Quick definitions: Coaching, Mentoring, Training

Some links for you below:

Rider Coach: A formal, temporary, paid, position helping an individual achieve certain skills or goals.  Defined by goal and task orientation.

Mentor: Informal, usually unpaid, fluid relationship where a person with more experience serves as a role model and possibly sounding board for another less-experience person.

Horse Trainer: Paid position where one improves the responses, skills, patterns and understandings of the horse.  (Paving the way for the less experienced-rider.)




The Wine Glass Story

Dale Forbes

In a previous post https://dressagesnob.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/gender-and-coaching/

I cite Deborah Tannen’s books on linguistics–which I like a lot.  Very informative.

And several of my colleagues want my version of a female/female  female/male transaction.

Here it is:

You are a woman talking to your best friend who is also a woman–very coordinated and chic.

You say to her: “I don’t know what’s the matter, I’ve broken two wine glasses this week–I’m all butterfingers!”

She replies:  “I know!  I took out two on Saturday.  Good thing they were cheap.”

Of course in fact she has not broken a wine glass in years. But what she has just done is put the two of you back on equal footing again–you both make mistakes.  Women value parity

Here is the version when you talk with a normal guy–he may even care about you.

You say to him: “I don’t know what’s the matter, I’ve broken two wine glasses this week–I’m all butterfingers!”

He replies:  “Think you should get checked?”

Men couldn’t generally care less about parity, they rather like being one up–though fortunately they also like to problem solve. . .

Being a good Student and client–Dale’s take.

Dale’s take on Being a Good Student/Client.

For a word on coaching dynamics, this post precedes:


These are my experiences–if you have others, as people certainly will, I’d like to hear about them below.

I define being a good student not as being popular with your coach–though that may happen too–but as mastering the skill you want with as little wasted effort as possible.

In a recent post I detailed the challenges of communicating with a coach.  Keep in mind you are NOT in charge of what happens on any given day.  They are.   But, thankfully, if you are unhappy, you are 100% in charge of the direction you steer.  You MUST make your own decisions.

If it is not worth you time and money, don’t do it.  (But don’t argue about it either!)

I have a long background being coached in riding, but I have also as an adult taken up a rather vigorous martial art which taught me a lot–by giving me a new experience as a beginner.

(It was awful!  I sucked!!!)

But I worked at it rather a lot, and eventually got better.  Keep in mind I also trained five days a week at the start.  I did this because I know about body  memory and I hated the clumsy beginner stage.  Like mucking a stall, get it done efficiently  and move on.)

Aikido.  It looks like this:


(Actually, it looks like this after eight years of practice, three times a week: at first it looks a great deal more like scary flopping on the ground.)

One thing that does NOT work is an experienced practitioner showing you a beautiful roll, jumping up and saying: “It’s easy!  Just do that!”

(You are likely to hurt yourself.)

Learning to flip yourself over starts with very basic, safe, correct body movements, that eventually turn into body memories.  These are done at first very close to the ground.

Is this right for later?  No.  Later will be later. 

Practice according to your skill level now.

Develop as few bad habits as possible–some are inevitable.

Prevention of these non-inevitable bad habits is where an experienced instructor is invaluable, “even” at the lower level.

Because, as you will see below, it is getting rid of the old learning that is fantastically painful, time-consuming–and also where many, many people fail to improve.

Truly, it’s not the future that holds you back.  It’s the past.  The more invested you are in your own “rightness” the more painful improvement will be–or not happen at all.

So you should not get too attached to your own success too early–or really ever.

I’m also going to remind you of a very good book, Mastery, by a fellow Rick has worked with, George Leonard.


In it he notes that one must “Embrace the Plateau.”  Also points out the difference between a true student and a “Dabbler, Obsessive and the Hacker.”  Then a great chapter on “America’s War against Mastery.”  A good book.

Anyway, if you split learning into basic phases (Dale’s version) it looks like this:

1. Don’t know what to do, don’t know how to do it.

2. Know what to do but cannot do it.

3. Know what you are doing is not resulting in success, but don’t know what the problem is.

4. Know what the basic problem is, but are unaware of small, lodged “body memories” that take over.

5. Discover small body memories and painfully eradicate them by more advanced practice.

6. Develop new, more functional body memories to replace old ones.

7. Begin to have fun and real success.

Riders (and lots of other folks) frequently get stopped at stages 2 and 5.  Of these, number five is most painful because you have to give up something you were depending on–and frequently things will look worse for a brief period until you develop a skill to replace the bad habit.

There is typically a lot of anger waged at the “perpetrator” of this change. 

(That would be “the coach.”)

Keep it to yourself, or vent to a therapist.   Keep practicing.


1.When learning a physical skill it is important to “be” in your body. 

That means able to experience what is happening, take in new information and make small and systematic changes.  Signs of being out of your body are mind wandering, a sense of looking on from the outside, critical self-thoughts.  If these happen, let them pass and keep focus.  Humm.  (Takes up critical part of brain–quieting it.) Keep things as simple as possible.  Look where you are going, listen, feel, and make habits of each corner.  This helps to ground you.

2. What happens if you are frightened?

That depends.  If you are frightened of being hurt by the action, or the horse, you must stop and tell you coach.  Right now.  This is very important.

If you are afraid of failure (more often the case) listen and try to do what you are told.  Failure is natural.  Nobody who is good at something thinks much about it.  Your coach must see you actually try something before they can tell you what actions need to be taken to give a better outcome.  If you keep your “perhaps” failure to yourself then there is no chance for success or help.

3. If you are in a muddle or stuck, put your horse in training or increase your own training.

You probably do not want to savor the experience of being frustrated and stuck.  Do something different.

Even a week of training can help.  It gives the trainer (notice I have stopped using “coach” briefly) a chance to clarify the horse’s understanding, gain perspective on what you are experiencing, and help bring both of you together.  A quick tune up is NOT training, though it can add to perspective.

