Do you know how you get really, really good in a horse sport? There are some truisms: Just keep doing it; take lessons; hopefully have your coach help with your horse occasionally. But here’s the thing a lot of people miss: Even if you’re a novice dressage rider, getting basics from a coach who genuinely feels the training scale in their bones will change the trajectory of your riding. It doesn’t speed you through the levels faster (in some cases, it is the opposite, actually) but for the goal of making elegant, happy horses who can score well in competition, there is no way around it.
Going straight to the top for a lesson when you’re a beginner just learning a sport can be unrealistic—cost and access alone are major barriers—but riding isn’t the only option for learning. In almost every part of the country, dedicated local trainers work to bring in more experienced competitors and trainers to teach occasional clinics. Watch for these opportunities—while you might not be jockeying for a riding spot, clinics are almost always open to auditors. Take a notebook, take an open mind, and take advantage of these opportunities whenever they present themselves in your area.
They say there are three phases to learning: The first is not knowing what you don’t know, the second is knowing what you know (and don’t), and the third is actual expertise. At that first level, riders are prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect—because they don’t know how much they don’t know, they tend to overestimate their own competence. The value of top-tier training is that it doesn’t allow a person to hang out in this space. A good trainer introduces new concepts at a pace that allows progress and education, expanding the novice rider’s horizons without overwhelming them.
The 10,000-hour rule, popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” postulates that to become masterful in a pursuit, a person must practice it for 10,000 hours. Here’s the deal, though: To really achieve mastery requires excellent teachers and practice of mastery, which is sort of an unfair conundrum. Essentially, our job as riders is to school in a deliberate way, practicing that which we’ve been taught.
Here in northern Utah, we bring Olympians, team coaches and other highly qualified dressage luminaries to teach clinics, and it’s impressive how many people attend to audit these even if they aren’t riding. Our goal is to be sure that we gain an understanding of what remains to be learned about this very difficult sport: If we are going to put in that 10,000 hours, the practice time, our schooling sessions, will be hyper-intentional and as correct as we can possibly make them. We will get the best feedback available to us, then apply ourselves to steadily improve. Lastly, we use the daily tools at our disposal: mirrors, video and, of course, the invaluable eyes-on-the-ground of our friends, colleagues and assistants.
To be honest, that all sounds pretty dry and possibly not like a lot of fun, when I read it. But we all love the practice, the incremental gains that this steady effort creates. A good coach helps riders find the joy and successes in a sport that can feel somewhat Sisyphean, at times. (To refresh your Greek mythology, that was the guy who had to push the same boulder up the hill every day for eternity, as a punishment from the gods.)
Just as it is our job as trainers to keep daily training fresh and playful for our horses, it is our job as coaches to keep the work as engaging as possible for our students, while never straying from the correct basics.
Any advanced rider will tell you that the advanced work—the tricks, so to speak—are easy. What remains a challenge for every trainer is keeping very focused on the correct basic work at the heart of the movements.
Half-pass? No problem. Swinging through the back, with correct bend while in self carriage from back to front? That’s a lot harder.
Get a coach with as firm a commitment to basic work as you can find. Even if you are new to the sport, go to clinics with unimpeachable riders and trainers, listen and take notes. Hold your coach’s focus on basics up against that template and see if you, as a coach-student team, are moving in the same direction. Ideally, your coach also wants to learn from the best. If they don’t, it might make sense to wonder what their training priorities are.
There’s no shame in not “being there” yet; we’re all on the same path, albeit in a variety of places. But the direction of travel is important, both for the humane training of the horses, their longevity as athletes and ultimately our ability to be good dance partners to them. Most of us dressage coaches are doing our best to line up the application of correctly prioritized basic work as it applies to a specific student on a given day, plugging in the variables of the student’s horse and myriad other factors. (Show prep? Wind storm outside? The list goes on.)
We live in an era where the internet gives us access to watching the best riders in the world. Make it a point to watch them—online and in person whenever possible—and do the additional work of learning about their systems, the path they’ve taken to get to the top and to produce those top horses. Ask questions at clinics. Ask questions of your coach. Soak it all up like a sponge—and know that expertise is only possible when we collate the information we gather, both from coaches who know us and our horses as well as clinics we audit.
Lori Barrett is an FEI rider and trainer specializing in the development of young dressage prospects. Before retiring to focus on her own horses at Revel Ranch Hanoverians near Park City, Utah, she followed Olympian Heather Blitz as head trainer for Oak Hill Ranch, head of the Danish Studbook in the U.S., as well as having been the head trainer at the Chesapeake Dressage Institute. Previously riding for Olympian Tina Konyot, Lori got her professional start in dressage working as assistant in Germany under Grand Prix trainer Carla Symader before returning to the U.S. to finish her master’s degree in education.