No Trainer Is an Island

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You’re at the horse show, and besides what’s going on in the ring, there’s a heckuva lot of chatter going on around the ring, too. Networking, socializing, or just plain gossiping, there’s a lot to be said for astutely handling what’s said at the show. Are you a team player or do you run the ball solo? We got some of your colleagues to speak up on the subject.

Get Out There

No question about it, says Stuart Sander of Portland, Ore.: “I absolutely use that horse show time to my advantage, to broaden my client base and to make other trainers feel good about me.” She figures that her Arabian-focused business, Stuart Sander’s Sterling Bloodstock, can only benefit. This exuberant trainer of 23 years and an “r” judge says, “it’s harder for people to be negative about you if you’re smiling, shaking hands, presenting yourself as a warm, friendly, ethical person. You’re responsible for creating others’ impressions of you when you’re not working; the more you keep to yourself, the more opportunity that provides people to create bad feelings.”

She also generously helps other trainers and their clients, if necessary, and believes in spreading goodwill. “You can learn so much from each other, and we should respect everybody. They’re trying to make a living, too,” she says. When it comes to the general public, Sander respects the possibilities. She says, “I use every moment I can, do a lot of advertising, encourage people to get involved with horses on whatever level they choose. I love my clients and I know I’ve helped make their dreams come true. This business can be a wonderful, romantic adventure.”

Tom Ferrebee of Westfield, Ohio, is part of a wider group of Saddlebred trainers who, he notes, “stay pretty close together. We’re not afraid to talk to each other. Of course, you do have to watch who you’re talking to, because if you’re talking to the wrong person, you can get sucked into some kind of chatter. Talk to the right people—which may take years of observation—and eventually, someone will tell you that you probably need to stay away from the ‘other kind.’”

The ways that trainers handle information are as different as the personalities themselves, observes Ferrebee. “We’ve all known people who are sort of friendly, but you know not to talk to them about anything, or everybody in the horse business will know it the next morning, while others. . .you couldn’t beat it out of them.”

Speaking of gossip, can schmoozing and glad-handing impact a judge’s card??This industry veteran of more than 40 years says don’t even think about it. “You can’t tie a kid because you’re a friend of the child’s trainer, and yes, you know who everybody’s trainer is. But it has no effect, because the ribbon is won on that rider’s performance.”

Nonetheless, in this small world, the reality is that you probably have to play the game a bit, acknowledges Julie Curtin, rider and trainer in hunters/jumpers/equitation, of Alpharetta, Ga. At her New Vintage Farm, she thinks it’s really pretty basic: “I have the firm belief that you do a good job, show up, act responsibly and work hard—it’s going to pay off in the end. Interacting is important, yes, but if you’re buying and selling quality horses, a good reputation is just as beneficial as sharing the latest gossip, because you really can’t believe any of it. I really don’t listen to it unless it affects me directly, i.e., I heard it from the source or am partly involved in it.”

She understands the need to balance politics and performance. “I’m busy at shows, getting horses prepared for the ring, but I want to be cordial, polite, not burn any bridges,” she says. “I put blinders on a little bit; it’s good to focus on keeping everyone happy in your camp first.”

Communication Skills Matter

Former president of the NRHA, Brian Dygert of Greenville, N. C., is a respected spokesperson for reining. He’s been active in the business for 30 years as an exhibitor, trainer and owner. And as an in-demand FEI judge, he teaches other judges on both a national and international level. He’s undeniably one to ask about the perceived notion that politics affect how a class is pinned.

So, how important are politics??“The only time in the horse show world that politics, in the loose term, does unfold is a scenario in which you have a group of horses that are all in the same category,” Dygert says. “Then yes, there is some ‘reflex’ of an association. . .you would have a tendency to go with an associated person. But I think that type of situation is so rare that it’s not really significant. It is part of a normal, decision-making process, however.

“The human element is a large component in the industry,” he acknowledges.

But networking is not simply about ribbons. Dygert encourages it as a form of continuing education. “The best way to continue to learn is to network. Horse shows are the hub of our activity, and you can’t get better by staying home. We must sell horses, find them for our clientele, fix problems, and if we need help with those jobs, having a professional network works to your advantage.” he says.

At Post Quarter Horses, a full-service horse marketing and training business in Avella, Pa., Lori L. Gordon is all about communication; she came from a successful television career and has channeled her experience into a successful equine business as rider, trainer and judge—holding nine cards. She is openly committed to her clients, and at the shows, she says, “your priority is who’s paying you. You want your people to get results and that gives you PR credibility in the marketplace. But I’m a big promoter, so if I get 15 minutes to eat a sandwich, I might tell another trainer, ‘I’ve got a nice four-year-old gelding and I’ll send a video.’ ”

If while on the rail coaching she sees a trainer she hasn’t seen for a while, Gordon will extend her hand. “Any exposure is good. Networking is important,” she states.

She’s an optimist from the no-excuses school of life and business. When she started in horses, she recalls, “people would say, ‘it’s so political, you have to know so-and so’. . .I thought, anything you do, politics is an undercurrent, but if you allow it to be a scapegoat, you’ll never get anywhere. Getting the job done well has to be worth something.”

Politics and judging? She notes that “there’s an element of your opinion in there. But go putting someone first that shouldn’t have been in the placings and you’ll look like an idiot. Judges are more educated, more accountable, and the system has gotten better. If the rider didn’t get the job done that day, he or she is not going to be on the card.

“This is a fun business: let the politics part roll off.”