If you are unwilling to put your horse in training, you should think about the direction you are taking.  Why would you want to ride with someone whose experience and feel you do not want in your horse?

That said, trainers are human, sometimes lazy, sometimes frightened themselves.  They get sick, they go lame they get tired. The very best strategy (if you can find the time) is to tack the horse up for the trainer, hand it to them and then sit quietly and watch, cooling it out after.


1. You got to see how the trainer handled the horse–not as a value judgement, but as a learning experience.

2. You know that the horse got worked.

If your horse does not feel better, more clear and focused after the number of rides you and your trainer have agreed to,  (angry, pushed, sore, no different are other possibilities) consider your program.  You do NOT need to talk to your trainer about this.  You are in charge of who you hire.  They are in charge of their strategy.  There is a boundary, and sharing might or might not be the best policy.

But what happens if one of several things occur that are not ideal? 

(Remember, you brought you horse in because things were not going exactly as you wanted. It was not ideal in the start–though perhaps well-hidden.  You are here to find things out.)

1. Your trainer says the horse is in pain and needs attention.  Don’t let this happen.  Over the normal year the horse should be monitored for soundness, have properly fitting tack and cared-for teeth.  Why pay your trainer to wait on the blacksmith’s arrival to replace shoes that ought to have been solid at the start?  It’s a waste of money!  Never mind that piles a shoeing, vet and medication bill right on top of a training bill.  Don’t do it.

2. You find “marks” on your horse.  Say a bee sting from the dressage whip, or a sore on his mouth.

Ask your trainer, in an informational way, what behavior the horse was exhibiting that resulted in the “wear spots.”  Kind remarks go a long way here, “I notice there are some marks and you have a black eye, (cracked tooth, bandaged hand, limp–whatever) is everything okay???”

They should be able to tell you what the issue was, how they dealt with it and if the issue is likely to come up again.

People are remarkably protective of their own horse, money and time and can be remarkably callous about the trainer.  If you are not willing to get on in all three gaits then don’t expect them to. Period.

I’m going to tell you a quick story here in trainers defense of “marks.”  It is a good one.  Even names one name.

When I was in my twenties I had a big Trakhener gelding from Germany.  17.2, 1600 lbs, Five or six years old. 

Encouraged by one of the national gurus (who was not particularly a horse trainer, but who was getting a lot of play at the time) I put him in a fat snaffle and taught him to pull downward.  He was now, “round and on the bit.”  I was very proud. 

But the horse was getting “heavy.”

I took him to Jan Ebling at Capricorn (we lived in Colorado at the time) who rode him, raised his eyebrows and said: “You have given yourself quite a project.”

He was of course right.

A year went by and the horse learned that he could rip the reins from my hands and gallop around the arena at will. 

Afraid at what the people in the barn would say if I used artificial aids, (The SHAME!) I’d get into two point and gallop around until it occurred to him to stop. 

Perhaps I was frightening him?  (He was certainly frightening me!)

So Jan had moved, reasonably not looking real interested anyway, and I took The Runaway farther south to a barn below Colorado Springs with another very good trainer.  I told him the whole story. 

In effect I had ruined the horse.  100% my fault.  The horse’s idea of connection as a boundary, with softness and communication within that boundary, was ruined.   His carriage (none) was ruined.  His discipline was ruined.  Through my “kindness” (and utter ignorance) I had really messed up.

(Title of event: US EVENT RIDER MEETS LARGE WARMBLOOD!  . . .scary music)

Note: Given that he was totally wrecked, the horse was really pretty happy.  He liked running around at will as though  he was on turnout.

I, however, was TERRIFIED! (Never mind being an ex-event rider.)

The southern professional agreed to help, I went away rightly shamed, and when I came back in two weeks the horse had marks in his mouth and was going in a double bridle.  But I rode him and he was much better.  He’d think about seeing the spot of light, and then taking me for a ride, but he did not act on it. He was soft in the bridle and respectful.  It was a miracle.

The trainer told me, “The bridle belongs to YOU not the horse.  He cannot grab it. Never. What’s done is done, but don’t ever take this horse out of a double bridle again.  And don’t you hang on his mouth either–set a limit, not a death grip.” 

Okay.  I thanked him and went humbly home, moving shortly after to Spokane where there was literally no help at the time.  But, I had a five-year very happy relationship with that horse. Lots of fun.  Taught him flying changes.  Good boy!

So was that southern trainer a villain or a saint?  There were marks on the mouth! 

(I think he was a saint–saved the horse–and me–with some “tough love.”)

Eventually when I wanted to spend time in Germany, I sold the horse inexpensively, telling the new owners, “Never take him out of the double bridle.” 

He went for six months, they put him in the snaffle, reconnected him with the bit in the “old” manner and in three weeks he was running away.  I do not know, but I hear they put him in a paddock and never rode him again.  Five years, no incidence. Zero.  Six months, back at it–through what I suspect was similarly misguided “kindness.”

The moral of the story is that when you take a horse needing change to a trainer, it is often the marks and experiences you have failed to give them on your own that you will see when you pick them up.  Be very sure you know what you are talking about if you cast judgement–but of course the “tell all” is, is the horse better?  If they are better, have learned something, let it go and say thanks. Thanks are well-deserved.

The other moral is to take very very seriously any warnings you are given about a horse.  They all have a past, and the past owner wants the horse to succeed.  If you are unwilling to pay attention, pass on the horse.  It is kinder.

Back to Aikido.  It is very good for your core and connection issues.


Where else do you allow someone to try to choke you out? 

The secret here is for him to grab my pinkie finger and twist vigorously. 

As Larry Sensei  used to say (he’s a police officer), “Big against small!”

That is a real attention-getter.  Please remember this if you get in a tight spot, then practice “Nikedo”–that is running.

Consider cross training.  Unless you have a penchant for sailplanes, nothing is as expensive as riding.


(Never mind in the martial arts or yoga you do not have to feed every one of your partners. . . . )

Happy riding!

