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We Ask Trainers: What Defines a “True Horseman”?

When trainers and exhibitors talk about fellow trainers in the industry, the ultimate compliment that anyone can give is that person is “a true horseman”. But the term “horseman” is fairly undefined and is usually a general statement that is never discussed in much detail. What does being a horseman really mean?

Taking it one step further, some have questioned whether or not the “true horsemen” are a thing of the past. Are there any left in the industry? More importantly, some ask, is whether or not we are doing anything to cultivate the next generation of horsemen? We decided to explore this topic further. Let’s find out what they had to say.

charlie_coleCharlie Cole – A “horseman” is someone who not only is a great rider, but someone who also understands horses and how horses think. A horseman looks at each horse as an individual and can see things that others can’t. To me, most great horseman transcend one discipline or event and can recognize a great horse whether it’s a pleasure horse, jumping horse, gaited horse, barrel horse, or any event. I’ve known several great horseman in my life. Clarence Chown and his sons, Tom and Robert are great horseman and influenced me a great deal. Doug Lilly was also a great horseman. He influenced me and it didn’t matter what horse Doug was riding, it always looked good. I think there are some great horseman out there still, unfortunately, there are a lot more riders who take short cuts and hurry and train up young horses rather than train a horse correctly.

Nancy-Sue_squareNancy Sue Ryan – A true horse “person” has compassion for and understanding of the horse. A horse person treats each horse as an individual and works with that horse to diminish the negatives and embellish the positives. A horse person tries to think the way a horse thinks and attempts to know what is going on with that particular horse. A true horse person listens to the horse; the horse speaks to you if one will only listen.

Candy Bret ParrishCandy, Bret and Cody Parrish – We discussed it together and believe that a key characteristic of a great horseman is being able to take a horse and train it from start to finish in whatever discipline they choose. A true horseman has ability to recognize weaknesses in horses as individuals then takes the time and effort in training to teach that horse to overcome obstacles and perform to the highest level of their capability. A true horseman recognizes their own weaknesses as well and strives to improve upon them. Due to the changes in the horse industry, our horsemen today are much more specialized in specific areas, but there are still a lot of great horseman out there.

sandy jirkovskySandy Jirkovsky – The biggest compliment one can obtain in the horse business is to be considered a horseman or horsewoman by your peers. We have had great horsemen in the past and I hope it is not a lost value. The true horseman puts the horse’s needs first. They do not go for instant gratification or cave in to practices that end up being detrimental to the horse’s longevity. The true horseman can walk through the barn and sense if one isn’t feeling good or if one is having an off day. They will adapt their program to fit the horse instead of trying to put each horse in a cookie cutter mold. The true horseman pays attention to the look in the horse’s eye and understands the thought process. They get into the mental thinking of the horse and know the timing of the reward is much more beneficial than the punishment. The true horseman knows a horse just like people cannot be perfect everyday. They don’t go out to win every fight but win the battle in the long run. They make the punishment fit the crime, meaning they don’t go overboard on minor problems. The saddest words I ever heard was from a trainer who stated, “I am not a trainer; I am a mechanic. The horses are my machine and it is my job to keep the machine running.” This mentality is what many of our young trainers are basing their programs on and that is why we are losing our horseman. I was fortunate to have been raised by a true horseman, Hadley Campbell. His motto was more wet saddle blankets and that cures many a problem!

Larry & Rhonda Spratto's Barn Burns; 13 Horses LostLarry Spratto – A great horseman respects the horse and knows his limits; tries to get the most out of a horse, while knowing that a horse may not ever be a plus changer or stopper/spinner; and tries to find the right match for horse and rider. They also value honesty with the owner on the horse’s ability and rider’s skill level. A horseman knows when to quit on a schooling lesson and not let his/her temper take charge of a ride when things are not going as planned. Horse care–feeding and cleaning always come first.

Carla WennbergCarla Wennberg – That is a great question and I have an easy answer for what I think a horseman is–you put the horse and it’s welfare and training first. If your head stays wrapped around that, the rest of life with horses is easy. I think there are many great horseman left in our industry, but many who consider themselves horseman are not if they short cut training. There are many reasons why people don’t take the necessary time. You know as I do, it’s takes a long time to make a nicely trained horse in any event. I think every time I judge about what is best for the industry and what is the best example for this class at this time.

Silver Dollar circuit 2015 KelleyKelley Roberts – When I think of a horseman, I think of a man or woman who has exceptional feel, timing and balance on a horse. The ability to train a horse and bring out the best in them for whatever discipline they will be doing. A special connection that is so apparent when you see them on a horse. A true horseman loves horses and they are a big part of their life. They take exceptional care as if they are their partner. A true horseman can adjust their training ways and recognize they might need to take a different approach to get the result they are after.

