Step by Step

Dale Forbes

Last week, Melynnda and I chatted while cooling out the horses we had just worked.

The subject came up of the long and often varied learning curve of mastering dressage.

Melynnda related,

“My students are often frustrated because they cannot consistently do it right.”

“How so?”

“Well, they get the horse round, or they get a step of half pass, or shoulder in, and then they fall out of it, so they think they have failed.”

This was a novel idea to me!

So I explained to Melynnda how I think about this.  Perhaps it will help.

When I ride a horse, particularly a young horse or one needing retraining, I feel it is my job to get the horse as close as possible to a place where they could do the work required.  But it is actually the horse that volunteers and steps into the movement.

*(Really, riding students are the same–they just take longer.)*

Example: Schooling flying changes: On a calm but green horse who knows how to be positioned, I can lift the new inside shoulder in canter, getting ready for a change.  I can count the timing of when I should ask for that change.  Then I can feel if the horse is getting backed off or upset (or confused or anxious) and move on if necessary without asking for the change, instead praising the horse’s willingness to set up–a feat in itself!  And I figure that as success.

Sure, my intention, if all worked out well, was to do a flying change.  But without a calm and proper set up this is not possible.  And asking when the horse is not prepared, or in a place to do a change, is asking for trouble.

Sometimes, it just happens as you are going around, that the horse is in a place where they could change the lead.  And if you recognise that feeling, there is nothing wrong with asking.  But if you want them routinely, the horse must let you get them ready.

So imagine the rider, new to changes, on a horse who may or may not have done them either.  The rider is probably not well-versed with the importance of leg positioning in canter–keeping the positioning stable and clear to the horse.  (Riders not yet working changes have a tendency to be sloppy about where their legs are. Why?  Because on a horse that knows the changes, if you allow your legs to fly around they probably will try to offer some unplanned ones.  That teaches the rider to be careful about this.)  The rider may not have felt a change, or a horse getting ready to do the change, or know the timing of the leg, hand and seat positioning.

Why would they?

So, one step at a time, we teach the rider how to set up, at the same time as keeping an eye that the horse is not getting apprehensive.  And we might get a change today, or we might get a nice set up that will lead to a quiet one next week.  That would be okay for me.  I am familiar with the tasks and so not in a hurry.

But the rider probably imagines it is failure if they do not accomplish the change–and do it perfectly!  Riders are often in too much of a hurry!  And why are they in a hurry?  They misinterpret how long it takes.  Even if you are schooling every day–which many riders and horses do not–it takes a lot of practice to gain the skills and feel you need to guide the horse.  Particularly if a movement or practice takes a string of small set up gestures that must be done in order.

Piaffe and Passage are interesting examples of this as well.  Melynnda has been working diligently for years, riding young horses and some more schooled ones, working on her seat, timing and posture.  Her mustang was not particularly a natural at doing many of the tasks asked for, but still Melynnda persisted, and the mare will do a credible piaffe and a beginning passage.


This last fall Melynnda bought an older half Thoroughbred horse (above) with some good training in his background.  Kelly, my student (since he was 13, and I 21!) took this horse, Wesley, to Rudolf for a year or two.

In the intervening years Wesley had also been ridden by a very amateur woman who was not as skilled as either Kelly or his German trainer.  Therefore, the horse had some apprehension–and more than a few bad habits in with the good.  Over the fall we have insisted on  a clean trot, required that he do his counter canter properly.  Taken it slowly.  The basics are always the basics!

As for the passage–it is quite good, but Melynnda has not ridden a great deal of this and on many  horses it is more important to know how to create a clean trot than let them “sort of” passage around–though that seems popular of late.


So after months of working swing in the back–and doing well–they are schooling passage routinely. Yesterday was a breakthrough.  Going through the corner, suddenly the two of them joined.  It was no longer the rider asking for passage, and the horse doing it underneath.  The rider was doing passage with the horse, literally part of the balance–connection!  Perfect lift, coordination of the half halt, seat and leg.  A shift into a new gear–and quite lovely really.

