Keeping up with the Jones’

It’s not that a wild haircut or an armful of tattoos detracts from one’s competence to train a horse. But horse owners tend to think that. Which is pretty funny, since the horse world is mostly populated by free spirits. Nonetheless, when an owner seeks a trainer, he or she is typically drawn to a professional that is, well, clean-cut. Tidy. Smooth-talking.

Never mind that the most qualified trainer for the job might not fit that description at all. In fact, most of the trainers in this industry that I respect the most for their unparalleled skill occupy the margins of societal norms in terms of appearances. Think odd fashions, social awkwardness, potentially distasteful tattoos. And then there’s a population of trainers I’ve known that had very little to no skill but presented a perfectly coiffed look. You know– shiny black boots, clean leather gloves, steam pressed breeches. I once met a trainer here in California with the shiniest boots I’ve ever seen, like reflective pools of water. But I don’t think this person had ever ridden a horse, let alone trained one. Yet that seemed to matter little, because the look was just right. And that can get you pretty far.

I had this discussion last week with my colleague, a Western trainer, who wanted to come watch one of my dressage competitions. She didn’t think she could come, she said, because the hot summer weather prevented her from wearing enough clothes to cover up her tattoos. And she didn’t want to offend anyone, or to embarrass me. Let me clarify that she has more than a couple tattoos; in fact, she’s thoroughly inked from neckline to toenails. When first meeting her, it is admittedly difficult not to stare at her limbs. When I met her, I did in fact question some things, such as why someone like her might want a five-inch swirling blade permanently colored onto her upper arm. But I never questioned her abilities as a horse trainer. From the first moment I saw her teaching a student, I knew this gal meant serious business. She is unusually focused and committed, and she elevates her students to a level of excellence they probably would never achieve otherwise.

I tried convincing her that it would be just fine to come watch the dressage show. Sure, she might stick out a little bit, but I didn’t think anyone would be overtly appalled by her. That was the glitch, though. I didn’t think anyone would be appalled. I couldn’t guarantee it. Most trainers I knew– in any discipline– stuck with the same general appearance and mannerisms, and she was well outside the norm. But that’s the funny thing. Everyone knows that horse trainers are an odd lot of folks. They’re folks with unorthodox social graces, obtuse opinions, highly independent. A little rough around the edges. So, why then, do they all try to look the same? Who are they kidding with that tidy appearance?

Growing up, I knew a trainer around New England who specialized in breaking young, wild, or dangerous horses. Rick didn’t work with good equine citizens; he only wanted the scary ones. Nobody could rival his skill with them. In 60 days, he consistently transformed unruly beasts into steadfast, reliable mounts. Yet, strangely, he lacked the number of clients his skills should have garnered for him. And that’s because Rick was a bit– how to say this?– strange.

Every year in January, he traveled for two months to Florida for what he called “alligator wrestling season.” We never confirmed if alligator wrestling is an official sport down South, much less if there’s an organized season. But Rick went down there every year to tangle with the life-threatening reptiles and returned each spring with a few bruises and scrapes on his shoulders. He then spent the next eight months telling and re-telling tales of his heroics from those two months. Peoples’ responses to him varied. Some bored of hearing the stories. Many thought he was making things up. Most, though, thought he was just plain odd. Very odd. This tended to repel would-be clients, regardless of his skill with equines.

I pondered this last week– on the topic of competence, that is. Why would a person’s appearance have any correlation to his or her competence? And how did we in the horse world make this tie? A former client of mine turned down my referral of a colleague due to the fact, she said, that she’d seen him wearing a “Gay Pride San Francisco 1999” t-shirt once. Huh? Would that somehow affect his ability to train her horse? I asked. She paused a long time trying to dissect the question. Then she replied that, yes, well she supposed the t-shirt made him seem very ‘non-horseman like.’ In other words, he lacked the proper trappings– leather gloves, collared shirt, pressed breeches.

In the end, my Western trainer friend with all the tattoos did not come to the dressage show. And, truthfully, I had to admit it was for the best. Setting aside my idealism, I conceded that she was right. Her lip tattoo really would stick out in this sea of women in designer wear and straw hats. And the five-inch swirling knife blade on her upper arm? It wouldn’t only be distasteful to this crowd; it would be plain startling.

Nevertheless, my idealism still rears its head sometimes, like when I’m reading Dressage Today magazine. I’m convinced that one day, rather than the photos giving an impression that we all shop at the same store, we’ll see pictures of horsemen of all colors and backgrounds. Just think about it. How cool would it be to compete for a dressage judge with a mohawk? Or how about one who alleges to wrestle alligators in the off season?