If you've me say it once you've probably heard me say it a thousand times: I hate horse shows. Except I don't really. After going to our local CDI as a spectator this past weekend I realized that I just hate showing. I resent the amount of money I spend on doing something I dread. I hate running back and forth to the port-a-potty because my anxiety is in overdrive. I hate that I can't conquer the overwhelming feeling that I might die if I encounter the water truck on the way to the warmup ring (even though my horse has only spooked hard about 5 times in his entire life). I hate that some people take showing so seriously and get worked up over a mistake or a low score as if they were life-or-death issues. At the end of the day we're not doing brain surgery; it's horse dancing.
So why do I show? Because I suck at it. And my mental state makes my horse suck at it. While he seems to enjoy "camping" with his buddies back at the shedrow and watching all the goings-on at the wash racks, he's not particularly enthusiastic about having to perform in the ring. So we'll keep doing it until we both get comfortable enough that getting through a low level test without a major error or meltdown is possible.
But this weekend he got to stay home with an abscess while I enjoyed all the fun of a show with none of the stress. All my past whining about showing negates the many, many good things about it, so here's a quick list of 3 things I love about shows:
1. Dressage shows are for everyone
Many horse sports have a reputation for being elitist, but getting up at 5am to feed or braid has a way of putting everyone on an equal footing. FEI competitors can be found hand-grazing their six-figure mounts next to little kids and their lesson ponies. Want to meet one of your Olympic idols? Sure there was an autograph booth for that, but you're just as likely to meet and chat with one at the manure pile, by the warm-up ring rail, or in the line-up for coffee. I saw competitors of all ages, all shapes and sizes (so confidence boosting for me to see several plus-sized riders looking awesome and riding fantastic tests) and all skill levels. Likewise I saw horses of every breed, size, shape, colour, description, and price point.
2. Dressage shows are inspiring
Unless you're lucky enough to winter in Wellington, or board somewhere with Grand Prix riders, we lower-level riders don't get the chance to see top-level dressage in person nearly often enough. Being able to watch riders warming up and competing at the highest levels is inspiring and educational in and of itself. But so is watching the pros put their young horses through their paces at the lower levels. So is watching an amateur with her self-trained draft cross hold her own against pros on fancy warmbloods in FEI classes. So is watching a rider struggle through a challenging warmup or difficult test, and live to knock it out of the park the next day.
3. Dressage shows are fun
Hands down, the best part of any show is the camaraderie. The dressage community in Canada is small and closely-knit, despite being highly competitive. Shows are a place to reconnect with people you haven't seen since last season, and to meet in real life some you "know" through social media. Everywhere you go there's a small army of family members, friends, barn-mates, and supporters taking off boots, holding horses, giving pep talks, and offering congratulations or condolences. At the end of the day it's not unusual to find small groups gathered outside of each shedrow, often trading war stories and laughs over an adult beverage or two, as their horses contentedly much hay nearby. Dressage may be an individual sport but these moments are a great reminder of our team spirit.
Does your bit fit? It seems like a simple question but in fact if you are like me, you probably only have a vague idea. Most of us were taught to assess the height of the bit in the horse’s mouth by the number of lip wrinkles, and to choose a bit just slightly wider than the horse's lips. But when it comes to more detailed fitting, not to mention choosing from the wide range of bit types and styles, many horse owners operate on a trial and error basis.
I'm old enough to remember when we bought saddles simply by choosing we liked out of a catalogue. Today we understand just how much damage an ill-fitting saddle can do, and enlisting the help of certified saddle fitters has become the norm. Will using bit fitters become commonplace too? I suspect so, and for good reason. Seeking expert advice can save you time, money and frustration in the long run.
“My recommendation to anyone would be to invest in a consultation with a certified bit fitter who can come to your barn and evaluate your horse in person,” says Tammy Levasseur, the owner of On the Bit Tack & Apparel and a recently certified bit fitter herself.
