A Hard Lesson is Good to Find

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Lessons with a Horse Killer Paul Valliere

Lessons with a Horse Killer Paul Valliere

One of the greatest attributes of horseback riding is that there is always more to learn. Something I had been struggling with for some time with Frankie was our learning curve. We had hit a plateau. Sure we could jump around big fences, our flat work wasn’t bad, but we weren’t progressing. We weren’t “finished”.

Something I needed, as a rider, was to feel as though I was progressing. Showing can be a way to gauge your progression. However, Frankie and I had shown through open jumpers and did well. Therefore, outside of attempting to campaign at the upper levels of showjumping again, I was at a loss.

Even though we had competed at a high level—and done well, it wasn’t always pretty. To my fault, Frankie was pushed to jump too big too early. There were some dark moments after our show days, and when I finally got him performing again, it was on our own accord.

I was alone for most of these years; a husband to look after me on the ground was as close to any feedback I received. Frankie had gone from showing at 4’6″ to stopping at cross rails, and I didn’t expect any trainer to not start over-facing him again.

When I was able to bring his confidence back jumping a 4’9″ course, it wasn’t textbook. He needed to be ridden a little unorthodox. I rode him how he wanted to be ridden—not necessarily how he should have been ridden. I rode him for his confidence, not for his best performance. He needed to use himself better. We sometimes fought. But I got him to the point where he wouldn’t refuse a fence even when he should have. I did that on my own.

I was proud of that.

It was time to refine our style. My riding had been affected by the crutches I was giving Frankie. I fell into bad habits. Mr. Horse still jumped anything, but I wanted us to jump anything, consistently, with good form…and much much softer. Smooth out the edges.

I wanted refinement. I wanted finishing. I could already jump big. I wasn’t looking for a trainer. I was looking for an instructor.

There’s a big difference.

A trainer is a person who can teach a horse. An instructor is a person who can teach a person.

They are not always mutually exclusive. Not all instructors can ride, and not all trainers can teach. It’s also fair to say not all trainers can ride and not all instructors can teach. I could care less if the person I found could get on Frankie and do what I needed to do with him. This was about me.

I needed a coach to help us improve our going. Someone who really understood the horse, the communication between horse and rider, and the strengths and weaknesses of each individual horse. Someone who could articulate effective symbiosis—most often by creating a horse who loves his/her job.

I found him.

We unloaded Frankie onto a beautiful property. The grounds were pristine. Big, gorgeous trees, sprawling house, a whole crew at work.

The ring was invisible from the site where we tacked up. I heard voices, some of instruction. Two figures passed by. Random Saturday at the barn—Tailored Sportsman breeches, Joules polo’s, GPA helmets. All of a sudden, I had that feeling I don’t like.

I got on and headed to the ring. This was an evaluation “lesson”. I had already explained our history and warned of my fear of changing my riding style over big jumps. Frankie liked to be ridden the way I rode him, so to change his way of going, we needed to start small.

Intimidated? No. Nervous? Yes.

We went around. I was impressed at the speed and succinctness of the notes. Five minutes warming up, and I felt like this guy had just flipped through a photo book of our entire history. He made some pretty educated guesses at nuggets I had not previously offered.

We also got some really nice feedback. I was not looking to impress, au contraire—Frankie and I had not received formal education in some time. And it turns out we were not a lost cause. We took a few steps in that first evaluation lesson I was sure were months down the road, if at all.

But my respect was earned, mostly, through this instructor’s evaluation of Frankie. Specifically, Frankie’s mind. He seemed to want to provide calm to my horse. To give me the tools to enable this calm, as if to pet Frankie by the head an say into his ear, “Hey bud, you’re going to be OK.”

The guy had clearly seen a lot of horses in his day, and though he admitted Frankie would be challenging—and made no promises, his demeanor suggested at least part of him, on occasion, could momentary forget the posh lifestyle and let the endless facade drop into the background. Regardless from where fame or finances had followed him, this instructor was not totally inured from the spectacle of helping a talented horse grow up and wear big-boy pants. The lesson exceeded my expectations. And self-aware as he ever let on, we were told to keep coming back—regardless of our perception of the surroundings, for he wanted a project.

In the following days, we went to work with some new-found spring in our step. Some of the evaluation really hit home, and immediately Frankie and I were better for it. Improvement was palpable—quite literally, I could feel it in my hands.

