Integrity: the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.
This seems to be the topic of multiple conversations recently and I think it's an important subject to discuss. I think a good place to start is how does integrity fit into horsemanship? In general, I believe it's a human's willingness to always put the horse first. The rider has to prioritize the horse's needs above their own not matter what is at stake.....a ribbon, a chance for an olympic medal, or even a big jackpot. Integrity in horsemanship also means to me that you are always compassionate, kind, patient, and respectful to the horse no matter what is happening in your personal life or what kind of day you're having. I would love to think that most all of us just have and act with complete integrity naturally, but of course it's not the truth. It takes discipline to control ourselves in every moment. Basically, it's a choice. We have to choose to act with integrity all the time, even when nobody is watching.
Which leads me to the next point- finding a trainer with integrity. It's easy for trainers to act one way when everyone is around and act completely different when alone with the horses. As a trainer myself, this is of course sad for me to say, but unfortunately I have seen it a lot. There are multiple ways integrity can be missing. Sometimes it's just the simple fact that they don't ride the horse as much as the owner is paying for and was agreed upon. I've seen this more than I'd like to admit. The owner pays for monthly training, the trainer hardly ever works the horse until the day before the owner is coming to see the horse. Of course the worst example of a trainer without integrity would be one that actually treats and handles the horse differently (in a negative way) than when people are watching. They cut corners, lose patience and compassion or treat the horse like a "job" to do, all to the detriment of the horse. It's not always easy finding a skilled trainer with all of these great qualities, integrity being at the top of list, but I assure you we are out there. I'm proud to say that I know quite a few of them spread across the country. We are not your cheapest option, but skill, self discipline, hard work and integrity take a huge investment of time and education on our part, so we are worth the extra dollars. Here are a few things you can do to help you decide if the trainer you are interested in possesses these good qualities and integrity. First, any good trainer would have a list of people who would be happy to give you an honest reference- other clients, students and professionals. Go visit the trainer and the barn they work out of. Do the horses there in training with this personal look healthy and happy? How is their weight? Do they look like they've been cared for and groomed consistently? I think we can all tell the difference between a happy dirty horse in the pasture and one that looks like it hasn't been brushed in weeks. Stick around for awhile, watch the trainer ride a few horses or teach some lessons. If you don't feel confident in your ability to know what is good or not so good, ask an experienced horse friend to accompany you and give their opinion. The most important thing you can do to make sure you are with somebody good is to be very INVOLVED in the training process. A good trainer will want you to be involved as much as possible, and its a definite reg flag if they don't. If you are having a colt started and your skill level isn't to the point where you can be active in the training process at the beginning you can at least go watch multiple times per week. Maybe you can groom the colt or do some of the groundwork and then when the trainer believes the colt is ready for you to start riding then show up and ride the colt as much as you can. If you are there and involved you will know pretty quickly if you're paying the right person or not. Also, things happen, horses hurt themselves, get in trouble...all sorts of things. A good trainer will honestly point them out right away or call to keep you informed. If the trainer didn't do anything wrong to cause the injury or illness or accident then they will have absolutely no problem telling you right away. So, beware of someone who hides these things or can't get their story straight.
Lastly, I would like to talk about a few very simple things that in my humble little world are related to this topic and have helped me in small ways to keep my integrity intact at all times. About 6 years ago or so I was riding with Buck Brannaman at a clinic in TN. He spent some time talking to all of us about this very thing. He said he could tell by watching our horses that some of us were not the same person at home when we worked with our horses as we were while we were at his clinic. The horses don't lie and he could tell. I immediately felt my eyes tear up while he was speaking, and his words really hit me directly in the heart. Now, I know that I have never been mean to a horse just because nobody was watching, so why was I having such an emotional reaction to his words? I really gave it some hard thought over the following days. I worked through it by asking myself first, what do I do specifically when I prepare and ride in a clinic with Buck or one of my other teachers that I have the HIGHEST respect for. Well, I clean all of my tack, even polish my silver. I make sure my horse is bathed (if possible) but always well groomed, even if I can't get the poop stain off my grey horse's face in the morning, he is still groomed very well. I put on clean jeans, my nicest button down shirt, and wear my best cowboy hat and chaps. I also make sure I'm groomed well. I'm not doing these things because of all the people that will be watching....I'm honestly doing them out of respect for my teacher and my horse. I want my teacher to know that I care and I am putting forth an effort. Let's be honest, if you look like a hot mess, you probably ride like a hot mess. And the last thing I know I do when going to ride with my teacher is that I of course always put in my VERY best effort while working with my horse and listening to my teacher's guidance and knowledge that he or she is generously passing on to me. I do admit for a long time I think I did ride better when in front of Buck but only because he was always reminding us to be soft, patient, clear and compassionate with our horses and because his calm influence made me better when in his presence. So, after going through all of this the next question I asked myself is how can I make sure I have true integrity, how can I make sure that I am riding the same at home as when my teacher is watching? Well it starts with the simple things, they really aren't that hard to do, it only takes a small amount of effort. I decided from that day on I would always take care of and clean my tack regularly. I would always look professional and put in effort. Wear clean (or cleanish jeans), a nice shirt, my nice hat and my chaps every day when I ride even if not a single person saw me that day. I would always take the time to groom my horses so they look their best as well. I'm not too busy to do these things and it does make a difference in how you feel, or at least it does for me. I'm not saying that if someone doesn't look nice and put together that they aren't a good rider or a good person, but if they can't even put in the effort to do these small things....what else are they skipping over? And if you show up a to a lesson looking together and appropriate then I know you are trying. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying you have to go buy the expensive hat or shirt or whatever- just put in effort with whatever you have or can afford. Now, the hard part, how do I ride better, softer, more compassionately when alone? I honestly just try to ride each ride, every day, like Buck is watching. Sounds silly, but works for me. I had to think about it a lot at the beginning...especially when things weren't going as well as planned. Now I don't have to do that so much because I have worked hard at it for a long time and it is finally becoming a way of being- even when I'm not with the horses. So, next time you are headed out to ride your horse, take notice of yourself and your horse. Show them and you the respect you both deserve....and ask yourself "What would I do if Buck was watching???"