How to be a better trainer. Do the easy stuff first.

Rudolf said to me once, with some disgust, “What is all this talk about teachers?  It is the student that makes the difference!”

Well, yes.  But there are some notable teachers, himself included, who have changed the course of many riders.  And historically riding teachers have been more or less directive.  Recall this sport started with the cavalry?

The cruel trick now is most enthusiasts are adult and professional women.  People not exactly accustomed a sound butt-kicking on a daily basis–as might have been a more common teaching strategy in the old days.

The pendulum swings. But here is something for any stalled students who wonder sometimes plaintively, where to go next:  you may have the best horse in your area, more money than most, time enough to ride, a facility lots of riders dream about.  But, if you cannot or will not take instruction, if in your heart you want praise for what you are doing more than you want to improve what you are doing, then you will someday come across someone who has all those same things–a horse, money, time–and perseverance.  Someone who knows how to be trained.  And that person, the one who knows how to be trained, will quietly leave you in the dust.  Think about it.

From what I can see currently there is a big love-in happening in the dressage community between the students (the ones with the check book that are actually in charge) and the teacher who assumes a role of being in charge for a short period.  People are so nice now!  What happened?  And are riders doing better for it?

I’ve been at this a long time.  I was a girl in the hunter circuit on the East Coast in the seventies when George Morris sent everyone on a crash diet.  Mr. Morris was (and is) one of the most revered and feared jumper coaches of our time.
Distance-George-Morris(Thank you Amy.)

This is very good advice, by the way.  Dressage riders, take it to heart on any line of changes that you engage in.

So this little ditty has some references to George and is largely about how to be a better (and possibly hated) trainer by actually making a difference in your riders.  Its also about how to determine the correct moment to duck and run if that is what is indicated.  And it has a pointer at the end to something that actually makes life easier for your horses–and thereby you. I’m going to say this several times.  In almost all cases the best teaching plan is to do the easy and obvious things first.  Horse limping?  Check his feet before you buy a new saddle.  Do the obvious–because 9/10 that is what the problem is.  Horse bites at you when girthed?


It means it hurts.  Do something.

More on this seemingly-obvious, but never-addressed issue at the base of the post.  Making your horse more comfortable is a great example of picking the low hanging fruit.  Do first the easy (and inexpensive) things that make the biggest difference. Bit trouble?  Maybe. Get his teeth looked at before you splurge on a new bit. Avoid trends.  They are expensive, designed to get you to focus on equipment rather than riding.

Anyway, in our social media-enabled age of instant perfection, coaching is getting to be a complicated subject, largely because actually being a better trainer is likely to get you fired.

Though changing old behavior into new is the reason riders presumably hire coaches, people tend to get mad when you actually ask them to change.

(Oh dear.)

First off, and question of note: why would you WANT to be a trainer in this country?  Never mind a better one?

Point one, there is a lot of free competition: a seemingly endless supply of U-tube and Facebook experts willing to give an opinion, watch a thirty second clip and make a judgement.

Point two, the liability aspect of the game in the USA is enough to send all but the impoverished (or extremely well-insured) running.

And then there is the,  point three, “meanie” quotient.

images-2George Morris fairly terrorized a generation of young riders–myself among them.  Many of which amounted to something.  There is nothing that says you have to be a tyrant to train aspiring riders.  You do not have to insult them or send them on crash diets, or be unsympathetic to their individual needs and learning styles.

But it helps.

Some advice from George:


Look at how relaxed and at peace that horse looks.  I guarantee you, the rider at the other end of that gaze did not.





Well, trainers, maybe you do need to ignore “their learning style.”

(George once famously accused a rider in a clinic of appearing like a wart on a horse.  Ouch.)

Trainers DO need to ask (and sometimes demand) their students  to change.  And as I have begun advising in clinics of late: “This part of what I’m about to tell you (over and over) is probably going to make you angry.  You are going to hate me.  That’s okay.” 