We walked. The horse was very happy. (He LIKES passage!)  The rider was ecstatic!  So we talked about it for a moment, I being very careful to let her say what the feeling had been.  (Words can as easily pollute and encumber the process as help it.)

So she told me what it was like, but then said, “It takes a while to find it.”

Yes, it can.  But not nearly as much when you know what it feels like.

We were about at the end if the ride, but I asked her to pick him up again.

“Put him in front of you, get him ready–no not yet,  just get him ready.  Ask him to wait.  Now think about what that last passage felt like.  Let that feeling come through your body and give him permission to passage for you.”

On the very first step the horse lifted himself into a beautiful passage.

It is not making the change that takes the time–it is getting ready to make the change!

for an example of lifting to passage please see:

So how come I am not frustrated when it takes a while to school these things?  Because if I feel the balance or the rightness of a movement for a fraction of a second, then I know it can be enlarged upon.  It does not matter if it is consistent or perfect.  Things are neither of those when you start!

While training the horse, if you have a bit of “it” you can make that bit bigger and bigger until it is visible–and then eventually consistent.  I think of progress as those momentary feelings of “rightness.”  I am thrilled if the horse offers even one step of shoulder in.  If they blow it at two steps I should have left earlier.  But I don’t think about the loss of balance, I remember the “right” feeling.  The problem with learning is people get it right for a step or two, lose balance, and instead of leaving and going back to the basics for a moment they try to struggle to keep the movement after the balance has been lost.

This is why it is very different training a green horse and training a green rider.  On a schooled horse who “contains” the movements, the rider must learn to set up the balance and then access the movements while keeping the balance. Like Melynnda’s new horse springing to passage: she got the speed right, the tempo right and the connection and lift right.  He knew what to do and so put in a place where he could do it, he did.

If Melynnda rode him too fast, or threw away the front–or strangled the front as some riders like to, the horse could not have done the work–even though he knew how.  It frightens even a well trained horse to be asked to do the movements in a balance that makes it impossible.  Imagine how the green horse feels?  And a green horses never springs to the work with even and balanced steps.  It is always a bit of trial and error and encouragement of the correct direction.  Helped with the balance, the horse must experiment, be motivated, praised and guided–not thrown off the cliff!

Speaking of that, the green horse I am riding just now is not a world-beater. But he is a good sort and I have been roughing in the movements.  Last week we started half-steps.  I have been praising his effort.  Ask him to set up and organize his feet.  Great!  Good boy!  Ask him to move his feet. Super!  Mistake?  Walk out of it, stay forward.  Good boy!  Step by step.

(I am sure people on the side think I am a fool: short steps, praise, short steps praise.  It does not LOOK like anything.  But it FEELS like something.  Fortunately there really are not always people on the side–it is too boring!  They are in the other arena, watching a clinic!  Now that is where the excitement is!  Frankly, I hope they stay there.  This is a quiet communication.  Most happily done with just he and I.)

* Oh, I gave you an asterisk back up there.  How come people take longer than horses?   Y

First, you can get a horse out every day, and work it.  If you tried that with a rider in the same manner, you would likely be arrested.

The rider has to volunteer, and not all of them do.  Then, unless they are riding a sound horse and getting the help of someone who knows the path, the chances of a linear route are small.

That and, even with daily riding, they say in Germany it takes seven years to make a horse–twelve for the rider.  One hopes after those twelve years the rider will go on and teach a few for the next generation. . . .

The ones that concern me are the graduates of “twelve” that still don’t have a system, have no clue of the seat and use a group of made up “it works for me” aids.  I bet it does work for them–just not likely to work for the larger group.  No genetically modified dressage for me, thanks.  There are systems out there that work–not connected to one person’s money, luck or even super-human work ethic.  In my opinion, looking at a minimum of twelve years, it’s too long a road  to turn it into fifty by guessing!

We live longer than horses, after all–but not forever.

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.

To Clinic or Not to Clinic?

If you have had an interesting clinic experience (good or bad) please share it with us below.  What did you learn?  Was it new to you?  Did you have fun? How did it go after?

(Please keep in mind the Pollyanna Principle that we abide by here at Dressage Snob. ] You can compliment anyone you want, and name them if you like.  Anything less than that should have no credits.)

