Tamie Smith's 6 Tips To Win The Dressage

Jul 6, 2021 - 2:59 PM

Tamie Smith is at the top after dressage at nearly every international event she enters.

This spring at Jersey Fresh (New Jersey), Smith, who was named the first alternate for the U.S. eventing team heading to the Tokyo Olympic Games, was first on Danito (23.9) and second on EnVogue (24.3) in the CCI4*-L and first in the CCI3*-L with Solaguayre California (26.7). Two weeks prior she rode Mai Baum to a 21.8 at the gelding’s five-star debut at Land Rover Kentucky.

So what’s her secret? Smith says she’s been fortunate to have a strong foundation on the flat from a young age, thanks to mother and daughter dressage trainers Marcie and Martina Stimmel. Marcie is also a U.S. Equestrian Federation judge, while Martina had evented before moving on to upper-level dressage.

“As a teen I’d gotten to do and learn a lot of upper-level dressage,” said Smith. “I would say that’s one of our strong suits on the West Coast. We have really good help in the dressage and the show jumping. I’ve been working with Johann Hinnemann, who is one of the best in the world. I’m very fortunate because he lives not far from me. I’ve been working with him pretty much every week for a year and a half. I feel like his horsemanship and his approach has just really put on the final touches. I just have a better understanding. It takes a lifetime to learn, and I’m old now! You’d hope you’d just eventually figure it all out, but I still feel like I’m learning.”

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Tamie Smith and Mai Baum at the 2021 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. Smith has earned a reputation for being one of the best American dressage riders in the sport of eventing. Lindsay Berreth Photo

1. Stick to Basics

“Training is very basic and simple,” said Smith.

“Somebody once said, the advanced riders work on beginning basics, and beginners want to work on advanced movements. It really is all about the basics, and it’s very simple once you understand it. We just work on the basics all the time, like relaxation, [connection] and the harmony. You can’t go to the next step if you don’t have relaxation. That’s huge.”

She follows the training pyramid for all of her horses. “You can’t go to the next step without being really solid with the first step, then going to the next step. Every single day that I ride, no matter if I’m trot hacking, or I’m doing cavaletti work, or we’re out on the hills or we’re jumping, I’m trying to work on that philosophy.”

2. Vary the work, but always keep dressage in mind.

“In riding, when we think we’re having a ‘dressage day,’ we really work on the dressage, and when we’re having a ‘show jumping day,’ we’re working on just jumping the jumps instead of thinking about doing your dressage work over jumps,” she said. “I still struggle with that, but I’m always trying to do that. I’m always trying to keep the flat work crossing over to the jumping. If you reflect on how the horses are going on the flat, and your biggest problems or weaknesses on the flat, typically, it 100 percent will always cross over into the jumping.”

Smith incorporates cavaletti a couple times a week in moderation. “I like to do both trot and canter and on circles and changing direction with it,” she said. “I like to keep things interesting for the horses. I work less on the dressage in the dressage arena than I used to, but I work more on the basics every single day that I ride, so then my dressage is getting better. The biggest thing is you have to really enjoy training horses, and training horses requires really boring, methodical work.”

3. Keep it fun for the horse.

“It’s been really refreshing, especially for pure dressage horses, to see Charlotte Dujardin show that she trail rides over little jumps, and her horses are turned out in fields and don’t have boots on,” said Smith. “It’s so easy to get obsessed with keeping them all in a box. I remember being at the 2010 WEG in Kentucky, and on dressage day watching two people lead a horse, with a rider on their back, with lead ropes, and I was just like, ‘What is wrong with these people? They’re Olympic level.’ Now you don’t really see that because you have someone like Charlotte, who just said, ‘Oh, yeah, we go trot hacking the fields,’ and now you see a lot of that incorporated.

I think it’s super important that you keep the horses being horses and not machines. There’s definitely some discipline you need to have in the dressage court in learning how to be accurate and not foregoing relaxation, but ultimately the horse has got to be your partner, and they have to want to try for you. You’ve got to keep it fun for them, too.”

4. Sometimes the most talented horses on the flat aren’t easy.

“[Mai Baum] is horrible to ride on the flat, I think because it comes more natural for him,” she said. “He has the least amount of work ethic. It makes it extremely difficult to ride him on the flat because he’s so wiggly. Now, he’s trying, and because he’s so strong he’s enjoying it better, but over the last few years it’s been a real challenge. He was not an easy, trainable horse to get through and really correct. It was super important I kept it interesting for him. He loves to be a showman, which is in my benefit, but he doesn’t like dressage. He’d much rather be galloping cross-country.”

5. Throughness is key, even on hot event horses.

“I didn’t always believe this, but when you can achieve complete throughness, then the behavior side of it where they become hot [because of fitness work] works in your benefit,” she said. “If you talk to somebody like Steffen Peters, or anybody who’s a legend in the sport, I think you’d find they would rather have a very hot type horse than a horse that’s quiet. The reason for that is they’ve learned to get those horses really through, so they use that hotness to create expression. I find that when the horses become through, then it becomes a dynamic expression. Then you have to have a horse who’s mentally willing to be through. I think that’s why you’ll see some horses that will have a nice steady test, but they’re not through. Fortunately, or unfortunately for us, the judges have learned to recognize that, and you’ll find that if you see a horse that has a nice, steady test that moves decent, but it’s not fully connected and doesn’t get a score that you think that it should, it’s because the judges are recognizing a lack of throughness.”

6. Don’t give up the horse’s balance for expression of movement.

“Event riders, including myself, we always tend to want to get the big movement out of the horse, but then we push them past their balance, and we lose some carriage and cadence in the horse’s movement,” she said. “When you lose that, then the horse loses the ability to be through. It’s taken me years to figure that out, and I’ve been classically trained pretty much my whole career, and I still feel like I’m learning it. That’s the biggest thing I teach— not running the horses past their balance and keeping them more in a self-carriage and cadence balance than running them.”

When pushing a horse out of its comfort zone, you might get some unwanted tension.

“It’s kind of a thing where you don’t know until you know, and then once you know it’s very simple, but it’s a very complicated thing to teach somebody,” said Smith. “They feel that the horse is behind the leg or that it’s tight, but it’s a hard thing to be patient and just let the horse be within itself. Sometimes you have to forgo movement for that. I learned that from Sandy Phillips; she is brilliant at expressing that.”


This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our June 7 & 14, 2021, issue.

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