Why Good Trainers Matter

There are many ways to define what makes someone a “good” trainer, coach, teacher or mentor. Are they good because they have a mile-long list of accomplishments, awards and accolades tied to their name? Sure, the amount of experience and depth of someones professional resume makes a strong case for why you should train with so-and-so, but in my humble opinion it shouldn’t be the deciding factor for who you choose to help train you and/or your horse.

Not everyone who has been successful in their field is cut out to be a teacher. While they may be able to tell you how to do something, there are certain means of communication that are required in order to clearly and effectively teach you how to do something.

​A good trainer is able to adapt to their student. Just like no two horses are the same and rides must be adjusted depending on the horse and their current program, trainers must be able to adjust their teaching style to meet their students emotional needs, ability level and learning style. Screaming at a beginner/intermediate child when they pick up the wrong diagonal or go off course is about as constructive as getting on a green horse with no set plan and using conflicting aids. Eventually, both will become frustrated, discouraged and shut down.

​When I was fourteen years old my parents agreed to let me start lessoning at a local ‘show barn.’ (Said barn is no longer in existence.) They put me on a big, nice bay horse and he happened to be wearing a Pelham. Never having used a curb rein before, I asked the instructor what it was for and how I should use it. Instead of taking the time to teach me a valuable lesson, she instead became visibly irritated and told me how shocked she was that I didn’t know what it was or how to use it. She then proceeded to tie the rein up into a knot out of my reach and left my questions unanswered. I felt so belittled and almost ashamed for asking such a simple question. I remember my cheeks burning from embarrassment and trying so hard not to cry. No one should ever be made to feel less-than when they are trying to learn. NO questions are bad questions. Needless to say, we left that barn shortly after.

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The Early Years

When I arrived at Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, CT I was a gangly, awkward middle school girl who was obsessed with horses. I had little formal training and most of my experience was from being the girl who rode the ‘naughty’ ponies and horses at a small lesson barn. I may not have learned the basic principles of hunt seat equitation, but I did learn how to catch a tricky horse who didn’t want to come in, sit a nasty buck, muck stalls, feed and groom. I was well equipped with how to behave around horses and read their behavior, but the more formal show world was completely foreign to me.

I came to Ox Ridge with a green OTTB we got from one of David O’Connor’s working students in Aiken, SC. Long story short my wonderful mother and her eventer friend took me down to Aiken to look for a horse. We had no clue what we were doing. We bought a horse that did not fit my skill set. My trainers at Ox Ridge helped us sell him to a wonderful dressage rider and he went on to do quite well for himself!

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Those full chaps, tho.
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Me & James on the Ox Ridge Hunt Club field
Shortly after I was paired up with my first horse who taught me the ropes and was a total saint, Barclay Square aka Tex. A big bay Holsteiner gelding with a gorgeous face featuring a sad forelock and perfect round star, Tex had a heart of gold. I can’t recall a single negative experience from my time with him, which says A LOT about that angel horse’s character.
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NEHC Finals – I’m pretty sure my first final, ever.
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Tex in his earlier years – he was one of Missy Clark’s jumpers as a young buck. Photo Credit: Chronicle of the Horse

Insert a few wonderful people who helped shape me into the person I am today: Ken Welihan and Joe, Fran and Annie Dotoli. The Dotoli’s made Ox Ridge feel like a safe haven. The community they created was so tight knit and supportive. I would spend my entire day at the barn if I was allowed to, hoping horses would need to be hacked. At that age our minds are like a sponge; I wanted to watch every lesson, learn how to apply standing wraps, the proper use and mechanics of different bits and the correct way to clean and condition tack. Everything fascinated me.

That’s what made Ox Ridge so wonderful. The lessons learned went beyond the time we spent in the saddle. We were taught basic stable management and horse care, and tested on it, too! If we messed up a standing wrap, you better believe we were told to redo it right then and there. We took pride in taking care of our horses as well as our tack and knew how to dissemble and reassemble every type of bridle and piece of equipment.

There were rules and they were strictly enforced, but with good reason. I learned how being early is on time and being on time is late. How important your turnout is, even for a lesson. (Tuck in that shirt and make sure your boots are polished & hair tidy under your helmet!) To respect your peers and accept critical feedback from professionals without taking it personally. I learned how to appreciate the delicate balance of life and death, and how a matter of inches can affect the outcome of a situation. I learned how to celebrate the achievements of others and not wallow in self-pity if it just wasn’t my day. The list goes on and on and for that I will be forever grateful.

I slowly went from a horse-crazy girl who could list off all of the breeds, identify every part of a horses confirmation and still loved her Breyer collection to an educated and respectful junior who went to all of the big eq medal finals and even Europe to ride – something I never dreamed of doing when I first walked into that barn. My trainers were able to appropriately match me with horses best suited for my riding technique and instruct me in such a way that suited my visual/hands on learning style. I honestly have to say they helped prepare me for college more so than my high school guidance counselor.

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The Ox Ridge Family before leaving for our European adventure. Bless Fran & Annie for taking six teenage girls abroad to ride.
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The struggles of taking photos with a disposable camera.
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Course walking with Annie in Belgium.
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Showing in Belgium – how I kept my breeches clean is beyond me.
My time as a junior at Ox Ridge helped shape me into the adult I am today. I have respect for the process, for rules and a set program. I value role models and mentors, and trust them to push me when I’m ready for a new challenge. I know how to prepare for failures and come back from them striving to achieve greatness.
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Me & Paddington 3D – the horse that moved me up to the 3’6″
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WIHS with Paddington
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Me & Paddington
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Culpepper with Deluxe aka Luke
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CHJA Masters Medal Final with Fran & Ken
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USET Talent Search Finals with Ilex
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Me & Luke at WEF
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Deluxe aka Luke – he became my big eq horse when Paddington developed tendonitis and had to be retired early.

So, when you’re looking for a new trainer, don’t just look at their resume outlining what they have achieved as an individual. Look for their students that went on to prosper and have successful careers, both in and out of the show ring. Look for healthy, happy horses that enjoy their job. Take note of the stalls, bedding, tack rooms and aisles. Are they clean and proudly organized? How is the turnout? Don’t feel awkward asking to audit group and individual lessons. Deciding where to ride goes beyond who you will be training with. You need to take into consideration your horsey partner as where you choose to go is where they will be residing 24/7.

Take your time and weigh the pros and cons of the places you look at. Don’t feel like you need to follow the ‘trends’ or ride with ‘so and so’ because ‘everyone is doing it.’ What works for others may not work for you, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Arm yourself with a list of ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves.’ That will make decision time much easier. Above all – have fun and embrace the fact that you and your horse will land just fine.


In this sport, it truly does take a village. I am so thankful I was fortunate enough to have such a wonderful childhood and that my parents encouraged me to follow my passion and were able to support me the entire way. Writing this post has made me want to follow up with how I began my re-entry into the horse world as an adult, and what the ‘barn shopping’ process was like for me as a financially-independent ‘grown up.’So – thanks for reading and stay tuned for part II!

4 thoughts on “Why Good Trainers Matter

  1. I loved reading this because you managed to find supportive people and took the time to find the right trainer. Thank you for reminding me why I started riding too many years ago and also making me remember what that passion to ride felt like. Thank you.

    Like

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