“They’ll ask questions about your current training regime, goals, and any issues you are having, and will observe your horse being ridden in your current bit. They’ll examine your horse’s oral anatomy and identify issues related to bitting, and will measure the mouth width and the height of the inter-dental space (the “bars” of the mouth). They’ll also check the height and shape of your horse’s palatine arch, as that plays a big role in determining the optimal bit thickness and shape. There are a lot of bit-fitting myths out there, like the belief that a thicker bit is more gentle and comfortable for the horse. However if your horse has a low palate or small inter-dental space, a thinner bit may actually be much more comfortable.”
I interviewed Tammy for a detailed article in Horse Sport magazine about the many different factors to consider when choosing a bit, including mouthpiece type, cheekpiece type, material and size. Check it out in the most recent issue (the one with Erynn Ballard on the cover, or read it online with a digital subscription.
Tammy came to the barn to meet Gus and evaluate his current bit - I go back and forth between a French link Baucher and a double jointed Myler snaffle. The first thing she pointed out is that both bits are too wide for his mouth. Despite Gus' giant stature, his mouth measures only 5.5 inches wide, meaning a 5.75 inch bit is the best fit for him, not the 6-inch+ ones I had been using.
She found no abnormalities in the size and shape of the inter-dental space or the palatine arch, meaning there were no special considerations needed for bit thickness or shape. Gus does tend to get fussy with his tongue in certain bits, so the one Tammy recommended was the Neue Schule Turtle Tactio. It looks like a pretty standard double-jointed snaffle, however the mouthpiece is angled differently and the lozenge in the centre is unlike any I've ever seen. According to the Neue Schule website the design "focuses rein pressure to the central part of the tongue whilst diverting pressure away from the sensitive regions near the bars."
There is no magic bullet with horses and no bit, no matter how scientifically engineered or costly - will ever replace good training. I'm not expecting this new bit to solve my riding problems (although I wish it would!) but if Gus is happy and comfortable working in it, and it allows me to communicate with him in the lightest way while still being effective, then that's a good thing. I've had a couple of rides in it and so far that seems to be the case. Stay tuned for updates and I'll let you know how it goes.
What kind of bit do you currently use and why? Let me know in the comments section below!
The four 6- and 7-year-old horses featured in the clinic are living proof that development and training don't happen on a strict timeline; each horse is an individual and will progress at different rates and react to stressful situations differently. Despite being more or less the same age, they ranged from First to Third Level, and all but one showed varying degrees of stage fright in the large venue. However they all demonstrated superb quality and excellent potential for the future.
Recognizing that no two horses progress at the same pace, Charlotte still has a basic set of expectations for her own horses at this age; shoulder in, travers and half pass should now be well-established and she likes to introduce the single flying change between age 5 and 6. "There's no hurry to get the change in but it shouldn't be a big deal for most horses this age. If you have trained a good collected canter, it's not difficult to teach a good flying change," she said. Lateral work is particularly important at this stage to develop suppleness and strength.
Jaimey Irwin and Fortissimo (6yo, First Level)
This big, impressive-looking gelding captured everyone's attention the minute he walked into the ring. Charlotte cautioned that with a horse that naturally has such big movement, you want to encourage it to move smaller and in a more easy way, to reduce wear and tear and preserve the horse for the long run. "My goal with every horse is always the Grand Prix. I don't care about winning young horse classes or at the lower levels; the horse has got to last if it's going to be successful at Grand Prix."
Fortissimo was extremely nervous in the main ring and despite Jaimey's best efforts, never really was able to completely relax and focus on the job at hand. It was a wonderful demonstration of patience and tactful riding from a skilled professional who quietly worked through moments of tension and rewarded moments of relaxation. "We can all see how nice this horse is and we want to see what he can do but there's no point in trying when he's this tense and worried," said Charlotte. "In a situation like this the only goal becomes getting the horse to breathe, getting him to a point where he's not afraid and finishing the session on a positive note." Specific notes on the work they were able to do included:
- Use lots of serpentines, circles and changes of direction with a nervous horse to keep it guessing a little, keep its mind off the scary situation.
