events, your horse needs to be agile, fast, smart, and be able to tolerate cows.  The right trainer isn’t going to inflate your ego, or build your expectations up to levels you can’t possibly reach.  They aren’t going to promise your horse will be competing in FEI in 3 years, when he’s currently struggling to get through First Level.  They aren’t going to tell you that you’re going to win at nationals when you can barely steer your horse.  And they aren’t going to tell you your $1000 bargain pony is going to hold his own against $200k jumpers and their owners.  They are going to keep you grounded, focused and on track with goals that you can reasonably achieve and stars that are genuinely within your reach.  If high goals are achievable, they are going to be upfront with the hard work involved, the time it will take and how difficult the road will be.  Either way, you are forming goals and shaping dreams that you and your horse are capable of, or making the right changes needed to improve your chances of achieving the ones you are willing to work even harder to reach.

5. Is your trainer always upfront about costs?

Nobody likes surprise charges.  Not on their phone bill, not on their vet bill, and definitely not on their trainer bill.  Your trainer is running a business that you need to respect.  It’s how they earn a living.  But your trainer always needs to be upfront and honest with you in the very beginning regarding the costs of their time and services, and exactly what each services entails.  If your trainer promises to ride your horse 3 days a week, and instead they are riding two days a week, and having an apprentice on them the third day, or they ride twice a week and lunge your horse the third, you need to be made aware of how their program works and be ok with it.   Some people don’t mind, while others feel that if they paid for the experience of a specific trainer then that is who they expect to be training their horse.    Are there certain goals or milestones included in the training, certain guarantees or agreements made of what your horse is going to accomplish or where he is going to be at the end of a set time?  You should know exactly what each service entails, the costs, and the duration.  Are your lessons 30 minutes or 60 minutes.  Is there a penalty for cancelation and what does it cost? If they charge additional fees for certain services provided for your horse, trailering, clipping, mane pulling, training rides, or even show trainer fees, they need to be upfront about it.  Do they expect a “seller’s fee” for helping you to sell your horse, and do they expect a “finder’s fee” commission for helping to find and test drive your new mount.   Don’t expect anything for free, but it is up to them to inform you on what they will be charging you for, and what it costs, before it happens.  There should be no surprises.  The last thing you and your trainer want to fight about is money, as it can potentially ruin a good relationship.

6. Are you comfortable with the way your trainer handles your horse?

Trainers have different methods of training, different levels of discipline and different levels of experience.  Some have ways of teaching horses that have worked really well for them over the years, but these methods may be slightly unconventional or different than you’re used to.  No matter what type of training your trainer is doing, whether they are riding your horse or working with him on the ground, if you ever find yourself uncomfortable with what is going on, you need to address it with your trainer.  You need to be comfortable with your trainer’s riding and your horse’s reaction and progress to their riding style.  If they dismiss your concerns or tell you that they know best, thats fine, and maybe they do, but at the end of the day it’s your horse, and you are paying them for their services, so you need to be happy and comfortable with what is going on.  You need to feel that your horse is being treated well, that any discipline practices are warranted and within reason, and that you are ok with the way they are handled.  That whatever is going on is truly in your horse’s best interests, that it is safe and humane at all times, and that it ads value to your horse’s training.  If you are uncomfortable or concerned for the safety and wellbeing of your horse at any time, you are probably with the wrong training.

Also, not all trainer riding/training styles are a good fit for each horse.  Every horse is different, with their own way of learning, own preferred style of rider, and own experience level.   A lot of horses will have a preference to the way they are ridden and are particular about things such as use of aids, type of training, type of discipline and reinforcement used and simply may just not “click” with even the best of trainers or riders.

7. Do you and your trainer see eye to eye on what you want?

If your trainer wants to break your horse at 2 and start him under saddle, and you would prefer they let him grow until he’s four before having a rider sit on them you need to express how you feel.  It’s your horse.  Your trainer needs to respect your decisions, of course within reason.  But remember, you have hired a trainer in the first place because you know the value of working with a professional on certain things, and the fact that you don’t know everything, so sometimes you will need to let your trainer do what they think is best.   But at the end of the day you need to see eye to eye with your trainer on most things.  You can have the world’s best horse trainer but if you both believe in different methods of horsemanship, it may just not be a perfect fit.  Communication, compromise and understanding is important, but above all, you and your trainer must be on the same page on what is going on with your training as well as your horse.

