A Reader Requested:

I would like you to present an article about the trainer instructors that keep riders “hostage” by:

  • limiting opportunities to show at their convenience, 
  • refusing to allow independent riding, 
  • scoffing at going to clinics. 
  • The limiting factor for many kids is the horse trailer. You can’t go unless your trainer wants you to go…. 

I’ll try to address both sides of this request point by point, but put on you steel toed boots because I promise to step on some toes.

Trainer Instructors that Keep Riders “Hostage”

Hostage is a strong word. It means captive, prisoner, inmate, detainee, internee; victim, abductee, prey; human shield, pawn, instrument.

Hostages usually do not have a choice in their role. Riding students have a choice.  They just don’t always like their choices, or they don’t have the nerve to make them.

What about the trainer Instructor?

A trainer instructor’s career is directly influenced by how he/she conducts their business, but it is also influenced by how they are represented by students and horses that they have trained. Consequently most instructors try to maintain a measure of control over the activities of their students and horses.

Most trainer instructors have a plan for each individual based on their goals and the instructor’s knowledge. This plan is a progression of lessons, stages and activities that the instructor knows are the best route for a particular student to take.  Trainer instructors are normally willing to discuss plans and make adjustments, but the bottom line is that it’s their business.

But it’s more than just “my way or the highway”. Trainer instructors have spent a lifetime developing the skills it takes to teach you how to reach your goals in horsemanship. Most have walked more colicky horses, traveled to more shows, chosen more horses and equipment, trained more students, more horses, and yes- mucked more stalls – than the average student will ever mange to do in their lifetime – unless the student choses to become an instructor.


What if the trainer instructor really is unreasonably controlling and prevents her riders from advancing or reaching their goals?

Always, your first recourse is to make an appointment to have a discussion about your direction and progress.  If your instructor is extremely busy you may have to pay the price of a riding lesson.

Your second option would be to put it in writing and ask your instructor to read it, at his or her convenience.  Or you might combine the two methods; put it in writing first and have a face to face conversation after your trainer has had the opportunity to read and think about the issues.

This is not a tactic to change your instructor.  It’s a method for clarifying goals and methods; for asking questions and maybe even coming to a compromise.  Make sure that you are tactful and polite with your requests, especially when you write your issues out.  A bad attitude will not get you what you want.

Limit Opportunities to Show at Their Convenience

Being a trainer/instructor is usually a 24/7 job, especially if the trainer has horses to care for, so it should be no surprise if showing has to fit into their schedule and be reasonably convenient. It’s no small task to organize a teaching/training/showing schedule. Unless an instructor is laying out a show schedule for advanced riders who have a specific achievement in mind, normally riders for shows will be selected according to whose riding is ready and what classes are offered.

Again I suggest that you have a conversation with your trainer/instructor about showing.  Have your questions and calendar ready ahead of time.  Ask her what  shows you can plan on participating in, when she wants to send entries in and what fees she will charge you for prep, hauling, day fees etc.  I have seen students who were offended that their instructor/trainer expected to be paid for the time they spend with students showing. Students rarely understand that a one day show involves work on at least 3 days for the trainer. And when a trainer leaves the farm, other lessons need to be rearranged or postponed.

Refuse to Allow Independent Riding

I’ve not met many trainers who refuse to allow independent riding on the student’s own horse unless:

  • the horse is young
  • the rider is over mounted
  • the horse is in training
  • either the rider or the horse has issues
  • Or there just is not arena space available for practice sessions.

Most instructors understand that time in the saddle is required to develop the horse and rider team.

Things Are Different When…

It’s a different set of circumstances if a student is hoping to practice on a horse she does not own. Some trainers are able to offer practice times on school horses to students who meet their criteria. Others can not, due to the workload of the lesson horse and insurance.

Scoff at Going to Clinics

After a student attends a clinic, their regular trainer has to work someone else’s system into their own riding program. The trouble with clinics is that usually a student will acquire a new skill meant to correct a particular problem and there is no follow up after the clinic.

Most instructors are in favor of students attending a few clinics with quality clinicians. The problem begins with students who become information gatherers who attend multiple clinics on a regular basis. Any instructor who has had to deal with the fallout that comes with students who attend too many clinics, may well scoff at the idea.


if you are no longer a beginner and your instructor is adamantly against you attending a clinic with a quality clinician you might wonder if there are underlying reasons.  First discuss their reason for not wanting you to attend.  An instructor who is against clinics just because they are clinics, period, may feel threatened by other instructors.

The Limiting Factor for Many Kids is the Horse Trailer. You can’t go unless your trainer wants you to go…

Surprisingly a trailer is a limiting factor for trainers, too.  A trainer instructor who has a towing vehicle and trailer large enough to haul client horses has invested a considerable amount of money. When they pull out for a show the trailer stalls need to be filled with income producing horses who will be carrying riders who will enhance the instructor’s reputation.  With limited spaces in a trailer, there can be many reasons that a student’s horse isn’t offered a spot.