Farley SlissFarley Sliss – Definition of a horseman: a rider on horseback, especially a skilled one. To me a horseman needs to be able to start a colt and take it to the finish. That person needs to know when to push and when to back off. He or she also needs to be able to redirect (change of event) a horse that might for whatever reason not be able to meet its original goal. I also think it’s important that a horseman is able to doctor on one or know if there is a problem that needs addressed. I think a true horseman should love horses, not the idea or the fame they may receive from them.

troy_comptonTroy Compton – Great horseman will always be around. To me a horseman is usually someone that’s been raised around horses and that’s all they really know. They put the care of their animals before the care of themselves. A great horseman also has a natural gift with horses that other people don’t. He inspires his horses to be great and I think that is one of the biggest characteristics there is.

adam_wainscottAdam Wainscott – A true horseman will always be able to appreciate the positive attributes in a horse, whether you are roping, reining, western pleasure, hunter under saddle, jumping, racing or running barrels. A true horseman will be able to see the great athletic ability in a horse. More importantly than being able to see the qualities of a great athlete, they will always have a great respect and appreciation of the horse no matter what. In our industry as being competition based where greatness is rewarded through placings, I believe a horseman can look through a horse’s accolades and see each horse as an individual. I believe that true horseman are always trying to build a horse up in their strengths rather than tear them down because of their weaknesses. They also understand the horse. They know how to take care of them. From daily feeding and proper grooming to being able to look into their eyes and see what they are thinking through their body language. In summary, I think above all a true horseman has respect for the horse above all.

kevin dukesKevin Dukes – The definition of a real horseman is one who truly understands horses. Do I believe all the true horsemen are gone? There are a lot of very talented young trainers out there today, but I believe that we have done a poor job of mentoring and molding our trainers into true horsemen. In the training culture that we have developed, we tend to treat our horses as objects instead of the awesome living, breathing and feeling animals that they really are. The description of a true horsemen has a calm, easy-going way with a horse. He can convince a horse to work hard without over training or excessive force. He knows his horse’s mental and physical limits and when to stop pushing. He allows his horse to keep his spirit, personality and dignity through the training process, while funneling these things in a direction that make his horse, special at what he does. A horseman has empathy and compassion for his horse while at the same time expecting excellence in his performance. He can look at his horse’s eye, and at a glance, know if there is something wrong. A true horseman knows how to think like a horse. And most importantly, a true horseman always puts his horse before himself.

AQHA Judge Holly Hover Breaks Down Congress Equitation PatternHolly Hover – It is a great question. When I think “horseman”, what comes to mind is the person who has talent, experience, intuition, and a particular innate ability to communicate, train and develop any horse to its highest capability. A horseman understands soundness, conformation as well as ability and the ‘heart’ of a horse. A horseman is teacher, friend and sometimes, disciplinarian. Certainly I will agree that many of the great horsemen are gone, but so are many of the great scholars, politicians, and leaders. I think times have dictated many changes in who a horseman is today…the level of expertise it takes to be successful…the natural progression of the sport. I will tell you that I have been fortunate to have crossed paths with many great horsemen from the past and many of the great horsemen we see today.

NEW UPDATE: Gigi Bailey Hospitalized at World ShowGigi Bailey – When I was starting out, a horseman was different than I feel it is today. Back in the day, horsemen where those people who could “conquer” a horse to get the results they wanted…albeit back then, horses were not nearly so specialized. We made AQHA Champions from race horses or race horses into rope horses and those that were truly champions rose to the top because those horses were truly athletes and would have been champions in any era. In the early days, trainers did not always have the great ones; they trained the horses they were sent. Today, our horses are so exceptional, talented, beautiful and athletic. I think I am a horsewoman because I appreciate each horse for its merits and do my best to channel that animal to its highest level of performance, while respecting it’s physical abilities and its mental capabilities. I truly respected each horse that I ever worked with–they all have great parts and not so great. A horseman’s task is to identify talent and to enhance it, and, most importantly to care for the horse both physically and mentally. One thing I have always believed–if you love horses, this has been the best time in the history of mankind to be alive. We do not eat them as much and they are not beasts of burden. They are more like elevated pets, as such they deserve our utmost care and respect and that is what horsewomen and horsemen do.

anne shaferAnne Shafer – The horse industry for many years has produced great horses and great horsemen and horsewomen. Anyone can put on a pair of boots and claim to be a cowboy. I love to play the game real or plastic in the airport when to comes to whether a person in a pair of boots is a cowboy or not. But the real question is whether this person is a true horseman and what defines the word “true”. I myself was able to watch what I call a true horseman in action a couple of years ago at a horse show. I was stalled across the main aisle from a cowboy that had been reunited with a stallion that he had shown a few years earlier. Every morning I watched this cowboy go into this horse’s stall, look him in the eye, place his hand on his cheek, and stand quietly next to him for a minute or so. He then ran his hand down his neck and all over his body. Next, he would get a brush and go over this horse from head to toe, softy brushing and placing his hand again all over the horse. I watched this cowboy day after day communicate with this horse rebuilding a trust, love, friendship, and partnership that they had once had years prior without ever stepping on the horse or doing any kind of training. This true horseman is someone who understood what this horse was communicating and was willing to adjust in order to better relate to his needs and his ability to perform at the highest level of competition.

