Shakespeare and riding instructors

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” –Wm. Shakespeare

Three days ago, I stopped at the barn to handle my new horse, Alydar,

Afterwards, I stopped to watch Cher long reining Miko, a Friesian/QH mare. At least I think she was long reining her. It seemed more that Cher merely had two lunge lines on the mare and was running her in a tight circle..  She didn’t seem to be accomplishing much more than pissing off the mare. I don’t claim to be a trainer, but I was taught how to long rein and it wasn’t being done the same way as Cher was doing it.

Cher is the unofficial riding instructor at Bourbon Stables. I do not know if she has any credentials as a riding instructor. I just know what I’ve observed of Cher’s teaching ability. I am not impressed.  I don’t claim to be a riding instructor, but I do know how to teach some things, and I do know how to learn from a good trainer. Cher is not.

Cher’s teaching repertoire consists of two methods.

Method A: presumably she has already taught her student how to perform some action, i.e. change a lead. She asks the student to perform a lead change and then tells the student whether or not the rider has accomplished it or not. She does this by saying “You KNOW how to do this.”

and

Method B, assuming that you already know how to change a lead, asks the horse for a lead change, and the only way you know you’ve accomplished it is when Cher says “good job”.

Are you confused as I am? I’ve watched her teach both humans and ‘train horses’, and I leave as confused as when I came in.

Common sense would say that if I hear the instructor ask for a lead change, I should see the horse change leads.

I could never be a riding instructor. It takes talent and a lot of patience to teach something as complex as riding. But I’ve had a few lessons from Kim,  who was able to deduce that I was or was not performing something, knew WHY I was not performing the action requested,  and was able to tell me how to do something on the back of a horse. When I followed her directions to the letter, I got the response I wanted from the horse.

It’s discouraging and certainly demoralizing, to place your trust in someone who purports to be a trainer, and, then, try as you might, you are unable to perform what the instructor has supposedly taught you how to do. It makes you feel….well, stupid, even more so when you are PAYING to be demoralized and discouraged.

For instance, the training session with humans on horseback involved Tiana, a dear friend of mine, riding her magnificent Hanoverian, Denali. Denali is the heartthrob of the barn. If he were a human, he’d be the President of the Senior Class, the team quarterback, the rock star, the teenaged swooner, the one the girls have pictures of on their bedroom wall-all at the same time.

Denali the Magnificent

Tiana is the nicest person on the planet. Sweet natured, gentle, nurturing, intelligent…if she weren’t my age, I would want her to be my mother.

I came upon the training session toward the end. I do not know what Cher had instructed Tiana to do. I didn’t ask. I keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself, because the session is a paid for by someone else, and no one likes an opinionated railbird.

What I saw was a relaxed, soft eyed Denali trotting in circles around Cher. Note in the pictures, he is in a hackamore, NOT in a bit. Yet he was on the bit, nonexistent though it was. He was vertical, foaming at the mouth like something rabid. His trot was even, balanced, his tail swinging gently in rhythm with his trot. He was ‘in frame’, and looked the perfect dressage horse. I’ve been privileged to ride Denali twice. It is an incredible experience, one I wrote about in an earlier post.

Denali in a hackamore

In contrast, Tiana looked grim and stiff as a board. And no wonder. Cher was saying, “come on, you KNOW how to do this, you CAN do it.” Then she would say, “Good Job.”

That phrase: “good job!” grates on me like few others. “Good job!” is a phrase one uses to reward a male toddler you are attempting to housebreak. It is demeaning to say it to a woman in in her late fifties who is obviously working her butt off trying to satisfy the trainer.

With as discerning eye as I could summon, I watched Tiana to see if she actually accomplished the action Cher was asking her for. Tiana tried, but I could see no reaction from Denali. None.  Yet Cher would say “Good job!” or “You know how to do this!”

To me, it looked like utter bullshit.

