horse trainer

Choosing a trainer is one of the most important decisions you’ll make for your horse. Learn what to look for in a professional.

If you’re like most, you want your horse to know more, perform better, and increase his learning capacity. While some people can do this themselves, there are many aspects that require a professional trainer to get to the next step.

What Are Your Goals?

Before you start looking for a trainer, you need a clear goal of what you want to accomplish with your horse. You also need a realistic idea of where your horse is in his current training. Is he fairly green, or a seasoned mount? Assess your own abilities too – if you’re a beginner, you may need a trainer a seasoned show person would not.

If you are trying to create a reining horse, dressage horse or jumping horse, you need to find someone qualified in those fields. If you are just starting a young horse, sending him to a specialized performance trainer may not be the best option. I am reminded of a top level professional who was asked: “Do you start your own horses?” His reply: “Heavens no, that requires a special person, and I can’t do that.” Think about that – if a top instructor sends his own horses to a specialist to be started, maybe you’ll want to as well.

In short, deciding who to work with to accomplish your goals depends on your horse’s needs, your abilities, and what stage he’s at in his training. You might find you need one trainer today and a different one six months from now – and that’s okay.

Making a Choice

Basing your choice of trainer on standardized qualifications is tough, because trainers don’t have to go through any are associations that test and qualify trainers. And there are trainers who “certify” people to teach their methods. You can find an array of “certified” programs and trainers on the internet.

However, just because someone claims to be certified in a particular style of training doesn’t necessarily qualify him to work with you and your horse. Some top level professionals have been harshly criticized for their methods. Regardless of a trainer’s qualifications and awards, I do not want someone tying my horse’s head to a stirrup and leaving him for hours in an attempt to “soften his neck” and teach him to give.

And that is one of the “milder” forms of “training” sometimes used. A more common way to find a trainer is to ask people you know, check with local sources such as tack stores, and seek out advice from people who are doing the same type of riding you are. If you are a trail rider, asking a dressage instructor to train your horse may not be the best idea. He may know a lot about what works in the arena but not much about trail riding. So while he might be able to teach your horse some things, he may not be able to teach him to be confident on the trails. Just because a trainer wears a cowboy hat doesn’t mean he’s qualified to teach reining or even trail riding. There are plenty of cowboy hat-wearing trainers who don’t have much experience being a cowboy. It doesn’t mean they can’t help you, but it might mean their practical experience is not what it appears.

In all situations, it’s best to find out where the trainer learned, and from whom, and what his practical experience is.

The Trainer’s Program vs. Your Expectations

Horses are bright and learn quickly. But that doesn’t mean they can go from “chumps” to “champs” in 30 days. So if a trainer is promising you the world in one to three months, you might want to slow down and ask lots of questions. It’s common for people to send a horse out for 30, 60 or 90 days of training. But this is misleading. A typical program of 30 days means the trainer really only trains the horse for about 22 days. Trainers take days off too (I have never met anyone who trained horses seven days a week). And even then, is it 22 days or more like 22 hours? Very few trainers work with a horse more than an hour at a time, so the most you can get is about 22 hours of training. Most of the time, in fact, a training session only lasts 30 to 40 minutes. So when a trainer says he can get something accomplished with your horse in 30 days, ask yourself if it seems realistic he could get it done in 22 hours or less.

Next, find out how many horses the trainer is working with. I once talked with a trainer who told me he had 14 horses in training, worked them every day, six days a week, and usually rode them for about an hour. He was quite proud of this. My next question was, who did he have helping him? He said he was the only one who rode the horses, stressing that under his program “no students did the training”. I then asked where his barn help was. At this point, I didn’t really care anymore, but my question was designed to find out how big a hole he was going to dig for himself.

I already knew 14 horses meant 14 hours of training, six days a week. That leaves little time to brush, saddle, warm up and cool down a horse, unless of course this is included in the hour of training. If it is, that means the horse is only being trained 30 to 40 minutes at most. That gives the trainer a 14-hour day, without counting stall cleaning, feeding and turning out horses. And that’s a 14-hour day without rest breaks and lunch.

If you hear claims like this, walk away. Some top trainers have lots of help and 50 horses in training, but remember he isn’t riding all 50 – he can’t. So if you want him to personally ride your horse, make sure that’s understood up front, and expect to pay more.

Watch Him At Work

Once you have decided on a trainer, watch him work with other horses besides yours. Most trainers will let you do this. Of course, if the trainer is trying to win your business, he may be on his best behavior that day. You might also want to watch several horses being trained since it is easy for a trainer to select his best performer to work with when you’re watching. By watching him train several horses, you’ll begin to see the true nature of his training.

You might also want to drop by unexpectedly. I dropped in on a trainer once, and as I drove up the road I could see him as he finished cinching up a horse. I pulled over on the shoulder of the road and watched. He got on and started riding (he had not seen me yet). After about six minutes, I turned down the driveway and pulled up to the barn. He rode over, got off the horse and greeted me. He then proceeded to unsaddle the horse, saying it was too bad I hadn’t arrived earlier as he was just finishing up with this one. “Had a great ride,” he said. I replied: “Yeah, I saw when you got on; short ride today.” His reply? “Well, sometimes you just need to get on and off so you can say you rode them.” Enough said.

Be prepared to interview more than one trainer. Get references and watch the trainers work with horses and clients. If you are careful and ensure you are well informed, you will find a professional who can help you and your horse take the next steep to reaching your full potential.

Scot Hansen is a natural horseman and retired mounted police officer, and has trained both riders and horses to work the streets. His award-winning Self Defense for Trail Riders clinics and training video have been widely accepted as the principal resource for safe trail riding and self protection. He has extensive knowledge of how horses think and learn, and offers professional training and clinics in Thinking Horsemanship and other topics for both adult riders and youths. Find out more at To ask about hosting a clinic in your area, call 425-830- 6260 or e-mail