(That’s also why I have a hotel room on a clinic and probably don’t want to go out to dinner with the larger group.)

Hands up who has been mad at their teacher !!!!!!!!!!!!!!    0

(There is at least one liar in every group.)

Teachers can (should) be demanding.


(Trust me I’ve been there.)

Change is the process of letting go of what you thought you knew or understood.  Change (learning) often evokes grief, rage, disappointment, and even momentary despair. Change is about doing something different.

That’s all part of learning something that in the end may be deeply satisfying, but the road towards it is a real PITA.

So, as a teacher, if you are basically there to cheer on your students, they may feel great–but will not change/improve.  Good side of this “cheer on” plan, short term, is they won’t ever be really mad at you either, so you can probably get on for a while, and everything will be okay.  Until they decide to go to a horse show and encounter a thing called, a score.

More on simple changes that make a big difference below, but here is my advice on training, some of it gleaned from some good sources.

Check the tack. Make sure the most simple details are attended to before you ever start.  Make sure the tack fits, the equipment is in good order and comfortable for the horse.  (Unites States Pony Club.  Remember, I am a graduate A . . . we never start a lesson without checking the tack.)

Have a plan and sit outside the arena. (Anders Lindgren, Rocky Mountain Instructor’s Series.)

Make sure it is the student who is putting in the majority of the effort. (Rudolf Zeilinger, my hero and a master of inspiring his students, both equine and human.)

Be very demanding, but when they are really working make them more at ease by forgiving small mistakes–which inevitably happen. (Meg Plumb, who coined the phrase I often use, “not to worry!”  Rudolf Zeilinger’s equally profound version is: “Es macht nicht” or “it does not matter.”)

Knowing when something does not matter is critically important.

Only care deeply when change is possible. (I’m not going to attribute this to anyone, but there is no point in knocking yourself (and the student) out when change is not really wanted or it is just too hard. If the horse is old or lame, or the client is frightened, making excuses, or rides only twice a month, let it go.  They have given you a message: you have been assigned educational hospice care, not intervention.  You might choose not to teach them if it annoys you.  But let them down easily. There is no shame in that.  They are in charge of how much effort they put in).

I’m going to repeat this: The student is in charge of how much effort they put in.  Time, money, commitment, goals.  They belong to the student.  And if the student does not organize these to a level that may make a difference, there is nothing you can do as a trainer but collect a (small) check and go home.

People used to (annoyingly) say to me, You’re so lucky that you “get” to go to Germany and train! 

Luck had nothing to do with it. And my raised eyebrows at the comment had to do with the grief, rage, disappointment and despair that were often my companions on the journey.  It was not fun.  Gratifying, but not fun.  And truth was, I made it happen by giving up many things the people claiming I was “lucky” possessed.  They could have done it too.  I did it because I wanted the training very, very badly–I was tired of the grind of “almost” knowing.  But many parts of that journey were humiliating, confusing, expensive and painful.

So I am amused when my casual students seem to expect that lessons are in some way entertainment.  Sure, you can use humor to keep the mood light, but that’s not the goal.  Nor is marketing.

Which leads us to client choice.

As a trainer do not work with horses or riders whose talent, temperament, or level of training are outside your training skills and goals.  That means both horses too green and horses too experienced.

There are probably other people better suited to these jobs, and it is silly to think you are an expert in every one of the various fields.    No one is.   If you are a Grand Prix rider with good cred and no experience with young horses, then teach the upper level.  If you know about bringing a young warmblood along the levels, do that.  If you know how to break a horse and gentle them in, do that. Some people have two out of three of theses skills.  Almost no one is an expert in all three.  Live with it.


I have never done polo or tent pegging, but I have watched both with enthusiasm.

I have experience in breaking and training young horses.  I don’t do it because I don’t find it very interesting–and you need really specific facilities, help, and other very broke horses.

