In the last decade, I’ve embraced the educational approach of having one coach. Too many voices in my head aren’t good for me or for my riding; it seemed to muddy the waters. Over the last nine years, I’ve dabbled in the occasional clinic with phenomenal people—USEF and USDF training sessions with the team coaches or other very accomplished names, and the Masterclass with Isabell Werth this winter—but all with my coach at my side to frame the new perspective into context and to help translate into a system with which I’m familiar.
Late this summer, I lost that coach. In August, Michael Barisone, who’s been my trainer, my mentor, my family and my friend for nine years, was charged with shooting a woman at his farm. The details of the crime will be tried in a court of law, and since I wasn’t there, and I’m not a lawyer, that’s the beginning and end of my role in this tale.
But I’m a professional rider with lofty goals, and that means I had to find a new trainer. It’s been awkward and difficult and horribly sad. After going through the stages of grieving, I looked at my string of magnificent horses, all too precious to have their ascendence to High Performance Sport sent askew by my sadness. And so I started the process of forging new coaching partnerships.
I stayed close to what I knew. My first phone call was to Mike Poulin, with whom I’d taken a clinic just a month before, and who taught Michael and many of my other major influences—Lendon Gray and Carol Lavell—much of what they know. Mike is one helluva experienced horse trainer, and he’s also a sucker for a weirdo. Neither Elvis nor Swagger are weird, and Mike has been fantastic with them, but I’m most excited to work Puck with him, which I’ll do in the next month or two, because he is the epitome of weirdo. And Mike has been a terrific person to have around for a million other reasons, one of which is that he’s very portable: As he’s a pilot, he can fly himself down to teach clinics at my farm on a regular basis.
Right away, I recognized a lot of the common language, and I also recognized some common personality traits. Mike has a big resume and a lot of confidence, with a cheeky sense of humor that runs parallel to a deep love of horses on an almost spiritual level. Plus, he texts me poetry. Mostly, he showed a deep investment in my horses’ and my success almost immediately. I felt like I was part of the family right away.
My second call was to my amazing friend Ali Brock, a fellow longtime student of Michael’s, and one with some serious street cred. Ali spends much of her time in Wellington year-round, but she makes regular appearances in central Virginia, less than two hours from my own farm. Logistically, Ali is an awesome choice, but she’s also got a fresh take on me and on my horses because she’s about half my size. My first lesson with her was phenomenally enlightening, and we worked well together because while the basic thread was so familiar, the language was just different enough to freshen up my riding, with more than a small dose of personal accountability: I can’t let my horses talk me into using my strength, something that at 5’10” it’s just a bit too easy to do.
So far, it’s working beautifully. They parallel each other, addressing the same concepts I’d been addressing in very complementary ways. And the process of working with new voices has made me think about what makes a good coaching partnership good, and what I can be doing better for my own students.
A huge part of hearing a new voice is getting comfortable with every individual instructor’s terminology. Mike says “diagonal change,” which it took me about an hour to figure out meant to go across the diagonal and change directions, not do a flying change on the diagonal. (This after he asked me to do it several times at the trot, where a flying change isn’t really possible, though I certainly tried.) Ali says keep the hand in front, and I say keep the hand at the mouth, which sound like they could be the same thing but aren’t. She means, “Don’t pull,” and I mean, “Don’t drop the contact.” The familiarity with the language of any individual comes with time, but in picking voices that come from a common educational line, at least the truth behind them was familiar.
It was also phenomenally helpful for both my new instructors to ride my horses. Ali asked to ride Elvis right away, and with the power of hindsight, it shouldn’t have taken me so long to suggest that Mike ride him, because unfortunately I’m both big and clever, and I can make it look like I’m not working very hard. Ali called my bluff right away, which started me down a terrific path of how to address the piece of the self-carriage puzzle I knew I’d been missing but had struggled to solve. When Mike was here last for a two-day clinic, I had him hop on Elvis on Day 2, and he was blown away by what a good liar my riding was, and his advice to me and the exercises he prescribed really changed for the better.
This hasn’t come up with Ali or Mike yet, but I know it will, and it’s relevant to my own teaching: We riders must be prepared for the inevitable pendulum swings of bringing horses up the levels. How many times have I worked with a student for a month to get them to slow down, only to have a clinician I love see them for the first time and tell them to hustle? Or how many times have I worked through a tension issue on a horse, solving it by riding in a lower and rounder outline, only to have my coach then tell me it was time to pick the neck up? A clinician or instructor telling you to do a certain thing counter to how you’ve been doing it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re right and you’ve been doing it wrong, or vice versa, but just that the bringing of horses (and riders!) up the levels involves a lot of ebb and flow. I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time before one of them tells me to do a 180 in my approach to something, and there may even be a time where they contradict each other.
And that brings me to my last thought: For all that a set of fresh eyes can bring some great new exercises or approaches to any one particular person’s riding, new voices need to be blended into my successful system, not replace it outright. I’m not trying to be an egomaniac; I’ll be the first one to tell anyone that I have tons to learn and that I’ll never be done doing it. But as I listened to some lessons at a recent clinic, I was reminded of a very competent student of mine a few years ago going to a clinic with a very famous person and coming home with a totally different warm-up than the one we’d spent a year cultivating… and it was really, really not working. I asked the student why she was doing what she was doing, and she said, “Well… the clinician said this is how he warms up his horses.” Just because it works for person X, or horse Y, doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for me, or for her, or for you. When I teach clinics, I try not to reinvent the wheel for my riders, because I know I’m hitting and running; two days of instruction isn’t enough to swallow an entire philosophy, no matter how well taught or logical.
Like anything, a teacher-pupil relationship is an evolution, both growing on one another over time. I certainly didn’t come into this year expecting to forge a new path, but I’ll make the most of the situation, and I’ll certainly learn plenty along the way. It’s not the worst thing in the world to be able to conjure up TWO Olympic bronze medalists!
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver & bronze Medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, her and Beverley Thomas’s Ellington, and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.