I've heard horror stories about trainers who immediately tell you that you need to get a new horse, a new saddle, or completely re-evaluate your goals or program. For the most part though, I think most trainers, especially clinicians, will take the horse and rider pair that appears in front of them and just try and work with what they've got to make them better. I think this is how it should be for the most part.
However, sometimes we need to have "The Talk", that in depth honest assessment of what your goals and abilities are, what your horse is capable of, whether it's a good match, and what might need to change to reach success (whatever your definition of success is).
I've always been a pretty independent rider and have never truly been in a trainer's program so I don't know, but I imagine that this "Talk" happens more often when you are in a "program" (please enlighten me!). Personally, I have most often seen "The Talk" happen when riders have been looking for their next horse to buy. I think I had some version of "The Talk" when I was horse shopping for my first horse, of course I was 11 at the time, and was a hunter-jumper rider to boot so it's not super applicable now. I didn't have a trainer to consult when I bought Kachina.
At the recent clinic, I overheard "The Talk" pertaining to another rider. This rider has been leasing a horse for 6 months, but she will be moving to another city for university soon and her and her parents have been debating whether they should buy the lease horse or wait for a different horse to pop up in the new city. They took the opportunity to ask Sandra for her thoughts. I was really impressed by Sandra's honest answer. She asked about the rider's ultimate goals, then gave an frank overview of the horse's strengths and limitations, what things could be improved upon, and what issues would always be issues. She then gave a dollar amount (don't buy this horse unless you can get him for under $___). The dollar value was due to resale potential. Sandra said that to improve as a rider, you should never plan to have a horse for over 5 years. You should look at what you can accomplish with them in 5 years, then plan to sell them and move onto the next horse.
This "5 year limit" was a mind-blowing concept to me, I had never heard of something like that before. On one hand it makes sense to me. I see the value in riding different horses. I rode the same horse for 14 years and while I wouldn't change a minute I had with Ellie, I recognize that I got too used to one horse's specifics and it has negatively impacted my skill as a rider. On the other hand, I am a rider who loves connecting with a special horse, dreams of raising and training a horse from start to finish, and finds it hard to think of selling any horse after only 5 years.
In any case, hearing Sandra give "The Talk" to another rider made me want to ask her similar questions. Despite only taking periodic clinics with her, Sandra is the closest thing to a regular dressage trainer that I have ever had. I feel she knows me well enough and I respect her opinion so I sent her a message and asked her for a frank and honest assessment of Kachina and I.
I have to admit that my heart was racing a bit as I waited for her answer. I really wanted the truth without any sugar coating, but I was also scared that I wouldn't like the answer. We had a bit of a back and forth talking about my goals (these are my big picture goals), Kachina's age, how I see things, etc. This is what her thoughts boiled down to:
- Reiteration of the 5 year limit for horses. Doesn't matter if your goal is just fun, but does matter if your goal is to progress as a rider.
- Honest opinion of Kachina's capability: Hard to judge where her ceiling is. lots of nice qualities but has the tendency to go to muscle tension whenever energy is unpredictable. Should be able to get to Second Level but Third might be hard with increase in impulsion. (While I imagine that 2nd/3rd counts as a middle of the road review of a horse from a Grand Prix trainer, I would be thrilled if we could get that far!)
- No soundness issues which is great (this was an issue that came up in the other rider's "Talk")
- Kachina is teaching me to be a better rider and my riding is currently improving on her. If Sandra ever sees my riding plateau or revert she will let me know right away. (This issue of how Kachina is affecting me as a rider is one that is really important to both Sandra and I, and we seem to be on the same page about it right now)
- Progress with Kachina herself is slow but we have made progress (again, we both agree on this point). I hope that once we solidify some more basics things will progress more quickly, Sandra agrees that this may well happen, but thinks we should see how things go in the next 6 months and reassess then.
- As well as proceeding with riding/training, I should try a magnesium supplement and look into the girth issue (both saddle/girth fit, and regular gentle massage of the area). The goal for the next 6 months is to decrease her fast twitch muscles and increase her slow twitch.
I think this is generally a fair assessment of Kachina. Keep in mind though that this discussion happened immediately after an exceptionally bad clinic and so Sandra hadn't seen any of Kachina's good progress since February, or mine either (the tension really brought out my bad habits). It makes me more hopeful for the future that Sandra can see some promise now despite those recent challenges.
I'm not saying that I'm going to necessarily sell Kachina in 6 months or 2.25 years (the 5 year mark), but I think this assessment and the timelines give me good things to work towards right now. I'm glad that I put myself and my goals out there. I think revisiting "The Talk" every 6 months to 1 year will help Sandra and I to stay on the same page and focused on the same goals.
What's your opinion of "The Talk"? Do you have a different name for it? When was your last one? Was it initiated by you or your trainer? What did you feel about the answers?