Lessons, for Free

Want free lessons from a top pro? Head to the warm-up pen at a horse show, put your cell phone down, and let the learning begin.
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I often hear people com-plain that they can’t afford to ride with (or take lessons from) a top trainer. I understand. But then I’ll watch those same folks spend time at a horse show chatting and messing with their cell phones. That means they’re missing an opportunity for a real-time lesson with a top pro…for free.

I understand that part of the fun of horse shows is socializing. But you can miss out on a lot if you don’t take the time to watch top trainers and riders school in the warm-up pen.

I understand that part of the fun of horse shows is socializing. But you can miss out on a lot if you don’t take the time to watch top trainers and riders school in the warm-up pen.

That’s right: Free. All you have to do is shut up, watch, and learn at the warm-up pen. There, you can see how trainers school, solve problems, and prep their horses for the show pen. (Afterward, you can get a lesson in show-ring savvy by watching them show their horses.)

It must be the best-kept secret in showdom, because I rarely see people take advantage of the opportunity. Sure, I’ll see folks hanging out along the rail. But more often than not, they’re socializing, not watching.

TRAINING LAB
I certainly watch. And I continue to learn. As I was pondering this topic, I was at the 2011 National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity in Reno, Nevada, hanging out by the warm-up pen. There were three past futurity champs warming up, plus a bunch of world champions. There were also some young guys who’ll be champions. It was like a training laboratory.

You can bet I studied what they all did with their horses. For one thing, I love to see what makes people win. Do they prep their horses differently than the others do? Do they have better horses? I can find that out at the warm-up pen.

You can also learn the following.

• How does a trainer (or non-pro) care for his or her horses, mentally and physically? The horse will tell you. Is he relaxed, fit, slick, and turned out beautifully? Or is he scraggly, thin, anxious, and/or resentful, with dirty tack? The former horse’s trainer or rider is there to win. The latter horse’s? Not so much.

Tip: This is also key info if you’re trainer shopping: Studying a trainer and his horse in the warm-up will tell you almost all you need to know about his or her program. Someone who’s meticulous about his or her prep, riding, and turnout is also likely to be meticulous about his or her entire program. (I’ll even go look at a trainer’s rig: It doesn’t have to be fancy, but if it’s clean and in good repair, that’s generally a good sign that the rest of the business will be, too.)

• Does he or she put too much pressure on a young horse? Does the youngster look confident? Or is his head in the air, his eyes bugged out, and his face tense with anxiety and/or fear? If it’s the latter, chances are that trainer is treating his or her young horse like an older, broke one. That’s too much pressure for an immature mind and body. And that’s a good lesson in what not to do.

• How does the trainer handle his or her customers and staff? How a trainer handles the humans around him or her can give you terrific insights into how he or she may handle horses. Is it with care and respect? That’s a good thing. If not, that’s a bad thing.

• Is he or she trying to “win the warm up?” Sometimes you’ll see a rider trying to impress the other riders in the warm-up pen, by asking his or her horse to hang it all on the line there. You may be super impressed by that little exhibition…until you watch him or her show. Chances are, the horse won’t have anything left for the show pen.

That’s another important “don’t” lesson you can watch and learn for free. (Be sure to watch the progression from warm-up to show pen. It’ll give you a chance to connect the dots between what’s done out there, and what happens in front of the judges or clock.)

• How does he or she solve a problem? Maybe the horse is fresh, is spooky, or lacks focus. Perhaps he’s anticipating a cue. You could learn something new by watching a good trainer’s fix. Then take that fix home. It might work for you. And…the lesson was free.

So turn off your cell phone. Tell your friends you’ll catch up with them later. And take advantage of a free training “clinic.” Don’t be shy—you can even make the experience an interactive one. If you have a question, approach the trainer when he or she has taken a break to let the horse catch his breath (but not right before he or she heads into the show pen!). Be brief and polite. I don’t know a trainer who won’t answer if he or she has time; I certainly do.

A multiple AQHA world champion in a variety of events, Bob’s also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He was the first recipient of the prestigious AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. To learn more, go to bobavila.net

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