Dale Forbes

So, on to clinics!

If you’ve been following along for a bit now, you may get the impression that I am anti-clinic.

This is not at all the case!

In fact, most of the cash I have generated over the years to pursue my riding and training goals has come from either horse training, or clinics!   There is a lot of money in clinics.

(That’s not what you were wanting to know?)


Do I think riding in clinics is a good idea?  Sometimes. I’ll tell you some of that below, but right up front here is the problem.  Wili Schultheis said it well:  The three day clinic is the best.  Day 1: Get to know the rider, Day 2: work on something with the horse, Day 3: wrap it up and go home.  Five days is no good.  In five days they realize that nothing that matters is going to come out of the horse in such a short time, and that the hard work has begun.  Three days is better.

Lots of performers know this–always leave the audience wanting more.

Here is a great rider and trainer.


Photo: Rudolf Zeilinger on a clinic riding Nancy Chesney’s Trakehner stallion Ibson in the early years. New Mexico c. 1989.  He was 26, maybe 27, at the time, on a ten day clinic split between Fort Collins and Las Vegas New Mexico.  (A place you HAVE to go to.)  They are only a 6 hour drive apart. That’s nothing to us here in the West.  Took me 22 to get to Fort Collins. . .  Anyway that was near the start of the madness.

You wonder I wanted to go to Germany?  Just look at that half pass!

Back to clinics–Put bluntly, three days or less of training is a fling.  And training a horse with a coach/trainer is a whole lot more like a marriage than a fling.  There are times when you could cheerfully strangle your partner–but you don’t.  And you do show up the next day.  The guy in the airport is  a whole different matter.

(BTW, For a good movie and a very scary airport scene see “360”

Starring Anthony Hopkins among others.

Re mitigating the fling.  Continued contact turns it into something else.

Here is something I do to mitigate the huge problem I see at clinics–lack of backup and follow through.  For a month after the clinic, any rider can send me weekly short clips of homework given at the clinic for evaluation and feedback–no charge.  That gives a chance to correct any mistakes in communication, see how the training is progressing.  The technology is there–I did it this morning re flying changes for one of my clients in Oregon.  She is doing very well.  Not all the riders will organize to send even a fifteen second clip–which is not hard to do or watch–but the ones that are serious probably will.  Or the ones that are confused.  Both are really important.

After a month? If they want to send clips after that I’m open to it, but I do charge.  (It is perfectly stunning what you can tell in a quick clip.  Wish trainers would do it more.)

But anyway, I do ride in clinics on occasion.  And for different reasons.  (Given they are about five times the cost of regular training, I really have to want to do it.)  Some reasons?

To See and Be Seen: Example Klaus Balkenhol on invitation from the ESET at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center

And I actually learned a great deal in this one.  He rode my horse, Galoni, from Rudolf, and did so beautifully–the ability to ride that wonderful horse was fairly rare in this country, a fact that made me very leery of the clinic scene here.  Herr Balkenhol scolded me about a detail of not having the horse stand still to be mounted and gave me good advice on contact and roundness in the passage.  He also sat and had coffee with his wife and I and told of the gossip in Germany, which I missed.  100% Great Guy, fantastic rider, teacher, clinician, and–from my limited contact–human being.

For a great eye, I’d ride with Debbie MacDonald any chance I got.  Great help, with background from many top International riders and a very nice person as well.  We have had good discussions about how piaffe is set up in different schools and she taught me an invaluable lesson in turning. (Duh!)

When he was alive I would suffer the slings and arrows of Detriech Von Hopffgarten any time I could get in the ring with him. He was often not pleasant to ride with, but had one of the best set of eyes around–and also rode my horse very well: no grandstanding, good feel, the horse was sane and soft and light on his return to me.  Which was not often the case.  You needed a pretty sophisticated seat.

