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Can a ‘Grassroots’ Trainer Compete With a ‘Top Tier’ Trainer?

It takes all kinds of kinds to keep this equestrian world turning. But do big-name trainers have an unfair advantage when it comes to competition against the “grassroots” trainers? Mel Harms-Grossman shares her thoughts.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Recently, a blogger posed the question: “How do I as a grassroots trainer compete with top tier trainers?” The blog went on to state that the grassroots trainer believed the playing field was unfair.

Some reasoning used in the blog to justify unfairness included:

  1. Top tier trainers were willing to offer and promote methods the grassroots trainer was not.
  2. Judges and Show Management did not assess classes fairly or adhere to rules for all exhibitors.
  3. The top trainers and their students were given preference at shows. An example listed included that offenses for top trainers were ignored or swept under the rug.

From these arguments, the blog drew the following conclusions:

  1. Grassroots trainers and their students were competing for second and third places at best.
  2. Grassroots trainers and students could never compete with top tier trainers because top trainers often cheat the system without consequence.
  3. Loss of current students to top tier trainers is inevitable because the students want to win.

My reaction: If the reasons the blogger provided are true, I better call off my equine career now.

Mel Harms-Grossman and Codys San Drift chat with a young fan at a Wisconsin Foundation Quarter Horse Show. Photo by Shelly Hart, courtesy of SunRunner Ranch.

Mel Harms-Grossman and stallion Codys San Drift chat with a future trainer at a Wisconsin FQHA Show. Photo by Shelly Hart.

Some perspectives I personally believe to be true:

  1. Comparing oneself to another individual is most often futile. No two people or animals are the same, nor should they be expected to be. Emulating behaviors, values, principles, and methods that you admire in other individuals is a much better use of time than lamenting about what one person has that you do not.
  2. Life is not fair. I could expand this, but it would be wasting space.
  3. Positive attitude, hard work, and receiving or continuing education are the most important “tools” any trainer at any level can ever expect to develop.
  4. Inappropriate education, lack of experience, entitlement attitude, and unwillingness to start at the bottom are the four largest barriers I see for aspiring trainers of all disciplines. Rarely do individuals become respected horse trainers without positive attitude, hard work, and appropriate long term education. Developing these tools takes time and effort.
  5. No one (including judges, committees, show managers or those competing) is perfect.
  6. Not all human beings are ethical.
  7. Karma: what goes around tends to come around. We just may not be privy to when karma rears its head.
  8. Be clear and honest with all clients about your experience, values, and charges from the beginning. It saves time and trouble later.
  9. The USA does not have a National Level Horse Trainer Certification or Licensing process. Therefore anyone with good, bad, or ugly equine skills can call themselves a trainer in this country. Unless a national system is implemented and regulated, there will be extreme differences in the skills, techniques, and quality of professional training and instruction. It is probably safe to say we will never have the uniformity of instruction and training that countries with “equine systems” have.
Three of Mel's students celebrate their successes at a Western Dressage show. Photo courtesy of Mel Harms-Grossman and SunRunner Ranch.

Three of Mel’s students celebrate their successes at a Western Dressage show. Photo courtesy of Mel Harms-Grossman.

Addressing the original blog question:

To begin, I agree that competition is difficult for all involved, no matter the discipline. Multiple items are on the line at competitions for students and trainers of all levels. Here is where it is important to be clear and honest. I also agree that not all “trainers,” top tier or grassroots, act ethically. Competition between these two categories of trainers is possible and encouraged. However, it is reasonable to be realistic with one’s goals and evaluation of the situation.

My goal is to be a respected trainer, no matter what level of competition I currently fall into. By respected, I mean that:

  1. The horses in my program are well-cared for. Their well-being is always considered first.
  2. All clients are worked with in an honest and respectful manner.
  3. We all attempt to make the best of all situations, placing safety and learning as top priorities.
  4. Each horse is well-trained and behaves accordingly. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy winning classes and trips. However, a safe show without prizes is always better than an unsafe show where horse or human is injured.

Generally any trainer, if at the top of their field or not, wants to do better for themselves. Most trainers at the top have realistically worked hard to get there. The saying goes, “Whenever you see a successful person, you only see the public glories, never the private sacrifices to reach them.” It is true that some are not really trainers, some have not treated horses well, that some are lucky, some are good at faking knowledge, and that some have cheated the system.