- Shoulder in and travers on a circle are excellent to build suppleness on the stiffer side and make the horse more even from right to left.
- Horse has a high quality canter, up and out with a lovely use of the shoulder and very active hind leg. A round and active canter like this indicates horse will have a good flying change and pirouette down the road.
- Horse is clearly nervous but keeps trying, never says no. Keeping this horse going is never going to be a problem.
- An experienced rider like Jaimey is exactly what this horse needs; he can gain confidence from the confidence of his rider. Inexperienced rider on an inexperienced horse is not a good combination.
Leah Wilkins and High Energy STH (6yo, Second Level)
This elegant mare showed her nervousness in the arena by sucking back somewhat, and bearing down on the hand a little when Leah used her legs. In horses as in life, forward fixes almost everything. "Sometimes you just have to forget about dressage and go for a good yee-haw," Charlotte said, encouraging Leah to have a good gallop around the perimeter of the ring. Once the horse was more relaxed, she moved into the lateral work at the introduction of the single change (which unfortunately I missed, due to a badly-timed phone call which I couldn't ignore.) Charlotte's advice included:
- Use lateral work to occupy the horse's mind and keep her from spooking.
- Do shoulder-in away from the wall to test if horse is drifting or not. Leah is doing it very well but lots of people cheat by pushing the quarters out, rather than bringing the shoulders in.
- Then try moving between shoulder in and renvers on the same line by changing the flexion.
- Travers is the best exercise for suppling as it bends the inside while stretching the outside of the horse's body. When the mare resists bending on her stiffer side, just keep correcting and riding through it.
- Half pass is simply travers on a diagonal line. Ideally it should be parallel but not when teaching a young horse. Make it easier at first for them to succeed by allowing the it to trail slightly.
-As horse gets stronger over time work on making half pass more parallel without allowing the rhythm or contact to change.
- Set up the half pass correctly in the corner before. If you ride a bad corner you will ride a bad movement.
Justin Ridgewell and Jolene (7yo, Third Level)
Justin unfortunately encountered much the same situation as Jaimey did. Despite the fact she schooled comfortably in the empty arena the night before, Jolene was simply too afraid of the large crowd on Saturday to demonstrate much of the Third Level work. "Justin is thinking 'this is horrible,' but everyone in the audience is learning from it because their horses all do the exact same thing," said a sympathetic Charlotte. After canter work settled her down, Jolene was able to show off the qualities that made Charlotte say, "This is the type of horse I go for. She's very go-ey, very athletic looking and quite uphill by nature." Specific comments included:
- Keep the poll up; you should be able to see the top piece of the bridle.
-Make little corrections when she drops down to keep the neck up and open.
- Rider needs stronger seat and stronger core to sit up and back more - tendency is to tip forward from the hip somewhat.
- Horse is very supple laterally, finds it easy to switch between shoulder in and travers
- Increase difficulty by starting in leg yield from centre line towards wall, then switch to half pass.
- By age 7 horses should be working on the pirouette. Start with a 15m circle in shoulder in, followed by a 15m circle in travers, then spiral the circle in towards more of a pirouette feeling.
- This horse shows ability to sit and hind leg does not get slower, keeps a good jump in the canter. Will be capable of a good pirouette.
- Another pirouette prep exercise is to gradually collect the canter more and more with smaller steps until almost cantering on the spot, then forward again for several strides.
- Think walk with your hands and canter with your legs. If horse doesn't stay in front of the leg in the collected steps go forward into medium canter right away, or even a good gallop.
Janine Little and Billionaire (7yo, Third Level)
The handsome gelding Billionaire received my "rock star of the day" award. Despite his young age and relative inexperience, this horse didn't bat an eyelash at the crowd, the constant movement, or the indoor environment. He has the training to show the audience some of the more advanced movements and he and Janine treated us to a lovely, harmonious demonstration. Having taught Janine privately before, Charlotte joked she could be tougher on her at the clinic. Her comments included:
- At this stage the horse is more balanced and can be kept together with the seat and legs, not the hands.
