When I moved my horse and myself from the horsey mecca of Middleburg, Va., back to the non-horsey Knoxville, Tenn., one of my major concerns was that my riding would quickly go from “semi-passable” to “terrible.” There are few trainers in Knoxville, and even fewer who specialize in dressage or eventing. Without frequent lessons, wouldn’t I forget everything trainers had tried to drill into me for decades?
And yeah, that’s happened to some extent. But I’d forgotten about one helpful factor: my job, and with it the endless opportunities for observation.
My job involves spending a lot of time on the road for the Chronicle. While no one feels sorry for me when I fly off to Wellington, Fla., Del Mar, Calif., Gothenburg, Sweden or Bromont, Quebec, barn friends do remark that it must be hard to spend so much time away from my horse.
It is, definitely. But even if I’m not dragging my mare along to all those places, she’s benefiting from me traveling to them. You wouldn’t necessarily think that spending hours sitting and taking photos ringside at clinics and top competitions would improve your own riding. But it does, in surprising ways sometimes.
I’m far from a Grand Prix dressage rider—so, so far—but at the USEF Dressage Festival Of Champions last year, I finally understood how to move my elbows, hands and fingers at the canter thanks to watching Steffen Peters ride Legolas 92. It was a major breakthrough, and it happened at an event where the general admission was free. If you were watching, would your breakthrough moment of the day have been different? Yep, probably, but I bet you’d have picked up at least a small tidbit to take home to your own mounts.
When I spent a weekend at the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic, I finally understood the full purpose of a half-halt, and I learned how to execute one a little better, too. It’s incredibly useful information and learning it was totally worth taking four days off from riding my own horse.
But the really beautiful thing is that you don’t even have to watch your own discipline. I’ve never done the hunters or equitation, but I’ve often marveled at how seemingly little effort riders can display as they jump a course. Horses jump even if you don’t flap your elbows at them? Who knew?!
Think it doesn’t matter how good your turn or corner is before a fence? Boy, is that wrong—just ask any equitation or jumper rider. Is it OK to give away “easy” points with a bad halt, slightly-too-early transition or egg-like circle in a test? Not if you want to win.
But watching the best is not only educational from a technical sense; it helps clear up some mental misconceptions, too. You can tell yourself that’s it just not possible to hit the right distance to every fence, but when you watch 100 professional hunter riders go in the ring and lay down 100 perfect trips, that hypothesis comes into question. You can say that position doesn’t really matter if you get the job done, but it’s much harder to get behind that theory when you watch Beezie Madden equitate over 5’ fences, and then you see how much easier her horse’s job is because of her position.
Watching top riders teaches you what’s in your control (your own horse, your own riding, your own mind, your preparation), and it teaches you what’s not (the course, the judge, the weather, the other competitors). But the ones who do control everything they can come out on top again and again, regardless of the other factors.
None of that means you should beat yourself up if you can’t do those tasks—it’s the best of the best accomplishing them, after all—but it does mean those things are possible and worth striving towards. I’m not going to be Beezie Madden, no matter how many times I watch her, and no offense, but you’re probably not either. But do I feel a little more Beezie-esque when I get home from watching her ride? Yes, amazingly, I do. I get home energized and inspired, despite the jet lag.
Not everyone is going to live the life of a roving Chronicle reporter, and your significant others thank you for that, I promise, but attending major events can teach you more than you ever imagined about riding your own horses—even if you’re not at the Grand Prix level or the 1.60-meter level or ready to go ride around a CCI***. Especially, I think, if you’re not at that those levels.
Most people take a lot of lessons, and I would take a lot more if I had a readily accessible trainer. I’m definitely not advocating for less lessons, and with watching there’s a real danger of picking up a piece of information that doesn’t help your own horse at all; filtering is really important. But upper-level competitions and clinics in all disciplines take place all over the country, and entry to them is often free or inexpensive. Add spectating at a CDI-W, hunter derby, equitation final, George Morris clinic, show jumping grand prix or four-star event to your schedule this season, and I bet you’ll pick up something you hadn’t expected.
Every so often, we feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We're just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. Editorial staffer Lisa Slade grew up riding lower level dressage in North Carolina and graduated from Virginia Intermont College with a degree in English literature. After writing for nearly every publication in Knoxville, Tenn., she moved to Middleburg and started working for the Chronicle in 2008. She's now relocated back to Knoxville, Tenn., where she spends her free time eventing her off-the-track Thoroughbred mare, Calla, and hanging out with her corgi, Leo. Still new to the sport of eventing and a pretty big chicken, she'll be the person at your next event wondering if her novice table is actually intermediate height.