Re clinicians riding your horse and it working out well.  Unfortunately this is not the case with everybody.  Rudolf in my hearing kindly told one competitor that his method was not going to be effective with that particular horse.  It happens.  He was polite enough to sense it and back off–it was already a Grand Prix horse, and that was the right thing to do.  I have had some utter wrecks with top names that have left me with my eyebrows up and a real mess to clean up after.  So that’s the first rule–and why clinics are also so difficult to train in: “Don’t open up anything you can’t fix in the time available.”

So I approach clinics with caution, and I still actually don’t get to ride with the people I’d like to as often as I would like to.

Typically clinics are “owned” by the organizer.  The organizer may be a professional, and of course the slots go to the students of that barn.  Sometimes they are offered to other professionals.  But not so much so.

In fact the reason I ended up in Germany was the organizers who had a death grip on the Kim Von Hopffgarten clinic series here in Spokane when I moved here, would not let me ride.  No space.  Kim was great—-but I guess that was in the end a good thing, not getting the spot.  I got Rudolf instead.

Here are the good things about clinics:  a fresh eye, a new take, a new way of saying the same thing–or maybe something different.  We hope not!

Here are the bad things: no background, can be an awful experiment in rapport, if they open a real can of worms for you, you can guarantee you’ll be fixing it on your own.

A lot of harm can be done bashing around in someone else’s training program–if you don’t REALLY, REALLY know what you are doing.  (And if you do really, really know what you are doing, you likely know when to back down and when to press the point.)

The bad part is the poor student may not realize that they have just been bashed around.  If they’ve been being a good student they will never think that.  But it happens more than you might think.  And that’s why I give away the keys to important horses with great caution and after a good deal of toe-dipping.

I take being a good student very seriously.

(I’m also really careful when I get on someone’s horse–it’s mostly to feel what the situation is so I can help better–not a retraining, and yes, I know how to give a horse a nice ride.)

Here is what a perfect clinic situation looks like:

1. Notice is given to all the professionals in the area asking if they would like to ride.  This establishes an inclusive environment.  After that, places are offered to non-professionals in the barn that organizes.

2. The option is offered the riders to have their ride subsidized by auditing–give them a break on their ride cost if they attract a lot of attention/auditors.  (Logic is, the time is theirs and if they want spectators that is fine.  They should benefit from them.  If they want or need to train in private that should be an option.  See Post Training Behind Closed Doors

3. Video of rides is offered at a charge.

And that’s my utopian, and probably nostalgic, feel from the RMDS instructor’s series, which I remember as a real coming together of the both the club and professionals involved.

Got a story?–Give me yours below.

Training Behind Closed Doors

Dale Forbes

Re Training Behind Closed Doors:

This thought is related to the post on clinics.

Herr Schultheis had the reputation for having closed doors on his training.

Later in life, the slender and elegant Herr R. Klimke is said to have conjectured,

“If I had such a figure I would close the doors as well!”

Though very funny, this was not Schultheis’ reason.

His reason was closer to practicality.  Many excellent riders and horses have problems.  Many professionals have students and reputations.  Many horses have owners with a lot of money invested.  Sometimes riders trying something new are shy, and it helps to be alone.  (Yes, I know they should get over that.  It’s on the list!)

And in all cases the problems exhibited might be momentary–a blip on the training radar.

But problems presented out of context will live in every auditor’s memory to eternity–and possibly on U-Tube for far longer than that!

So, even if you can get beyond the fact that you never ride or school quite as effectively with an audience (grandstanding is not training), and especially if time is limited, frank questions and answers need to be put forth. And should be.

Nobody is “hiding” anything by asking for privacy.  Privacy should be a right.   Are you hiding things when you engage: a counselor?  a doctor?  a lawyer?   Probably not.

And do you have your yearly physical in the bus station, or the lunch room of your work place?

How come?

Privacy breeds openness, trust and confidence between the coach and the rider.  Nothing more, nothing less.

In places where there is a real economy in horses this is taken for granted.

(And not taking it into account makes developing a real, serious, horse economy far-fetched.)

There is also a story that the tall and trim Klimke said his doors were always open.  That’s true too.  I went several times with Christine Doan, and he was very, very charming.  Great fun to watch him ride.  Very elegant and beautiful.  A large race track outside his home. But in the indoor I always missed a bit of what he was doing–even when I watched carefully.

