In the Hands of a Trainer

Advice for Amateurs from Cleve Wells

By Marilynn Morris-Mayer — Reprinted with permission from the Equine Chronicle.

What can amateurs expect from a trainer when hiring that professional to guide them and their horse? And what should they be willing to contribute, mentally and physically?

AQHA World Champion trainer Cleve Wells of Burleson, Texas, who has guided numerous amateur western pleasure riders to the heights of success through the years (while garnering countless Congress and World Show wins as well himself), delves into what it takes to make it all work.

Roll up your sleeves

Noting that he wants his amateurs to have fun at the shows, Cleve tries to see that he offers a good atmosphere where they can enjoy the experience, but at the same time, he likes an amateur to spend time with their horses other than just in the saddle.

“I want my amateurs to spend time with their horses and I don’t mean just riding. If an amateur had a horse at home they would brush it, they’d clean its stall, they’d feed it, they’d clean its feet out, they’d longe it. The more you know about your horse the more that you’re able to get from him; the more you’re able to accomplish.” He adds, “The people who spend time with their horse on the ground will know more about their horse and that helps them in the show pen. That’s the bottom line.”

“Our job, as a team, is to take care of this horse, to have it looking its best in and out of the show pen.” Cleve is happy that his people, his customers, share that attitude and always pitch in to help. He laughs and says, “Don’t be coming and telling your trainer, ‘Hey, this horses needs water,’ just grab the water hose and water him. That’s what horse people do.” He says he appreciates that his people take notice of how his days are going, and if he is possibly running behind, “they sure aren’t chicken about stepping up and offering to help out.”

Several of Cleve’s clients band their own horse’s mane at the shows just because they know how they like it done, and Cleve notes that they actually learn a lot about their horse’s personality that way. They can tell just what kind of mood that horse is in that day; they know whether he’s tired or too fresh, and so on. “Your better amateurs are going to have a hands-on feel for a horse,” Cleve suggests.

To Cleve, the care of the horse is part of the fun and he enjoys being around horse owners who feel the same way. He points out that there is nothing wrong if the person is seeking a “full service” operation–those are sure available–but for him, as your trainer, he’s is not there to “dust off your boots” or have your horse ready for you at the back gate. “That’s ‘old school,’ Cleve says, “and it just won’t work today.”

Communication is key

Cleve says a trainer’s role at a show is perhaps like a race car mechanic who prepares a product for the driver. “He’s there for that driver; he’s there so they can communicate to get the most out of that car.” Cleve feels it is his job to consider the differences each rider has and to tune that horse to work well for them, noting that some riders may lean a little too far forward; some may get a little more nervous, and so on. “I get to know my people and how they ‘drive’ and I try to set that horse up for them some. Of course, there’s one way they all have to go because they’re all judged the same way in the pen…but there are personal textures of the horse.”

It’s through communication, sometimes even a three to five year window with the trainer and the amateur, that they can be on the same page. At that point the amateur understands the way he personally wants and needs the horse to feel and respond, and the trainer can make those minor adjustments that bring that amateur to a fun and successful ride.

Cleve says it is his job as their trainer to longe and prepare their horse, but he notes that his amateurs who choose to involve themselves “hands-on” in those aspects with their horse will be more comfortable when they show. “They won’t have to come to me and ask, ‘Is my horse ready?’ because they will know their horse is ready.” Cleve says that the more an amateur can do such tasks as brushing their horse, cleaning their feet and longeing them at a show, the better feel they will have for that horse’s mood that day. An important thing to know later on in the pen.

“My amateur and I are there to get the most out of that horse–and it’s no more my job than their job. But a well-prepared horse is easier to drive and that is my job. They can only show what I give them; they can only be as good as what I give them to drive.”

Set some smaller goals

Cleve likes customers to come to him and share their goals, but when they start out with “I want to win the World” he admits that he laughs to himself and thinks, “Well, (heck), you and everybody else!” He tells them that if that is all they want to do, it’s probably not going to work. “You’ve got to set some smaller goals so somewhere along the way we can pat each other on the back a little bit,” he adds with a laugh. “Working on your riding skills, becoming a team (with your trainer and with your horse), finding the right horse, a horse that you get along with personally–that’s all ‘goals’ to me.”

“If someone comes to me and says, ‘You know, I’m pretty good and I would like to become World Show competitive…’ well, I talk in terms of three to five years,” Cleve says. “Everybody thinks they can do it quicker, but it’s not about coming in here and throwing money around and taking shortcuts.” Cleve admits that occasionally a rider will get lucky and get quick success, but he or she really doesn’t yet have the knowledge to have continued success on a consistent basis.

“Again, my goal is to make the amateurs competitive on a consistent basis, and not totally dependent on me and the horse to make it happen…and that means they must be good. The bottom line is, they must have feel. They must acquire feel just like you’d acquire taste.” Feel, Cleve says, is what tells that amateur what’s wrong, and allows him to correct it before it becomes a noticeable problem.

Tell it like it is

When that horse does make it to the show pen, the customer needs to hear not just the good; not just the bad; but a bit of both. “I always tell my people something like, ‘Look, that was a good ride, but you could have done this better’ or ‘I know we can get better.’” Cleve says the customer wants to know that your eyes are sharp and are focused on them.