tina priceTina Price – In my mind, a true horseman is one that possess talent and knowledge that extend far past the show pen. These are people who truly understand the nature of the horse, realize that each one is an individual and there are no cookie cutter programs. These individuals are involved in all aspects of the equine industry, not just the ones that garner attention in the pen. These individuals are spot on in difficult situations with horses, and they know first hand how to prevent the dangerous situations that can occur with these animals. These people are as familiar with the dirty work as they are the supposed glamour side of things. These people have made horses their life’s work, not for the glory and wins, but because that’s what they were born to do. It is a passion for the animal that puts them on the path of continual learning and the mastery of communication needed to succeed with horses. In a nutshell, a true horseman is one that can walk through a barn, and without any outward indication apparent, know immediately the horse that is just a bit off. Everyone else will miss that, but the horseman will catch it, and may not even know how. I am fortunate to know many such people, and while there are always sufficient counterfeits, there are enough of the real deals out there for them to mimic.

michael damianosMichael Damianos – Some of the greatest horsemen live in these times. Like everything else, the criteria has changed with the times and some of the criteria is timeless.

  1. A true horseman realizes that one can’t understand a horse in captivity if he doesn’t understand how the horse socializes, interacts and reacts to other horses and its environment in nature.
  2.  A real horseman understands form to function both in the horse’s conformation and in instructing the rider how to use their hands, seat, legs, intellect, and understanding in how to influence the horse.
  3. A horseman has a genuine respect for the horse and understands how to be fair to the horse. They recognize when to correct him and when to praise him and how to do these things effectively. He understands the use of cues and aids and how to communicate to the horse effectively. He understands how important it is not to overwhelm the young horse.
  4. A horseman is a student in horse care which changes constantly with modern science. A horseman recognizes not all horses can be fed or cared for the same way. He understands the signs of various health risks and reasonable preventative care. He knows how to wrap a horse’s legs; how to properly groom;  how to safely haul a horse; how feed the horse; he knows what a balanced shoeing job looks like; how to administer appropriate medications; he knows of various treatments for the infirmed horse, and when you need to call the vet.
  5. A horseman has studied pedigrees and heritable faults and can make solid breeding decisions. This is probably the most elusive quality to great horsemanship. The great breeders have memories like steel traps and intuitions of a sage.
  6. A good horseman must be a good ambassador for the horse industry in these times. People have more options than ever and we must show how inviting and fulfilling our sport is, so new people want to join us.
  7. True horsemen may seem crusty on the surface, but deep down they love every moment they spend at the barn, in the pasture, the horse show or at gatherings with other horsemen.
  8. These things don’t make you a horseman but sure make life easier if you can do them–tractor mechanic, welder, bi-lingual, truck driver, harness repairman, landscaper, carpenter, plumber and backhoe operator.
  9. Horsemen come from all disciplines. I’ve known dressage riders, cutters, cow horse riders, grand prix riders, polo players, refiners, and gaited horse riders that were real horsemen. They all share a mutual respect for the horse.

tammy denlinger-lickliterTammy Denlinger-Lickliter – “A true horseman”, what a compliment! Someone who puts their horse’s needs ahead of their own, I think so. That person who has compassion for the animal and a belief they should always be treated with dignity, you bet! A true horseman listens to the horse. Usually they will tell you what they need. A true horseman knows the animal from the inside out and always has a watchful eye noticing even the smallest detail. True horseman or horsewoman never exploits the horse for personal gain. I have known a few and strive to be one every day. A true horseman understands how truly blessed they are to be in the presence of a good horse.

Lainie DeBoerLainie DeBoer – A great horseman is a person that possesses the ability to have a deep understanding of what the horses needs are, at all times. They have a feel like no other. They can listen to the horses and be able to communicate with them very clearly. They are an advocate for the horse 24-7. A great horseman knows how hard to push and when to reward. They bring out the best in every horse and build a bond with each one they ride. They develop trust over a short period of time and earn respect that will last a lifetime. Great horseman, are few and far between, so when you meet one I suggest you study and take notes, because they are a rarity these days. A great horseman does not have to use force because they have their intellect.

What qualities do you think exemplify a true horseman? What do you think about these trainers’ comments? Do you agree? Do you think there are still horsemen in our industry? Let us know in our social media comments.

Portions of this article originally published July 2015.