This is not the first time I’ve watched Cher train someone, and in each case, it seemed almost as if the “good job” was timed…so many seconds after asking the student to perform it, the student was given a ‘good job’ or a ‘I’m not seeing it, let’s try it again.”, regardless of whether or not the student/horse actually DID it.

So I believe it is NOT Tiana merely riding around in circles on her horse and paying a hefty hourly fee to ignore Cher.

I believe it’s a case of Cher has no ability to train a horse or instruct a rider. What she IS, is a salesman who’s figured out how to prey (the play on words is intended) on other people’s insecurities, and make money doing it.

This is good for business for Cher, but bad for the student. By keeping the student confused and unsure of just what she has achieved, Cher makes it so that the student must keep taking lessons. From her.

Tiana was made to dismount. Cher unhooked one end of a rein from the hackamore, and put Denali into a trot around her in a very tight circle. Denali trotted steadily, evenly, without fuss. What was the point? I had no idea. Denali appeared to be his normal self: willing, obedient, and even tempered.

I left without saying a word, before the end of the lesson.

Later on in the evening, Tiana called me. This is unusual; she’s not a one to call up for no reason, just to chat. (or witter?) She wanted to know my opinion of Cher’s training. I said, “I’m no trainer, but Cher does not impress me.”

She asked me what I thought of her session earlier. I said, “T, I saw that lovely horse of yours trotting in steady, even circles, in a hackamore, relaxed and happy. You didn’t appear to be having any fun at all.”

She gasped. Even over the phone, I had nailed what she was feeling, and was able to elucidate it.

“You’re right. I am NOT happy. Cher told me I should sell Denali because he’s not any good.”

I lost it. I’m afraid I yelled in her ear.  I’m not a trainer but I know a good horse when I see one.

I said, “If you sell him you are a fool. If you sell him, I’m going to be first in line to buy him. I have no idea how in the hell I will afford him, but I will. But don’t you DARE sell him.”

Then I calmed down and told her I couldn’t see what made Cher say such a thing.

Cher said that Denali was ‘no good, would never be able to take Tulla anywhere.”

But it is obvious that Cher had made T even more confused and unhappy with herself. She felt that all of her hard work to ‘be a better rider’ was wasted.

I remembered a blog I’d read recently, that being Anne Gage’s “Should you be a better rider?” (the link to it is: confidenthorsemanship.wordpress.com)

Her email is www.annegage.com

Gage’s well written and reasoned blog post cuts through all the bullshit and asks the question, “just how good do you have to be?”

The ultimate question being, “Why?”

It has stuck with me, and I put that question to T.

“Tiana, what are your goals?”

“Goals?”

“Goals. For instance, every time I get on a horse, I do it with a certain goal in mind. So far, I’ve met my goal every time, and everything else is a bonus.”

“What goal is that?”

“My goal is Don’t Fall Off.”

She laughed. “That is a very good goal to have.”

And then we got down to reality.

She poured out her frustration at herself, and at Cher. T works her butt off, and it never seems to be doing any good. If there’s any advancement at all, it’s been in inches, when she “should be miles ahead, by now.”

I reassured her that she is a better rider than she thinks, and that Denali, noble Denali, was the proof of this.

“Now I don’t know if I have a goal. I don’t think I WANT a goal, not at the rate I’m going.”

I told her (I’m shortening the conversation) “You will never be a Grand Prix rider, T, you are too old. (that one hit hard, I’m sorry to say, harder than I intended-but I was still hot from Cher’s ‘’advice.”

She squawked, but she is strong enough to take it.

I said, “Mind you, I’m too old, too. But I have no goals or desires other than to ride well, and keep my horse happy.”

“T, you just started riding seven years ago. Look how far you’ve come in that period! This is what, your fifth or sixth lesson with Cher? Has Cher told you that you’ve improved? You don’t need to sell Denali. You need to stop listening to someone who will never let you believe you’re improving, who will never tell you have accomplished the goals they set. Why?  Because Cher keeps moving the goal posts She’s not trying to teach you to improve. She’s letting you trot around in circles. If Cher lets you believe you’ve come as far as she can take you, “you’re done, congratulations”, you stop taking lessons.  You stop paying her. You stop GIVING HER YOUR MONEY.

