A Good Problem to Have
I’ve built my reputation as a trainer on training horses that are no one’s idea of good dressage prospects. I work with horses who have physical or mental baggage, sometimes both. I help horses with behavioral issues, or give green horses a correct foundation. Their owners love them, but most of these horses are not bought or bred for the purpose of competing at a high level.
Cami, the little red mare who ended up becoming a lovely riding horse in spite of difficult beginnings.
This year, through a lucky set of circumstances, I am working with a couple of young horses who were born to do dressage. I feel grateful for this opportunity, but I’ve learned something surprising: training a promising, willing youngster without baggage is not as easy as it sounds. I find myself facing an unfamiliar set of challenges.
It’s true that the actual training process tends to be smoother with a horse who finds dressage easy. When I introduce a new exercise, I hear them say: “Oh, this is what you mean?” instead of “This is really hard . . . could you break it down into smaller steps?” or sometimes an outright “No, I can’t do that!” Dressage is, of course, good for all horses, but teaching an off-the-track thoroughbred with an upside-down neck and all the wrong muscles about connection and straightness will take more time and patience than doing the same work with a young horse bred to play this game.
More than just a pretty face: the lovely, talented Elena, four months under saddle
On the other hand, the expectations placed on the horse, and on me, tend to be higher. Owners who spend serious money on a young horse naturally want to see results in line with the horse’s breeding, but that’s not the difficult part for me. I am very lucky: my clients are supportive and realistic, thank goodness. They trust me. They appreciate my methods. They agree with my training philosophy of putting the horse’s needs first. They know I will help their horse reach his potential, but they also know I won’t rush the training process for the sake of competition results.
No, the truly difficult part is the expectation I place on myself: am I a good enough trainer do do these horses justice? Would this horse do better under someone else?
Lily, the little Fjord with strong opinions and surprising talents
I’ve competed on several horses who surprised their owners, and me, with how far they could go. It’s rewarding to discover hidden talent. It’s also a lot less stressful to enter at A on a horse no one expects to do well. If he doesn’t place, no one cares. If he does, it’s cause for celebration. On a horse who looks like a winner, losing becomes a much bigger deal. More people are watching. More people are judging me - my seat, my leg position, even my clothes. No, this is not my imagination. Dressage shows are notorious for negative comments from judges and spectators. Remarks like “Can you believe she calls herself a professional?” or “With trainer X, this horse would be much further along!” can really sting. It takes a great deal of courage to expose myself to that kind of criticism.
Even worse, it’s tempting to take shortcuts on a talented, willing horse - because I could get away with it, at least for a while. A horse with conformation issues like a low-set neck or a downhill build will not become a real athlete unless I spend the time it takes to build correct muscles and teach suppleness and balance. A horse with behavioral issues like bolting or bucking must learn to relax his mind and body. A tense horse must learn to move freely forward in a stretched frame, otherwise correct contact will be impossible. For horses with physical or mental challenges, there is no way around this slow, gradual process of building (or rebuilding) their body, mind and spirit. The bottom steps of the training scale need to be confirmed before we can move ahead to “real” dressage work like half passes or flying changes. But on a horse with a perfect neck and naturally swinging back, it’s tempting to rush through these important stages. After all, tests at second level and above don’t require a stretchy circle, so why should I ask my horse to stretch? It’s tempting to move right into advanced movements, without confirming that the horse understands how to trust his rider or how to accept an elastic connection with the rider’s hands. It’s easy to take rhythm, suppleness, and a steady tempo for granted if they seem like no big deal. But talent is a loan that has to be repaid, not a gift to do with as I see fit. I know that the holes in a horse’s training will eventually show. I know, from working with many horses who were hurried through their basic education, that these holes can be irreparable.
Because I’ve seen what shortcuts can do to a talented horse, I will try as hard as I can not to take them. Even if I could, I would never dream of trading the challenging, diverse bunch of horses I work with for a barn full of dressage prodigies with perfect conformation and extravagant, floaty gaits. Working with difficult horses keeps me humble. Working with a variety of horses keeps my training honest, my life interesting, and my horizons expanding. Of course I enjoy my talented youngster, but without all the complicated, perplexing horses I’ve trained, I would probably not do such a horse justice. A talented horse is not a ticket to show-ring success. Helping a talented horse reach his potential is a big responsibility. I will make sure to give these horses as correct a foundation as all the others. After all, horses don’t owe me anything. I owe them everything.