That Special Bond: Q&A with a Horse Trainer

Posted by Stacey Venzel
All images via Ashley Udell

Long before there were horse riders, there were horse breakers.

Horse training involves more than just teaching a horse to jump or do tricks. First, the horse has to be handleable, only achieved by gaining initial trust from the hooved beauties. A horse trainer specifically skilled in breaking horses, meaning readying them for a rider, creates a bond as early as possible with the large animal.

While training involves a broad understanding of animal behavior, it requires specific breed and species knowledge on an individual level. Teaching a Shih Tzu to respond to a leash is a different expertise from showing a horse to follow a lead.

Not only is the size comparison skewed--a swift kick from an uncooperative equine will do much greater damage than that of a canine--but intelligence, anthropomorphized personality, and basic instincts of a predator versus prey must also be taken into account.


Ashley Udell, a 28-year-old Florida native, grew up around horses. Working with them only seemed a natural transition from her country charm childhood. With two family horses in Myakka City and a history of one-on-one lessons, Udell gained expertise in the field of horse behavior over a decade ago. She currently readies horses for riding and guides C Ponies' beach-riding excursions throughout the Sarasota region.

Udell answered some questions every horse lover wants to know about that special bond that happens before Black Beauty's reins get handed over to a rider. While equestrians have their own special horse bond, trainers and their animal clients have a unique relationship in a class of its own. Equestrians will nod their heads with the number one life lesson horse training has taught Udell.

What is the main goal of a horse trainer?

The main goal is to establish a respectful relationship with the horse. You really have to learn how to communicate as a horse would with another horse to successfully train it.


What background does one need to have to enter into the field of horse training? What qualifications do you have specifically?

As in most jobs, hands-on experience goes a lot further than anything. Working under a qualified, knowledgeable trainer is a good start. I've had horses since I was a young girl, so just having them, caring for them and watching their behavior in the pasture taught me a decent amount. I was pretty horse crazy as a kid, so I immersed myself into any horse-related books or videos I could get my hands on. I worked under a couple of excellent trainers in high school and college which taught me the most about gaining a horse's trust, respect, and truly making them a willing partner.

Do you consider the work of a horse trainer dangerous?

It can absolutely be dangerous if the correct precautions are not taken. You are working with an animal with a mind of its own so there is room for error there. I always get to know the horse's personality before I move on to more advanced training. This is usually done through groundwork which is just what it sounds like, working the horse on the ground before getting into the saddle. Groundwork is the method in which I gain a horse's trust and respect.


How does the bond of a horse trainer and the horse compare with a horse and its rider?

This would all depend on the rider. Ask any horse trainer in the world and they will tell you that 90% of horse behavior problems are the result of mishandling or a lack of knowledge of the owner/rider. I encourage all horse owners to learn to handle their horses properly so they can have the same relationship with the horse as the trainer would.

Does a horse trainer specialize? For example, do some focus on Western riding, racing, jumping, or taming only?

Yes, most trainers do specialize in a certain discipline. Most tend to focus on English or Western riding then specialize further from there.

Are there a lot of horse trainers out there, or do you think the equestrian world could benefit from more people in this position?

There are quite a few horse trainers out there but the key is finding the quality ones. There may be a lack of quality trainers but I believe more people are researching and learning the correct methods so they can fill that void.


What tips from horse training have you learned to help you survive in the real world?

Interesting question! Horse training has taught me many things but the number one thing is probably patience. Most horses are not used to humans communicating to them as a horse so it can take a while to establish that line of communication, but once you do everything comes much easier. You may try to teach a horse the same thing for thirty days and on day thirty-one, they get it. Now what if you had given up on day thirty? It's difficult sometimes, but have patience and do not give up!

Does there ever come a time when you have to give up on a horse because he/she just doesn't seem rideable?

Personally, no. I've had horses that ended up with physical problems that limited their training, but I've never had one that was mentally unable to be trained. Horses are actually very forgiving creatures, and if there is one that is unable to be trained, it is generally due to human error.

What is the scariest moment you've ever had in your horse training career?

Luckily, I've never been severely injured by a horse. Of course I've been thrown, kicked and bitten, but not severely injured because of it. Being thrown from a horse is pretty scary, but it's important to get right back on if you can. I would have to say some of the scariest moments have been watching people let their horses dominate them to the point the horses becomes aggressive. Watching a horse "play chicken" with a person is pretty scary.


What is one of your more rewarding memories as a horse trainer?

I love helping people so just seeing the relationship between a horse and its owner blossom because I helped them understand each other is a pretty amazing feeling. Another memory would have to be when I finally rode my horse bridle-less. When I got him, he was labeled fairly unable to be trained but I didn't give up on him. I put hundreds of hours of training into him and learned to understand him. Eventually, I was able to ride him without a bridle and still have total control which was just awesome.

Udell's description certainly shows her passion for these remarkable creatures. A love for these animals seems to be a clear prerequisite for training them because of the amount of patience that goes into the work.

What did you learn about the bond between pets and people? Udell--and horses--leave some words of wisdom for us to live by. Forgiveness, determination and courage go hand-in-hand with patience when it comes to the animal-human bond.

All images via Ashley Udell.

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That Special Bond: Q&A with a Horse Trainer