An Interview with
a Flat-Shod Walking Horse Trainer
Marilynne Reed
Please tell us about your family.

My family consists of two sons, a husband, a daughter in-law, a step son and step daughter in law and 2 wonderful step grandchildren (3 and 8 both girls).  My sons are 31 and 34 and my stepson is 25.  My oldest son, who just got married to the first friend I made when I moved to Tennessee, is also a TWH trainer.  His new wife is a TWH lover also (that's how I met her, she brought a horse to us to train).  My husband, Bill Reed, was a horse trainer long before I ever met him.  His dad also trained horses.  Bill's dad was the first rider to ever get on the back of a TWH named Stonewall Allen who later, when bought by Gene Autry, was renamed Champion.  That was back in 1938 I believe.  I was an amateur trainer, just training my own horses until 1991, when I came to Tennessee and trained with Bill.  We got married in 1995.  My son, Scot, trained horses in California for many years before moving here to Tennessee in 1996.  He opened his own training barn a few years ago.  Bill's son, Ronnie, loves to ride horses but is not interested in training.  He showed horses as he was growing up as did my son.  My youngest son still lives in San Diego, CA and is still attending graduate school.  He never had any interest in horses other than riding a little when he was young.

What is the most important aspect of training a horse?

Understanding the body language of horses and learning to communicate with them with gentle methods of training.  Understanding that horses don't purposely do the wrong thing.  They simply did not understand the the cue they were given.  Horses, most of the time, try very hard to understand the "foreign language" you speak to them and try to decipher the meaning.  By trial and error they eventually make the right decision.  That is why you must praise them when they do make the right decision.  Never punish them for something they do not understand.  It is your job to help them understand what it is you want.

What age do you start a horse under saddle?

It depends on the size, bone structure, and mental maturity of each individual horse.  Most of the time I wait until the horse is a full 2 years old.  If the horse is very large with large bones and seems to be mentally mature enough, I will start them at 20 to 22 months, but never any younger.  I do start their first training the day they are born.  I like to imprint them, then start leading them at about 3 days old.  Their first lessons in picking up their feet and grooming and clipping are usually done at about one month of age.  I start round pen training when they are weaned.  It is not very often or for very long as it is not good for their joints and bones.  Maybe for 5 minutes once or twice a week, until they are 8 to 10 months old.  I want them to learn to come to me and follow me around as soon as they understand what I want.  I usually make such good friends with them when they are with their mother that they like me well enough to come to me any time I want.  Makes it easier when they are older.  I like to get a horse in training when they are about 20 months old if they have never experienced the initial training.  If they get to big and cocky when they are young, due to lack of the beginning training, it is easier to work with them when they are a little younger and less stubborn.

Do you prefer english or western tack?

I guess you would have to say I prefer english.  I've always ridden english, even back to my endurance riding days.  I used a dressage saddle for endurance and competitive trail riding.  I took dressage lessons from a very talented Austrian woman that worked my tail off for 7 years.  It was said at the time that dressage and endurance riding don't mix, but I disproved that by winning a sweepstakes competitive trail the week before and the week after I won 1st place at a dressage show.  I have always liked the less bulky saddle and the lighter weight of an english saddle.  I do enjoy riding in shows in western but it is much less complicated putting on a saddle suit than chaps, vest, gloves and all to rest of the western stuff.

Would you like to elaborate on your training methods?

I first try to develop an understanding with the horse that if he gives me what he can in his different stages of training that I won't ride him too long.  I feel that a horse cannot give you his all if he is tired.  His lessons will be short and he will get lots of praise if he can start out doing well and not mess around a lot.  I start out dogwalking and doing suppling exercises until I feel the horse loosen up and give to the bridle.  I work on developing a good light mouth.  I want the horse to learn to balance himself at all his gaits without having to lean into the bit and use me to balance himself in the mouth.  I want a very slight contact with his mouth at all times. 

