It's Time To Train The Trainers

Jul 31, 2013 - 4:47 PM
Winyamaro won the Grand Prix on 71 percent at Hawk Hollow Ranch in Bedminster, N.J., last week. He's back! Photo by

Dear Rita,

New Jersey’s heat wave has finally broken, and we are blessed with breezy days in the mid 70s. While the horses find their energy again and my riders feel like they can breathe and think, our daily work continues at our base, the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone. Winyamaro and I won a Grand Prix last week. Hotmail (extraordinaire!) continues his onward storm toward his Grand Prix debut with me in August. All is good in New Joisie.

Except for a few small shows, my summer has thus far been largely devoted to teaching. Not only have I had a rush of students at home, but I also have been traveling far and wide to fill clinic requests. As always, I have a list of observations about teaching, learning and riding in general. But my biggest revelation of late is this: We need to train our trainers… in more than just riding.

After half of year of involvement in U.S. Equestrian Federation committees, the American dressage scene in general, and several venues for teaching, it has become apparent to me that our trainers must work together to further their knowledge about training both horses and riders. While a lot of lip service is paid to this concept, most of us are typically American in that we remain stubbornly independent—content to pursue our own thing and be happy with our own personal progress without regard for the state of dressage in our region, our country and the world.

Sadly, we are not strong at home alone. We need to meet, train, discuss and discover. Otherwise, we can’t catch up with Europe. And yes, this should be our nationwide goal.

I am often hired by a trainer to do a clinic at his or her stable. The general pattern goes like this: The trainer wants my input. So he/she hires me to teach for a full day even though the trainer rides only once, maybe twice on a somewhat advanced horse, and then watches eight to nine students from rank beginner to talented amateur learn some basics from me at a much lower level.

I realize that these students are paying for the trainer’s opportunity to ride with me. And I know that some of them are there simply in order to say, “I rode with Catherine Haddad Staller.” But this does not honor me, nor is my skill respected. If you are a fan, come by and say hello—stay, audit and learn. If you are a rider who needs help with a throughness issue, come by and get a lesson.

To show up for training with an accomplished rider before you are ready to benefit from his or her knowledge is bad form and disrespectful. I am often taken aback when clinic slots in the United States are filled with riders who can’t even put their horse on the bit.

Now Rita, you probably wonder why I don’t vet the riders before a clinic. The answer is twofold. 1) I don’t have time. 2) Professionals should honestly evaluate their clientele; that is not my job. If you have a rank amateur who really wants the opportunity to learn from me, train that person—kick their butt—until they are good enough. Make them earn the right, not buy it.

What finally irked me into writing this blog is this: Our trainers need more knowledge about how to train the basics—not just for themselves, but for their students as well. And they need to motivate themselves to GET RESULTS. Don’t pass off a basic problem to a visiting clinician—it does not speak well of your own teaching skills!

I work on the basics of EVERY horse and rider combination with fervor, technical focus, and 99.9 percent of the time with visible results. Occasionally I get an advanced pair that can work on the basics in piaffe or passage or pirouettes. Sometimes I get the odd flying change problem to fix. Sadly, a large portion of my days away from home are spent teaching the most rudimentary fundamentals of riding to people who have already been in the saddle for a number of years. Years, Rita! These people are trying like hell to learn the most basic principles of riding and are struggling along at the pace of a rabid garden snail. They need to learn how to develop balance, soft arms and hands, acceptable contact with the bit—how to go, stop and turn.

Even the rankest beginner lacking any smidgeon of talent can learn to sit the trot and hold the reins with proper contact. On the longe line. They need to be taught these basics before showing up in front of me. Sure, I can advance their basic knowledge, but my talent lies in developing Grand Prix horses. And I know that within a 100-mile radius of any clinic I do in the United States, there are more advanced riders who need my help. So, my trainers, don’t wear me out teaching someone how to hold the reins. I did not fly half way across the country to do YOUR job for you. Find me riders who want to learn in order to become better teachers at home, and I will give them all I’ve got.

Let’s train the trainers.

I am finished with all existing clinic commitments in September. October and November are wide open. Wide open, that is, to anyone who can organize a clinic with at least three or more trainers participating on multiple horses. If any slots are left unfilled, an advanced student of any one of the trainers is welcome to join the fray. And as much as I love teaching ANY student who loves to learn, I’m staying home until clinic organizers get smart about this. I have a deep pocket of skills. Let me use them.

(To those few of you who have already gotten smart about this, THANK YOU. There is nothing more satisfying than leaving a clinic knowing that EVERYONE learned from each other, and my skills were put to good use. We meet, we train, we exchange ideas. We advance.)

Let’s advance this sport nationwide. Open your stables, welcome your neighbors, and learn to learn from each other when another professional comes to your area to teach. Then go home and teach your own students with new information and new inspiration.

Trainers who can do this will gladly receive my help. It’s time to elevate the level of dressage in this country. Let’s get started.

I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m sayin’ it like it is from Gladstone, N.J.

Training Tip of the Day: Good or bad, learn from your colleagues.


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