Trainer Trust

Advice from Cleve Wells

By Marilyn Morris-Mayer 

What should you expect when you put your horse in the hands of a western pleasure trainer? And what should you, the owner, be bringing to the table as well (along with your wonderful horse and your hard-earned dollars)? What should trainers expect from their clients?

Cleve shares insights on how people can work with their trainer to reach realistic goals, and how trainers can ease that process while advancing their business at the same time. First things first, he notes, everybody needs to be on the same page…

In it for the long haul

“The first thing a trainer needs to do is find out what this person who comes to them wants from the industry,” Cleve notes. If they’re looking for a “tune up” or a “quick fix” he cautions that it may spell problems for the owner, the horse and the trainer. “Usually the reason for the ‘tune up’ is that the horse has been sitting around and physically he’s not able to jump in there and take the ride. You’re going to have to build him up, and that mean move slow.” Cleve says the horse will need at least 30 days to get fit, so a so-called 60-day tune up is going to over-stress the horse, possibly leading to weight loss and perhaps vet bills.

Cleve’s advice to young trainers is to avoid taking on such assignments if they can, but rather to encourage their customers to set longer range goals, along with some more modest short range goals that will be in their and their horse’s best interest over time. “I tell people up front that the horse will always come first. So If I ride him for a week and he just kind of runs out of air, I’m gonna give him a few days off. I don’t think horse training is about riding your horse every day,” Cleve notes. “Knowing when not to ride might be more valuable then riding!”

Cleve urges trainers to stay flexible when discussing the time it will take to bring that horse to his full potential, but notes that owners deserve to know that the time is being utilized to the best advantage. “The greatest asset is time–you need it to teach the horse. But on the other hand, the owner needs to know that if you are utilizing it properly and wisely that the horse is going to make some changes and improvements that match the investment. ”

He reminds trainers, too, that they might be ‘upside down’ financially in the first year of training a horse, meaning that so much time and hard work goes into that first year–that it is to the trainer’s advantage to show the customer that, step by step, their program will be successful for the customer’s horse over the long haul. Cleve says trainers shouldn’t be afraid to talk with their customers to find out if they are looking for a long-term arrangement or just a quick turnout on a horse.

Cleve adds that there’s nothing wrong with a trainer asking, “Now, if this horse works out, are you willing to leave it for two or three years and have me haul it?” But remember that you are talking about a commitment from both sides. “That trainer has a commitment also; he can’t be jumping to another horse that comes in three or four months down the road that is possibly better than the one he has committed to. Commitment is always a two way street.”

Early on, young trainers may be happy to take on all types of work, but Cleve feels they should work toward gaining those people that will be with them for years to come. And for that reason, the trainer doesn’t ever want to overlook his long-term customers for short-term work. “The main thing is, take care of your good customers,” Cleve notes.

Cleve says there is nothing wrong with a person wanting help from a trainer for just a brief period of time, then talking the horse and hauling him themselves. “There’s room and there’s a place for every customer’s needs to get the service that they want in the industry. And there are trainers who like to do tune-up work–they like it and they’re good at it.” The bottom line is, it just makes sense to be upfront about it when you are considering hiring a trainer.

“Yes, I do tune up work on horses that I have sold…or horses that I know very well,” Cleve notes, “but those people don’t jump on the trailer and go to shows with us, and compete against my customers who are here with me and paying me 12 months out of the year. That does not seem fair.” He believes the rules should be the same for everyone, regardless of their financial means or the quality of their horses.

Cleve urges young trainers to remember that a good customer is not necessarily one with unlimited finances. “The definition of a good customer is somebody that comes in year around, consistently, and believes in your program.”

The “interior work” is every bit a vital

The most difficult part for the owner is when the early, more noticeable results are accomplished with the horse, Cleve notes, and what follows is the less visible “interior work” that is every bit as vital. “That’s repetition, and that’s building what I call the constitution of the horse,” Cleve explains. The constitution being what the horse can fall back on when he’s faced with the insecurities that are a part of the world of a show horse. “They may look like a pleasure horse in four to six months, but it takes another four to six months of steady work on top of that to get there.” Cleve pauses, then explains, “If I train a horse for a month, then he needs to repetition that training for another month.”

Cleve says a good rule of thumb is that if he’s a pleasure horse in six months…he needs another six months of repetition and being hauled and being seasoned, and seeing the elements. “To me, that horse is not ready to show until he jumps off a horse trailer at any location, anywhere, any time, in any environment…and he jumps off there and tends to his job like he does at home.”

Here again, Cleve stresses that the horse trainer’s got to be smart enough to talk to his people and sell that customer on why that additional training is necessary before the horse is ready to show.

Dollars and sense

Often times, customers will be anxious to get their horses to the show pen…and that’s when things go south fast if the trainer and the owner can’t communicate. Cleve relates a conversation he had awhile back with a trainer who was worried he would lose a good customer, as they had entered their horse in a huge futurity but the trainer just didn’t feel the horse would be ready. “They had bought one of the high-dollar slots in a big three year old futurity,” Cleve explains, “…and the customer was saying if the trainer couldn’t get it ready, then they would take the horse somewhere else.”

A problem for sure, but Cleve says the entry fee, even if it were as high as $5,000, would look pretty minimal to that owner, if it meant that their $35,000 horse was blown under the pressure. “Are you really willing to ruin this horse because you entered it in this futurity–and come hell or high water, this horse needs to be ready?” His advice to that owner would be, “If you’ve got a good horse and you’ve got a good trainer and a good program…maybe it will be ready. But if the horse is really as good as you say, and he’s not ready, then be willing to ‘eat’ the entry fee.” (Cleve notes that he, himself, has eaten entry fees in the past…and his sense of humor emerges as he smiles and adds good-naturedly that if someone wants to get out that ‘entry fee’ violin, he’ll get his out, too.)