I try to use equipment that will protect his mouth when teaching new and harder things that might cause him to get on the bit too much, such as the canter.  I use a kineton caveson to protect his mouth, bars, and tongue when teaching him to canter.  Contrary to common practice with the so called "natural horsemanship" I stay in a snaffle bit for a very short time.  I feel that it teaches a horse to lean into the bit and get on the forehand too much.  Eventually you have to show in a shank bit so I start riding them in a very short shank bit with a kineton caveson after about four to six months.  Sometimes I go back to a snaffle if I feel they aren't ready for a shank bit.  Each horse will tell you when they are ready.  Since most of the horses I train are liteshod  and some with the heavier, toe weight shoe, most are brought to me to work in a more animated type of movement, I start driving them on to a longer stride fairly soon.  I have found that if you just "dink" around getting them to time up sooner and square up sooner that you will never have a long strided animated horse.  I have never used any kind of action devise to train a horse because when they go in the ring or go home they will still retain the lessons I give them with no artificial aids.  I want a horse to be whatever he is when his owner or rider gets on him and he is no longer in training.  I don't want anyone to say, "Gee, he sure isn't as good as he was when he was in training."  The rider may not be as experienced or as good a rider as the trainer (me) but when they go home they better be keeping the walk that I taught  them.  I have had a couple horses start pacing after a period of time but it was because the rider just let them slop along and did not keep them collected.

What advise do you have for people, at any age, entering the training field?

I hope that training is really what they want to do because it is not an easy job at all.  It consists of very long hours, hard work, and it can be very hard on your body.  Young horses take a toll on your body.  People bring you horses that have many of problems, including mental problems, caused by bad training methods.  We have gotten horses that people say, "you are our last resort".  These are horses that have been abused and mentally "shot".  They take lots of time and patience.  Sometimes more time and money than the horses are worth.  But, of course, that is up to the owner, whether they want to put in the time and money on a horse that has been "ruined". 

With time and patience most of them do come "out of it".  But very few EVER forget.  If you want to get into training horses you have to be VERY dedicated and remember that just because you don't feel like riding, people are paying you to do a good job and you MUST do it.  There are times when I don't feel well and it is VERY hot or VERY cold and I'd much rather be where it is warm or cool that you just have to do a good job and do what you are paid to do.  Before I became a professional trainer I had to think a long time if I really wanted to do this.  It was easy with my own horses to just say, "I don't feel like riding, I'll do it tomorrow."  You really have to like horses and people  (PR is also very important with your customers) to be a good trainer.  If you are having a horribly miserable day and nothing is going right and one of your customers comes and he is having a bad day and is in a bad mood, you have to be NICE even when you feel awful.  They have their horses in training for their entertainment  and you are being paid to entertain the owners as well as train the horses.  It's not always easy.  Don't rush into training for all the glory and bright lights.  There is a lot more to it than that.  Oh yes, you get that too when all your hard work comes together and your horse or horses and riders bring home the victory.  That's the bright and wonderful side of training.

What expectations should an owner have of a trainer?

An owner should expect that the trainer to take care of his horse just as if it were his own.  I consider all my training horses "mine",  They get treated as if they were my own pets.  I give them love, fairness, and try to keep them as healthy as possible.  I feel that horses need "horse time" too in addition to training time.  I turn them out as often as I can to be able to run and play horsey things.  Stallions need this time also.  Just because they are a stallion doesn't mean they don't have horsey needs too.  They like to be turned out and sniff, and run, and have a little freedom too.  People should expect their trainer to do everything they can to make the horse the very best that he is capable of.  But they should never expect the trainer to make something out of a horse that the horse is not capable of doing.  A trainer will find out the capabilities of the horse and develop them to the best he can.  A trainer should be honest with the owner and if the horse is not going to be what the owner wants they should tell the owner that and give the owner the chance to make their decisions as to whether or not they want to put any more money into the horse.  Honesty will go a long way in this regard.

What expectations should a trainer have of an owner?

An owner should give the trainer time enough to do a good job.  Trying to make a 90 day wonder is not only unfair to the trainer but also to the horse.   If a horse is rushed beyond their ability you can cause much undue stress on both horse and trainer.  Don't expect to make a silk purse out of a sows ears (as the expressions goes).  If a trainer gets a horse and the owner says they want a "show" horse and you find that the horse just does not have the ability, it's not fair to anyone involved to try to make something out of a horse that just doesn't have the ability.  Never ask a trainer to bring home the blue at any expense.  An owner should always try to have a better ride than the last time or hope that the horse puts on a good show.  Don't get wrapped up in winning first place all the time or expecting to win every time out.  It's the quality of the ride that counts.  A lot of horses get recognition even if they didn't get the blue.  How many times have you heard, "Boy you should have won that class"?  You got the recognition even if you didn't get the blue ribbon.

Are there any words of wisdom that you have learned over the years working with horses?

Be patient with the horses.  Be fair to the horses.  Try to understand the horses point of view.  Don't get into fights with horses.  You will lose every time.  It's just a wasted step backwards.  When a horse does something wrong it was probably your fault for not communicating correctly with him.  Be kind and gentle and the horse will try to do just about anything you ask.  Always ask, don't demand.  Treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were a horse.