I have experience in jumping, eventing, trail riding.  I don’t do those much because I already have. (Well, sometimes I still jump, and sometimes I take the horses out.  But I don’t get paid for it.)

I have  experience  in upper level dressage, a background in science, a degree in English, Brown belt in Aikido, and know something about biomechanics, carriage and suspension.  I teach because I enjoy making it easier for people to understand (and feel) how they are going to get where they are going–if indeed they want to go.  If they do not want to do it my way, it is usually not a good fit.

So my training group is really limited.

That’s fine!  I don’t have all that much time.

Another great piece of advice from Rudolf?  “Get done with your riding day and go do something else.”

Sometimes productive things happen when you step back and think.






Scandal Andreas Helgstrand under fire after public training photos.

Hmmmm. . .



I’d question the Boucher bit used as a snaffle, because that looks rather like a 2X curb in action rather than one of both.

The action of the snaffle is rather nice.

Why get rid of it?

Don’t know, but I am sure they had their reasons–or that is what they had in the tack chest.  Its not a sin to try to problem-solve training by trying different equipment–and sometimes it is unusual. ( Talk with the western crowd in our area about this.)

Here’s the fluff.

Okay, its an ugly photo.  But that’s it, without further evidence, an ugly shot.

And I’m out of the loop, so take it for what it is worth–almost nothing–but I had a horse once that with the thinnest bits you could imagine whose tongue would turn blue the moment one was put in his mouth.  He had a fat tongue.  We tried and tried to get bits that would not do this.  Get a horse that pulls even a little with a tongue like that and well, you get a blue tongue.

Dressage rules state that you cannot ride in a bosal.


Bits do happen.

Animal cruelty also happens.

Lets get it in perspective:

Look for a photo of the companion animal meat trade in China.

(Actually, don’t do this, it will make you cry.)

Google dog fighting.

(Don’t do this either.)

Look at the life of the average turkey.

Most upper level horse love their work and have superb riders.

Not all.

Having a good rider is key to being happy.

If a horse is not happy to some basic and real level they will not work for you. Dressage riders know that–and good ones are in the business of making their horses both happy and working.

Idling is not happy.

The horses to worry about are generally with people who know nothing and think they do:

Example: This is Wilson, my most recent purchase:

IMG_0306 IMG_0306

I went to look at him because he had interesting breeding and was advertized at 16 hands–a nice size for a young dressage horse.

In the end I had to send a student to buy him because the obese and frightened teenagers showing him resented my adjustment of his halter and pointing out his real size.

(It was not my most tactful moment, but reality is reality.  Get a tape measure, remember a hand is four inches and the measurement is done at the withers, not the poll.  And loosen the darned halter or take it off because it should not grow into his face.)

They told my student who rescued him–and is a perfect whiz at loading a horse–“I’m so glad you got him, we had a really stupid woman out here last week.”


(I notice this every day and was grateful that the teenagers were so adept.)

(One inevitably makes mistakes when training a horse.  Humility is a good thing.)

By the way, Wilson is safe now–got on a worming program, can be caught at will, no tight halter and now has a chance to make something of himself.

We’ll keep you updated.

Lots of things can look bad with enough spin.

Marketing. Sell the sizzle?

When it comes to dressage I’m actually not very interested in marketing–though in other parts of my life it has some pull.

BUT, I am bored just now,  away on a clinic, up early, had a walk, and waiting to be picked up by my Organizer–later to shower the locals with Good Advice–and they need it!  It is not everyone in the community that knows the footwork for a correct canter pirouette, and can, if pressed, perform one in jeans and tie dyed socks.IMG_0416

Notice the slightly “heels down” position my feet atavistically adopt when under the pressure of photography?

This comes of a youth spent on the hunter/jumper circuit.

(Websters definition b.)

Definition of ATAVISM

a : recurrence in an organism of a trait or character typical of an ancestral form and usually due to genetic recombination

b : recurrence of or reversion to a past style, manner, outlook, approach, or activity.