8. Is your trainer capable and willing to ride your horse?

So there are certain circumstances where a trainer may not want to ride your horse, such as your trainer being older and worried of injuries on say, a young horse…  but when it comes down to it, there is no better way for a trainer to truly understand what your horse is like, what he needs and what you are dealing with (and how to work through it!) than getting in the saddle and feeling it for themselves.  Most trainers have the unbelievable ability to make our Volkswagens look like BMW’s just by getting on them.  They have the magic seat, leg, hands and ability to get the most out of our horses, and that is exactly why we hire them and strive to learn from them.  However, if your trainer is not willing to get on your horse, you need to wonder why.  Then you need to take it one step further and wonder if it is even safe for you to be on your horse, especially since they are more experienced.  Having a trainer with the ability to work with you and your horse together and separately on many levels is an invaluable asset toward improvement for the both of you.  If your trainer does get on your horse, and they lack the ability to work through the issues or improve on the issues that you are having, they may not have enough experience to train you or your horse as effectively as you may need.

9. Does your trainer know your limits and keep you safe?

Trust is huge when it comes to a trainer, rider and horse love triangle.  The safety of you and your horse is the number one priority at all times and you need to have a trainer you can trust at all times.  Your trainer should know what you are capable of, or learn exactly what you are capable of before pushing your limits.  They should never put you in a situation you can’t handle, set you up for failure, or force you to work through an issue that could be potentially dangerous for you and your horse.  It is the responsibility of an instructor to work with each student and horse on their individual levels and capabilities in a safe and controlled environment.  They should also have the facility and training tools to keep you safe as well.

Many times trainers will push riders and horses out of their comfort zones, which can be a good thing, but if the rider and horse is not ready it will be disastrous.  Your trainer should not be afraid to deconstruct your training and bring you back to the essentials and basics, just as much as you should be aware of your limitations and weaknesses and be willing to take a step back and work on an easier level.  If you are having trouble steering your horse at the canter, your instructor should have you work on a lunge line to improve your seat and balance.  If your horse keeps refusing the same fence and you fall off or are struggling to get them over it, your trainer should lower the fence and take a step down until your horse gains the confidence in himself and his rider to jump at the level you are trying to jump.  If your horse keeps spooking and taking off during lessons, your trainer needs to take time and work with your horse to desensitize him, while you take lessons on a safer horse to build your balance and confidence.  While your trainer is there to help you push through barriers that are in your way, they do it at a reasonable and comfortable pace that allows you to build your confidence, skills and balance, without being stressed out or becoming scared or fearful of your horse or certain exercises with your horse.

Above all you need to have a solid trust in your trainer that you are safe and that they are not asking you to do anything above your ability or comfort level or even your fitness level. Sometimes trainers even forget that what is easy for them is still an exhausting struggle for you, and they need to have patience and allow you to build up your stamina.  If you feel that they are, and you address it, and they still push you past a point where you don’t feel safe or secure, they may just not be the right fit for your riding level and ability.  Move on before you encounter a big setback in progress and confidence for you and your horse.  Your journey with your horse should be safe, comfortable and enjoyable at all times.

10. Are both you and your horse from advancing and improving as a result of your trainer?

Riding is a life skill and sport that takes years if not decades to perfect.  The more work you put into it, the more you are going to improve, the more strength and confidence you are going to build, and the more you and your horse are going to achieve.  We will all hit walls or plateaus in our riding.  There may be hurdles we struggle to get over, mountains we’re not ready to climb just yet, and concepts and techniques we are unable to understand or master.  Plateaus or roadblocks in our riding can be very frustrating and at times the constant struggle can actually send your horse’s progress backwards.  There are many things that can cause a halt in your progress.  Your fitness level, your horse’s experience/training, the compatibility of your experience to your  horse’s training, your confidence, or your ability to understand and learn how to get over these obstacles or what tools you need to master in order to do so.  You put the time in, you watch videos, you watch lessons, you do everything you can to learn and improve, both on and off your horse but months have past and you are still stuck on the same issue.  It can be very defeating and frustrating for any rider.  However, sometimes the issue is not you.

There are times where you may be working with an amazing trainer who knows everything about riding, and can win the Grand Prix with your horse, but is a horrible teacher, struggling to pass on their legendary knowledge and wisdom to their eager students.  Or they may be decent teachers, but they don’t teach in a way that your brain really learns best.  Some people are visual learns, some people need the mechanics of it all explained and broken down for them.  Some people need the cause and effect demonstrated. Some riders can grasp big concepts at once, while others need to have every step, aid, half-halt, and inside flexion explained as it happens.  You may need to learn how to use all of your aids independently before you’re capable of putting it all together.