Gender and Coaching

Dale Forbes

Rick Graff

This post is about gender trends in coaches in the US, women in coaching roles–and Rick’s and my experience of the resistance to those roles!

First, state of the union: women high achievers in dressage: most US Olympic teams over the years have run about 50-50 with regard to gender. 2012 was no exception–slightly tilted toward the guys in the end.  Of the roster of 43 declared combinations trying for a spot on the 2012 Olympic Dressage team, gender shook out like this: there were 12 men and 24 women wanting places.  How does that equal 43?  Five of the men declared trying with two horses, whereas two of the women had a double shot.  The final team of three: two men, one woman.  The rider who went as an individual was a woman and the reserve rider was a man.  Grand total: three men two women.

And it also says something that the vast majority of sponsored riders are male.  Of the top 13 riders, 4 owned their horses, three of them women and only one man.   The rest belonged to sponsors.  This is totally consistent with the facts of life I outline below.

Here’s an off the top of my head list of the great female coaches I have watched closely or ridden with in the last twenty years:

Kyra Kyrklund. Debbie McDonald, Betsy Steiner, Felicitas Von Neumann-Cosell

Here’s a list of men I’ve also ridden with in the last twenty years.

(The ones I’ve watched closely are really too many to name.)

Anders Lidgren, Denny Callin, Jan Ebling, Steffen Peters, Gunter Seidel, Michael Poulin, Michael Beining, Rudolf Zeilinger, Wili Schultheis, Klaus Balkenhol  (Clinic in LA), Jeff Moore, Dietrich Von Hopffgarten

16 coaches, 4 women, 12 men.  That’s 75% male-dominated teaching.

In a sport in the US that is currently populated at the lower level by women–I’d say 10-1 is a pretty good guess–with both MOST coaches and riders being female, does anyone find the gender difference in my “upper level”coaching experience startling?

Keep in mind these numbers are representative of coaching as a whole–generally there are fewer top-level women coaches in all athletics now than in 1972. Half as many. Source: Crisis in Female Coaches Shortchanges Women, Athletes. http://www.wihe.com/printBlog.jsp?id=383    There used to be many women coaches.  But when coaching became better paid, more “professional,”  men took over the professional posts in colleges and high schools.

[I’m not even going to go into the gender gap thing–but if you would like to there is an interesting article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/opinion/sunday/why-gender-equality-stalled.html?_r=0  ]

Unlike high school softball, there still are in dressage a large group of semi-pro women coaches at the lower level.  I’m defining semi-pro as someone who teaches, but does not actually earn a living by doing it–just enough activity to finance their own riding.  The sport is expensive so there is quite a lot of this in the US, aided by the fact that no license is required nor certification necessary.  So becoming a riding teacher in America is easy, but it does not guarantee, as in some other places, that the person owning and nailing up the shingle knows much.   There is not much standardization in the US–and a lot more mobility, and entrepreneurship.   Thus there also is a lot of variance of opinion on the basics.  This creates confusion and conflict–but it is peculiarly American and we like it.  What can I say?

So lots of women ride, and lots of women teach, but not lots of them–statistically anyway–do it very, very well.  And almost nobody has the same background set of skills.

Becoming a top-level dressage coach and trainer is a full-time commitment.   It means achieving an advanced degree of skill and training yourself, and that currently means mastering not only the personal organization to do this, but raising funds, developing networks and getting support from your community.   (That means earning a living by the way.)  And men are more likely to do this than women.  They are also more likely to have been through some formal European school or training system than the Americans.  Looking at the coaches list above it is pretty clear.  There is an avenue to becoming a professional in Europe that is largely lacking here in the States.  It is not a quick and easy route, but a multi-year commitment to being taught–and sometimes not so nicely!

It could be–and likely is–that US women are sometimes in dressage for their own purpose.  Probably both the new professionals and the students.  We hear a lot from dressage riders who want to “be friends” with their horses.  Or they value being part of a barn community–they like their new coach.  And they may have gotten interested in dressage because it looks light and easy and effortless when it is done well.  This is sometimes fed into by people who have not experienced the hard work, money and time it takes to become a competitive dressage rider.  Or the professional knows it, but also know their clients “won’t like it” if asked to change very much.  That’s okay too.  It is up to the client, after all.

There is no one formula. But you also find many lower level US professionals–and their many lower level riding students–who eventually would really like to improve, but get stuck because they don’t know how to get rid of the old program and move on to better practices.  They defend the mistakes.  If a lower level pro or his/her student want to progress they must probably unlearn lots of things.  And that is hard and threatening, and needs a reasoned approach.  We enter the profession this way–there is no other method–we can expect the result.

How do they get to the next step–moving on into the upper levels in a way that is proven to work?   There is no real gauge of excellence.  Competition success?  That can be slanted both by how much cash a person puts into it and where they do it.  Teaching style?  That makes life nice, but it has nothing to do with content.

Here’s how the decision is often made, given the innate competition with anyone local, the best guess is riding with someone from out-of-town is “safe.”  If not necessarily ultimately effective!

Arrive the clinic circuit as a method of education! (please see  post  To Clinic or Not to Clinic? https://dressagesnob.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/to-clinic-or-not-to-clinic/  )

The trouble of course is that a three-day weekend does not make an education, nor does it teach the long-term skill of how to be coached. This is not such a trouble in Germany, by the way, where the standard is set out–it’s a good,effective one–and to teach one must be licensed.  Trainer-hopping and clinic weekends are not (that I can see) really done very much.  You train with the local and if you get beyond that you travel to one of the big names and school for a time.

Not so in the US. And if you want to learn, sometimes you have to quiet the noise of what you already know and listen a bit.  You also have to get used to lessons not as a performance, but largely deconstruction toward improvement.  If you are used to telling everyone how to do it and want to look good in front of your clients or friends, this skill may not be top on the list. Thus, below, how to actually be coached, when you are not trying to be friends with your female coach or in competition with her.  It works too with your male coach who REALLY does not understand the constant need to be friendly.

