How to treat clients – A guide for horse trainers

My recent article, “Poach the hunter/jumper shows for new Eventing recruits” sent me down memory lane and I started thinking about how my life with horses actually began.

I started riding in the summer of 2005 and loved it. Before the end of the summer, my parents, who knew absolutely nothing about horses, purchased me two ‘Mennonite rejects’. It was buy one, get the other for half price. My mom loves a good deal. So I became the proud owner of Katie, a 7-year-old Arab/Quarter Horse/Percheron/Thoroughbred dark brown pinto mare and Joey, a 3-year-old Quarter horse palomino paint gelding.

They were in the process of being broke at the barn where I was taking lessons. They were very ‘pretty’ and I wanted my own horse. My mom thought she might enjoy riding so agreed to buy them so we could learn together.

As the horses were not trained, they were more than my mom and I could handle. We boarded them at a hunter/jumper barn that was employing young girls in the area to coach beginner riders on schoolies. We were not riding schoolies – I was in desperate need of a coach with some serious experience to help me and my feral beasts.

I signed up for a dressage clinic in January 2006 with Elaine Potter, M level dressage judge, Chef d’Equipe for the Canadian Junior and Young Rider team from 2001-2004, and international head groom. Elaine is the woman that changed my riding life forever. She took me under her ‘angel’ wing and gave me the foundation needed to succeed in the horse business. The lessons and skills she taught me, are the basics I will use for the rest of my life

Elaine and I.

Elaine and I.

When the clinic weekend arrived, since I was a better rider than my mom, I decided to ride Katie because she was highly spooky and bucked frequently. My mother was riding Joey, a much calmer mount. Before the lesson began, we were walking the horses around the arena to warm them up. I was at the far end of the arena on Katie when the barn owner turned on the sound system. It made a deafening crackling noise, causing Katie to bolt across the arena as though she was shot out of a cannon. She made a sliding stop inches from the Elaine where she was standing in front of the exit door. I’m not sure whose eyes were bigger with fear – mine, Katie’s or my mom’s.

Elaine later told her version of the story which was Katie was ran to her, looked her in the eyes and begged, “Help me”. Elaine calmly assessed the situation.

Regardless of whether Katie was begging her for help or I was just in need of a proper trainer, Elaine saved us both. Taking note of my terrified mother and me unsettled in the saddle, she immediately made a suggestion. Her plan was that she would ride Katie, I would ride Joey and my mom would sit this one out. We did not question her, my mom was benched and relieved that she did not have to ride or watch me on that crazy mare.

Elaine’s calm, clear and confident riding had an immediate effect on Katie. Katie started to engage her back, round her frame and relax. Everyone watching was in awe of the transformation. Elaine explained what she was doing to get this miraculous result – balancing the horse by using crystal clear aids and not riding in fear. She also had me work on my posture and getting Joey more responsive to my aids. Her coaching style was something I had never experienced before. Instead of just giving me instructions like “kick!” and “ride a circle,” she also used abstract explanations to explain to me how it was supposed to feel. By the end of the lesson I was hungry for more – I wanted to learn to ride Katie how I witnessed Elaine ride her.

After the lesson, my mom immediately approached Elaine to ask her if she would train Katie. Katie’s antics had put the fear of the lord in my mom; she would not ride her and had serious concerns about me riding her. Elaine asked my mom, “Why would green riders, buy green horses.” My mom paused and said, “Say it again and that is actually your answer.” Elaine started to laugh and realized that these green riders did not know any better. Her response to my mom’s plea was that we come visit Pine Ridge, the barn she worked from and that I take a lesson on one of the horses so we could check out her work place and get to know each other.

The next week my parents and I made the trek to Pine Ridge, which was a three-hour drive. Elaine was at the door to greet us and the horse I was going to ride was tacked up in the crossties. His name was Tobou and he was a 2nd level master. Elaine had another one of her students ride her Grand Prix horse alongside me and I was instructed to watch how she was riding and try to mirror it. Elaine gave me pointers and had me try some simple dressage movements such as a leg yield. The entire experience was almost surreal.

My first lesson on Tobou.

My first lesson on Tobou.

After the lesson, my parents and Elaine made arrangements for her to take Katie in for training. I felt a sense of relief wash over me knowing that Katie would be in such good hands. Elaine suggested that I come for a weekly lesson and to visit Katie, my mother agreed.

