This is very straightforward to me. As a trainer, I think too many of us are scared of their owners/clients.
Horses don’t have to do all that they do for us. Top show hunter, jumper, and equitation horses go to more shows now and are asked to be at a top-level more often and in more non-horse friendly atmospheres than ever before.
Just because we have better footing and put up stall fans and such to keep horses more comfortable doesn’t compensate for what a horse truly needs to thrive. Horses were born to graze and be social with other horses. The work they do for their humans is something unnatural we ask them to do.
So, to me, not only do we absolutely need to keep their joints, feet and backs happy and training steps correct, we need to remember, first and foremost, they’re horses. And they need the time and space to be horses.
At the top levels, this has been forgotten all too often. Seeing a horse in the stall all day except during riding time is aggravating. Seeing a horse lunged forever cause the rider isn’t a match is infuriating. Watching horses be treated like machines and in the same routine because that’s the barn routine is maddening.
As a trainer, all my horses get at least two hours of grass/grazing a day whether on the road or at home. I also make sure I am asking myself what each horse needs for their own physical and mental well-being, thinking about the whole picture—the rider, the shows, the division, the age, etc. Only after that exercise do we set the schedule for each horse, knowing we may need to tweak it along the way based on what the horse tells us.
Keep in mind, every horse is different, just like every human is different. We have to train and care for them as individuals, taking into account the personality and physical body for each.
At the very top levels, I work backwards from the most important competition or goal for each and every horse. I plan their show, work, downtime, vet, blacksmith schedules and so forth all around this thought. I make sure they get everything they need personally to make them the best horse they can possibly be.
Equally important is scheduling downtime for every horse. Again, this is horse specific. Some horses don’t like downtime and you have to do a light hack here or there. Others really need complete leave-me-alone downtime and they get that.
I make sure all the horses in our barn are examined by our vets at least twice a year—and give them all the care the vets feel they need. For me, as a trainer, this is the least we can do so that our horses can give their all to us! And I don’t really give my clients the option to compete at the top level unless the rider/owner and everyone involved are on board with this line of thinking. That is the most important thing to me as a trainer!
At the same, I trust my people completely—my vets, blacksmith, chiropractor, acupuncturist, etc. The entire team is in constant communication and keeps the program consistent and geared toward each horse’s individual needs.
I think the biggest thing missed in this day and age is that we need to do what the horse needs, not what you need or what’s easiest for the barn or groom. That includes the grass, the love, the downtime, the re-evaluating the feed, the training method, and more. Horses are not machines—you can’t just ignore that they have brains and hearts.
As a judge, I have less influence on the care of the horses. The biggest thing I like to voice is that all horses at the highest level should be in the proper division. Suitability is all-important.
When a lame horse comes into my ring, something needs to be done as a judge, whether it’s speaking with another judge or official or reporting it to the stewards. It’s my responsibility to do what I feel is going to best help the horse.
I also keep the safety of the horse as a high priority. The crop is not a weapon. The spur is not a weapon. The hands should not be a weapon. So as a judge, for sure, the horse’s well-being comes first!
All judges need to feel empowered to keep their ring to those standards. I think all too often judges just ignore questionable conduct and look away. At the top of the sport, our officials should feel they can be heard and help the horse!
As a mom, well, I’m a sucker for what my horses have done and continue to do for my kid, so they get more care than I do. My rule is: they need to be at the best they can be if I’m asking them to keep my child at the best she can be! So if they need joint injections, they get them. If they need chiropractic work, acupuncture, etc., they get it.
I try hard, as a mom, to also not re-invent the wheel. The horse tells you what they want and you trust that your trainer is listening. If you don’t 100% trust that, then you are with the wrong trainer.
I trust my horse’s team and I support them. I pay them on time and I respect them, so that they can focus on giving their all to my horses. I know I am the check writer and the cookie giver and I work hard to do that to my very best ability and not get in anyone’s way. I feel too often the parent gives their opinion and demands things that aren’t ok and puts trainer in a position they shouldn’t be in to maybe bend in the care or the best interests of the horse. At the top levels, especially, they have to be able to take care of your horse as if it’s their own—and you have to love that!
When the trust isn’t there, I know it’s time for a change. Again, if you don’t 100% trust your trainer and their team, then you are with the wrong barn.
Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask questions and have open dialogue with your trainer. If you’ve been told something is happening and you know it’s not, or you know your horse needs something specific and they aren’t doing that, then you have to make a change.
If you think you know better and would rather do it your way because you feel their way isn’t right, then you’re probably are in the wrong place too. And that all results in the horse not getting the care it should. The barn should always feel like a happy place for your horse, or no one has enough gastroguard!
The top show barns will most likely not want you if you don’t do it their way, so remember: their way has to feel right to you. If it does, then be on board with their program. Write the checks with a smile and give love and cookies—that’s my job as the parent.
Dana Hart Callanan is a successful hunter, jumper and equitation coach, an ‘R’ judge, and a sales broker. In this column, she answers common questions about A level sport. Send your questions to email@example.com for consideration in a future column.