Christine helped me out here, explaining, “He’s a magician.”

Adding, “and you are not always here.”

Nothing devious–but why SHOULD he show his methods to all?  That’s not a magician’s job.

Frau and Herr Theodorescu had a sheep herder’s wagon sidled up to a small sliding window pointed down the center of the indoor. (You could see the middle of the school–not the edges.) Guests were invited to sit there.

In my hearing,  some English visitors asked,  peering through the window, “Could we have a ride?”

The answer from Mrs Senior was priceless: “No.  We do it differently here–you would be stiff and frightened!”

Yes, barns do it differently, and that’s the range–but if you don’t have much time, it is good to get on with the exam!

Sit down, shut up, and fake it till you make it! -(Melynnda’s thoughts on being a good student)

After being asked to comment on what I think makes a good student I came up with four strategies that have kept me objective, teachable and perseverant as a student.

1st rule I live by as a student: Avoid Trainer “hopping” – Pick a good instructor. 

I picked an instructor I could respect, one I had rapport with, one who’s teaching style I understood and could learn under.  Then, when the training sessions get tough, I have the confidence she will get guide us through it successfully. Having confidence makes one a better student.

When you find your instructor, stick with them!  It saves money and time.

All this “trainer hopping” that goes around these days is wasteful.  I’ve often heard the comment “I can learn something from everyone!”.  Possibly true, but first you will likely confuse yourself. Few amateurs know enough to discern the “whys” and “wherefores” of one teaching style from another.

My instructor knows my skill level, my history and each of my horses.  Therefore, her teaching will be the most efficient.  To go to an expensive clinic in hopes of great revelation and leaps and bounds of improvement is unrealistic, and therefore, in my opinion a waste of money. The instructor there doesn’t have any frame of reference in regards to you and your horse, therefore how can they truly be effective?

2nd Rule I live by as a student: Respect Authority

Respect, respect, respect authority  (Taught to me at a young age by my pastor)!  So when you choose your instructor the next step is to begin the process of being a good student. Humbly put your self under their authority, do what they say!

“Sit down, shut up and fake it till you make it” quoted by Rick Hughes.

The less I talk, the more I learn from my instructor when she is allowed to speak.  I make an effort not to interrupt my instructor during lessons.  When she is guiding me through exercises and I don’t agree, I do it anyway.  Many times I’ve been under instruction and thought to myself “there is no way this is going to be beneficial”. But keeping those humility lessons I learned in church alive, I continue doing as told and voila! suddenly a huge transformation happens.  AWSOME!

With each of these moments, I have proven over and over to myself that authority is there to teach us, not squish us.

3rd Rule I live by as a student: You have time.

This I learned from one of my favorite Spanish Riding School teachers, Alois Podjhajsky.

There are many grueling moments in dressage training that lead most students wondering if they will ever “get there”.  How many times have we ended a ride by ourselves thinking we just slipped behind, not ahead?

I found great peace in reading Podjhajsky’s words “you have time”. If you don’t know it today, chances are you will figure it out by tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, the next.  Suddenly, I began to give myself a break, but more importantly, give my horse a break. So my advice would be to relax, and if nothing else, dwell on how it will feel when you finally do get it…tomorrow, or maybe thereafter.

4th Rule I live by as a student: Pick horses your instructor approves.

If I have picked an instructor I respect, why wouldn’t I take their advice in picking a horse?  How can I expect to get their support if I buy a horse without their input, bring home something that they don’t believe is a good match, possibly unsafe for my level of ride, and not a mount that can enhance my level in the sport?  Eventually, if students continue disregarding their instructors in this area, their instructors will likely loose interest.  And why wouldn’t they?  Their student has just put them in a position were they are least likely to succeed. A no win situation for both parties.

My ‘picking’ skills increased ten fold when I brought in my instructor’s expertise. I saved money, avoided time wasted and money poorly spent on horses that were unsuited to me or simply had poor track records and bloodlines that I would have never detected otherwise.  Instead, I ended up saving time and money with really great horses that I have enjoyed thoroughly!

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.)


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!

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!