- Begin with canter work to activate this horse - he's a little sluggish by nature.
- To prepare for flying change work, begin with travers down the long side.
- Some horses just put the hip in without truly bending. Make sure you are really achieving a stretch through the outside of the horse's body.
- Be brave and forward in the tempi changes. Cover more ground, make the change happen higher off the ground.
- Do the changes on the wall to help the horse stay straight. If horse jumps to the right in the change, think leg yield a little to left.
- Need to ride the actual canter as bravely and forward as the changes. Changes are bigger than the regular canter.
- In the trot work this is the stage where you can really start to add suspension.
- Horse can keep the suspension on straight lines currently but struggles in the lateral work. Keep the angle of the shoulder in and travers more shallow to make it easier for horse to maintain suspension.
- "That's your trot!" after the medium trot, Janine found a new gear for this horse with much more energy, activity and expression, sitting more and truly pushing from behind.
That's it for now. Come back tomorrow for a recap of the four FEI level sessions!
So apparently there are people out there who not only want me to write a recap of the Charlotte Dujardin masterclass at Caledon Equestrian Park this weekend, but are actually waiting for me to do so! That's very flattering and I hate to disappoint, so will get right to it with no futher ado.
Was it awesome? Yes.
Was it the same as last time? No. While the clinic followed the same format as Charlotte's 2016 masterclass and the Carl Hester one last year, there was a completely different group of horses, and therefore was a completely different learning experience.
Instead of recapping each day, this time I'd like to break it down by level. It was interesting to compare the differences and similarities between the horses each day. Let's begin with the babies who were featured in the first session of each day.
Charlotte prefers to buy young horses around the age of two and start their training herself. She looks for correct and easy - but not necessarily spectacular - gaits. Although big gaits are becoming increasingly prevalent in the young horse classes, that extravagant expression is something she prefers to develop over time with training, saying that working in a huge trot at a young age will increase the wear and tear on a horse over the long term. She avoids the young horses who already walk for a 9 or 10, knowing that enormous walk will be difficult to collect later on. A 7.5 is her ideal walk at this stage.
By the time they reach age 4, like the horses featured in the clinic, Charlotte expects them to go forward from the leg, maintain straightness, steady contact and a steady rhythm. She keeps their training periods short - 20 minutes at most. Maintaining balance of the young horse is the rider's job and they have to be brave, allowing them to go forward without restricting them. Horses have their whole lives to be collected. Allow young horses the freedom to make mistakes, then correct the mistakes. That's where the learning happens.
With three out of the four youngsters featured this weekend, Charlotte wanted to see the riders work towards a more uphill outline with consistency in the contact, without sacrificing the energy, activity and rhythm. The fourth horse - a lovely mare ridden by Neil McIntosh - was a bit the opposite. She wanted this hotter and more sensitive mare to show more relaxation, slow down the tempo and reach forward more to the contact.
Inga Hamilton & Brigitte (4)
This elegant young mare is a half-sister on the dam's side to Cyrus, whom many of us have seen competing under Tom Dvorak. I've always enjoyed seeing Inga ride her spectacular stallion Fabregas, and equally enjoyed seeing her give this much younger, greener horse a lovely ride. Charlotte complimented the horse on her nice rhythm, easy movement and relaxed nature. Key points from her lesson included:
- Don't expect to see a 4yo in a Grand Prix outline but would like to see her a little more balanced uphill and less over the front end.
- Keep lifting the next sightly without disturbing the nice, easy rhythm.
- Think more forward and active but not faster.
- Make her work hard to carry herself more uphill, then reward that work with a stretch break.
- In the canter when the weight is rocked back a little more on the hind end, the whole quality of the gait changes. Mare has a lovely, super canter when balanced correctly.
- Transitions from canter to trot are still difficult for her at this stage. Until she can shorten the canter stride in balance the transition to trot won't be balanced.