First being coached: I am not saying that women are intrinsically harder to coach than men, they are not, but I will say, from comparing my experience coaching to my partner Rick’s experience being coached, that women in the US tend to be less experienced that men at the skill of being coached. They don’t get as much opportunity as the guys to be coached, and women are wired a little differently about social connections.  Women, simply sometimes do not know how to respond to the directives of coaching.  Doubly so if they are not clear about what they want out of that coaching.

And as coaches?  Rick points out that the job of a coach is to help the person run faster, jump higher, swing better.  That is what is going on in that transaction.  A good coach may have a feel for the mental state of their student, but it is not their JOB to make the student feel good (or look good) in the short-term.  It is their job to give directives and get results.

And men are usually better at giving directives than women.

I’m sorry, but I really think this is true.  Look at the trouble the Hillary Clinton has.  Too directive you are a bitch, not directive enough, you’re weak.  It is a problem. You CAN give a directive as a woman, but not as easily as the man can.  Please see my list at the top of all those great coaches.  Every single one of those women was a better teacher than any of the men on the list.  Were they as popular or successful?  You tell me.  They certainly were not as plentiful!

Please see the linguist Deborah Tannen’s very good book–one of several on gender and discourse:


She makes a convincing argument that men and women are after fundamentally different things when they communicate.

Men TEND to live in a hierarchy.  Much of their conversation is based on oneupsmanship that if indulged in by women would lead to “unfriending.”

Women TEND to live in a world where connection and social harmony is important. Much of their conversation is based on making each other feel liked and equal.

This example may make this more clear: https://dressagesnob.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/the-wine-glass-story/

Professionally this is a slippery slope.  As a coach should it be your main goal to be liked and equal?  And how do you cope as the student with the “Do this!  Do that!” of training if your feelings are constantly hurt?

Both genders are of course capable of going out of their way to create social equality: that is called diplomacy.  (And both genders are capable as well of seeing how they get paid.)  But is diplomacy what we are striving for in our riding lessons?  (In our training yes, for sure.) But is one of the jobs of the coach to be diplomatic?

Rick would say, no.

I’d say, heck yes! 

Women sort of have to be diplomatic, particularly working with other women.  Men?  My experience?  Not so much so.

But wouldn’t that woman to woman relationship be easier (and more productive) if we agreed who was in charge–just for this hour?

Thought: The blunt direction that *****of a coach is giving you is not coming from your mother, or your faithless friend.  It’s not about you.  It’s about a skill that you can’t learn without directives–and following those directives.  Doing it is not up for discussion or debate.  We’re in the army now.  Just for the hour.  You’ll see why at the end–it’s faster, cleaner and happier.

Please See Melynnda’s post about being a good Student. https://dressagesnob.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/sit-down-shut-up-and-fake-it-till-you-make-it-melynndas-thoughts-on-being-a-good-student/

Back to men and women and coaching and being a professional here in the US.  Here’s a story.

(This does have a point as well as being a good story.)

For years, before going to Germany, I trained along side a local (male) jumper rider out of the same barn.  We got along great.  Arena time was no problem, we looked at each others horses, we shared some students.  No problems.  Zero. This fine professional relationship lasted many, many years.

A year or two ago another male dressage professional moved to town. He had spent a year with Rudolf and I was excited to have another person who had experienced that training–even if it was for a single year.  The newcomer was exactly my age.  I figured we had a lot in common.

When I said I was interested to see him ride and teach, one of my clients rather jealously pointed out that my competition scores were much better than his, and I’d coached more people to FEI.  (That was and is true.)  I was still interested, and wanted to make the connection, though at first I could not understand the arrival of another trainer.  It was my experience that people in Spokane preferred clinics to regular instruction.  Very few pined for the day-to-day unglamorous grind of regular lessons. And many of the serious riders were professionals themselves–or at least taught a bit.

And then the competition: Spokane is a beautiful place, but not as competitive as the coasts.  And since a rider is only really as good as their best competition, that is something to look out for.  It is a trap: you only have to be just good enough to get the high score on that day, to get a lot of reinforcement.  Too much reinforcement too early is not a good idea.  It makes riders not want to go to the next level. That can be a small pond with a top score a bit over 60.

Anyway, in the fall, two years ago, just when the other foreign-trained professional moved to town I had two young warmbloods–only a few months under saddle that needed an enclosed arena, so I approached the newcomer, asking if he’d like to work as a team with me for a month or two on getting them forward in the arena.  It was August, and things were clearly slow and he said, sure.

Through that, I got to be a bug on the wall in the barn and watch the sameness–and large differences–in how we approached the sport and our clients.  That was all very interesting.

But, back to gender and horses, and our new male pro. After a few months it became clear that 24 stalls were not going to be filled 100% of the time by the Spokane dressage crowd.  He was doing remarkably well, but it wasn’t enough. So the barn moved in a jumper rider.  Guess who?  My old friend.  I was happy.  Asked if he would jump one of my youngsters once a week.

And then the **** hit the fan and even bugs on the wall had to duck and run.

The two men immediately began a spectacularly gladiatorial stand-off about the arena.  The jumps were in at certain hours and days. A schedule was posted.  The new dressage trainer then penciled in virtually every other hour and minute as “his.”  With the exception of four hours on the entire week–time that the arena was scheduled to be worked.  The arena was now split between the two men.  It was nearly impossible for anyone to ride without a scheduled lesson.

How convenient. . .

The jumper rider invited me to come and ride during his hours, a small smile on his face.

The dressage rider amusingly wished that my young horse buck the jumper rider off and break both his legs!

This is an example of what I am talking about above–two men with the same permission and role, in total conflict.  The jumper rider was not hard to get along with–for me–because I never approached him from a “one up” position.  Do you suppose both those men had a flock of women riders that they somewhat abused–either talked down to, yelled at, made belittling comments about?  Your guess.

Did they take their students seriously?  Probably, but had no doubt that if a good yelling was in order it was going to happen.  This is entirely different from the work around that women trainers tend to go through, which is, if anything, less useful than yelling–which is at least clear!

