Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Selecting A Trainer

Online, in books, and in DVDs, there's a vast array of information from which dressage riders can learn about the art and sport of dressage. However, one dressage topic that seems to be light on suggestions is selection of one's dressage trainer. Maybe this is because it's such a personal and subjective thing.

For the past 6 years, since moving back to the USA after 12 years in England, I have been working and training alone. My husband, who thanks to auditing several European dressage clinics & lessons, attendance at shows, and viewing training videos / DVDs with me, is my primary "eyes on the ground". While he's able to tell me what he observes, he often does not know to ride corrections or make improvements. However, sometimes he comes up with great suggestions and exercises that work well.

So for the past 6 years, I've basically been going it alone without a trainer. With the show results I have enjoyed, I like to think I've done pretty well. But I want to do better. Much better.

Last year, I started looking for a trainer. And with that effort, I began to realize I definitely had selection criteria that were important to me, important for the trainer to meet.

While searching, I found that there are a lot of perfectly qualified dressage trainers in New England, and several within 100 miles of my farm. Some have impeccable competition credentials. Some are USDF Certified. Some are judges. Some actively compete. Some will travel for lessons, coming to Warner. Some do not. Variety is certainly not a problem.

The selection of a trainer can be approached several ways. Word of mouth is a good starting place. Signing up with a best friend's trainer is not unusual. Selecting the trainer who is closest may be another option. Personal economics might make price important. Watching lessons before taking lessons is one method I often recommend. Forums, social networks, blogs, clinics, and shows are all potential sources for making more contacts and learning who's who. Yup. There are lots of approaches.

But what to look for in the trainer? That is the question! As I got deeper into my search, I found there are several things I seek in a trainer:

  • First and foremost, the trainer must have utter respect for the horse and it's nature. (No huggy, kissy, baby talk to my horse, thank you!)
  • Before I sign up with a trainer, I need to see the trainer in action with their students or their own horses, either in lessons or at shows. I need to have respect for the work I observe as well as a fair level of agreement with the approach, methods, communications, and demonstrated outcomes.
  • The trainer will have had a lot of dressage training themselves and is interested in updating their own knowledge and skillset.
  • During the first few lessons, I like to sense there is structure. I need to know what we are working on, what the targets and purpose are. Not just what do to, but why. And I need to be able to envision how that work leads into future training.
  • For a long term relationship, the trainer must be willing to get on my horse, match what he sees with how it feels, and come to understand my horse better. And ideally he should be able to ride my horse better than I.
  • Price will not necessarily limit me taking a lesson, but will limit the frequency of lessons. However, at the beginning of the relationship, a higher frequency is important to reach a successful level of communication, so price is a factor.
  • Finally, this last criteria is surprisingly critical to me. When I train my horses away from the watchful gaze of my trainer, I often hear his voice and guidance in my head. Therefore, his voice and words need to be of a quality which I am happy to have bouncing around in my head for many hours between lessons.

Last summer, I had developed a short list of potential trainers to consider. However, it was through a series of shows that I had several opportunities to observe another dressage rider, someone I did not know anything about, in action. She was not just competing in the same shows as I, but was also handling young horses (I'm currently working two youngsters who were born on my farm), cleaning stalls, and interacting with her clients.

We exchanged polite hellos the second or third time we bumped into each other, as one sometimes does when recognizing a fellow competitor at consecutive shows, and eventually spoke briefly while riding our respective horses around the main competiton arena the evening before a show, she on a young horse, me on Piper.

My initial "Blink" reaction was completely positive. Watching her work with her horses fully supported it. Before winter set in, I contacted her, made an appointment, and trailered Piper 60 miles to her farm for one lesson. Just one. To see how it would go.

It went great. I selected a trainer. She accepted a new student.

This summer, we resumed lessons on a (mostly) weekly basis, weather and other interruptions permitting. It's still a new relationship, but it's progressing really well. Already, I can feel how my riding is evolving and where the guidance will take us. It's all good.

There are no self-help books on how to select a dressage trainer. Instead, each rider has to write their own book.