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Gus and I have recently embarked on a new training journey. It seems many of you want to hear about the struggles and progress in my quest to someday move beyond First Level, so I will be sharing some of those ups and downs here, as well as launching a blog series about coaching and training in general. What's the difference between the two? What do you look for in a good coach / trainer? Where and how do you find the right one for you? I'll explore those questions over the coming weeks, but first some general advice purely of my own inexpert opinion.
A friend of mine recently asked my thoughts on whether her horse should be getting training rides from her coach. My short answer? Yes. Not just specifically for this horse and rider, but for almost every aspiring dressage rider and their horse.
Here's a quick test for determining (in my opinion) whether a consistent pro training program would be helpful for you. Consider the following questions:
1. Are you a professional rider / trainer?
2. Do you have time to ride your horse 5-6 times per week?
3. Do you have experience riding dressage horses at the level at which you ultimately want to compete?
4. Do you have experience training horses to the level at which you ultimately want to compete?
If you answered no to any of the questions above, then yes - pro training is essential if your goals are to progress, improve your horse and move up the levels in dressage. Whether you actually compete is not really relevant in my mind, although it's the best way to ensure that you truly are progressing. Dressage is training. If you aren't improving and your horse isn't improving than you're not doing dressage; you're just riding.
Getting regular help from a pro isn't admitting defeat, or cheating, or taking a short cut. Learning from experts is how we all improve. Even Olympic riders work regularly with their trainers. It's just common sense. If your goal is Third Level, for example, but you have no experience training a horse to that level and building in him the correct musculature, way of going, suppleness, strength, and self-carriage required to then teach him the movements of that level (which you also have no experience teaching a horse) then how can you reasonably expect to achieve your goal?
And buying a horse trained to your goal level is unfortunately not a quick answer either, if you have no experience at that level, unless a skilled pro is also riding that horse and helping the rider learn. A Third Level horse can quickly become a Training Level horse in the hands of a Training Level rider with no outside help. It's simply a recipe for frustration.
Carl Hester's most valuable piece of advice when he was in Toronto for a clinic last year was to invest in the training, not the horse. Buying an expensive horse and skipping the training won't get you as far as buying an ordinary, but capable, horse and spending your money where it counts - on the training.
How much, how often and how intense that training program is will depend on your skill level, your available time, your budget (of course) and your goals. For some people, one pro ride a week in addition to lessons is enough. For others, the horse really needs three to five sessions a week with a pro. That's where Gus and I are at right now. My trainer works him 5 days a week, which may include any combination of lungeing, ring work, hill work and hacking. With my current work schedule I can usually only get to the barn three times a week. On those days we do a lesson with me riding once she has gotten him going, so I can get the idea of what correct feels like. So far it's working well and I'm delighted with the progress we've both made in just four weeks.
Stay tuned for more updates about our journey and my next post about what to look for in a dressage coach / trainer!