Every week, we noticed a huge change in Katie. Elaine took care of Katie like she was her own. Katie was not an easy horse to keep clean as she had a lot of white on her but she was gleaming every time we visited. I mentioned to Elaine that I could not believe how clean she was, Elaine explained that she always ensures that her clients’ horses look impeccable 24/7. She pointed out that a client could drop by unannounced and that she would always want them to see their horse glistening. This piece of advice has always stuck with me.

During most of Katie’s training, Elaine had me ride one of her trained horses in my lessons. These trained horses taught me new things that I was able to take home to help train Joey. Joey was very laidback, training him was much simpler. Katie was a mare and I was lacking the finesse to ride her, Elaine did not want us confusing one another. Eventually the day came that Katie’s training and mine were at a point that Elaine let me sit on Katie. What I felt underneath me was a completely different horse. She was calm, responsive, balanced and I was able to communicate with her because of all my lessons. After several supervised lessons on Katie, Elaine felt confident that our partnership was stable enough that I could take Katie home.

Joey and I.

My lessons with Elaine helped me train Joey to look like a dressage horse.

Elaine gave me a training journal that she had been filling out daily to track Katie’s progress. I was able to refer to the journal to understand her training process and troubleshoot any problems. Elaine was generous with her time, devoted to the training and treated her clients with respect.

Elaine taught me how to train horses. By riding her experienced and patient schoolmasters I learned what ‘feels’ to seek when I rode Joey. Bringing Joey successfully along while Elaine trained Katie was a godsend. I was able to develop confidence as not only a rider but also a trainer.

Applying what Elaine taught me with my first client – You can use these tips too!
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to ride an OTTB mare for my first client. Torie was fresh off the track when I got the ride on her. Her owner sent her to Florida with me, so she could learn how to jump, event and begin a new career. Now was my time to implement the skills and lessons that I learned from Elaine:

Write a journal entry each day about the horse’s progress. This only takes about five minutes
Keep the horse groomed impeccably and feed quality food so she looks amazing around the clock
Enlist people to take videos and pictures of me riding her at shows and in schooling
Send a weekly update via email with the pictures, videos and journal entries
At shows, text regular updates about each phase
Do not filter the updates. If Torie had a stop at a ditch in training, I was honest about it so her owner could understand if there were problems and how we were working towards solving them. The journal and updates were an honest account of what was happening.

Torie’s owner loved her and was a huge fan of the consistent and frequent updates. If it were not for Elaine, I would have never have thought of communicating to my client with such detail and collateral. Owners invest a lot of money into training. It is difficult to appreciate the investment, as there is nothing really tangible with a process. It is sometimes easy to forget how much the horse improved without documentation. Providing journal and video progress is a great way to demonstrate your value and track the horse’s progress in your program.

Eventually, my client made the choice to sell Torie. I got a very last minute phone call that potential buyers were showing up at the barn to try her and if I could get her ready and show her. I made a Nascar drive to the barn ran out to the paddock, brought her in, shined her up, tacked her up and showed her off. The young girl hit it off with her and her parents bought her. The grooming skills Elaine taught me were certainly helpful for that short notice sale! Ironically, the mare sold to the hunter/jumper world.

Elaine taught me everything from training youngsters to working grooming magic. To this day, my favourite thing about Eventing is training young horses. I thrive off of producing my own horses from the ground up. Two of my stars include Evil Munchkin and Devil Munchkin. I started them as five-year-olds and brought them up to the two-star level. Evil Munchkin was sold last year to a young rider. I am still competing Devil Munchkin and he is not for sale, despite many offers in the last six months. FE Party Munchkin is 6-years-old and he began his Eventing career earlier this year and now competes at the Prelim level. Dally’s Munchkin, my homebred, will make his Eventing debut next year as a four-year-old.

Thank you Elaine for the patience, guidance and love that brought to me a lifestyle and a career that I love.

Need help training a young horse
So I am going to throw it out there… if you have a young horse that you would like help training contact me and I will be more than happy to bring it along. Of course I will send you weekly updates with complete journal entries and photos of your sparkling clean horse!

The end of Katie’s time living at Pine Ridge was only the beginning of my riding journey under Elaine’s tutelage. In the coming weeks, stay tuned for more lessons from Elaine.

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