See the link from the tweet below.   http://www.dressagedaily.com/article/betsy-steiner%E2%80%99s-ladies-club-takes-serious-dressage-training-new-fun-level

Betsy is a great trainer.  A lot to give. And I know cash is hard to come by in that location, at that time of year.  (Watching the pros look for clients is like seeing a flock of ducks all after the same worm. I’ve been there.)  So, join The Ladies Club! (TLC)  Bring your horse, bring $100 and you can have a group lesson and do a drill team!    (Don’t get me wrong, I ride with my riders all the time–and they often ride in pairs and groups.  But not at $100 each times 6 riders. )

I’d rather be yelled at than given that message.  Who says “serious” training is not fun?

Please also see what Rudolf said to me: https://dressagesnob.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/rudolf-zeilinger/

Given (from Rudolf and really most of us) you will get the lesson you deserve and ask for, it is absolutely imperative that a rider tell the coach honestly what they want, hope for and can afford.  This can be done through words and plans, but it is most convincingly done by actions. If you want to have “fun”, say so.  We’ll work on it.  If you want to improve, put a horse in training, come and work seriously and that’s pretty obvious.  Say you want to be an FEI rider in the sixties and practice three times a week, get one lesson a month–not so much so.

Ladies, get what you really want from your coach!

Most Grand Prix riders CAN give an utterly stress-free lesson. Or, they can develop a program to achieve the elements of the Grand Prix.  The strategies, however are totally different–though they may look the same at the start as very, very few people are in a place to access the upper level (the way I experience it anyway) because they have not mastered the basics.  So that is where to begin.

Sadly, the real difficulty of teaching women in dressage–as a woman–is that you must take care not to “get too far above” your students to get along, so a lot of time is spent on the relationship, which has little to do with riding and teaching , but liking each other.  As noted above, men understand hierarchy rather naturally.  Women do not as easily, and many riders, having little view about their own level of skill–or lack thereof–do not forgive not being seen/treated as “equal” by other women–even their coaches.  This is not to their advantage.  If you want to peer with your coach all the time, think about your use of time. Does it make you better to try to outdo them?  Look smart?  Compete?   In the Dojo or the football field that kind of thing would get you push ups.  Your job, having decided to learn, is to listen and do.  Do that.

So if you are a woman wanting good training, cut to the chase!  Tell you trainer what you want, let her tell you what the cost and effort is likely to be. (She probably knows this.) Decide if that is for you.  Don’t argue or try to wheedle the system.  It is a waste of time and you  are paying for it.

The “woman dynamic” gets in the way of women training, collecting and keeping clients–and making happy successful riders.  It also makes simply “being” in the world as a professional women in sports difficult.

Google “women in coaching” and you will hear tale after tale of the women head coaches being walked right by as the opposition coach approaches the male assistant to shake hands before the game.

This is possibly the fault of the women coaches themselves, waiting to be approached.

PS. One last note.  Do you suppose that the new dressage pro, with a fraction my time in Germany, and truthfully not the results, ever asked me one thing about anything?


But he did say to Melynnda, complaining about her seat and gesturing at me on one of the young horses: “Sit like that!”

Thank you.  We’ll get right on that. . . Ladies let’s ride.

For hints on being a great student https://dressagesnob.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/being-a-good-student-and-client-dales-take/

Piece of news you might want to follow–good or bad:

Sheryl Sandberg (CEO Facebook) on her new book, Lean In

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes, and the result is that “men still run the world.”

Got an opinion?  I’d love to hear it.  Join the discussion below.

Becoming an Athlete

Melynnda Thiessen

“Nobody’s a natural. You work hard to get good and then work to get better. “  Paul Coffey

Cross training is how I have developed as an athlete, not just a rider. (And yes, the first exercise is at the bottom!)  In what other sport do you find athletes only willing to practice their particular sport with the expectation of achieving a fully trained and complete specimen.  Shoot, we don’t even expect our horses to be complete dressage athletes by solely practicing dressage!  We trail ride, hack, jump, gallop and what have you, all as a means of developing the well-rounded athlete.

So I must remind riders that if they expect their mounts to be an athlete, and they certainly should, then as the leader of the dancing pair they must first become athletes.

Merriam Webster definition of an Athlete: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina

The words I take from this definition are trained, physical strength, agility and stamina, all words that require an action to develop.  Put another way, its not so much talent, but hard work that develops the athlete.

What?  Dressage riders must commit the act of physical work to develop as an athlete?  “Wait a minute”, one might ask… “whatever happened to the sport of dressage that I picked because of its grace and ease?”

Lets not forget that to get grace and ease, we must “crack some eggs” as Dale so kindly puts it.  And as Kourtney King-Dye put it “You go through a lot of ugly to get pretty”.  The process of egg cracking takes athleticism folks!

Training the upper levels of dressage proves that dressage takes balance, a certain amount of strength, agility and the endurance to “stick through a tough spot” for the duration until you and your horse can wade out of your particular situation.  This all takes physical fitness.

As a fellow area trainer complained to me in exasperation: “I’m just getting them (out of shape student) started when they look at me, out of breath, and ask to take a break.  How are we to get any real work done?!”

So this is my aim, to develop myself and other riders with the result of attaining physical strength, agility and stamina resulting in a trained athlete that has worked hard and achieved the highest level of the sport possible to them.

On to the first exercise for the dressage athlete.

Before we ever begin any real work, it’s a must to loosen the body and breath. So the first exercises is simple yet very important.  This is an opening exercise, and great to do just before your ride as it begins your deep breathing, gives you a chance to focus on the ride and get rid of any “extras” running around in your brain from that days chaos (no thinking about paying bills, chores that need to be done or family troubles!).  Begin to sanctify your ride as your “happy” place. When you enter the barn, you are problem free!  I find that riders need to take a specific action to clear their mind and enter this place of calm, so this is why I picked the “Standing Opening” as our first exercise.