When you have a trainer who is not teaching you what you need to ride your horse properly or in a way that really makes sense to you, or to get the task at hand accomplished, no matter how much experience they have, you are going to struggle to learn.  I’ve seen the most talented trainers who can make any horse look like a million dollar show pony, lack the ability to teach or explain the techniques they’ve spent years perfecting to their students.  I’ve also seen trainers unwilling to break concepts down, go at a slower pace and teach them to both the rider and the horse one by one.  They push for an instant understanding and accomplishment of the lesson, without truly giving the rider the tools they need to be successful or to master what it is they are trying to learn.  Your trainer needs to be able to teach you in the best way possible that allows you to learn.  They need to be willing to slow down and take a step back and focus on the fundamentals of what they’re asking of you, if you are struggling to get it all at once.   They have to be able to see all the areas in which you are struggling and what is preventing you and your horse from learning and address them issue by issue.  For example, you can’t get a horse on the bit if you can’t balance yourself, or you are restricting your horse’s movement with your knees.

11. Does your trainer have the right equipment, assets and facility to help you and your horse reach your goals?

You may have an excellent trainer, however your advancement to the level of riding you want to compete at may be hindered simply by a lack of resources.  If you want to train and improve cross country, some of it can definitely be done in a ring, but you are going to need to be able to take your horse off property and school him on a cross country course, get him used to what he’s going to see out there.  Your trainer may either have access to a course on property, or a trailer but if not, you’re going to find it difficult to be competitive and get your horse and yourself the experience you both need.

Your trainer may not have access to an indoor, which can definitely throw a wrench to anyone’s training routine.  Harsh weather can make it dangerous or unbearable to ride out doors and without saddle time, your progress may have to halt until nicer weather.

You may want to take lessons but don’t own a horse and your trainer doesn’t have one at your skill level that you are able to ride.  All of these issue and more can complicate things.  Having access to the right equipment, resources, facility, and even access to the right horse are important when choosing a trainer.  Sometimes schedules can even be a big conflict.

12. Does your trainer offer the complete package your experience level requires?

Every trainer has a different way of running business.  Some offer more involved, “full training” services that cater to your horse’s every needs while others come to teach lessons and then you won’t see them again until the following week.  There are times that the traveling trainer is exactly what you need, but there are other times where a watchful eye and constant guidance regarding all areas of horsemanship and horse ownership are more suited to your experience level, and the goals you want to achieve.

For example, a more experienced rider, or even a trainer may have a coach come in for a lesson each week, or trailer out to school, to keep their skills sharp and to work on certain things.  But if a novice rider or horse owner buys a young, un-broke horse, or rescues an off-track thoroughbred or standard bred with the hopes of retraining it to show this summer, more extensive training services may definitely be required.   When it comes to horses, especially young ones, the training goes way beyond a weekly lesson.  It starts on the ground with handling and manners.

Even experienced horse owners need help sometimes and don’t know everything. Your horse may lack the ability to do things that you may have taken for granted with a seasoned horse, such as load, clip, trailer, stand for the farrier, lunge properly or even the ability to learn how to stand quietly on cross-ties.  A inexperienced owner may not fully understand the requirements for a young or growing horse, such as diet, dental care, shots, conditioning, veterinary care, and when a horse may need time off to grow and mature.  They may not recognize or know how to handle the situation when their horse is lame, sick, injured or in need of medical care. Even having a set of eyes on you as you hack around the ring is beneficial to keeping your horse’s training progressing.  Having a trainer who’s always got an eye on your horse and his wellbeing and training both in the ring and as a good citizen in on the ground, when you’re both at the barn or away can make the difference in how fast you learn, your safety and your horse’s happiness.  They will have a long running insight of your horse’s issues, make recommendations every step of the way and be able to help you with any issues that occur on the spot or asap.  Of course this comes at an added expense, and all trainers have a set value for their own services but anything can and will happen with your horse so being in a full training or even a semi-full training program with a trainer may be more of what you need vs simply taking lessons and trying to figure things out on your own.   Talk to trainers about the broad range of services they offer from lessons to full training packages.  Many trainers offer very beneficial discounts and perks to “full training” clients that may definitely make the higher cost worth while in the long run.

