If there's one thing I know about the internet, it's that people will get offended over anything. And apparently I ruffled a few feathers by using the phrase "just riding' in my previous post. Let me be perfectly clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with just riding if that's what you want to do. But there is a difference between just riding and dressage.
If all you want to do is brush your horse and feed it carrots, that's a-ok too. But if you WANT to do dressage and you're struggling to enjoy your rides, get help from a skilled pro. If you WANT to get to FEI Levels, but have never ridden or trained a horse past First Level, please get help from a skilled pro. If you WANT to progress up the levels but can't seem to get past Training Level after years of trying, for goodness sake, get help from a skilled pro.
Now that we've cleared that issue up, what should you look for in a pro?
Like most people, I tend to use the terms "coach" and "trainer" interchangeably. Everyone's needs are different but most struggling riders will get the greatest benefit from working with someone skilled at both riding / training the horse themselves and teaching us how to ride / train the horse.
I talked to a number of different riders, trainers, coaches and students to come up with this list. Some (like #1) might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised by how many people call themselves a "dressage trainer" despite having little to no dressage experience at all. The list is by no means definitive; feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below!
1. Understand the difference between a riding instructor and a dressage trainer. There are lots of talented instructors out there but before promoting themselves as a trainer who specializes in dressage, someone should have successfully TRAINED multiple horses THEMSELVES up the levels. To what level will depend somewhat on your own goals, but most of the people I've talked to agree that Third Level is a reasonable minimum standard.
2. The horses they train and the riders they teach should consistently move up the levels. The easiest way to verify progress is through show scores and most recognized shows will list the trainer on the results sheet, if you want to do a little anonymous Google research first. However, a reputable trainer should have no problem sharing verifiable results with potential clients. Showing isn’t everything and there are obviously many good coaches who don’t compete, for a variety of reasons. Without competition results, however, it’s tough to verify someone’s claim of training multiple horses to FEI levels, or to identify a clear and consistent pattern of students progressing up the levels.
3. Choose someone whose experience matches your goals. If your goal is Grand Prix, it doesn't make sense to train with someone who has never ridden anything higher than a Third Level test, does it? If your goal is to compete, then choose a trainer who is not only successful in the show ring themselves, but whose students are successful too.
4. Find a trainer whose training program and teaching approach are a good fit for you personally. This is not a license to become an armchair expert and tell your coach which methods, exercises and gadgets they should be using, based on the latest training article or dressage forum thread you read! You're paying for their expertise and you need to trust in their methods. But their teaching schedule must work for your lifestyle. The care at their barn (if you are boarding and not just shipping in) must meet your standards. If you lack confidence or need a lot of positive reinforcement in order to learn well, a trainer with a "tough love" style of communicating may not be the ideal choice for you.
5. Choose someone who is committed to their own development as a rider and trainer. Dressage is a sport of life-long learning. A good pro recognizes that they benefit from skilled help as much as the rest of us and will regularly take lessons themselves, participate in clinics, and / or compete at shows.
6. Do your homework. Look up scores, and fact check any credentials, awards and accomplishments they claim to hold. Ask for references from past and current clients, and follow up with them.
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!
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.