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Back when I was still shoeing horses as my main source of income, I would sometimes be offered, or come across a horse that wasn’t working out for an owner/stable. Before I started my current barn I would either try to place the horse with someone I knew that was looking or train it myself. One of these that I came across I thought I’d ‘flip’. I’d been working with other people’s horses that had issues, riding and training them, but hadn’t yet taken on a project horse, intending to re-sell. 

I was trimming and shoeing at a hippo-therapy barn that had taken in an Arabian mare that wasn’t working out for them. Thinking back, I don’t quite remember exactly how she came to my attention. I must have been trimming her, but they had around 30 horses and ones that didn’t give me any trouble, I didn’t always remember too well. She WAS stunning to look at, and she was one of the first horses you’d see if you were entering the stall area of the barn from the arena. This barn had dutch door gates across the front of the stalls, so the horses could hang their heads out if they wanted to. She would sometimes be standing, framed by the doorway of her stall, in one of those picture-perfect poses. One day when I was there to shoe some horses, she wasn’t standing at the front of her stall, though the gate was closed and latched. I noticed that there were 5 or 6 white feed bags hanging from the ceiling of her stall. When I asked someone about it, I was told they were ‘sacking her out’. Now I understand that term can mean different things to different people, but I was pretty sure this wasn’t one of them. The mare couldn’t move anywhere in her stall without having to brush against or run into one of these bags. She was standing at the back of the stall, parallel to the wall with her head down. Not only was this MORE traumatizing to the horse, it had the exact opposite effect, actually making her head shy. All I can remember thinking was that they were sure going to ruin a pretty horse. Allow me to re-state DO NOT DO THIS!!!                              

Long story short, this is the mare I bought, thinking that I would train and sell her. 

When I tacked up this new horse for a lesson with my trainer, she looked at her and proclaimed…”She’s built up underneath herself. Maybe this is your dressage horse.” My trainer had been an alternate for the Olympics at one time and to this day I’m pretty sure she has forgotten more than I know, but at that time, what I REALLY liked about her, was that she believed ANY horse could (and should!) do dressage, and you didn’t need a fancy warmblood. I stepped back from the horse standing in the cross-ties and really looked at her. Of course, my trainer was right.  

After deciding to keep the mare, we progressed well. Yes, she dumped me quite a few times, but what I learned was that she REALLY hated heavy hands. I had to set my hands, and ride only from my seat and leg. Additionally, we removed a tumor from the side of her face the size of a golf ball, which may have had something to do with needing to stay out of her mouth. To remove the tumor, nerves had to be cut in her face that resulted in a bit of a perpetual sneer, which suited her personality and also rendered bit and hands nearly useless, as she now had no feeling on that side of her face. But we carried on. 

During 1 lesson in which I was really using my seat for the sitting trot, my trainer was yelling, “Push, push, push!” and I could feel the mare getting what I could only think of as ‘bunchy’. Like she had had just about enough of this and was about to buck my a** off.  I truly did NOT want to do what my trainer was telling me to, certain that I was about to eat dirt, but I thought, “Fine, I’ll show you! This horse is going to dump me!”  So I did exactly what my trainer said…..and the mare gave in, relaxed and gave me a beautiful motion. At THAT moment I decided I would do what my trainer told me and NOT think that maybe I knew more than she did. I put my riding/lesson trust in her, and really LISTENED to all she had to teach me. I didn’t talk back or make excuses, heck I never said a word during lessons unless I was truly confused. I would ask after if something hadn’t been addressed, but she was a fine teacher, and usually, things were clear to me by the end of a lesson, IF I just waited and did as she said.   

Not every trainer is this trustworthy. I was once asked “how does one become a horse trainer?” and the short answer is -you say you are one. There are MANY of those out in the world today. You may go through a few trainers before you find someone you click with. There are many that are fine riders, but poor teachers. HOWEVER, if you are relatively new to horses, and by that, I mean less than 5 years’ experience, find someone you like and trust and listen to them. If something feels really wrong, find another, but it shouldn’t be about where your friends are going/your kids friend are going, distance (this barn is only 10 minutes from my house) or price (you get what you pay for, but there are huge differences regionally)...  So you need to do your homework, READ AND LEARN!  Beware of someone trying to ‘sell’ you too quickly. My trainer sold lessons. Period. A tough way to make a living. But if you are quickly being pushed to buy a better horse, a better saddle, a better trailer, etc etc…remember that there were horse traders before there were used car salesmen, but they are cut from the same cloth.

Lia Sader
Published on 01-09-2020
Farrier, trainer and founder of Stepping Stone Farms School of Horsemanship, a not-for-profit horse rescue, sanctuary, and program center. Whether it's caring for a sick horse at 2:00 a.m., leading workshops for inner-city youth, speaking at conferences, teaching lessons or cleaning stalls, everything falls under my purview. I am an EAGALA certified Equine Specialist and a member of the American Riding Instructors Association.