And besides that, why should a trainer/instructor take a student to a show when they don’t feel they are ready but the student thinks they should go anyway?

The Bottom Line

Most trainer instructors are reasonable people who want their students to do well. Most issues come up because of poor communication between the trainer instructor and the student or vice versa. Unfortunately for students it’s your job to fit into your instructor’s program.  It’s not their job to make a special case for you. There job is to teach you what they can. If a student is not getting what they need from a program it’s time to sit down and discuss goals and opportunities.

Most perceived problems come from not communicating.

However, if students goals and instructor goals are in opposition, then it might be better for the student to find a trainer instructor who is more able to suit their needs. Trying to force a trainer instructor to be what you want them to be will only result in hardship, bad feelings, and dissatisfaction.

What Do You Think?

Let me know what you think.  Do you agree with me or have I taken too hard a stand with this reader request? I’m looking forward to your response.

Here’s to a year of terrific riding lessons,

Barbara Ellin Fox


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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Great write up. I see this happen so many times. I understand we as trainers need to make a living but to hold back students for our own profit is theft. But on the other hand, I see trainers who are so quick to move their students forward to start a skill way before they are ready to. I’ve seen kids at horse shows that can barely sit a canter. I also had pressure from some parents asking me why their child isn’t cantering or jumping yet when they can barely steer while posting the trot. ? But I’ve known a few “big” head trainers that has gone so far as not allowing them to ride their own horse. These riders were perfectly capable of riding. Actually some were pretty good at it. I gaged slightly as these these boarders were allowing such treatment; when A, they pay nearly a mortgage for boarding. B, Can put a kid in college with the lesson package they purchase each month, and C, IT’S THEIR HORSE for God Sakes! Why are they allowing a person to tell them they can’t ride their own freaking horse? OK.. just letting off steam. There were a few times I had suggested to some of my students ride with another trainer to get another point of view on a skill. Going to a clinic to audit is a great idea. Now if you’re going to watch a different discipline that might be confusing. I teach hunter/jumper so watching a dressage clinic does have some conflicts. Dan Gilmore, I’d like to write that book with you! I’ve been in this industry for 40 (trainer for 25) years and just when I think I’ve seen it all, something else happens. One last thing, I’ve done a lot of horse shopping of the years and I would never ever suggest to a clint to purchase a horse that is too much for them. Again, I see this a lot and I wonder who that horse is really for, the client or the trainer?!?

    • Rebecca,
      Thank you for your comment. I’ve had to tell kids “Your Dad bought the horse for you. He didn’t buy you for the horse!” The horse business is so easy for bad guys and bullies. Integrity is such a valuable character trait. Hang in there and keep doing good work. Barbara Ellin Fox

    • Hi Su,
      Thanks for the comment. My daughter spent several years in England. I’m always worried she will make the move back there. (I would miss her) She comments on the differences regularly. Barbara Ellin Fox

  • I especially like that part about a trainer not letting a student independently ride on their own horse, but not on another horse:

    “Things Are Different When…

    It’s a different set of circumstances if a student is hoping to practice on a horse she does not own. Some trainers are able to offer practice times on school horses to students who meet their criteria. Others can not, dude to the workload of the lesson horse and insurance.”

    It’s more diabolical than that – some trainers like to use riding students to work the trainer’s horses or other people’s horses, and then charge the student for a lesson on another customer’s horse, and then charge the other customer for a training session for that horse.

    Here’s the unethical method used by certain trainers:

    A student wants to learn to ride their own horse. Of course, the unethical trainer tells the student that they are ‘over mounted’ and need to learn on another horse. The other horse, is, of course, is a horse which was sent to the trainer for “work.” The trainer charges the student for a less on that horse, and then the trainer charges the owner of the horse for a work session with that horse. In other words, you put an unwitting student on a customer’s horse and charge both of them. And if the student gets hurt, the trainer puts the legal responsibilities on the owner of the horse. In other words, such trainers who do this without informing the students of such a practice view some students as expendable crash test dummies. It is a negligent practice, unethical because there is no ‘informed consent’ from the student or the owner of a particular horse, but a common one – and one which is facilitated and protected under colour of law in most US States.

    I could write a book about unethical practices I have witnessed in the horse business that would make the Encyclopaedia Britannica look like a crib-sheet. Every time I think I have seen everything, I witness something new.

    • Dan,
      It’s great to hear from you. Let me thank you right off the bat for tactfully pointing out that I wrote dude when I meant due! Fixed it.

      Oh boy, unethical practices make my blood boil and you’re right. The horse business has been rife with them forever. With it’s need to make big bucks and the need to win, this is fertile ground. When poor practices are over looked and rewarded they become the norm. We’ve seen it in horsemanship. It takes our industry one step lower on the value gauge.

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