The Student before me

Relationships between students and teacher can be fulfilling. I’ve worked with many of my students for years and they have become a special part of my life.

On the other hand the relationship can easily descend into confusion, frustration and a breakdown of student teacher relationship. Yes I’ve regretfully had those but they have been extremely rare.

The truth can be hard; often difficult to tell and usually tough to receive. Over the years I’ve learned to be more sensitive with the truth. Boundaries of honesty may have been stretched to fit a personal vision, revealing all to a relative stranger can be hard. If a client isn’t ready to see the full picture then it’s best to proceed carefully towards it, shaping as we go. As client trust grows so does the confidence to ask questions that can be honestly answered.

Sometimes a student will take lessons and then disappear for months. The grapevine might provide information that they are taking lessons with someone else. And then someone else. Then the recall. I have nothing new to say but I must find new ways of saying it. I mustn’t be harsh when they recount new knowledge that rings all my alarm bells. As I said the truth can be hard.

Everyone loves certainty. Offering an assurance that I can change a horse’s behaviour or performance would surely bring me more customers. What if you were offered a financial guarantee? Behaviour change or your money back! Dressage scores increased or you’ll receive £500! Not only would this spell professional disaster but it implies that improvements are one-sided, trainer fairy dust cast from my magic wand. It’s simply dishonest.

The reality of behaviour change and training is that is takes a holistic approach, addressing not only physical but mental, emotional, management and welfare aspects. The client is as much a part of that holistic approach as the horse.

The Wonderful Emma and Jim.

Client compliance seems an exacting term but it is commonly used to evaluate the likelihood of a client following instructions. Similar to the submission required from a horse in a dressage test it sounds almost military in its quest for obedience and control. Cooperation and receptivity as measures of a client’s prospect of success seem more relevant.

Reception of new information rests on many things. Past experiences with trainers can shape a client’s trust and belief in any new knowledge. Self-assumed knowledge, traditional practices and the influence of peer pressure at livery yards, riding clubs or amongst online groups can seriously hinder reception of new information. An essential part of disseminating material to a client must involve drawing a line in the sand to indicate the current position. To this end a client that I consider working with will complete either a history form or a new student form or in some cases both.
Cooperation with a protocol or training plan hinges on them being clearly understood. Professionals talking at a client are likely to achieve less cooperation than those that involve them in relevant dialogue. Encouraging storytelling and picture painting from the position of the client and their horse can cement that understanding. Personalised protocols and plans drawn up between a client and myself have a higher chance of success than demanding generalised procedures be adopted.


A client will complete either a history form or a new student form or in some cases both.

For some clients the reception of new ideas (for the reasons above) may be particularly hard. Even clients who are very receptive may find cooperation difficult. It’s one thing knowing that you have to make changes and another making those changes. Like the New Year diet plan enthusiasm can carry you over the start line, but for most, little further.

I have had situations in the past where, alongside a client, we have worked out a realistic protocol for say a loading problem only for it to derail within weeks. My trainer’s fairy dust (desensitising and counter conditioning amongst other techniques) had the horse keen to load every time at home.

Next stage, in very small increments, would be to change the context and add duration. Homework might have been to travel the horse out for a short distance and then return home and reload (and repeat, repeat, repeat). This might gradually be shaped into unloading a short distance from home and reloading and eventually result (through many tiny changes) in arriving at an event and reloading without the stress of competing.

The excited call comes too early;

‘He was so good we took him to a competition today and he loaded like a dream’.

My heart thuds seeming to relocate in the direction of my stomach. Do I play the killjoy? Ask what the heck they thought they were doing ignoring the protocol? Suggest that it will likely go pear shaped in no time?

It’s usually none of those but a cautiously optimistic line suggesting that they now go back to the plan. Do they? Well it seems not as often I will hear that the horse is again not loading and now they are going to buy an expensive new lorry or a travel companion that will ensure future loading. In the end the horse may be sold on as unfit for purpose.

I can’t guarantee a horse will load in every situation but with careful plans and slow careful shaping I can load the dice in my favour. Failing to stick to a strategy is definitely not going to help but I understand, training protocols are dull and competitions, fun rides etc are not.

I work with many people who are equally receptive and cooperative. They make my life easy and often turn out to be exceptional trainers with natural insight. With these students there is a three way communication connecting them, the horse and me. Learning comes from all points of that triangle and result in harmonious relationships between all concerned.

If reception and cooperation prove difficult it is down to me to find a path, to keep supporting the process of change. Invariably those changes come, and with them even more opportunities to learn and grow.

There are some occasions when the honest answer is to disentangle and resign. Defeat is hard to admit to but sometimes it needs admitting.

Of course some responsibility lies with the client or student. Not just to be honest but to admit when things have become difficult. Making mistakes is inevitable but shouldn’t be seen as catastrophic. It is possible to recover and what’s more to grow in resilience (something we hope also to help our horses achieve) as a result.

Laughing horse

Lead a horse to water

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