Neil McIntosh & Juweel of Lichty (4)
He may have been a last-minute replacement when Harma Fraser opted not to make the long journey with her horse from PEI, but Montreal-based Neil McIntosh rose to the challenge admirably on this very nice young mare. Charlotte's comments to the pair included:
- Keep the leg on. Tendency is to keep the leg away from a hot horse but we need to do the opposite.
- Horse tends to slow slightly when Neil asks her to bend - indicates he is using the hand without enough leg aid to back it up, a common mistake on a sensitive horse.
- Maintain one single steady rhythm - no speeding up or slowing down.
- Lots of walk/trot transitions (good ones, on the aids and straight!) are really beneficial for this horse.
- Horse will have a really impressive trot in a few years.
- Keep testing the contact in the canter. Can you give without the balance and rhythm changing?
- Use shoulder fore to create straightness
- Maintain contact in the stretch trot - don't just throw the rein away
Magda Moyseowicz & Sam I Am (4)
The only amateur in the master class, Toronto-based Magda did an impressive job with her big young gelding. Charlotte encouraged her to persevere through occasional moments of resistance and not let the horse dictate what amount of contact he was comfortable with. Her words of wisdom included:
- Don't be a passenger you have to be the pilot.
- Canter is easier for this horse right now so go with it. Train the canter work first, then work on the trot once the horse is looser and happier.
- Horse likes to be a bit long and flat in his outline - working on long straight lines only encourages this more. Use lots of circles, serpentines and changes of direction while really asking the horse to bend and carry himself more uphill.
- It's easy for him to stretch long and low so he's happier there. Use that as a reward after harder work in a more uphill balance.
- Work uphill for a bit, then stretch for a bit. Rinse, repeat.
Alexandra Reid & Jewel's Idokarde (5)
At this stage, an extra year of maturity and training makes a big difference. By age 5, Charlotte expects to see the basic paces well established and horses moving forward from the leg with straightness. Now it's time to increase the suppleness with lateral work. Though "Dreamy" had a few cheeky young horse moments, Alex calmly and patiently continued to push the horse forward through the resistance, resulting in a much more relaxed and swinging trot by the end of the session. A great performance from this young professional and a super-talented young horse. Charlotte's tips for Alex included:
- Horse has a lovely looking, big trot with nice swing to the movement but isn't actually swinging through the body.
- Increase suppleness and encourage the legs and body to work together with walk/trot transitions. Lots of them.
-Horse keeps hind end underneath himself very well - sign he will have a great piaffe later.
- Leg yield is the first lateral movement for the young horse. Set horse up for success by starting as if on a diagonal line, then add the sideways.
- Will really highlight which side is the horses' stiff side - tend to over bend in one direction and not at all in the other direction.
- Horse has to go sideways from the leg, not from the inside rein. Pulling the inside rein results in horse falling out through the outside shoulder.
- Working with young horses takes patience and perseverance. You can't try to fix everything in one day. Bit by bit work on making them more uphill, more together, softer, more supple.
- After working through the resistance, by the end Alex was able to demonstrate a lovely stretch trot and canter with the horse swinging nicely through his back and body.
There's so much more to cover but I have a 9am lesson tomorrow and a full day of work and chauffeuring kids around, so it's off to bed for me! Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring the 6 and 7-year old horses.
So I had promised a while back to provide periodic training updates on Gus's new program and I'm happy to report it's going well. As I'm sure you all know, the training process isn't a straight line from A to B - far from it!
The biggest challenges initially were to get Gus moving really freely forward and learning to balance his weight better off the forehand. He made huge progress over the first few weeks, then hit a bit of a wall as muscle fatigue and a touch of Belgian draft stubbornness set in.
Now we're past that wall and back in a progress phase where every day seems to come with a big breakthrough. He's feeling fitter, his balance has improved enormously and with that so has the quality of his gaits. It's exciting to get glimpses of the horse he will be six months or a year from now. While he's never going to be a world-class FEI horse that's ok - I'm never going to be a world-class FEI rider either! ;-)
I know another plateau is lurking around the corner so I'm enjoying this fun phase while it lasts.
