Work With What You’ve Got

Here is a riding education strategy that involves no money in hotels, no money in airfare, limited stress and LOTS of community spirit.  The basic premise is Work With What You’ve Got–what you have got is it is most probably a LOT more than you thought it was.

Melynnda has pointed out in past posts that cross training is one of the strategies that helps other athletes along their paths.  The tendency in dressage is to school the same thing under different (hopefully foreign) eyes and hope that a “solution” will arrive.  This assumes we think of learning as a problem–which it is not.  It is a process. 

That process requires

1. A willing equine partner, who is sound and hopefully happy in the work.  (Not necessarily, but hopefully, talented.)  This creature must have tack that, (though not necessarily fancy), fits well and causes no pain or unnecessary encumbrance.

2. A rider who is fit enough to support themselves in the movement, and hopefully use their own body to influence the horse for the better.

3. A trainer to direct and instruct the process–augmented by appropriate study from the rider.  Trainers don’t like to hear this, but at a basic level they are pretty interchangeable.  If you are a beginning piano student, who cannot teach you the scales?

A lot is spoken of the horse, but dressage requires significantly more effort from the rider than is generally supposed.

The rider must be focused and be centered in mind.

This is harder than it seems, to quiet the often self-critical “noise” of the mind and become deeply aware of the body and the breath.  Before you can fix a problem–or make a good habit–you have to be aware of what is going on.  What schools are good at this?  Martial artists.  Singers.  Many disciplines teach this before anything else.  We should too.

The rider must have sufficient core strength.

You can ride like a bug, with an exoskeleton, or you can ride from the inside to the out.  The more one can stabilize the core, the more one can relax the joints to move with and guide the movements of the horse.  If you ride half an hour a day you have 23.5 other hours which might come in handy to practice cross training.

The rider must know what is expected of themselves and the horse–an idea of the current target.

The rider must know generally what they are to do.  Confusion about this results in stress.  That is needless, but defining the target does take time–best not done at $5. a minute which also causes stress!  (See post on  Inflation:

The Plan:  Once a month, for maybe four months, organize a training weekend. (Then let people have a break.  This helps too)

On the menu there might be seven items: (More or less–use your imagination!)

Some ideas:

Trainer of the month: If the norm for your area is fourth level, then invite all the fourth level trainers take a month.  If the norm is Grand Prix (so much the better) anyone who has ridden a Grand Prix and likes to teach gets a month.  They must be able to help not only the beginners, but the other pros as well.  (Doors closed if asked).  This helps with non-ownership and team building.  Plus a lot of alternate ideas!

Option of school horse: with second trainer of the month.  Maybe some people who want to come have too green a horse–or a lame one.  Or no horse right now–SAD!  They don’t have to be sidelined.  Let them play too. Team building as well.

A Pilates coach: Two to four sessions offered over the two days, teaching core exercises.  If you can find a rider who knows something about this, so much the better.


A Martial Artist:  Aikido is my background, so I like it, but most martial arts focus a LOT on finding the center, focus and discipline.  They all have beginning practices which will help to introduce these concepts.  The point is not to learn a hard fall–though those can be funDSC_0037_3

The point is to figure out how to be in connection with  your partner:


A Human Massage Therapist:  Football players have them.  Why not us?  Body pain and crookedness get in the way.  Get rid of them.

An Equine Massage Therapist: Again, body pain and crookedness get in the way.  Horses are filled with body stories that need to be worked out.  Locating problem areas helps us with our ride, and to be better partners with our horses.  If you can find a massage therapist who is a rider, more the better.

A wild card:  This could be a vet come in to do teeth at a discount, an acupuncture  session for the riders, a guest judge for a ride a test, a sports psychologist–something that you do not need every month but is easiest and more fun to do as a group.  (And buying things in a group makes sense.)

In short, we all have different resources in our communities, and it is more than possible to bring these into play at will.

The schedule is easy: give the riders a choice. Buy the whole weekend–say, $150.  Pick three things every day that they want–that’s $25 a session.  Not time for everything?  There is another one next month–and maybe a Pilates group at the barn on Fridays.

The point of cross training is to use other muscle groups (as well as thought processes) to augment the main goal.

One does not need to be proficient in any of the other sports or activities to have them help with the main one.  (And in fact it helps to be a beginner again and learn not to worry about it.)

Anyway, above is a sample plan that will not overly tax the budget and is proven to work–we have done this!  It is great fun.  If you do it, please write back and tell us how it works for your group.

Inflation has hit. (Hard.)

Yesterday I went to my computerized local purveyor of everything  ( and ordered the most recent version of the German National Equestrian Federation’s Principles of Riding  (There are a bunch of these nice books by the GNEF)

They say fantastic things like, go to your local trainer who is licensed either as a Riding Teacher or a Riding Master.  (Which is of course impossible here in the US as no one is licensed for anything other than judging–which is by nature extremely different than training–though of course useful in its own way.)