But anyway, re Marketing: last night several of the Usual Suspects participating in the clinic went out for several martinis. And one very fine woman, who has a successful career in marketing (and follows the blog) said, “We have to find a better way to market you!”

Sell the sizzle, not the steak!  (I had to look hard to find out who first said this–and I could not!  It is all over the place;  one source:  Here’s their view–I think it valid, if you are indeed, selling something:

“If you have been around anyone vaguely interested in marketing, you have probably heard the saying “Sell the Sizzle NOT the Steak”. Another form of this expression is “Sell the Benefits NOT the Features”. Or perhaps you have heard it put like this, “Sell People What They Want, NOT What They Need”. . .  Ask yourself one thing and one thing only. From the customer’s point of view – “What is in it for ME?“.

Back to the bar: continued long silence,  “Marketing?  Why?  This is a nearly impossible sport to learn, unless you have contact with someone who actually knows how to do it.  Very few people do actually know it, and is not a bid at the Olympics and eight years with the finest dressage trainers on the planet enough?”

(Never mind the skill to coax piaffe out of almost any mutt with four legs and hocks?)

“No.” she explained,  “People only remember the LAST Olympics.  They want more than that now.  You have to look the part.  No more jeans to the barn, and we’ll get you a funny hat.  Set you apart.”

More long silences–in feeling, very akin to a sticky horse coming out of piaffe.

Brain chatter: Forbes Folk from the East Coast do not wear funny hats to get attention.


Well, maybe we do. . .wear them. . .

But we would prefer them to look more like this if we did: supremely practical.


(I have several from this fine Parisian woman:

Cousin John, is a good example of our general sense of style!


(I am a devout fan: my bumper sticker of Kerry/Edwards has finally worn out–but just.  Given that, I also give you, amusingly:,6318/

(Another side note, re stuffy: Lord Forbes has just died this past week: (In case you did not know, he was my great X times a zillion uncle–or 23rd cousin once-removed.)  Story is that such a blight of American Forbes showed up in the seventies at the Castle Forbes in Scotland that they put a sign out to deter visitors: “NO U.S. FORBES!”)


Anyway, here is his obituary:


Genetics?  Don’t believe in them!

(And, if you looked like any of these people, would you be TRYING to remind people of Downton Abbey?)

Alas, though we New England  Forbes prefer to remember the turn of the last century when we were building this sort of barn: (Naushon Island 1913:)


We are currently far more likely to actually reside in something like this:


Fast forward, 100 years, it is 2013–we have horses to spend money on!

The point (as well as entertaining myself while waiting for a ride to work) is that dressage is so darned expensive that luring people with the siren song that they can identify good help by “dress to fit” is not useful.

And more importantly, the side trip, emulating “the look” wastes valuable funds, never mind supporting the idea that looking “the part” will make them able to DO the part.  Never mind, one should not dress like a pumpkin on a horse–plaid or otherwise–for the simple reason that it does not assist the rider to disappear from the picture–which is the actual illusion we are trying to create.  (Duh!  You are not supposed to notice the rider.  Though those who want to learn watch the good riders very, very carefully!)

Anyway, neat and workmanlike is the goal.  Some purchased articles actually do help–but very, very few of them!  Rudolf laughed with me once looking at his rather elderly horse van–back in the day.  He said, “You should be careful that your horse is more valuable than his box!”  Quite true.

So, sell people what they want, not what they need?  I beg your pardon? What they need is to know what they are doing!  And just drinking the Kool Aid is not going to produce skill.


What helps is riding–and then riding with someone with experience that can help your horse sort out the maze of aids no doubt inadvertently installed in said creature.  Like most things, dressage is not difficult–once you know how and have spent a lifetime at it.

And, if in the end, what it takes to “sell my form of dressage” is telling people it is going to be easy, quick, cheap or painless–that strikes me as a form of  Ponzi–collecting cash, not teaching dressage.