On my end, I'm still struggling to improve both my fitness and my position. These aren't exactly new issues, as every coach who has ever taught me will tell you! But they are slowly getting better, and the difference in how Gus goes when I am steady and strong in my position is really noticeable. (Again, something every coach I've ever had is saying to themselves "I told you so!" right now). I'm also learning to focus on the positives from each lesson, rather than over-analyzing the negatives and dwelling on them.
I hope you are all enjoying your horses this summer and making progress on your own journey, whatever your goals are.
Onwards and upwards!
It was my great pleasure to spend this past weekend scribing all three days for the Spring Dressage Jubilee at Caledon Equestrian Park. Thankfully I scribe much better than I ride, and always enjoy the chance to watch dressage and learn from the judge I'm paired with. There's no better way to realize what you do wrong in your own tests than sitting at C and watching dozens of rides from the judge's perspective.
Three days is a LOOOOOONG time to spend locked in a a tiny hut with a stranger, so when scribing for a multi-day show it's important to choose your judge wisely. The right judge not only makes the experience educational, but also fun. Luckily I was matched with Rene Huyge, a true gentleman with a great sense of humour who never seemed to mind answering my countless questions during breaks and generously encouraged me to develop my eye,
I've got some overall thoughts about the show to share, along with some specific tips and tricks for riding a better test - things we all know but somehow fail to remember when we enter the ring at A.
The fact this show even exists goes in the "good" column. Kudos to EMG Group for taking over the running of these shows and ensuring Ontario dressage riders have the opportunity to compete at this world-class facility.
Over three days I saw horses and ponies of all shapes, sizes, colours and breeds, and riders of all ages and abilities. Dressage is for every horse and the entries this weekend reflected that - from Western dressage and National Pony Cup classes, to Walk Trot through Grand Prix.
Looking at test sheets from all the different rings, it was great to see judges using the full spectrum of marks. There were 9s and there were 2s, sometimes on the same test!
It was disappointing to learn that the level of volunteer support needed to run a big show like this just wasn't there. Kudos to the many CEP staff members who gave up their weekend and stepped in at the last minute to help. Aside from the very busy pros and coaches, I think almost everyone at the show, either competing or supporting a rider, could find the time to volunteer a few hours over the weekend to run tests, hand out ribbons, or add up scores. This is probably a topic for a blog post of its own - what would it take to get you to volunteer? Would a discount on future entries help? Any other incentives? If you haven't volunteered at a show, why not? This issue goes far beyond this one competition to every show across Canada.
I saw very little ugliness at all during the weekend - no rough riding, no abusive coaching, lots of positive support from fellow competitors. As much as I love sitting in the booth though, the experience always makes me relieved to not be skilled enough to judge. So much pressure and so many factors go into assigning every score!
If you get a score you don't feel you deserve don't take it personally. It's one moment in time and it's based on what the judge saw in that moment. Another judge may see the same thing and mark it quite differently. That's part and parcel of a subjectively judged sport, unfortunately.
While some judges do mark lower overall than others, I can say with 100% confidence that every judge wants to give a good score. They want to see you ride for an 8 or a 9 and are disappointed when a bobble or mistake brings that mark down to 5 or 6. Every judge I've ever scribed for has rooted for each rider to succeed.
Tips and tricks for better scores
Test after test I saw riders losing marks for simple mistakes - the same mistakes I make when I go into the ring too. Especially at the lower levels, accuracy is EVERYTHING, as there's not much else to be judged on. Pay attention to the details as much as you can and your scores will go up.
Find centre line and try to stay on it. Sounds obvious but you'd be amazed how many people enter at A two metres off centre line and stay there.
Use your corners well. If a movement starts at F or H, for example, use the corner before to ensure you begin the movement right at the letter. If you start your diagonal line or shoulder-in three strides past F, you're giving away marks.
Get to X. In all the tests with loops to X and back to the rail, perhaps 3 or 4 riders actually hit X. This is one error which is glaringly obvious from C so really pay attention when in the show ring - chances are your ring at home is a slightly different size and it may not feel quite the same, especially with all the distractions of show day.