Cher is doing this for money. That’s it. It’s her ‘job’.  She knows your checks are always going to be good. You are a dependable source of income. How do you think she can afford a Hulsebos saddle?

It’s like you are in first grade and will never, ever get the grades to pass to second grade.”

T sighed. I could hear her relax.

“You’ve given me a lot to think about. I feel better. I’ve got to go, now, but thank you so much.”

After we hung up, I felt that perhaps I’d been too hard on her. I can be that way.

But T is no candy ass. She called me the next day, again, totally out of the ordinary.

I immediately apologized for being so rough on her. “No, no,” she said, “I thought a lot about what you said, and you’re right.”

“There are friends, and there are True Friends” she said, “and you demonstrated that you are a true friend. A true friend tells you the truth, no matter how painful it may be, because a true friend wants only the best for you.”

Well, I hadn’t thought of it like that, but she’s right. I’ve been kicked between the eyes by my truest of friends, a woman I’ve known for over 30 years. Fran never pulls her punches. She has blowtorched me with the truths I needed to hear. It hurts like hell when she’s roasting me like a spitted pig, and for a while afterwards, I don’t like her very much. But later on, when I’ve thought it through, I realize she’s right, and means only the best for me. It’s the sort of treatment this bull-headed woman needs.

You cannot buy that sort of friendship. It is earned. And it is precious beyond price.

“Thank you”, I said.

T continued. “I talked to Ron (her husband, a very nonhorsey man who loves Denali, too.) ‘and something he said really brought it home to me. When I told him that Cher said I should sell Denali, Ron said, “Does Denali get a say in any of this?”

What a tremendous insight from a non-horseman.

She then asked, “How did you know?”
“About what?”

“About Cher, not being able to teach.”

“T, I audited one of Heather Blitz’s clinics last year.  I didn’t even get on a horse. In those three days, I learned more about riding and training people and horses than all the times I’ve watched Cher run rich women around in circles.  Heather was teaching the rider and the horse, and didn’t set goals for them. They came to her with problems, and she fixed it, and you could SEE the results. Some of those people were Prix St. George level!

Those folks had problems, and she helped them fix them. Even I, a baby in terms of ability, compared to all the rest of the women there, was treated with respect, as if I was as good as the rest of them. No one was told ‘good job’ or “you know how to do this.”  When I asked a question, it was answered. I’ve already put some of the stuff I learned just by watching and listening to a REAL trainer. And I’m so green I could be grass.

Honest to god, T, there are times I’ve heard Cher say ‘You KNOW how to do this” and I want to yell, “if she did, she wouldn’t be paying you to tell her!”

I wish I’d remembered to tell her about Anne’s blog post, but I will.

The lesson is this.

A person’s ability to teach can only be judged by the resulting performance of her students, be they horse, or human.

When I was training soldiers in the Army, it never occurred to me to tell someone ‘you KNOW how to do this”. If the person DIDN’T accomplish the task, it was because they didn’t understand it, or your instructions were too confusing, or it was too complex to take in such big bites, or they were (let’s be blunt here) too stupid to get it first try. Or second. Taking the backlash out of an AVDS 1790 isn’t easy. Nevertheless, you went over the lesson again. Sometimes I found myself literally taking the soldier’s hands and moving them the way they needed to go. You taught it again, gently, with patience and understanding, until the soldier got it.

In my not so humble opinion, Cher isn’t so much a trainer as someone who is desperately hoping that, by rewarding (‘good job!”) or ‘’’correcting’ (although “You KNOW how to do this” is NOT correction. It’s laying blame.), she gives one the impression that she is an instructor.

She’s like the proverbial duck: moving serenely on the water’s surface, and paddling like hell underneath.

She’s a charlatan.