We do dressage because it IS demanding.  That’s the point–it is hard to do.  Let’s not make it totally impossible by following bad training or bad advice–nor fool oneself that there is a true short cut.

Indeed, though never short, there are many longer routes.  The quickest is staying as close as possible to the known path and following people who have been down it and come back.

That goes for most things, actually.

Off to work!  Which, despite the former rant, I have once in a while really done in my socks–like in India when offered a morning ride with the cavalry–who could say no to that because not traveling with boots?  (We were invited to watch a demo of “Tent Pegging” (This field but 1987–at the time the last active cavalry in the world)

And they found I could ride–so across the country it was!  A very fine ride on a hot TB while the cavalry raced along side jumping cross country fences made of piled earth–but that is another story.


Dying in Beauty

This thought, from a day in Germany, came to me yesterday, when the very nice Mexican guy who cares for our  horses at the winter barn stopped me as I was leaving.

This good gentleman, new this year to the barn, comes and watches sometimes.  He seems fond of the young Dutch Pinto horse I have been working.  Sometimes when Melynnda and I work in the morning, there is a little gathering–which we must ignore and work just the same as if they were not there–no matter who.

Anyway, our caretaker stopped me and said: “You are a very good trainer, are you not?”

Embarrassed, I replied that I tried to be.

“How come you do not dress fancy, like the others?”

I was amused.  Though often I wear breeches under chaps in the winter, on that day I had jeans and my Blundstone winter paddock boots, walking to the car, adorned further in a worn Carhartt barn coat.


These are great–you can fit spurs on them nicely, they are insanely water proof and great to walk in–enough tread not to fall down, not too much for the stirrup.  Good for wide feet.


Carhartt twill, wool-lined. $85. ten years old. Washes great, warmer than my Arc’teyrx, which I also love.

I said back to him, “It matters not what I wear, but what comes out of the horse.”

Yes, he laughed, and still laughing, turned back to his wheel barrow.

In my closet at home I have two pairs of Konig show boots, one pair of $1,100 Dehners, at least seven pairs of well-worn full seat riding breeches.  (I wear Cavallo.) I intend to have these last the rest of my life.  (This is my fourth pair of Dehner boots, by the way.  They “only” last about ten years.)

In the winter, as mentioned before. we walk through ankle-deep muck to get our horses, and once gotten, we trudge across what is sometimes five or six inches of water to get to the arena. Dehners are great, but they are not waterproof. And they are not warm. If I want to ride more than one horse–and not wreck my truly frighteningly expensive boots, I have to make alternate plans.  There are many things one can wear–especially with the addition of some Body Glide!–and ride well.

Here is an amusing post idea that I have yet to write:

“Wall Street Journal home and garden writer Anne Marie Chaker is working on a story about an equestrian ‘look’ that translates well to gardening and sportswear in general. Wondering if retailers are seeing growing consumer interest in breeches as an alternative to leggings? It’s a look that seems to be gaining momentum in the wake of the Downton Abbey craze…”
Though still thinking of how to write it, I am stalled, as I cannot yet wrap my mind around purposely gardening in my $300 breeches! 
Perhaps they are not interested in gardening the way I usually am, but maybe imagine walking in a (hopefully) elegant garden?
That might be nice. . . in or out of riding breeches.
But wait!  I think of my days in Fresno CA with two old ladies following me around as I grocery shopped in riding clothes, muttering, “Must be one of those Nazi people. . .”
This experience may possibly have skewed my appreciation for public outings in equestrian apparel. ?
Back to Dying in Beauty. (You were wondering when this was going to come up again?

Christine Doan, who has a perfectly stunning talent for languages of all sorts, said to me once, watching a simply gorgeous rider at work in Rudolf’s indoor, “It would be fine if he were not ‘dying in beauty’.”

Catching my look, she explained: “That is when it is so important to look good in the moment, that the long-term progress is sacrificed.  Nothing gets done.”