With your shoulders square to your hips and your hips square to your feet, raise your hands directly overhead. This motion in itself stretches and opens your chest.  Pull your shoulder blades together, keep your back straight and engage those abs. Now, with your hands directly over head reaching up as far as is comfortable, sink your arms deeper into their sockets and begin deep breathing.  While you breath, begin to focus on the ride ahead and stop thinking of the “extras”.

My disclaimer:  I am only sharing what has worked for me and fellow students.  Exercise at your own risk! If done incorrectly, injury is possible.  Please consult your physician first, and especially if you have any previous injuries, back pain etc.  Some of these exercises may not be recommended with previous conditions.  Always stop all exercises if you feel pain!

Collection–it’s like having a kitten in your lap.

Dale Forbes

When I was a child–in the time of bedtimes for children–I was put in bed at 8:30 at night and had to stay there.  Sometimes–in summer–it was still light at 8:30, sometimes it was dark.

But no matter the light, 100% of the time it was lonely.

Reading was allowed for a short period and then lights out.  (Rick’s daughter, who has many foster babies and children, as well as her own, would say this is not such a bad plan–that modern children are often too tired–but that is not my area of expertise so I cannot say.)

In those wakeful hours waiting for sleep, any company would be welcome.

And so it came, The Cat.

We actually had two of them, Pixie and Dixie, brother and sister, dragged from Idaho in a time of strife and let loose in our farmhouse in New England.

I would lay in bed hoping for one of the cats to come, and sometimes one would–more commonly it was Pixie, a black long-haired male.

He would nestle down near my knees and start to purr.  If I was gentle, I could pat him.  If I played with his tail he would leave.

That is called a learning curve.

So here are a few hints on how to make collection/contact fun for your partner–back to riding.

I’ve been seeing something of late in my teaching, something that I think has to do with the transformation of the rider from a lower level (Basically below Prix St Georges) to an upper level rider.

If you think about it, the obvious difference between the upper and lower FEI is the work in Piaffe and passage–which in themselves teach the rider a great deal about organizing a horse.

I’m going to give you a tape below of one of our rising judging stars, L (learner) Judge program graduate, Sally Sovey, who  is working her way up to the next level,  judging recognized shows.  (This is not easy.  Please see post in the future re judging and where these people are largely coming from.)

This tape was taken some time ago, and Sally has actually mastered the piaffe very well now.

As a learning tool, she has said it was okay to show this trial effort–on her horse, Ricarda (From Regazzoni) who I trained, and actually knows the piaffe pretty well. (And so now does the rider–we will show you in another post).

Sally, at the time, was not so clear about creating “shape and boundary” at a slow gait.

And so trying to be kind–because she is–she was asking (and hoping) that Ricarda would stay with her without a front boundary.

The horses would actually like to stay with you, assuming you do not grab and hold (think cat), but they cannot stay with you without both a safe place to BE–and the direction from above that it would be best not to leave.  That means limits and shape, but gentleness within the limits.  Make it nice to be with you–give space, but not the back forty.  That’s too much.

Therein the cat at various training levels:

You have the unbroken feral that you cannot touch–do XYZ.

You have the shy, training level kitty that you have to coax a bit to trust you.

You have the mid-level kitty who wants boundaries–grab the darn thing–and then make sure it is nice to be there with you.

You have a trusting kitty sitting on your lap, and you’d like to have it stay there, what do you do?

Make it nice to be there.  Light communicative touch, creating a limit.  But don’t let them leave–and that is a fun dance of touch and release, then seduce, “Come to me, I love you and it is safe here, and by golly don’t get out of frame–it’s not safe out there!”  (Balance issue?  Never mind you don’t have to worry because I won’t drop you.  I promise)

Riding: it is a lot like holding a kitten.

But, maybe not like Pasha tonight, who appears to be lacking engagement. . .



Safety: Expect the Best, Be Prepared For The Worst.

Dale Forbes: note, I am off on a clinic for four days, starting in just a few hours, so I will not be at my computer–thus the influx of recent posts.  Please do think up some more safety tips and add them to the list in comments below.

Good old Wikipedia defines Safety:

Safety is the state of being “safe” (from French sauf), the condition of being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, error, accidents, harm or any other event which could be considered non-desirable. Safety can also be defined to be the control of recognized hazards to achieve an acceptable level of risk. This can take the form of being protected from the event or from exposure to something that causes health or economical losses. It can include protection of people or of possessions.

(I cannot resist pointing out the obvious: exposure to something that causes health or economical losses actually IS the definition of a horse.  Never mind.)

On January 28th Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) published an essay in the New York Times, named, That Daily Shower Can Be a Killer.


In it he makes an argument that statistically men his age are more in danger of losing years of their lives to the shower than many other more dramatic hazards.

“This calculation illustrates the biggest single lesson that I’ve learned from 50 years of field work on the island of New Guinea: the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.”

This is very good advice, and though we as humans may worry more about terrorist attacks than speeding in our cars it is the latter that is more likely to harm us than the former.  And one can extrapolate outward from actual traffic accidents to things like, speeding tickets, harm to the environment, stress–there are many levels.

There is also the phenomenon that things that are done every day with normal safety precautions really are statistically safe. The horse well-trained to side reins CAN spook and have an awful accident–we had one this week and it was not fun.  Does this mean we will never use side reins again?  Probably not.  With normal care and training things like side reins and long reining  (ground driving) can be useful tools.  Sometimes specifically BECAUSE you want a horse in a methodical and gently way to work out its issues without the complication of a human–or the danger to that human.

Example: kindly teaching horses to tie in a systematic manner keeps everybody safer.  Is it 100% risk free?  Certainly not.  Do we do it?  You bet, because it is safer to have them know the limits of the rope than not.  A carefully-managed training session teaching a horse not to pull (and how to respond positively) is a LOT safer than having one randomly check out the limits at unexpected times.

I’m not sure who said, expect the best, prepare for the worst, first, but the person I heard it first from was Meg Plum before I was ten years old.

