Monday, August 11, 2008

Dollars and Sense

A few weeks ago, I found myself shopping for a new car. Apparently, this activity incites those around you to offer unsolicited advice. A client of mine, mid-lesson, lectured me about my endeavors to find the right new car for my needs (fuel-efficient, compact, nice color). Her reasoning: I should purchase a used car instead. New cars, after all, lose value the second you drive them off the lot.

I pondered her advice for a moment. Then, I asked if the brand new custom-made saddle she was riding in had lost value since she first put it on her horse. She looked at me puzzled. Wasn't it the same thing?, I asked. How was her new saddle any different in depreciation than my potential new car? Well, here's the thing. There is a rather significant disconnect when it comes to horse people and the money they spend on their furry friends as opposed to what they spend on themselves.

Yes, the saddle had lost value from the first moment my student sat in it. But these kinds of things don't seem to matter. Where the horse is concerned, most owners refuse to cut corners. I once worked for a very wealthy couple who used to spend heaps of money on special grain and vitamins for their horses but clipped coupons for Friday night pizza discounts for themselves. More recently, a client of mine skipped a few haircuts and dye job for her gray hair, which resulted in an entirely new frazzled, split-ended hairdo that was not completely flattering. I made a subtle comment about the lofty price she'd paid for a snazzy new curry comb for her horse (which would have covered two haircuts for her), and she replied simply, "Yeah, I know. But he likes it."

Equestrians' disparity between what they spend on themselves versus what they spend on their horses is so bizarre that even those outside the industry know about it. A friend of mine who knows very little about horses gently pointed this out a few days ago. I was reporting that so far the bad economy had not-- thankfully-- dented my business too much. She stopped twirling her hair around her finger long enough to roll her eyes and say, "Yeah, but isn't it common knowledge that horse people will pretty much sleep in the gutter before they sacrifice what they spend on their horses?"

Sheesh, are we that bad?, I wondered.

Within a second, I had answered my own question. I recalled a week earlier when I stopped at the health food store and didn't balk at purchasing several pounds of high-grade organic flax seeds (for my four-legged critters) but then opted to buy a pound of conventionally grown, rather than organic, bananas for myself in order to save something like 10 cents. I sort of knew there was no logic in spending more money on my horses' lunches than my own. But it just seemed like the right thing. Granted, it's still a long way from sleeping in the gutter (so far, anyway). At the end of the day, we horse people probably justify the disparity the same way. Speaking for myself, anyway, I'd like to think that if things got bad enough, and long before I curled up in the gutter, that one of my beloved horses would spare a little room in her stall and look upon me with gratitude for all the expenses I never complained about. This is what I tell myself when I'm writing all those checks. Oh, and buying that new car to drive... to the barn.

Friday, August 8, 2008

You want me to do... What?

There is no industry standard per se on lesson and training fees, although most equine professionals charge similar amounts with the exception of a few high rollers setting outrageous fees. But unlike environments like corporate America, there is no clear correlation between a trainer's experience, qualifications, and salary. It's all sort of random.

However, possession of one particular asset does seem to ensure a trainer's ability to charge-- and receive-- rather lofty figures. A foreign accent allows an instructor who might otherwise make $60 per lesson to charge over $100. It matters not whether the accent is Slovakian, Finnish, or German.

All that counts is that it hints of a person's roots being beyond U.S. soil. This fact alone gives the person a huge advantage in attracting equestrian clientele. His skills never need to be scrutinized; the foreign accent, along with a tidy riding outfit, leads to the assumption that he is in fact superior to domestic trainers. It's much like assuming that because someone is Japanese, he must be an expert of sushi. Riding and horsemanship have existed for so much longer overseas that we Americans tend to cling to foreigners as if their DNA is encoded with riding wisdom.

I myself was lured in by the centuries of dressage traditions in Europe and over the years have made not one, but twelve, pilgrimages to ride and train there. Honestly, I can't tell you that I learned any more there than I have from my domestic trainers here in the U.S., but I did come away with a feeling of storybook magic-- cobbled barn courtyards, well-groomed horses, charming little indoor arenas, and well, all those accented lessons.

Following an instructor's directives in a lesson is difficult enough. I can tell you that when you only marginally understand what he's saying, it's far worse.

One time in Portugal, my mother and I were being yelled at to "Sit cloze to zee wizards!" My mom tried to satisfy the instruction by riding her horse close to everything around-- the fence railing, spectators, chairs. Our trainer kept yelling. Finally, Mom trotted her horse up alongside mine and through clenched teeth asked me, "Where the hell is the wizard?"

I chuckled. "Withers, Mom. Sit close to the horse's withers...."

