“I don’t have any students or horses able to begin lateral work,” said the coach looking downcast.
Without knowing anything about this coach’s students and horses, I knew the coach was 100 percent wrong. With any rider it’s both possible and necessary to start the road to advanced work from the beginning, working with the end in mind.
Who can tell which students, young or older, are going to stay with horses and become advanced riders and which are going to ride for just a short period of time? But in either case if you coach them from the beginning as though they were to become high-level riders, more progress will be made, retraining will be avoided, and the door to advanced work will remain open.
So even in the first few lessons I will think of future possibilities and introduce the rider to these possibilities. For example, every dressage movement is based on a circle, so as the circle is ridden we are laying the foundation for lateral work, flying changes and advanced dressage. I will explain the huge importance of riding a circle well and riding off the inside line, rather than the outside line. In addition, I may point to another more advanced horse or rider in order to demonstrate to my beginning pupil what someone like him or her can achieve and what to aim for and try to duplicate in the future.
It’s possible to introduce lateral work, flying changes and all advanced work to all students at a very early stage. You can do this with film clips. Or, if you want more fun and a better learning experience, try this: Start with the riders on their feet, with their arms hanging down to represent the horse’s front legs, and get them to understand what is going on by mimicking the horse. I have had 80 young riders in the school together all doing piaffe, passage and sequence flying changes in time with each other. They have fun, learn the terminology and movements, and become aware of what to look for as they watch advanced horses. More importantly it can inspire them and raise their expectations.
Later on they can ride a more advanced horse briefly, either on the longe or riding a horse that you or others have trained. Even in a riding school it’s possible over the years to develop quite ordinary school horses to do a small amount of advanced work. It may be medium trot with a cob that has a natural talent for the trot, or flying changes with a horse that has a poor trot but a great canter, or a walk pirouette with a horse that finds this easy. But to do this one has to look at every horse, as well as rider, and think quality basics and advanced work from the beginning.
All this is true of jumping as well. An advanced jumping balance begins with a balanced rising trot, and at an early stage riders can reproduce the winning jump-off round in the Grand Prix of Aachen (Germany) with their coach using poles on the ground and distances changed to match the ponies or cobs in the class. They can also get on their hands and knees to learn the mechanics of a good jumper. Why do George Morris and Jimmy Wofford still throw their hearts, souls and passion into their lessons, even with lower-level riders? Because they know the road to the Olympics, and they know that ordinary riders can achieve extraordinary results as long as they get on the right road early in their riding education. Conversely, the wrong road will require retraining and mean wasted opportunities and potential.
Therefore, it’s also no surprise to hear David O’Connor coaching his Under-25 squad as though they all have the potential to win gold medals, because they all do! But they will only realize their potential if the work they do now will lead towards the highest levels, which means huge attention to detail and establishing the precise habits now that will lead to them being competitive at senior championships.
After several years of success at junior level it may be initially hard for some of these riders to accept the need for new priorities and knowledge and improved techniques, but it will put them on the main Olympic highway rather than a side road. This is the reason why our younger riders need the very best coaches. In truth, in an ideal world it would be better if these riders were under 15 rather than under 25.
But what about the riders who inevitably will give up early because of other attractions, or because they aren’t enjoying themselves, or because they simply cannot afford to continue? Why should they start with the end in mind? I say again that no one knows definitively which riders will become passionate about riding, possibly progressing to great things, and which riders will give up. It’s not unusual for some of the less talented riders to stay in the sport and be champions and some of the more talented to give up. The ones who stay in the sport deserve to be taught in such a way that the door to advanced work remains open. But even with the riders who give up earlier, it will still mean they’ve made more progress in the time, and some of them will return in the future as riders or coaches, better prepared for their original experience, or take the training lessons they have learned to another sport.
Good training is a long-term logical progression based on classical principles but also a work of art and a joy for all concerned. And on Day 1 we begin this process. Well taught horse riding also makes us disciplined in our work, respectful of our partners, simple and positive in our approach—all transferable and hugely important skills in any area of life. So for the benefit of student and the horses the advanced work starts today!
William Micklem is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world's top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O'Connor's three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O'Connor's Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillips' High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI. www.WilliamMicklem.com