Here is my “off the top of my head.”  in no particular order,  list minimizing risk in the barn in things you do every day:

1. When you are in doubt in any situation, pause, think, take a breath and think of the best way not to get hurt or have another human hurt.  Humans first, horses second, physical objects third. Go slowly.

2. Tie your horse up with thought.  Even a horse that has been trained to tie can panic–or believe they can break away at will and give it a shot.  This is a training issue.  You may want to deal with it, but in any case do not tie your horse solidly to anything that will not 100% stay put.  A loose horse is a problem, but a loose horse in a panic dragging the gate (or fence rail, or post) is a much bigger problem.  If there is a problem, stand back and wait until the outcome is clear.  There is little you can do–the horse is quarrelling with equipment, not you.  Entering that conflict zone is a very good way to get hurt.

3. When handling, stay relatively close to your horse but with an arm or elbow extended to make firm contact.  If the horse moves suddenly they will tend to push you away rather than run over you.

4. Do not give treats to a group of horses.  You don’t want to be in the middle of their pecking order dispute.  For that matter never give treats or touch someone’s horse without permission.  It is bad manners to create bad habits which the owner will have to correct.  They deserve to enjoy their time with the horse.

5. Be aware of the equine social “temperature” at your barn in any given day.  If the just weaned foal is in your barn row and the group on the hill is running, take that into account as you handle your own horse.

6. If you can possibly avoid it do not ride alone.  There does not have to be another horse present–though that can help too, as long as it is an experienced one. (A frightened horse just raises the social temperature.)  Another person on site is best.  If that can’t happen, make a phone buddy–call and tell you partner you will be up for X amount of time and will text or call when you are done.  (Remember to do so!)

7. Wear your helmet.  The chances of an accident on a green horse,  jumping, or trail riding are very much larger than riding a very schooled and  predictable horse in a flat arena.  But why take the chance?  Get a very good one and put it on every time.

8. On your cell phone have at least two vets on your speed dial.  And as a second entry, have their emergency pager numbers.  You do not want to have to remember that second important number in an emergency, with nothing to write and and too much going on already.

9. It is hard to take in the big picture when something “not nice” is happening.  But there really is always time to think.  Make sure you do.  Is the $5,000 colic surgery really a good idea?  How old is the horse?  What can you really afford–without losing your house?  What is the likely outcome?  Are there other things you could do–IV fluids? If in thinking of this beforehand you would “do anything possible in all circumstances,” then get health insurance for your horse.  $5,000 worth of coverage can go a long way.

If not, then just like when you approach a traffic light likely to turn, have a solid idea of the moment where you are committed to go–too late to stop–or you will stop with certainty.  This really helps.

I am sure there are scads more–if you have a favorite of your own would you please offer it below in comments?

Have a nice weekend!

Lines and corners.

Dale Forbes:

I am going to warn you in advance that this post is really, really boring.

A sure cure for insomnia–just try to read it twice.

But, in my experience actually doing a good corner–one that leaves you ready and prepared for whatever is next is a skill that needs attention.  I know it did from me and since I rarely see people do them correctly, I assume it is a problem for others.

The main reason we care about a correctly-balanced corner is that it sets us up to succeed on whatever else we might have planned on the line after that corner.  Loss of balance and equine “line up” in the corner means you will enter the straight line with loss of balance and crookedness–all needing fixing.  Best not to jump off the cliff in the first place.

(Another reason for a correct corner might be to show off to the judge that we know the difference between a circle and “not a circle” at the lower level–something they appreciate.)


The dressage arena.  Now isn’t that a beautiful thing?

And though we know there are support groups to aid in quitting this kind of obsession, here is how a corner in the dressage arena should work.

Goal: As stated, landing straight after the corner.

Process: Horse positions nicely at the poll several steps before the corner, balancing evenly on all four equine corners (no tip), proceeds through the arena corner (sitting down just a tiny bit, depending on level). The horse is then softly straightened on the outside rein to whatever degree it will need either straightness or bend in the next project.

Sounds easy.

Here are some things to practice that will make it even easier.

The basic skill that the horse must master is transferring weight onto outside hind leg in the turn instead of inside front leg when he feels the inside rein.  This lesson is critically coupled with an utterly straight rider approaching the corner like they are going to jump out of the arena–in preparation–you are not turning, YET–only after the re-balancing has been accomplished.

People frequently do these actions too close together with a green horse.  He or she needs a bit of time to figure things out.  Step, 1, step 2, step 3.  Plus it is more fun that way.  Three chances to communicate.  All the better.  When your horse understands the steps they appear to happen all at once.  They do not.  It is always done in stages–just very close together.  (And this, once habituated, leads to a blissful, competent “slow down” in the mental pace of your ride–a nice thing).

First off the beast must understand when you pull slightly on the rein to position/bend it does not actually mean “turn” UNLESS the body of the rider says, “Yes, we are turning,” by initiating facing the new direction in the upper body.

This is the “take your best guess approach” for the beast.

For any transition aid there is more than one cue (or sequence of cues) that enables the horse to give you his “best guess”.

There are only a limited number of aids possible and you have to disconnect (in your own body and the beast’s) that a slight pull on the rein means turn–it only means that when the other aids are in agreement.

What to do: First practice riding a straight line–down the center line is good.

1. Make sure you are projecting your line–riding absolutely straight yourself, looking at a target at eye level.

2. Do not waver from that target in the slightest and go about teaching your horse to slightly position while still stepping forward on the line. Not so much that the balance is lost.  Make do with a little at first.  This will improve with practice. He or she may try to attempt to turn in that moment of positioning.  If so kindly redirect, checking your self for errors.  You can do this lots of times on a single straight line.  In fact that helps.

Why must you do this practice totally unrelated to an actual corner?

Because you cannot easily tell loss of line (and balance) in the corner–because you are in the middle of turning!  And, as above, loss of balance in the corner means you will enter the straight line with loss of balance.