Circles don't have corners. Sounds obvious too doesn't it? Really work to show a difference between the arc of the circle and the corner when you are going large - this will also help with your circle size and shape.
Circles have to be not only the prescribed size, but also placed correctly. A 20m circle at B or E can't go all the way to the P-V line. Find a marker on the fence that’s at the outside point of the circle and use it as a guideline.
Free walks and stretchy trot circles need to show way more stretch than I imagined. Watching your test videos back can be helpful here - personally I’m always surprised that what I thought FELT like a good stretch was actually quite minimal when I watch it after.
Go forward - really forward! Especially at the lower levels, having that energy and activity often is the difference between a 6 and a 7 or even higher. It also really helps with a spooky or looky horse.
Use your time before the bell wisely. Again, this is a great time to really make your horse go forward and not give them time to spook or get distracted. Canter if it helps get your horse energized. It’s also a great time to find your markers on the rail that will help you ride the most accurate test possible.
Don’t sweat it if things go wrong. Riding at shows is not like riding at home and sometimes the easiest things at home become nearly impossible to achieve in the show ring. Judges and scribes have seen every mistake under the sun and they have nothing but empathy for riders when they just aren’t having a good day.
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!
I posted a few behind the scenes pictures on Friday from the incredible masterclass with Carl Hester at the Caledon Equestrian Park. Here are a few more for your viewing pleasure!
My first post about Day 2 of the Carl Hester masterclass covered the young horse sessions in the morning. Once of Carl's most valuable tips from the whole weekend came during this portion of the clinic. While discussing youngsters in general, he noted his preference for buying only "cheap" horses ("cheap" to Carl is under 10,000 pounds). He noted that any young horse is a bit of a risk; spectacular gaits and conformation at 3 or 4 are still no guarantee of success at Grand Prix. Carl's advice: invest in the training. That's where you get your money's worth. That wisdom applies to every rider and every horse, particularly us amateurs who juggle riding time around the demands of jobs, families and other commitments. My advice? Take Carl's advice. Work with a good trainer consistently, both in lessons and with the trainer riding your horse, and do it as often as you can afford.
Back to the clinic recap!
Rebecca Edwards & Cosima
Carl's student Rebecca - one of Great Britain's top young riders - gave a demonstration ride on Cosima, a Holsteiner mare owned by FEI Junior rider Allie Youngdale. Cosima is much hotter and more sensitive than the gelding she rode on the Saturday, and Becky explained to the audience what she was doing and feeling while Carl put her through her paces.
She struggled at first to keep Cosima in a consistent contact and Carl had a unique solution to prevent the mare from coming against the hand - one my own coach Debbie often has me try whenever I'm tempted to get in a pulling battle with Gus. He took away her curb rain and asked her to reverse the snaffle rein so that it comes over the top of the hand and down between the thumb and forefinger - what's called a "driving rein" by some. Rebecca noted she felt an immediate difference and the improvement in the connection and relaxation was clearly visible to the audience.
Click here for a photo of how to hold the "driving rein."
Tom Dvorak & Cyrus
Pan Am Games silver medallist Tom Dvorak has had a very successful season competing the lovely Cyrus, owned by Carla Bahr. It was a pleasure to watch this pair in the clinic as Tom skillfully executed the exercises prescribed by Carl. Feedback from Carl included:
- Tom has already established a straight, clean and correct flying change with this young horse
- To achieve 9s and 10s you have to be willing to take a risk. Ride forward, create more expression and trust your horse.
- Exercise to test knowledge and adjustability of your horse's stride - ride the short side of the arena in 8 canter strides, then 10, then 7, then 12. Tom executed each challenge flawlessly.
- Same concept using tempi changes on the diagonal, varying the number and the difficulty: 3 changes every four strides, then four 4s, seven 2s, etc. Are they placed evenly on the line? Tom is very disciplined and knows his horse well. He knows precisely where to begin his changes on the line, and how to vary it and lengthen or shorten the stride depending on the count.