13. Does your trainer boost your confidence and have good bedside manner?

Riding is hard enough as it is, let alone offering up our abilities for 30-60 minutes of critiques and judgements.  There are times when your trainer will need to be harsh, brash and blunt, especially when you are potentially causing a dangerous situation to you and your horse or you won’t get out of your own way.  There are times when it is necessary to “ground” a rider or owner by being straight forward about their abilities and sometimes it’s what we really need to hear to snap us out of our own world and to manage our expectation.  Comments like “you are ruining your horse”, “you are never going to learn this way”, “you’re not going to get any better”, “you are not capable of doing this”, “what you are trying to do with your horse is above your skill set”, or “you don’t have what it takes to be competitive in this sport” are really harsh words to hear sometimes, especially when you are trying your hardest to learn and improve or are already down because you’ve hit a wall and have been struggling.   There are definitely times when we need to be grounded and not have our egos inflated about abilities we do not yet possess, and goals that your trainer, with their extensive knowledge, feels that you and/or your horse are not capable of achieving – especially when it comes to safety.  However, sometimes this is a reflection of your trainers limitations and short-comings, not your own.

Your trainer needs to be able to maintain a positive outlook as well as an encouraging bedside manner.  They need to be able to avoid crushing your self-esteem over your failures and struggles and be able to focus and build on the positives.  They need to take what skills you do have and find ways to build on them and boost your confidence, to help you work on and achieve smaller, more obtainable goals, one step at a time, instead of deflating your abilities over all of the things you can’t do.  A great trainer is capable of helping you advance, no matter how slowly you go, or how small the steps may be, and to make you feel proud of your achievements.  The have the ability to lift you up and drive you forward instead of putting you down and holding you back through their unproductive discouragement.  You may not be able to do “X, Y & Z” with your horse, but the main key is that you just simply cannot do them “yet”.  If you want something bad enough, as long as you put the work in, with the right trainer and resources, you will be able to achieve it, even if it feels impossible right now.  The right trainer doesn’t give up on helping you reach your goals.  They don’t discourage your abilities or put you down.  They become positive sources of energy that are resourceful enough to guide you and give you the tools you need to succeed, and if they are unable to do it, they are willing to bring in the right person who can.

If a trainer says you can’t do something or will never be capable of doing it (within reason) and stops trying to help you learn or progress with a particular skill, and you feel it in your bones that you are if you are only taught how, it may be because they lack the ability to break down the basics and teach you the concepts to build the foundation on which you need to succeed.  The right trainer will only give up on you, if you give up on yourself, and even then a good trainer will still find ways to dust you off, and build the drive within you to keep trying and working toward your goal.

Bonus Question: Are you happy?

It may seem like a no brainer, but at the end of the day, this may be the most important question you can ask yourself.  It pretty much tells all, even if you are not sure why.  If you are not generally happy, if you find yourself constantly frustrated or stressed, if riding becomes a fear, chore or nightmare and not the highlight of your day, rest assured you are with the wrong trainer.  If you are generally unhappy and struggling every time you step into the ring with your trainer, to no fault of anyone, the connection between you and the instructor may just not be right.

While riding, you should enjoy your lessons and be eager to learn and progress, not dread or constantly struggle during the time you spend with your trainer.  Every rider is different, with different personalities, confidence levels and abilities and could potentially need a different type of trainer to build a solid connection. Some do better with strict and aggressive trainers who push their students to succeed with no time for laziness or complaining.  These riders thrive under pressure and excel when expectations are constantly rising.  Others need trainers with more patience and positivity and willingness to let them learn at a less competitive more carefree pace while they build essential skills and increase their confidence.

The wrong trainer or even the wrong connection with a good trainer can be extremely discouraging and diminishing to your ability to learn, advance, or simply enjoy the sport.  The right trainer that drives your determination, has a solid connection to tap into your ability to learn and improve, while enhancing your confidence, enjoyment and love of the sport… is worth their weight in gold.

Take your time, explore your options, ask questions and don’t be afraid to take a few trial lessons with different trainers until your “gut” tells you this is the one.  Don’t be afraid to have heart-to-heart talks and communicate with your current trainer about your concerns and issues if they are not meeting your expectations to see if maybe there is just a simple misunderstanding that you both can work through to get your progress back on track.  Be upfront and honest and do not be afraid to stick to your guns on what you want and what makes you happy.  You’ll know you are working with the right trainer when you are happy, when you never stop learning/progressing, and your love and drive for the sport increases every time you work together, tackle and obstacle and move forward.  Good luck in your journey, your search for the perfect trainer and remember that your happiness and your ability to have fun and stay safe is truly what matters most.