How happy I was to have found an instructor I could get so much out of. He saw my horse for what he was. Incredibly athletic, sound, but apprehensive about getting over-faced. Sacrificing using himself over needing me “on him” all the time. Almost like my legs and hands were a security blanket. Seeing Frankie wanted me to make all the decisions so he could just focus on jumping the fence. Even if he had to get underneath the fence to get over it. Impressed with how obvious it was Frankie needed to be more comfortable with himself, be confident, and take more control of the situation. That HE would be happier if he could make some decisions. And he saw his job was to help me help Frankie cheer up.

If only…I hadn’t hated the rest of the experience outside of the lesson.

Still, we progressed far more rapidly, and kindly, over the next few months than I thought possible. Never had I heard an instructor more interested and concerned about the horse’s need to enjoy what he is doing in order to do what he does better. And to think I wasn’t going to even consider taking a lesson from a convicted horse killer.

“Paul Valliere is around…I mean…you know…there was that thing, and…I understand how some people feel about him. But he’s really good.”

Two years ago, I couldn’t place the name. Though in the barn isle, judgment came swift and fast enough. Jeers. Words of hatred. Vile. Evil. Villainous sneer. To hear the locals talk suggested he was a politician who escaped treason.

Online chatter was not much better. I read more comparisons to child molesters than I did about his circumstance. The facts were hard to come by—then finally the reference to a cohort named “Sandman” put it together.

OOOOOh. Paul’s THAT guy.

The vocal majority of direct and indirect feedback about Paul Valliere is that he is to be despised, without question, on principle. As if our horses need a blanket of spurn to protect them from being electrocuted at the mere mention of his name. The hatred is almost worn as a badge.

“There, there, horse. I love you. I won’t kill you. BECAUSE I HATE PEOPLE WHO KILL HORSES. Shhhhh. It will be OK.”

Which…is mostly understandable. Never mind the quandary posed by the shady ethics of wholesale cow slaughter (yummy). Horse murder is bad. Always bad.

And though it’s true only a real scumbag could beat (or request) bone contusions be applied to livestock, Paul was never indicted on animal cruelty charges—it was insurance fraud. Relatively speaking, a lightning bolt to the heart ain’t such a bad way to go.

Then after another really good lesson, given the chance, I pressed Paul on his reputation.

“Hey, that stuff that happened to me was a long time ago. Long time ago. I made some mistakes, and…I paid for it. But what’s done is done. People forget it’s been 25 years or so in the past…”

When we got in the truck, my husband pressed me. I should also mention he could barely contain his laughter. “I didn’t see that coming,” he told me.

My statement was innocent enough. Through Paul, Frankie and I saw wonderful progress. To others, I wasn’t shy about where we were training. After the initial shrieks, most people ended by asking for his number. And of the few people I passed his way, Paul let me know he appreciated the gesture and that it was nice to have someone in my (work related) field extoll his virtues. At that point in our almost-weekly instruction, the gratitude was not rare, though to be honest…

“…it’s not always an easy sell, Paul. I mean, most people think you’re an asshole. It’s hard work telling people you’re not so bad.”

“Did you notice he said, ‘stuff that happened to me’?” asked Frankie and mine’s chariot driver.

It was hard not to notice—though unreasonable on which to draw conclusions. At worst, the line foretold his method of internalizing his predicament. With the FBI crashing in on him, dangling his freedom like a Parelli carrot, and getting suited up for some first-class wiretapping espionage, the moments may have felt like they were coming at him. And he was simply playing defense.

Despite his vocal remorse, it would be hard not to speculate this poster-child for bad-trainers only might be so…because he got caught. Hardly few people admit to crimes for which they are not suspected. But despite his role in one of the worst scandals in the history of the horse world, Paul’s decent into moral infamy is largely…unearned.

Big show barns, especially hunter/jumper barns, can be a very uninviting place. Essentially, those barns don’t cater to riders, they cater to people with money who want to win. This means there are very nice horses, very well trained horses, very expensive horses, and people who show up to sit atop these horses and win blue ribbons. Largely, Paul also runs a sale barn, thus there were many people in and out who wanted to buy their way into said ribbons.

