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January 1, 2010

It’s Important To Develop And Preserve Your Training Foundation

Scott Hassler said it's important that a rider maintain a point of reference in her foundation as she applies a clinician's message. Photo courtesy of Lauren Sprieser.

Our columnist cautions riders to approach clinics and symposiums with an eye on redecorating, not renovating.

Now that we’ve reached the end of our competition year for 2009, it’s the time when many riders are thinking about their goals for 2010.

At the same time, our country is at a critical intersection where the U.S. Equestrian Federation is developing a system to support our High Performance riders heading into next year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

So this Between Rounds column is aimed at every level of rider, whether you’re heading for the WEG selection trials or you’re trying to better yourself at training level, or anywhere in between.

Compared to many other equestrians, we live in a big country. Therefore, we have many challenges to overcome, especially in the way in which information and education are disseminated.

Many riders struggle to find their confidence as they progress their horses up the levels. They question if something is missing from their basics when they hit a stumbling block in training their horse. This is a healthy question to ask! It’s essential at times like this to find a trainer to work with over a longer period of time who can help the rider build that understanding and confidence.

As a rider migrates from clinic to clinic, symposium to symposium, often in earnest, to advance up the levels in dressage, I believe it’s critical that the rider remain clear about his foundation, if based in clear principals and good tutelage.

The rider’s foundation is essentially that starting point in his skill set that brings results, communicates to the horse, and allows for advancement. It’s important to approach learning opportunities as a means to expand the rider’s repertoire of tools, to expand his depth and understanding or feel.

Furthermore, it’s most important that a rider maintain a point of reference in his foundation rather than abandoning all basics for the sake of a clinician’s message.

This situation is similar, for lack of a better example, if you were to get input on your house. You may love your house, but perhaps you’re a bit tired of the furniture, the feeling it gives you as you walk into the front door. To be frank, it’s getting a bit boring. You want to upgrade your home’s interior, so you call an interior decorator or you get a friend’s advice to change the color of the walls, try different fabrics on the window trims, or adjust the placement of furniture in a new and energizing way.

While you can work on the interior nuances of your home in a relatively short time, it takes a much larger and longer commitment than a one- or two-day clinic to take some walls out and re-do its interior structure. You may be able to improve its atmosphere by focusing on the details alone, but you cannot give it an extreme makeover without giving a serious commitment of time.

The rider’s foundation is similar—consider it your training foundation. When you go to audit or participate in a clinic, try plugging the ideas into your system as they feel appropriate; plug the new concepts in only if they are aligned with the core beliefs of your riding system. See how the ideas fit and enhance what you had previously. Only apply that which is constructive toward a better response, more throughness in general, or an overall enhanced level of performance.

There are many styles of riding. A meaningful example is the discussions about rollkur vs. tall, classical, vertical frame, which were prominent in the media not long ago (and ongoing today, in fact).

For the record, I respect riders who fairly explore the frame that best gives them access to the horse. As we train a horse, hopefully we have a style that feels natural to us, which we feel gives us access to influencing the horse and developing the horse’s strength, suppleness and ability to carry.

When we embark upon our personal advancement through a clinic or symposium, we must consider the presented ideas and plug them into our system as wisely as possible, tweaking a little bit here or there, or approaching something a little differently, but not by trying to drastically change everything.

If a rider has explored through a knowledgeable trainer a style of accessing her horse, say perhaps through a deeper frame than before or perhaps instead by insisting on a taller frame than usual, then the rider must not lose sight of the lessons gained from that experience.

If the rider has tried these methods to no avail, then it’s important to remember that fact and not venture down an unproductive path again. Of course, there’s always the chance that someone may communicate something a bit differently, but if the end result isn’t improved performance, we must remember our horse’s history and where we came from.

There are many styles in the world of riding, and many people I respect ride very differently from one another, but I respect them equally because they have their style and have made their success by it.

If we look at history and the biggest names in dressage, you’ll realize that they each have uniqueness to their styles. This fact is totally fine and perfectly normal; so it’s a matter of each rider finding his or her own training base or training foundation that he or she believes in.

An overhaul of a rider’s training system requires a much longer, more intensive commitment to a coach or trainer. So let the investment of time dictate the level of influence. Let new learning sessions be as simple as playing with the wall colors or the fabrics on the furniture. Be careful not to tear down your whole training structure and build it up again through a single clinic experience.

Unless there’s a valid reason not to believe in your system, focus forward and create some exciting goals for 2010. While some of these goals could be competitive, they could also be as simple as furthering your abilities to reap the best input from various clinicians and enhance your training repertoire for the future.

In the end, each rider’s goal is to perfect her own system, embellishing a personal foundation to have answers to the many challenges our horses present as we move up the levels.  

Scott Hassler, the National Young Horse Dress-age Coach, resides in Chesapeake City, Md., and has trained many horses to Grand Prix. The U.S. Dressage Federation Sport Horse Committee chairman since 2001, he helped establish the sport/breeding record-keeping system now active in the USDF and U.S. Equestrian Federation. He began writing Between Rounds columns in 2005.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "It’s Important To Develop And Preserve Your Training Foundation" ran in the January 1, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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