Elvis came to me with an incomplete understanding of how to really bridge the hind legs to the bridle while keeping them quick. He also had a fair bit of anxiety about the piaffe. I did my homework, focusing on quickening those beautiful floaty hind legs of his, making him really connect his ends and not getting caught up in the fancy expressive “show trot” that was his particular proclivity. I did such a good job that I absolutely killed his expression. (Naturally, by the way, this process finished up right as I was entering my first CDIs. Oopsie.) I focused so hard on keeping the hind legs quick that I quickened him right into shuffling.
I got some good help in Florida about reintroducing the idea of expression in a more correct way, but then I panicked again when at home on my own and overdid it, creating a lot of loft but too much slowness. I knew I was going askew, and I started letting my own emotions into the training, which did not help.
Enter my assistant trainer Jess Idol, watching quietly from the side, who pulled me aside and, with exceptional politeness, said “So… can I have him for a few days?” Elvis doesn’t belong to her, and she feels no urgency to get it done. She quietly set about re-establishing the rules and Elvis’ understanding. And in two days, she’d done more than I’d done in a month. Does she have superpowers? Am I a bad rider? Of course not. But he doesn’t belong to her. And her perspective isn’t tainted by years of time together.
Elvis and his piaffe isn’t the only reason that, as of late, I’ve been thinking about the need for all of us to have someone check our work. I find myself, as I know my students and employees and fellow trainer-friends all do as well, treating my horses like their younger selves, even when they’ve long-since moved on from whatever we were dealing with as young horses. We jokingly call it “Own Horse Syndrome”: the condition of falling into old-married-couple-esque habits, or of taking a training challenge personally instead of treating it cooly and objectively because the horse is your own. And this happens to all of us, professionals and amateurs alike.
And it’s not just from the saddle that we sometimes need a fresh perspective. I just taught my first clinic in our COVID world, and like many of the clinics I teach, it was at the barn of a trainer, and so many of the riders were her students. She teaches her students well, works hard to help them embrace concepts, and uses creative language to do so.
I come in for two days, tell them essentially the same things that she tells them, and the student makes a ton of progress and thinks I’m a genius. I know that this happens because it happens when I teach clinics all the time, but also because the exact same thing happens to me when I bring in one of my coaches to teach my students. (True story: A trainer once told a student to do something the exact, word-for-word, way that not only I taught her to do something, but also that both of my assistant trainers addressed the same issue. The student’s response: “I’ve never thought of it that way before!”)
I laugh about this, but it’s absolutely the truth: Sometimes a fresh voice, even if it’s using the same words, is what someone needs to hear to bust through a plateau or embrace a new concept. And as a trainer, the same is true: Sometimes hearing a fresh take on one of my students gives me new ideas and new energy.
How fortunate I am, in my program, to have good riders to pop on my horses and great instructors to help teach my students. And for me personally, as a taller and bigger and stronger person, it’s imperative that I have my more petite assistants hop on my creatures from time to time to make sure I’m not using my strength or technique to get the job done. It’s nice to be big enough to help carry a horse around, but my job is not done until they’re in complete self-carriage, and sometimes I forget my own power. Popping someone on who is only 5’2” is a terrific check-in!
This is all just another big reminder of how crucial it is for all of us to have a team, to be a part of a program with a diverse and skilled professional (or professionals!) at the top. If Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin sometimes ride each others’ horses and teach each others’ students, then it’s safe to say we all can benefit from an inning of pitching from a fresh arm from time to time.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, Beverley Thomas and her 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.