A lot of people who profess to hate Paul and all he stands for have never, and will never, show at the AA level. This is important. Because the majority of people that WOULD, have, will, or do ride with him show at the big shows, and this is an interesting correlation.

Above the windows in the tack room at Paul’s New England facility hang framed party-atmosphere decadence. Aviator glasses, glorious 70’s mustache, bleached hair even then, the photos and articles tell the tale. The tale of power. The tale of disco-era Florida show circuits. Looking at the collection that seemingly presents itself as the high-water mark of professional prosperity, inferences to coke, greed, and influence make themselves.

“It’s like Paul’s version of BOOGIE NIGHTS in there,” says my husband. No stranger to the art of ribbing, he once tried to sweat Paul on the now missing facial hair.

Paul has a great and friendly chuckle. “Oh, the mustache, Josh? Geez, those were the times. I tell you, the first year we went down [to Florida], I think we had about a dozen horses. Some of them not-so-great horses even, and every one of my people won. I mean all of them. We took home all the trophies.

The next year, we had 80 horses. 80! You would not believe the staff I needed just to keep up. Those were crazy times, I tell you. I think we did about six million in revenue that second show season. And it cost us six-and-a-half.”

It’s in the extreme upper-crust of the horse world—nigh, business, that Paul has spent most of his life. A context that invites big losses and big gains, an environment ripe with corruption, lies, and high-stakes tomfoolery. He was a man very much of his time, so much that what’s easy to condone today seemed like moral imperative for a (debatably) morally-lacking bunch. He wasn’t the first, he won’t be the last, and as a recipient of the the masses’ condonement, he’s in the minority.

Since the State and AHSA/USEF (to a degree) feel penance has been paid, it’s likely the ire invoked by Paul owes not to his name or even to his choices, but to his existence.

An existence that is nothing short of blessed.

Paul has the same clients he’s always had. They own baseball teams, travel in helicopters, live in amusement parks, and employ servants to wipe up the crumbs. If it’s true all great fortunes started with great crimes, Paul’s indiscretions at worst put him in good company. I submit the populist anger is misdirected at his former deeds. It might rather be spent aimed at said company he keeps.

Which was the rub, for me. His horses are cared for very well, the riders are catered to exceptionally.

Paul treated me very well and didn’t skimp on my lessons. He worked hard at progressing me and Frankie. We’re better for it.

When it comes down to it, I’m not the dream client. I’m never going to have a ton of money to drop on a horse. The only way I’m getting to a Florida show is if I find a sponsor/backer to pay my way. Winning isn’t everything to me. I would rather ride a round well and I mean RIDE rather than sit in the saddle and point the horse to fences to win a blue ribbon. I never even kept my ribbons. My tack-trunks have always been utilitarian; decoration free zones they are.

At the end of one of our lessons, a cab pulled up. Mind, this was well outside of an hour from any nearby airport.

I undressed and walked Frankie, letting him graze for a bit in the beautiful hunt field. Out of the cab stepped a girl, ready to go. Boots on. A fully-tacked horse awaited.

As Frankie and I (probably mostly me) cooled off and contemplated our past and future, I drifted in an out of watching the young amateur’s round.

My sweat-filled ride was likely an anomaly of that day. The young amateur hopped around as just she should, horse doing all the work. There are fewer places I’d rather take in such beauty—gorgeous horse finished to the nines, being absolutely perfect, sun tickling the tousled hair of both our manes (me and Frankie).

It was SO BORING.

Paul possess the rare ability to take any horse and turn the rider into a passenger. People pay top dollar for his help in reaching their goals.

Privilege surrounds him. And because of his unequivocal talent, he might actually be worth every penny that’s come to him.

There and then, the long ride, and fatigue, made me notice the day start it’s break from afternoon to evening. As we loaded, I too felt the beginnings of a transition from curiosity to opinion.

I was quiet on the way home. I may have even taken a nap. I thought about our progress, I thought about what I’d learned, and I thought about the lessons before and after mine.

We skipped a couple weeks after than. Then went some more, and then took an indefinite hiatus. I liked riding with Paul. I know Frankie really liked us riding with Paul. I just wish more of the lives he’s touched placed riding as a passion instead of treating the-act-of-horsemanship as a status symbol. Even if I allow that his ability to get the best of the world has not jaded him (a big stretch), it’s jaded his barn.

He probably prefers it that way; I’m not sure if I’ll be back.