- Flying change aid comes from the lower leg, not the upper body. Tom is a good example of a rider who keeps his hip down, seat down, and leg down in the change.
- Cover more ground, and take risks by making each change bigger than the canter stride
- Passage/trot/passage transitions were repeated until Cyrus was bringing his hind end underneath himself more rather than pushing the hind leg back. Improvement in the trot expression and suspension was significant following this simple exercise.
Megan Lane & Denver
The crowd was treated to its second Olympian of the day when Megan Lane entered the ring on Denver, a 9-year-old KWPN gelding owned by Deer Ridge Equestrian. In what might have been the understatement of the century, Carl commented: "Cute horse." Spectacular is a more accurate description. Megan hopes to show Denver at Grand Prix next year and he certainly has the talent, training, and superb gaits to bring her success in the international ring. Carl's comments included:
- Super canter on this horse. Quality and expression in the canter is what makes the difference between a 7 and 9 for flying changes. A better canter, like the one in this horse, results in a higher moment of suspension in the change.
- Horse has a natural ability to collect but can get slightly behind the leg in collection, pushing up and down rather than out to the hand. Transitions in and out of medium canter help keep the horse forward to the hand.
- Carl likes to teach the canter zig zag to the horse using leg yield, rather than half pass at first. Start with 4 strides in one direction, change, and 4 strides the other way, then work up to 6 strides.
- Perform the exercise in a minimum of working canter, don't collect too much.
Every movement is created in the corner, don't let the horse slow down and get behind the leg in the corner, this is where you need to go more forward.
- It doesn't take an expert to see this horse is an exceptional mover.
Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu & All In
"Presence" is the word Carl Hester used to describe All In, Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu's Grand Prix gelding. It's more than his sheer size (enormous) or the quality of his gaits (breathtaking) but a commanding presence that makes everyone in the room take notice.
Judges have noticed as well. Thanks to her back-to-back freestyle wins at Saugerties and Devon this fall, Brittany is currently the top-ranked Canadian dressage rider (#64) on the FEI world standings. Carl stated that All In was among the top 10 horses in the world. High praise for a girl from New Glasgow, NS! Some of Carl's comments as he worked to perfect their performance included:
- Brittany usually works the canter first, then trot, so Carl suggested lots of transitions forward and back in the canter.
- Tempting to override such a big powerful horse. Allow the horse to do it himself until he relaxes and starts to sit more and come down with more weight on the hind legs.
- In preparation for pirouettes, work on shoulder-in and travers on the 10m circle.
- Excellent exercise for more fluid pirouettes that don't lose the forward energy: From the corner half pass to X, pirouette at X, continue across the diagonal in half pass. All In showed some tension and stickiness in the pirouette during this exercise so Carl suggested doing two - first a regular pirouette, followed by a larger working pirouette with the neck relaxed and down.
- A good pirouette starts and ends with shoulder-in. A good shoulder-in before you begin is half the battle.
- Shoulder-in, pirouette, straight ahead, change lead, shoulder in and pirouette again, all on centre line. Excellent test of straightness and control.
- Passage work shows some 8 and 9 quality steps, but could still be be lighter and rounder.
- In walk think of pushing the horse's head and neck away from the body. (This advice was repeated in several sessions from young horses to Grand Prix. Something we should all try at home I think!)
- Walks like he's on hot coals - would like to see feet stay on the ground for just a fraction longer with each step.
- In piaffe think of very small piaffe steps with the front end to keep the shoulders lifted and the back swinging.
- Should be always using invisible moving and closing of fingers to keep the horse soft to the bit, not taking over or getting strong.
- With a light, small rider and such a big horse it's the bending that will keep him soft and ridable.
- Stretchy trot and a long walk session is crucial after an intense work session like this.
- This is a horse that is going to be representing your country.
- What is an athletic horse? We're all looking at it.
- I'm very jealous. Who wouldn't be? Exciting, lovely horse to finish up our sessions with.
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.