Common rider mistakes at this point:

A. Losing focal point, looking down at bend/horse’s shoulder.

B. Raising rider’s outside shoulder and hip while looking down at bend. (Effectively releasing haunches–haunches will move into that vacuum).

C. Noting horse getting crooked and “falling on inside shoulder”, then fiercely using inside leg to “prevent such falling in”–which was actually caused by drifting hind end, caused in turn by rider’s body not lined up correctly. Inside leg has nothing to do with it–though it has many other interesting uses.

Do not worry, if this takes some practice.  There is a reason that the dressage arena has four corners–it give us a chance to practice frequently and hopefully perfectly.  Practice right, it gets better, practice wrong–not so much so.  The old, “if you are in a hole quit digging” thing.

Back to the beginning.  As in all problems decide what the real problem is.  In this case horse is losing balance necessary to position and needs both steering and assistance to prevent that.  They also need to understand what it is you want.  Give them a chance.  Correct yourself


If the rein is slightly used to indicate positioning, and the rider stays utterly straight in their focus, aids and intention the horse has a chance to figure out, “Oh this is different.”  If you lift your outer side and change your body like you are doing an (incorrect) turn how’s the beast to know?  That’s why practicing this skill unrelated to turns is so critical.

And in fact why doing definite lines and corners is a great way to school.

Still with me? If you want to see something more interesting go see the post on “Swing over the back.”


There is a nice clip of riding a very gently group of turns.  We’ll add a video of a true corner next week.

Swing over the back

Dale Forbes:

When I first went to Germany I was mystified about something (many things!) they talked about rather constantly.

Swing over the back.

When Elmar, Rudolf’s top rider at the time, was kind enough to visit us in Washington for a week training session in about 1993 he conveyed to us that he did not see riders developing swing in their horses.

I asked him which of our horses were correct over the back?

His answer?  None.


That motley equine crew included several ex race horses, an Arabian, a Morgan and a few crossbred Warmbloods–mostly French lines.  None of these is known to easily develop a softly swinging back.  And told that “Use of the seat was important,” yet knowing nothing about how to go about that, we were failing utterly.

(Sadly, we were lost and stayed lost for quite a while.)

You can’t demand swing, it must be developed, and this is not done by constantly holding against–nor floating off into the ether.  (Though at least that way you are not preventing it!)  The trick  is you have to both allow swing in how you use your back/hip and sometimes lightly encourage it–a combination of regulating the rhythm, supporting lightly with the leg and moderating softly with the seat/hand.

And then not let them do anything that prevents development of swing, like throwing legs or a “passagey” trot for instance. (Running off, chasing the rhythm, roll backs and exuberant bucking are also in the list to avoid as well, but I was feeling snooty and did not want to mention them.  Actually, sometimes a bit of a buck helps–I remember clinging to the neck of one horse in Germany with Rudolf in the corner growling something about, “A sign of a tight back!”  At the time I was certain he was talking about the horse.)

Moving on.

Lacking horses that swing over the back rather naturally, how is a person supposed to learn how to develop that quality?  You can’t teach something you have never felt, or in many cases in the US even seen! 

Below is a short clip of a horse demonstrating a relaxed swing over the back in the very first part of the ride, yesterday morning, with Melynnda Thiessen up.  The horse is a TB/Hannoverian that was bred here in Spokane by Patricia Peterson from one of my stallions, Watson, and a very good Thoroughbred mare.  He spent most of his life in California under one of my other students Kelly McGinnis who has done a very nice job with him.

If you want to watch it, look for a couple of things in the horse and then the rider as they pass by the camera and head away.


1. Relaxed rise and fall of each of the horse’s hips–creating “swing”.  (Along with good diagonal pairing, engagement, etc all)


2. Relaxed rise and fall of the rider’s hips, to assist/suggest the “swing”.  (Along with control of the upper body, engagement of shoulder, etc all)

THIS IS NOT “swishing” the seat across the saddle laterally, nor gouging the saddle towards the horses ears.  The movement is more like a soft drop that follows the actual movement of the back–and it is done with controlled relaxation–nothing else in the lower pelvis anyway.  It is much more obvious in the horse than the rider, and that is how it should be–subtle.

The above is good riding.  And on a slightly worry-prone horse horse that would LOVE to “throw the legs,” and move in tension.

Long Pause. . . .

How is a person going to do that with rigid hip flexors or knees jammed up against a thigh block?


I feel like a nag saying a lot more about it, because frankly that’s about it.  You are supposed to be able to move your hip–think flexible, not go-go dancer–and stabilize the torso via other methods.  I think I wrote something about that. . .

But in this clip you see a really happy horse.  Of course the other parts of the work were much more “spectacular”–but this is the one I like the best.

Anyway, re training: Leg movement is flashy and easy to see–but it is not right precisely because it is movement through tension.  The swing part?  Just the opposite and we don’t see much encouragement of this difficult and yet basic skill that runs along the longitudinal, not the lateral training of the horse.  (Translation: you don’t get it by leg yielding or stretching per se.) It really doesn’t happen just by lowering the neck, and you need to keep it when you raise the neck anyway, so you can’t depend on that.  Many people interpret it as a long horse falling on the forehand.  It is not.

How come swing is so little practiced or focused on, as it is so helpful to the ride?

We are a backwater, I know it.  But I don’t exactly see great pictures of it in the big leauges anymore either where it seems the correct, actual trot has fairly gone the way of the Dodo.

Anyway, it looks easy and natural in the clip, but just ask Melynnda how difficult this is to learn.  It took me years–and there are a lot of paths on the map.  But it is an essential skill.  Sure, “fancy” is great: a horse wanting to show you his or her stuff.  And though big weird trots are “in” just now, I don’t recall any revisions in the scale of training saying a “passagey” trot was now the desired method of transport.  Swing is fun!  Might keep that in the back of one’s riding mind.  Just a thought!

Hint: Don’t pay much attention to bad riding–it makes you think it is okay. 

(I could watch this for hours!)