As a journalist, I’ve interviewed hundreds of trainers. Some have been establishment figures, others have been rather more anti-establishment and a few – from both camps – have been awesome.
One thing those few have in common is that they’ve worked out how to connect with horses. I refuse to call them horse whisperers, because I don’t believe there’s anything mystical in what they do. Rather, they mix the analytical with the instinctive and always ask questions.
Many years ago, I was commissioned to write international dressage rider and trainer Jennie Loriston-Clarke’s biography. It was a wonderful task, not least because it gave me the chance to appreciate the bond between Jennie and her horses. I’ll never forget seeing Dutch Gold, one of her stallions, piaffe in his stable as he caught sight of her walking towards him; as she reached the door, he put his head on her shoulder and gave a sigh of satisfaction.
Jennie’s approach to training is to find ways of ensuring that horses enjoyed what she wanted them to do: something she learned from her mother, the artist Anne Bullen. Her accomplishments in the dressage world are legendary, but her other achievements include training a stunt double for the original Lloyds Bank black horse – a 13.2hh pony stallion called Catherston Nightsafe, who learned to gallop behind a camera car – and teaching a quadrille team of Welsh Cobs to jump through fire.
Jennie told me that when you want to teach a horse (or a person) something, you break it down into manageable steps. You also approach the task with the attitude of “Wouldn’t it be fun if we did this?” Wise words.
A few weeks ago, I talked to Emma Massingale for a magazine feature. Emma, as you may know, spent a month on an uninhabited island off the Irish coast with six Connemara ponies – including two barely handled three-year-olds bought at auction – aiming to back and riding the youngsters without equipment or fencing. As if that wasn’t enough, she had just a tent for shelter and lived on seafood she caught.
Emma knows how horses think. That’s what makes her so good at training them for TV adverts, such as this one:
There are lot of other trainers who are the real deal and who work with horses and their owners to get the best out of both. There are also some I wouldn’t let past my gate: sorry, I don’t want to know that my horse is telling you he’s unhappy because his Mum was spooked by a plastic bag while she was carrying him, but that if I pay you £X you can resolve his trauma.
I don’t pretend to be a gifted trainer. Like most owners, I do my best and if things don’t go to plan, take a step back and try and work out what I’ve done wrong.
There’s so much advice out there it can be difficult to know where to go. But what I have learned is that if an approach feels wrong, it probably is – and it’s better to stop than to follow instructions you know you’ll regret. I’ll finish with some more wise words, this time from Emma Massingale:
“It’s about having the time to work out how horses will want to do what we want them to do. They’ve got to want to learn, you can’t force it.”