The flip side of that coin is, if you must show–show what you have! “In that situation, I’m probably going to show the horse,” Cleve admits, “…because we are paid to try. At the same time, don’t blow the horse…just show what’s you got. If you’re not ready, work on things like being consistent; work on being able to help the horse around the pen–don’t try to make the horse something he’s not.” He adds, “You never know, the good ones miss a lead, or two or three of them stumble. Sometimes you can be up in there.” But you’ve got to have a sound horse and a pleasant horse, he notes, so just don’t push him so hard that you ruin him. “Professionalism and horsemanship should come first from a trainer–you don’t want to become a ‘gun for hire.’”

Promises, promises

Although sometimes the trainer isn’t consulted in advance (like in the case of the example of the high dollar futurity), often times those misunderstandings can happen because the trainer promises too much.

Cleve feels it’s best to avoid saying things like, “I think we’re going to be ready to show April 1st” and then have to eat those words. “Don’t brag too much on the horse and then have to make too many retractions,” Cleve tells young trainers. He suggests, instead, that they let the customer know that the horse is doing pretty good, but let them know too when they aren’t having their best week. “I don’t ever want to tell someone, ‘Hey, you’ve got a world champion!’ …but you can say, ‘It’s looking like we might have a little fun this year.’”

“One thing the owner has to understand it that it is a game,” says Cleve. “This is a game we play…and it’s a risk. “We win and we lose. I don’t care how good a trainer gets, we make mistakes. We buy the wrong horses sometimes; we say a horse can be ready, then it turns out it’s not.” Cleve says owners need to understand that the trainer is working hard, but this game called horse showing is not without risk.

A good trainer works to minimize that risk but assessing if the horse is ready to haul off to the shows. If the owner considers that a single show will cost them about the same as one month’s training, then they need to listen to the trainer when he says the horse needs to stay home for another 30 or 60 days, or whatever time span. “Sixty days of horse training is cheap compared to when that horse gets on that horse trailer,” Cleve notes, and says it is up to the trainer to explain that to the owner, and in both their best interests. “If that young trainer takes that horse out too soon and he has about three or four of those $900.00 weekends, all of a sudden they’ve blown three grand–and don’t get a single point. All of a sudden that customer is changing their horse trainer!”

“Trust me”

Owners need to have faith and trust in what the trainer is telling them, but that trainer is going to have to earn that trust, too. One of the ways he or she can do that is by being honest and upfront with the customer, and spending the customer’s money just as diligently and wisely as he would spent his own. Again, it doesn’t mean that everything that the trainer says or does is correct, Cleve cautions, but that mistakes and misfortunes are sure not intentional.

And while on the subject of trainer’s handling their business expenses, Cleve notes that where some young trainers get in trouble and wind up getting in a bind is that they base their operations around the “fat” times, from January to April when the colts are coming in. He says it ought to be just the opposite. “The leanest part is probably from September to December, so whatever your income is then, stick with that figure the whole year long.” That way, he notes, you won’t have to cheat somewhere (like not putting back for truck and trailer depreciation and expenses like that).

And if trainers think they’ll just catch up with a possible upcoming commission, or draw on next year’s big January fees, they’re just “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Cleve adds, “You’re going broke–you’re just going so slow you can’t see it. So don’t depend on ‘maybe’ money and commissions for your income; keep your living expenses down to your solid income.”

On the subject of trust, Cleve urges young trainers to follow through on their promises in all their business dealings and to hold fast to the code that your word is your bond. “If you commit to something, if you promise to do something, then you want to make darn sure you follow through with it.”

A winning atmosphere

Just being a talented trainer doesn’t always guarantee success for a trainer, even if they do have those necessary business skills to keep them afloat, along with their horse skills. There’s still one major ingredient, according to Cleve, and that falls under the category of “people skills.” (If you’ve ever spent any time around Cleve Wells, whether at his ranch or at the shows, you know that he keeps everything upbeat and positive. In fact, he’s been known to smile and suggest that one of his workers head on home if they’re having a bad day, rather than bring that gloom to the barn area).

“People like to spend money with people they like,” he adds, noting that at some point that customer is going to ask himself or herself, “What’d I get for my money this weekend?” Cleve says if that customer spends the show in a negative atmosphere, he’s not going to want to sign the check at the end of the show. “It has to be a good atmosphere,” he stresses. “Then, even if that customer didn’t win that weekend, he or she can go home and think, “We got our tail kicked this weekend, but I learned a lot…and had a lot of fun.”

“No matter how good we are,” Cleve continues, “…we’re gonna have good weekends and not so good weekends. But you can have a positive ending to that show whether it’s success in the show pen, or that you fixed a problem with your horse. At the end of the show you should feel good.”

A final thought

Cleve says that as a trainer he always likes to take a few minutes with the customer after the show to go over what he plans to do with the horse for the next time, even if it’s that they will be changing to a different bridle or spurs with that particular horse. And if he’s talking with one of his amateurs, he wants to go over things with them and give them something to think about for the next time they meet up. “That’s just showing that you are on top of it, and you’ve got some depth…and you’ve got a plan.”

September 12th, 2008   |   Posted in Articles   |   0 Comments


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