We all also have pet peeves about how others in the industry operate. My former college professor said, “Even a monkey can train the really good horses.” A few horses are just that good, and get to the top in spite of their trainers and riders. It’s one of my pet peeves when an unskilled trainer gets lucky with a horse of that nature and ends up stealing a client (life is not fair). I’ve even had an instructor lie to potential clients at a show, claiming my training work as their own (not all humans are ethical). When the truth comes out that the other instructor or trainer was simply lying or lucky, it is hurtful for their reputation. One can remain a respected trainer by maintaining integrity in these types of situations.

Often, the formerly lost client horse returns to get unscrewed and re-started (karma). This can be a tough situation, as we could be tempted to spread word of those failures around. In times of dealing with pet peeves, repeat the phrase, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” My advice would be to go on with life and ask, “What can I do to improve my personal training and teaching skills?”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some thoughts on competing with trainers of all levels:

  1. Work on yourself first. You might be an excellent rider yourself, but do you have the skills or experience of training and riding more than one horse to the level at which you want to compete? Producing a number of horses to a level of consistency in a particular discipline is a good start to reaching that goal of competing with top trainers.
  2. If you are in doubt about your or your competition horse(s) preparedness, ask another industry professional you trust. You may have to pay for that evaluation or extend a similar professional courtesy to the evaluating individual. This is the same concept as doing your homework or double-checking your numbers. It also is a good way of keeping egos in check by consulting your peers.
  3. Set realistic competition goals with owners or clients. Make a list of tangible goals, such as run the pattern clean or jump the fence height we’ve been jumping at home. Once these goals are consistently met, stronger goals can be set and achieved. Start at the small shows and work your way up. If you are not winning at the smaller shows, chances are that more skills are needed to compete with top trainers. It is worth mentioning that smaller shows can serve as a confidence builder for clients. A word of caution to discuss with your clients is that it is easier to be a “big fish in a little pond than a little fish in the big pond.”
  4. Talk to your client about show expectations prior to the show. What are your realistic expectations of the horse? What can clients expect of you? What are you willing or not willing to do to win? Do your actions and decisions protect, honor, and preserve the health of the horse? These are things you do have some control over, and they can and should reflect on you as the trainer or instructor.
  5. Never assume you will or will not win. Rarely is there ever a perfect pattern, run, or course. There is potential to do better or worse than a top trainer, and it all depends on those items of positive attitude, hard work, and learning through experience.
  6. Know the rules. There have been many instances where I have sat in the judging chair and watched as trainers of all levels sent in students or rode horses in the wrong equipment. This can be an automatic no score or huge penalty, depending on the class or show. If in doubt, ask show management about rules and read the current rule book. Even if you and your horse have the best ride in the show, a judge is not allowed to reward it with the wrong equipment worn or the wrong pattern performed.
  7. Be gracious. If you do happen to have the best ride or client ride of the day, be thankful and ask what else your team can improve upon. If you place second through last place, use it as a learning opportunity and be grateful for what you have achieved. Check the score sheet, ask the judge, scribe, or ring master what items could be worked on before the next show. Then, go work hard at those items!
  8. Educate your clients and owners. This is especially important in our current culture of instant gratification. Horses take time to develop, period. Tell clients (honestly) about your work. Tell them (truthfully) what you value as a trainer and how you can help that horse and rider team. Always maintain integrity. You concentrate on being you, and let others concentrate on being them.
  9. All the other stuff (bigger trailer, more money, more clients, the other trainer is a cheater) is BOLOGNA. Everyone has barriers and obstacles, though some have fewer than others. How we deal with those challenges is what defines us.
Photo courtesy of Mel Harms-Grossman.

Photo courtesy of Mel Harms-Grossman.

Final thoughts:

We can’t control what others do. We can’t control all competition factors or equalize every single variable of a show. We can be responsible for educating and improving ourselves. We can be an instrument for positive change in any organization. We can control our actions and reactions. Concentrate on what you can control to work toward equal competition success.

In the words of Colin Powell, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

For over 10 years Melissa (Mel) Harms-Grossman has successfully trained horses for show at halter, reining, barrels, poles, ranch reining, trail, western pleasure and more recently ranch horse pleasure and western dressage. She enjoys starting colts, providing continuing education for started horses, finishing show horses & working to build confidence in trail horses. One of her most proud accomplishments is helping clients attain show goals of exhibiting at AQHA and FQHR World Shows. Mel trains horses at her own SunRunner Ranch in Buffalo, Minnesota.

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