ClickerSolutions Training Articles

What Makes a Good Clinician?

The following article was originally written in Ms. Jahiel's e-mail question-and-answer newsletter, Horse-Sense. However, you can substitute the word "dog" for "horse" throughout, and the article loses none of its accuracy. The article is reprinted here with permission of the author.

The problem is that the horse world is full of people who can "talk the talk" just fine: they know which words to use, and as long as they use them by the (manure) bucketful, there will be people who are fooled by the words and don't look at the substance that may or may not exist behind them. The solution is simple: learn everything you can, and always check it with THE HORSE. The horse is the ultimate authority on what works and what doesn't, and whether certain techniques are suitable or not. Horses care whether their trainers make sense to them and are kind; they don't care whether their trainers are good-looking or famous or wealthy. People, on the other hand, often care very much whether the trainers and clinicians they choose are good-looking or famous or wealthy... and quite often, they don't even KNOW whether those trainers make any sense to the horses, or whether they are kind. Some trainers, as you've found out, make a big show of talking about kindness, but their actions and the horses' reactions tell a very different story.

When someone talks, listen -- but don't leave your judgement at home. USE IT. Watch and listen and learn, and if a trainer's "audio" doesn't match his "video", then you're going to have to believe the video. So, no matter what you hear, keep watching the horses -- and listen to them too. From your letter, it's clear to me that you are alread listening to the horses, whether you know it or not -- good for you!

Don't give up on clinics. There ARE clinicians whose audio and video match. If dressage is your passion, and you ever have the chance to audit a Charles de Knuffy clinic, GO. You won't be sorry. And up until last week, I would have said "Do whatever it takes to get to a Klimke clinic!" Reiner Klimke was a wonderful clinician, a great teacher, a joy to ride with and a joy to watch, and the dressage world is much poorer for his loss.

You have a good eye, Adriana. When I read your description of the lessons, and you said "I never saw a horse move better or get more comfortable or more relaxed", I was smiling, because those are EXACTLY the things you should be looking for, and the things that you should ALWAYS find if the clinician is good. If you DO see these things, and the clinician SHOWS and tells how s/he is achieving those results, and, better still, if the clinician can help other people achieve the same results, and if YOU can go home and try these things with your horse and get good results and a happier, relaxed, comfortable horse, then the clinician is good. If you DON'T see those things, then, as you say, the clinician probably just has a good ad agency. ;-)

There are some warning signals you can notice -- watch for bad signs.

Bad sign: Clinician in a Hurry.

Horse-training is NOT flashy, splashy, or quick. It's also not FAST. Someone who wants to improve the HORSE will take things slowly and gently; you may sit in utter boredom (or, if you know enough about horses, utter fascination) while the trainer slowly and gently teaches the horse to lead and to move its feet in a desired direction. It's like watching putting practice -- if you're not a golfer, it doesn't seem that important whether the ball goes half an inch this way or that, but if you ARE a golfer, it matters quite a lot. ;-) But someone who wants to impress the crowd will take things fast, make a fuss, and, as you saw, use harsh equipment to create the effect he wants.

Bad Sign: Wrong Assumptions and an Adversarial Attitude

Trainers/Clinicians/Instructors are there to Help Educate Horses and Riders. Education is teaching, and teaching can't involve abuse or wrong assumptions or an adversarial attitude toward the student, whether that student is human or equine. The student must be given the benefit of the doubt, not just once but over and over again -- especially if the student is a horse. If a trainer "explains" that horses are sneaky, deceitful, and spend all their time and energy (a) trying to get out of work, and (b) trying to outmaneuver humans so that they can win a power struggle with their owners/riders, then you may not even want to stay and audit -- just cross this name off your list forever, because you've met someone who has absolutely no idea how horses' minds work.

The adversarial attitude often goes along with the above-mentioned assumptions. But it's made more complicated by the fact that a trainer can be extremely adversarial while still smiling at the audience, patting the horse, and talking about kindness. This is where you observe the horse and its reactions, take notes, and begin to develop your own judgement. ;-)

I don't think you've wasted your money on any of those clinics. Your money may not have bought you a good, useful clinic experience, but it bought you something just as valuable: support for your critical sense, and a clear idea of what you do NOT want, and what you will NOT accept for yourself or your horse. And you learned all of that without putting your horse in harm's way.

Auditing is a wonderful choice, and I hope you keep going to clinics. Eventually you'll find a clinician who makes you feel that you need to be in that ring with YOUR horse, and then you'll be ready to sign up the next time that person comes to town. But auditing can let you learn what clinicians are like (as opposed to learning what their advertising is like), for a low cost, without hurting yourself, your horse, your bank account, or your principles.

If you can possibly manage it, ALWAYS audit before you ride with someone! If you know that someone is absolutely wonderful -- and yes, there are a few absolutely wonderful clinicians, but not as many as there were, now that we've lost Dr. Klimke -- then go ahead and ride without auditing, but those wonderful people will not be angry if you choose to audit them first. If you're auditing one of my clinics, come and say hello. I won't be in the least offended if you want to audit before you ride -- I'll just think that you're wise, and in any case you'll be following my advice, so how could I NOT approve? ;-)

Copyright (C) 1999. Jessica Jahiel, Holistic Horsemanship(R)

Jessica Jahiel's Horse-sense
A weekly electronic Q&A newsletter about horses, riding, and training

For more information on horse-sense, send e-mail to: with the message text: info horse-sense

Horse-sense newsletter materials may be distributed and copied for personal, non-commercial use provided that all authorship, and copyright information, including this notice, is retained. | Jessica Jahiel, Ph.D.
Voice: (217) 359-9880 | * Author * Clinician * Lecturer * | Holistic Horsemanship (R)
Emphasis on communication between horse and rider.

Author: Riding for the Rest of Us (Macmillan, 1996)
The Horseback Almanac (Roxbury Park, 1998)
The Parent's Guide to Horseback Riding (Roxbury Park, 1999)


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