Dying in Beauty could (and does) come in many forms. And since we as humans all have ALL these urges–I am not being critical–we must learn to manage these urges for the good of the horse, and the ultimate progress of the horse.

There is nothing wrong with looking good.  Dressing well is fine, if you want to.  Do so for clinics and lessons–it shows respect.  But, as long as you are warm and dry (or cool enough), wear what you ride best in, and whatever holds up well while not breaking the bank.  Very good riding clothes last a really long time.  But if you can get the job done in jeans, be my guest.

And, more than in attitude than clothing, ‘Dying in Beauty’ means when something must be done in the training that (in the moment) does not look as perfect as it will look in the end, people prefer to fake the end without going through the process.

My opinion?  Be true to the ride.  Really, there is no way around the basics and the longer you put them off the bigger hole you dig for yourself–and the beast.  Corrections in the hand-with very, very rare exception are done gently and in a guiding manner.  Corrections from the leg, more definite.  The ribs are more resilient than the gums!  But further, if the horse refuses to stretch, teach him.  If he refuses to carry himself, insist.  If he is not in front of your leg, make an issue.  (Every time it happens!) Similarly so if he or she runs through the hand or rushes when you give space.  Corrections done kindly are what the sport is about.  Not doing them is not horse training, and it is not in the end kind.  There are certain basics that are true for EVERY school.

Re clothes, sure, if I am going to ride a lot of horses I ALWAYS dress in full seat breeches, gloves, tall boots and appropriate “other wear”.  That is practical.  But for one or two horses, if I’m in a hurry?  Whatever I happen to be in.  Riding is riding, not dressing.  And, barns are where horses live.  Barns contain manure, hay, bedding, dust, and extremes of weather.  As much as the riding clothing industry would have us think they are ski slopes or golf courses, they are not.

So, if you  worry the sport is expensive–which it is–and you have more money in clothes than lessons, more cash in your towing rig and trailer than your horse, more funds in your saddle than your beast, it might be something to look at.  Just a thought.

Though I do admit there are times when jeans prove inconvenient: you should hear my friend Sally’s tirade when on locking herself out of their house, she went to the golf club where her husband was playing and they would not allow her in to see him because she was wearing barn clothes.  REAL barn clothes.  The kind you COULD pick up manure in.  Don’t even get her started. . . .


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.    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:  ]

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?  )

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:

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.

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.

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:

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

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.

Traffic control–how to negotiate the arena space

Dale Forbes:

As a Dressage Snob, I have many pet peeves.

(Almost as many as my actual pets which at this point include two cats, a 100-pound eight-month-old dog and a parrot.  That is just the indoor crew.)

One of my favorite peeves is people not understanding how to negotiate arena traffic.

Mirfield Show. Horses and riders entertain in the main arena at the show.

(This photo has nothing to do with what I am talking about, but it all looks so fantastically uncomfortable that I thought I would include it.  When I rode as a child there was a rule about capped sleeves.  I see the sense, though I also digress. . .)

Back to the arena.  Though I fear some of you, particularly the professionals involved, may feel scolded by what I post below, this is not my intent.

Just like learning to drive, riders need to be taught how to negotiate among others in a safe manner.  Sadly, the instruction of this is not routinely emphasized or practiced enough.  And this is not the fault of the client–but of the instructor.  Given that, I would appreciate a sincere effort on the part of the pros involved to put some time in on this–and I’m not talking about only your clients--some of you are very, very unskilled at this skill: teamwork.

Think about what you are actually teaching by example when you stand in the arena and monopolize one twenty meter circle for an hour.  And, unless you plan to be moving every three to four years, you are eventually going to have to ride in the arena with the people you have trained.  And it is not pleasant, so listen up.

(Re teamwork: Fran and Joe Dotolli’s Young Entry Stables, where I rode as a child, REQUIRED all riders in their summer program to watch all the other riders’ classes.  Every single one.  It was a team effort. They were great trainers–and eventually coached one of the winners of the entire Medal and Maclay finals.  (  This is the biggest honor of the junior equitation circuit–they were a hotbed of talent.  How’d they do that?  They paid attention to both the training and the character of the training.  We Dressage Snobs–budding and otherwise–should take note.)

