Student skills 10,000 hours

Dale Forbes:

This post is about setting goals and being realistic about what the sport takes, namely quite a bit of money–and an astounding amount of time.  All of which can be enhanced by the correct approach.

Good article in the New York Times:

January 19, 2013

Secret Ingredients for Success


Here is a paragraph I liked:

“In interviews we did with high achievers for a book, we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

“The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them.”

Dale’s note: This sport is too expensive not to think about what you are doing.  Self-evaluation and goal setting are good disciplines to add on to the seemingly-endless practice dressage takes.

Here are some examples, stories, and books:

At a clinic in Maryland in the early nineties, where Michelle Gibson first rode Peron with Rudolf Zeilinger, we sat around outside the barn after the day was done.

Rudolf was quiet, sitting on the tailgate of a pickup.  The subject was not horses, it was teaching. He had been basically silent, and after a while he made a restless movement.  The gathering began to break up.  As he got his things he turned to me and commented, “You Americans, you always talk about the teacher!  In Germany it is not so much the teacher that is important, but the student!”

He had appeared a bit annoyed or puzzled that day–I could not tell which.  The riders included not just Michelle, whom he knew and liked, but also a group of other riders–a fairly typical American clinic at the time.  One was a young child, on a beautiful dressage pony, practicing her flying changes.

Rudolf is a superb rider and can fix about anything fixable on a horse, but not at 13 hands.  At 6’5″, his feet would drag.  So when the young rider had trouble, he said to her, “You have to do this, I cannot help,” explaining to her what the problem was, looking good natured, but also a little bored and annoyed.

I figured on some level he would be impressed, naively thinking that lots of German “Wunderkind” did flying changes on fancy ponies all the time.

I asked him later about the child and her pony. What had his riding life been as a child?

He commented with some heat, “Sure, I rode, but not like THAT!”

Yet again I was puzzled.  The Germans rule the sport; didn’t they all start like the Hungarian gymnasts at “Dressage training camps” in their youths?

Rudolf continued, “Yes I rode, but I rode out in the country, I jumped things!”  He fumed a bit more, “She will never last,” rather grumpily taking his leave.

I think I understand this better now, looking at how the Germans really do start, and how Americans used to commonly start.

And how many, many American dressage riders fail to start at all.

(Yes, I said it, bad Dale!)

I read two very good books last year on this subject.  The first is the very insightful  Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

And the next is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

The tagline of this very good book reads, “Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.”

Having read the book, I find this funny and well-stated.  In his chapter on coaching, he says that good coaches consistently give their students very specific goal-oriented advice on how to do very small pieces of the task at hand.  Small details that, done correctly over time, will actually lead to the right outcome.

Note: This does not seem a quick fix, but really doing the details right is always the shortest route.

Another note Colvin makes, beyond burnout of child prodigies, which Rudolf would probably appreciate, is the number of hours it takes to achieve mastery.

I think the figure was 10,000 hours.  That’s ten years at 1,000 hours a year.

But wait!  That’s fine for football players, but who gets to ride three hours a day?  So maybe for us that’s twenty years riding two horses a day.  And that does not mean you are going to the Olympics–it just means you will be very, very skilled–provided you have practiced, mindfully, the correct small actions.  If not, not so much so.  No wonder dressage is practiced by adults!

So, given it takes a long time, goals are good, and talking about them is a valid thing to do.

Here is the typical conversation in the US:

Teacher: “What are your goals?”

Dressage rider:  “I want to be as good as I can be.”

T. “What level would you like to train this year?”

D.R. “I really don’t know, but eventually I’d like to go all the way, do the Grand Prix.”

T. “How many times a week can you come?”

D.R. “Once.”

T. “How often do you ride?”

D.R. “Three times a week.”

The conversation about horse choices and budgets often runs in a similar vein.

There is nothing wrong with taking one lesson a week and riding three times a week.  If you want eventually to be a good First Level rider. And that is a good goal.


Rick says it in a simple way:  The difference between a dream and a goal is a date.

In other words, to make the dream of Grand Prix real, you have to put a date on attaining First Level, then Second, and so on.  And that can be scary and disappointing because not reaching our goals is something we Americans tend to think of as failure.  It’s not–as Rudolf also once said to me,  “Not knowing how to do dressage is not a character flaw.”

Well said. Refusing to be realistic might be though. . .

Another thing Rudolf said to me once in the context of pressing his students too hard was, “I used to think everyone could ride like I do–they just had to practice. Now I don’t think that so much.”

I bet not.  How’s a normal person supposed to catch up?

Rudolf cheated. I cheated.  Many professionals are cheaters.  We grew up riding.

I rode three to four hours a day when I was a child. I was independent in the saddle by the time I was three.  I’ll bet so was Rudolf.  That’s about a thousand hours a year for 17 years to make it to twenty years old.  Then I went to college and Rudolf went the Schultheis where he was a gawky kid–until, with five hours a day under instruction, and another five hours a day sweeping for eleven years, he became what he is:  a brilliant rider.

After college, and more riding, I went to Rudolf, riding once or twice a day under instruction when I could be in Germany, six to eight horses at home–for eight years before I rode my first competition Grand Prix.  And why did I go to Rudolf?

That’s easy: when my French stallion ran off across the indoor in that first clinic, bucking and leaping, I was so embarrassed I smiled.  (And it was really embarrassing!)  Everyone else’s horse was being good.  They were practicing fun, elegant-looking “movements.”  But heck, I could ride a donkey and a Shetland Pony full speed at five years old, so was I scared when the beast  leaped off with me?  Not really.

And Rudolf said the the trainer sitting next to him, “Now THAT rider we could do something with.”

So, starting with 20,000 hours in the saddle is a big plus when you start trying to be a dressage rider.  Sure there are things you have to unlearn, but it is an advantage.

However, if you don’t have that, do not be discouraged. There are ways to speed the process up.  It’s not quick and it’s not easy, but if you want to do it and will put in the time it can be done.

And if you know how to run barrels or jump something I am very proud of you!

You might enjoy dressage, and be good at it.

So make a plan. If you only ride three hours a week, consider four.  If you can only afford instruction once a week, get it and then install some mirrors.  (If money is an issue, skip the clinics for now.  They are expensive and dramatic and sometimes fun, but they are basically for that purpose.  If you can afford them, okay. If not, go watch.) If you live a long way from your coach, bribe your kid or the stall cleaner into taping you. Pay to send the tape along for critique.  Use technology.  They made Face Time and video in your phone for a purpose.  Use them!