I figured I was owed a good chuckle because a month earlier, I suffered my own accent-induced embarrassment. In Germany, I convinced the revered trainer Egon von Neindorff, by then a very old and cynical man, to allow me the use of a translator for my lessons as I didn't speak German very well and old Neindorff refused to speak anything but his native tongue. An American journalist kindly sat in on my lesson, translating every comment Neindorff made to me, which wasn't much. His lesson went much like this:

Then, the translator got up to use the bathroom and the second she left the arena, Neindorff started spewing orders in rapid fire. Of course, I had no clue what the old codger was saying, so I just kept trotting my horse. This was obviously the wrong decision. Neindorff's voice escalated, he fired off instruction even faster, his arms waved. Panicked, I clenched by legs and held my breath, which must have been the cue for my mare to begin a lovely, if entirely unsolicited, piaffe.

There I sat atop this horse with legs moving wildly, and yet we were going nowhere. I poked with my spur, I clucked... and we went faster in place. She bounced up and down, working herself into a lather and I could not get her to move forward. I was horrified. But then I noticed Neindorff had stopped shouting at me. I looked across to arena to find that he was doubled over, holding his stomach in laughter, so heartily humored by my embarrassment that he was gasping for air.

More recently, my mentor-- a Spaniard living in Australia-- unleashed his own very strange dialect in an order that went something like: "Now, mike aye twanty meh-ter half curcle." Confused, I just kept trotting (obviously having learned nothing from my previously mentioned German adventures) while he stared at me. He repeated his instruction, giving me the benefit of being hearing deficient. Then he stared more. After I trotted another four times around the arena, he asked wearily "Why you no do what I tell you?"

If only I knew what he told me...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Will Work for Free...

Someone asked me last week what I would do now that my groom was moving out of the area. I scoffed at the person because without giving it much thought, I reacted with a startled sense of "What do you mean? I'll be just fine, just like I always am!"

Then I gave it some thought. With my groom moving away, I was now solely in charge of the daily operations of my business, the horses, and myself. Whoa. The last part of that sentence hit me hard. I made a quick mental list of my groom's duties and stopped after the list exceeded several pages. Chief among her duties was keeping me in line. I now faced the grim reality of being an adult without a little helper to clean up my mistakes, answer my calls at midnight, drive me around, and in some cases remind me to change my clothes.

You see, we horse trainers are fragile folks. We like to pretend that we are plenty tough, emotionally devoid, and self-sufficient. But in reality, we need a lot of ego-stroking. We are emotionally volatile and most of the time, we get in our own way. We need someone there to remind us what day it is, what our clients' phone numbers are, where the horse drugs are stored. Stuff like this. On occasion, we also need someone to point out that our eyes are bloodshot from way too many cups of coffee or that we're getting crabby from too little rest. Imagine the strain put upon a marriage to expect this of a spouse. Most of us are wise enough to realize a smarter bet is to hire someone who needs to be polite to us but doesn't have to share a home with us. Someone who won't complain when her duties include not only horse care, but also Christmas shopping for our mothers, cooking for us, picking up our dry cleaning, washing our cars, etc.

My good friend Mark, with whom I shared a barn for a few years, always had a groom around and after watching me exhaust myself by caring for-- and training-- a whole lineup of horses alone, he recommended I follow his lead. Somewhat persnickety and possessing too much puritanical work ethic, I waved him off. I could do this all by myself, I assured him, dragging my weary limbs home at the end of the day. Then, one day I drove up to the barn and observed the scene in front of me.

Mark strolled around the arena on a handsome Arabian stallion while a U2 CD blared, telling his groom in a single sentence to 1.) remember to wax his truck after washing, 2.) answer his ringing cell phone, and 3.) switch the U2 CD with a Dave Mathews. The groom accomplished the orders within a blink, and happily. You see, the opportunity to work around horses and to get a foothold in the industry can be tough to come by. So, young women line up enthusiastically, hoping for a chance to work for pittance in exchange for learning the ropes. They are energetic, responsible, and flawless. In sum, we don't deserve them.

I wised up to Mark's sense and got myself a groom. I've never looked back. Who else but some kind young woman who works for me, would put up with my rantings, my meltdowns, my pipe dreams for horses? Who else would listen to my grandiose plans and not dispel them? Who else would shop for barn supplies because she recognizes my phobias for retail stores? And who else would possibly share a hotel room with me and never complain about my snoring?

Grooms are priceless, I tell you, truly priceless. I can only hope these young girls get the footholds they seek, because the industry will surely benefit from them. Meanwhile, I want to assure them that their efforts do not go unappreciated. Now, they may not be valued as much for the horse skills as they eagerly hope, but we trainers sure are thankful for efforts in keeping us in line!