So, on to the topic: just as there are rules when you drive a car, there are rules–we like to call them “customs” in dressage.  When you share arena space with others, you are not riding in a bubble.


You are not permitted to be a bore and think you are the only one entitled to space–and neither am I.  All riders are created equal–and thus share equal responsibility.  A mark of a really good rider is the person is easy to ride around and is considerate.  But this only works if we share certain assumptions.

The only exception to the patterning I talk about below is a rider on a very green, or obviously upset horse–a rider in trouble or a horse that is not steering.

(Parallel: If you are in church and have a heart attack, it is really okay to get up and stagger down the aisle–better yet, ask for help–say something!  A heart attack is not a normal time–rules suspended.  Other than that, mind your manners, listen, and look out for others.)

The correct action for the rider in trouble is to alert the arena.  If you are a definite risk, currently in dire straits, a quick, “Heads UP!” should be all that is necessary to tell the crew that care needs to be taken.  Something that would necessitate this is getting run off with, for instance.  I have done it myself and seen Rudolf do it.  Make it part of your game plan, but hopefully not your norm.

That said, the call “Heads up!” should come as no surprise to the other riders in the ring.

Because they should have known already, and already be taking either evasive or comforting action.

Why? Because one of your jobs when riding with others is not to be self-centered.  This is something that takes practice too–and dedicated practice!  It’s hard.

Directive: You must at the same time as you are riding your own horse, keep a weather eye out on every other rider in the arena.  Have a general idea of what level of skill they have, where they are, and what they are schooling.  This is why it is easiest to ride among colleagues within the same discipline–say all hunter riders, or all cutting horse riders.

So, riders of similar disciplines generally find each other easier to predict–unless they are budding dressage snobs looking to cut their teeth in the sport!  The budding dressage snobs have two things in common.  The first is they tend to travel, looking down, on endless 20 meter circles, frequently with their current trainer standing in the middle of that circle spewing forth good advice.

In this case there are two impediments in the arena: the client and the trainer.

(I know, that was very naughty.)  But here is the point: teachers think they have to stand in the arena for many reasons and the only really valid ones are to work on the longe line, do ground driving, or possibly briefly assist with piaffe.  A lot of the reasons they do it is actually so they do not have to talk so loud.  There are ways around that that are safer and more polite if you are sharing space.  I am going to write about that in the next post–How to hear and be heard.

So, unless there are jumps in the arena that need looking after, you are an official of the Spanish Riding School, or there has been an accident, people on foot do not routinely belong in the traffic pattern of the arena.  It is dangerous. Period, end of story, enough and goodnight.

Who taught me this?  Anders Lindgren during the Rocky Mountain Dressage Association instructor’s program in 1984.  Why?  Simple.

1. You are in the way.

2. You cannot see both sides of the rider, so you are in effect teaching blind.

Trainers who abide by this?  Oh, let’s see, Wili Schultheis, Rudolf Zeilinger, Klaus Balkenhol, Betsy Steiner.  There is a long list.  Please see posts on how competent people generally have humility and respect for others–another rant.

So, the trainer, who may misguidedly think that the client will not feel adequately attended to without being followed around,  is standing in the middle of his or her client’s endless twenty-meter circle at the end, middle or other end of the ring–doesn’t matter to them.

That means:

1. The center line can never be used by anyone else in the arena.

2. The diagonals are probably toast.

3, The full arena may be out of bounds as well, because it is common to hear the command from said two-legged creature planted on the center line: “Stay down at your own end!”

(This is a true disservice to their paying customer.  Teaching a rider that every one else gets out of YOUR way in all cases when you are mounted, is not teaching.  It is avoiding teaching.)

But other than that, why is it a sign of a very-probably professional nincompoop?