“And, don’t make the judge the fall guy when horses don’t place well,” he adds. “That’s just bad sportsmanship.” Sometimes though, when it’s a five-day show, there may be three judges that will like your horse on a good day and a couple who won’t. The trainer needs to explain that to the customer and let them know in advance that the cards most likely won’t fall their way on each days’ ride–good ride or not.

Keep problems in house

One thing a rider can do to maintain the value of their horse is what Cleve terms keeping the problems ‘in house’ …. meaning be sharp about what’s happening with that horse when you’re in the schooling area and in the pen and correct it. “If we have some little problems with that horse and you’re good enough to stay on top of them, then we can communicate amongst ourselves about the solutions and keep them in house.

“Showmanship is trying to sell your horse to the judge, because that judge should look at the horse that day and say, ‘You know, if I were going to buy one, I would buy this one.’ That’s marketing. I tell people to ride ‘offense’ not ‘defense.’ When you take the offense, when you drive that horse and push it and make some moves, you’re in control, you’re not just reacting to what the horse does and trying to regain control.

“Just remember, when you let your horse do really bad in the pen, it takes a lot longer for people to forget the bad ride than it does to keep remembering the good ride,” Cleve explains.
Forget about making money…

By and large, if a rider is in it for the money they may want to rethink their plan. “My job is to do this customer a good job and that job is to have this horse competitive and to be successful in the show pen,” Cleve notes, and explains the cold hard facts: “I make money; vets make money; shoers make money. My job is to minimize the owner’s loss, and every now and then we’ll get lucky and we’ll make a little money, and sometimes we lose a little money. Again, my job is to maintain the value of that horse to the best of my ability from one year to the next.”

Cleve says he personally doesn’t want to present horse showing as a horse business to his customers. “We’re having fun. We take our hits and we go on.”

Choosing the right horse

“I tell people, ‘points don’t make good horses.’ Having a World champion don’t mean a hill of beans if you buy that horse and you have a personality conflict. If he retaliates against your decisions and is basically disrespectful, then it doesn’t matter how good a horse he is. If he disrespects you, you’re not gonna care if he won the World–period!”

And, with a laugh, Cleve notes that the horse may feel the same way about a rider. “The horse doesn’t care if you won the World. If you irritate him, he won’t care if you won the World six times–he still doesn’t like the way you use your hands and legs. A success record is just a starting place in choosing a horse. That record doesn’t matter unless your temperaments and personalities go together.

“I think it’s very important that an amateur know and accept their weaknesses. It doesn’t mean what they’re not working on them, but they’ve got to accept it for the moment. Bottom line, we all have weaknesses. Every rider, whether they’re a professional trainer or they’re an amateur, has weaknesses, and every one has pluses, and that’s why one horse fits one person and not another; that’s why one horse may fit one program but not another. A good team means a horse covers your weak spots…and you cover your horse’s weak spots. That’s what teamwork is.

“Good horses that want to do their job are a heck of a lot easier than trying to make a horse do it,” Cleve notes, adding that the more willing the horse is to do the event, the more fun you are going to have and the more success you’ll have…and the easier it will be to maintain the value of that horse from one year to the next.

Good mechanics get to stay and play

Riders that learn to be good mechanics themselves are always going to be pretty successful, Cleve notes. “Over a five or ten year span, you’re gonna see them in the top five and the top ten more times than not–and maybe not winning, but they’re going to stay in there…and they’re going to play. And in between wins, they’re gonna have fun. For them, it’s not totally about winning and losing, it’s about getting to stay and play the game with consistent results.

“As good as horses and amateurs are today, more than likely if you’re the winner in a class, you probably could just as easily have been third or fourth; and vice versa, if you were third, you probably could have won. So, no matter how good you get, it still takes a lot to win.” And on the subject of what it takes to win, Cleve says that some feel it is split in thirds with the horse being one-third of the winning equation; the trainer being one-third; and the rider being one-third. But Cleve uses another formula. “You’ve gotta have luck! Maybe it’s 25% the horse; 25% the trainer; 25% the rider; and 25% luck. Sometimes people are ‘way luckier than they were good and it made them look good. Sometimes people are really good and they had some bad luck. You can’t take luck out of it.”

You’re a winner

Cleve cautions that sometimes when you are showing at an event that has a preliminary and a finals that riders can get ahead of themselves and not do as well. “Sometimes people go to a show and they have something in mind that they want–like they say, ‘I’d like to be Top Ten,’ or ‘I’d like to be Top Five,’ or maybe they’d like to win. I always remind them that they can’t do anything if they don’t make the finals…so don’t get your thought process beyond the immediate goal of qualifying. If you go in with the intentions of getting into the finals, then we can catch our breathe afterward and set another goal.”

On the subject of winning, Cleve notes that when we talk of “winning” or being the “winner” it doesn’t have to mean winning first place, or the championship. It should have personal meaning for each person; it should mean that you reached a personal achievement, whether it’s placing in the top ten at the World, or top ten in a local 4-H show. (Which, incidentally, is where Cleve got his start showing horses).

“If you’ve never been in the top ten of the World Show, or whatever event, and you make the finals at that show–you’ve won!” he states. After all, you get to suit up and go in and play again, while your competitors are sitting in the stands watching you or packing up and heading home. “If you make the finals, go get your picture made; you’re already a winner.”

August 1st, 2008   |   Posted in Articles   |   0 Comments


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