But the Principles of Riding is still a very good reference, and while I was shopping, I noted that  a copy of Advanced Techniques of Dressage, by the same group, was for sale.


Advanced Techniques of Dressage will now cost you $449.85



Inflation has hit–hard.

I’m feeling a little smug here that I bought multiple copies several years ago to give my students. (They cost $49.99 then and I thought THAT a bit extravagant.)

(I read this tome once a year–whether I want to or not.  It is dry, but supremely informative).

Out of print now I guess.  A collector’s item in English.    As are all those techniques it seems.

So I guess that is the way the dressage world is going.  We tip our hats to Mr. and (particularly Mrs.) Romney and board our private jets to join our trainers.  No?  Better yet, they come to us!

In the past few months, I’ve watched a few clinics–here in town, and elsewhere.

A lesson in one of these clinic would cost you $275.

The bargain basement price of the second offering was $175.

Mean $225

45 minute session:  that is $5 a minute.

And from what I can see, the best plan would have been to buy just one minute–because the rest was fundamentally company and entertainment for the rider.  (The horse?  Entertained? Not so much so. . . )

On a budget? I’ll save you a great deal of money:  The take home messages of the two clinics I watched were:

Sit evenly–not too deep, stabilize your core.

(Also known as: Don’t grind the saddle like something from a B-rated XXX flick.  Thank you.)

Engage the hind leg.

(Also known as: Don’t just sit there undulating, ask some questions with your extremities.)

Shape the horse’s neck.

(Also known as: Up!  No!  Down!  NO! More down!  Not so much down!  Down with bend!  That’s limited bend!  Where is your outside rein?  Yes, that’s it!  More lateral conversion of the innate energy to facilitate upward guidance and trajectory of the willing spirit of the horse within your horse!  Ah. . .now you see what I’m talking about?  That is SOooooo much better now!  Look at that horse!  Can you feeeellllll  the difference in that horse????)

(Who currently still looks like ****.)

Sad, but true.

So yesterday, done schooling the young Dutch horse in the outdoor,  (it is finally almost spring here and beautiful) I took the young gal (who rides with someone else but watches us a lot) out for a trail ride–her first on a new horse.  She wants to be a jumper.  We talked about schooling ditches and I told her of the grand bank in the jumper arena at Pebble Beach with no end of options for S-M-L efforts at banks and ditches.  Some VERY large.  (I fear I am getting old and sentimental)


This is not the bank, but I was there that year–1979 and jumped the hay bales about every morning, solo.

Ah, here it is, the thing behind the banner and horse is a multi-level bank.  A beautiful schooling tool that struck terror in the visiting show jumpers unaccustomed to such things: it is not hard to jump on and off a bank–but it does take practice.

Classic07 019

So the young gal and I  came home from the woods, and while I was blanketing the horses, the Mexican stable guy sidled up to me and asked, “What are they doing in there?”

“A clinic?”

“Yes, what are they doing?”

“She’s here from out of town, teaching.”

“Why don’t you ride?”

“Well, it’s pretty expensive–and I’m not sure how much I need it right now.”

“How expensive?”

(I told him.)

His eyes widened: “One lesson. . ?  I feed my family for a week with this!”

I know.

On leaving, one of the clinic participants was in the parking lot, a local professional  She moaned to a friend:  That was SO wonderful, but it will be six months until she returns.   What will I do?  What will I DO???

You really want to know?  The same very exact thing she has been doing for the past six months–and the six before that and–and that and that.

Because one lesson every three months does not a rider make.  Nor a bad habit erase, nor a body memory instill.

How did we get to a place where a copy of The Principles cost half a grand, and to listen to advice from an individual  who may have read them, cost the other half?

(And re competence, I don’t doubt the clinician: the person proclaiming was probably proficient.  But had she been sent from heaven with a choir of angels (instead of a Comtek transmitter), it still would do very little to improve the riders.

Do you achieve concert piano quality from a single weekend with Franz Liszt?  Would twice a year do it?


  • Franz Liszt (Hungary, 1813-1886). One of the most famous piano players of all time! He had piano superpowers, and used to dazzle audiences with his extraordinary abilities.He was well-known (and mocked!) for acting dramatically while performing, contorting his face with passion and swaying his body. He was the first person to hold solo piano recitals, and the first to sit sideways to the audience so everyone could see his hands in action.

In closing, I DO think that most clinicians really do know what they are doing–surely some better than others, but as a group, capable of good advice and a fresh eye.  The PROBLEM is that without backup help MOST riders will be unable to repeat the “performance” of the clinic.   And, as I view training the horse and rider as a series of small skills that build on each other, the idea of the “weekend revelation” does not make sense to me.

In my next post I will pose something that does work, does not break the bank and I think will make people more ready for the breakthrough–should it happen.

But here is the point, the breakthrough may never happen.  And that won’t matter if you have a sound foundation and a skill set that is well-developed.  People here tend to talk like we are inventing something.  It exists!  Has for a long time.  That is a good thing.