(Definition: nincompoop )

Because their rider never has to look up.

The rider’s focus will always be slightly positioned to the inside with their line of sight–downward. Often because that is showing respect for their trainer.


You remember that thing about bad habits and doing what you are practicing?

(See post on 10,000 hours to mastery. )

Yup, you’ve got it.  Having practiced no other skills, when that rider is loosed on the other end of the arena when not in a lesson,  he or she will be looking down and the the inside, probably softly leg yielding this way and that, “flowing”  from one shape of circle to the next, quietly practicing the sublime “quality of the gait” dance, UTTERLY UNAWARE OF ANYONE ELSE.

And the rest of us who depend on the projection of line will always be totally confused about where they are going and often seem to be in the way–particularly if their trainer is currently teaching at the other end!

Might as well go home.  It makes fewer enemies.  So, Bad Guys win again.

But note–don’t go try that tack with the real big boys and girls–it doesn’t work there.  And chances are, anyone who exhibits this lack of consideration hasn’t truly played with the big boys.  Check the scores–you’ll see.  Humility is a sign of real experience with horses, and real experience dictates other people schooling in the arena (Sometimes rather a lot of them).

Here is how it is supposed to work:


The trainer, if there is one, is neatly parked in the corner, out of the way.  Note in the photo above the middle rider on the left has already made plans to avoid the one approaching in the other direction.  The hall of the Spanish riding school is more narrow than a standard dressage arena, making it even more critical.

Projecting the line. Again look at the photo above.  Can you have any doubt about what direction each rider is intending to go? The riders are practicing rhythmically, looking where they are going, not only because they can avoid collisions that way, but also because it helps other people avoid them.  If you look where you are going, others can tell where you are heading!

Passing: left hand to left hand:

In the US and Germany, when you are tracking clockwise you will be passing toward the center of the arena. It is called on the second track, about ten feet in.

(Would those of you from Australia and England please chime in below about local mores?  Thank you.)

So, given that you will need to routinely yield space off the rail when going right, it makes a great deal of sense to ALWAYS ride a bit off the rail when going clockwise.  Particularly if it is crowded.  It also stops your horse from just paying attention to the visual clue of the wall and encourages it to pay attention to the you.  Hmmm. . .  Horse listens to rider and goes where directed–might be some value there.

When you are traveling counter-clockwise you will pass to the outer side of the arena.  If you are an utter beginner this is a very easy place to be, BUT you must not stop and walk endlessly on the rail.  Horses being cooled out or rested either take the third track near the quarter lines or go to  an interior circle.  That way everyone else can keep working.

If you are going to stop suddenly or turn, please be sure to glance behind you.

And what about an individual on a circle?

That’s easy.  Except in an actual show, the circle is not practiced all the way to the ends and edges of the school when others are present.  The person on the circle generally stays interior of the whole group, abandoning temporarily the left hand to left hand rule–except when it is obviously more convenient to adhere to it.

How do the rest of us know when you stop your circle?  You will show us a corner and a straight line, just as you would the judge.

On one of many memorably-humbling mornings, Rudolf told me, “You must practice your corners.  Every one must be perfect.  You THINK in the show you will do them correctly, but you won’t.  You must do hundreds of them–all correctly.”

That is indeed true–and the good news is knowing how to do your corners helps you have time to plan and to sequence your entry to the next line.

At one time I asked Herr Zeilinger, naively, “So, for half pass I should position slightly in front of the corner?”

Eyebrows up (bad sign, indicating impossibly stupid question has been asked):  “And what corner would you NOT position for?”  (Good point.)

So, Dressage Enthusiasts, re corners: sometime try one–they are the bratwurst of dressage. . .

And then, go in a straight line. They are fun too.

(This is not rocket science.  It just shares a similar number of zeros in the price tag.)

So end of rant.  Please do (please!) Ride Better!–and if you can’t do that, just ride–but do look where you are going.