The proof for me was in seeing a horse lathered up after running in circles around her for an hour, and STILL not doing what Cher was trying to get it to do. It means Cher isn’t really teaching the horse anything. She’s going through the motions, but she is not reaching the horse. That’s the proof, the real proof. You can bullshit a human. You can convince an unhappy and unsure human that yeah, you did it, yay! And hope they don’t have the balls to say, No, I didn’t, admitting that they really haven’t done anything different from what they were doing an hour ago.

You can’t bullshit a horse. Either the horse has learned or it has not. The horse doesn’t have an ego that needs stroking. The horse, the horse, is the proof of the pudding.

When T STILL cannot get Denali to do what Cher has insisted T ‘knows how to do’,  Denali becomes an embarrassment. He’s like a flashing neon arrow pointing at Cher, reading  “FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.” Cher knows that T is going to figure out she’s being played for a fool. Once she does that, T is going to fire Cher.

So Cher sets up a smoke screen. Telling T that she needs to sell Denali is merely a way to one, buy Cher a lot more training sessions with T, (on a new horse) and two, get rid of an embarrassing, inconvenient truth (Denali) before Tiana figures it out.

That truth being: Cher is not a trainer, or an instructor. She is a con artist.

You can tell how good a teacher is by the accomplishments and advancements of her students.

Shakespeare said it: “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

In this case: the proof of the trainer’s efficacy is in the horse’s response.

In this case, there is no response, because there is no request. There is no request because Cher hasn’t taught the student how to ask it.

Cher hopes that T gets a different horse, one that is not as push button as Denali. This will effectively put T back to square one, and Cher will have another year or so of income from T, with the same result: nothing.

This is cheating, pure and simple. I don’t like cheaters.

I called T today to tell her this.

“I think you’re right. I came to that conclusion last night.”

I was relieved.

I said, “T, why don’t you take a sabbatical from training? Take a year off, and just ride that magnificent horse of yours FOR FUN.  Take what you’ve learned and use it, but make it just you and him. He loves you, you know, you are his mare and he would do anything for you.”

“I’ve already made that decision. No more training for me. Ever. I’m done. Ron and I are going to the beach this weekend. I’m going to ride Denali in the surf.”

I laughed. I could just see that big black horse, chasing the Pacific Ocean white horses back out to sea.

“Wow,” I said, “that would be such a blast.”

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and kept putting off. Now we’re going to do it. And trail ride in the Forest, and maybe go camping.”

I could hear the joy in her voice.

Soon, T will be riding her lovely, talented, Denali, just for fun.

And she will be smiling. Too.

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About subodai213

Retired U.N.C.L.E agent. Living in Laurasia.
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5 Responses to Shakespeare and riding instructors

  1. Wow – what a great concept … riding for fun; for the sheer enjoyment of being with your horse. Unfortunately, your friend is not alone in her experience with her coach. People (especially women) need to remember that they are the one paying the coach. The student should be able to ask questions and the coach should be able to answer them. The coach should also be able to break things down until the student understands it. And … that’s the same way the horse should be trained, too.

    Thanks for sharing my blog post … I hope it inspires more folks.

    Cheers

    Anne

  2. rontuaru says:

    That was so beautifully written, it made me cry. You are a wise woman and a good friend. I know I’m thought of as blunt too, but it kills me to see people create this fantasy in their head only to have it stoked by someone they’re paying to help them figure out what is and isn’t reality. T is a lucky woman to have a good husband, a great friend and a fantastic horse.

  3. Good on T and you too for stopping her being bullied! I think “having fun” is a very underestimated goal, for motivating both people and horses! Could it be that Cher wanted to buy Denali on the cheap?

    • ptigris213 says:

      Oh my gosh. That thought never occurred to me. Huh. It wouldn’t surprise me AT ALL that Cher had designs on Donali!

  4. ptigris213 says:

    Thank you. It twists the living shit out of my knickers when I see someone take advantage of someone else. I don’t need to tell you, do I, that I”ve always politely turned down Cher’s ‘offers’ to train me. I’m pretty blunt. Sorry, I cannot afford you.
    The fun thing about this is, she accepts it. She doesn’t do anything for free.

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