AKA: How to avoid being taken for a ride (by both your horse and the clinician).
Attending a clinic is a great way to introduce your horse to new environments, connect with fellow equestrians and expand both your practical riding skills as well as your training/horsemanship theory. If you’re somewhat adventurous, it can also be an excellent opportunity to broaden your horizons by giving another discipline a try.
As a dressage rider and trainer, I attend numerous clinics a year with a variety of instructors in order to further my own education (and essentially make sure I’m not totally wandering off into the weeds with my training). While I can’t say that every clinic was sunshine and rainbows (of which I’m not sure I’d even want), I can say that I’ve learned something from each — a new technique, another approach, etc — that made it worthwhile. Being able to add tools to my training repertoire is great, but having fresh eyes on my horse and our work has proven even more invaluable.
For all the potential awesomeness that there is to be gleaned from riding in a clinic, there are a few pitfalls that you’d do best to avoid. For those of you who regularly attend clinics, none of this will be a revelation, but for those new to the clinics hopefully the below guidelines will help you avoid any sketchiness and get the most out of your experience.
1. Research the clinician.
Yes, you CAN learn from anyone. But do you REALLY want to? It’s nice to know what you’re getting yourself into.
There are some amazing equestrians out there, some of which you’ve likely never heard of, but there are also a few shysters you’d probably like to avoid. Do yourself a favor and ask people you trust if they are familiar with the clinician (i.e. your trainer, if you have one, other riders you know and respect, etc). If the clinician has a website look through that too and see if they sound like someone you’d be interested in working with.
In addition to the above, you should also at least do a cursory Google search on the clinician and see what pops up (or for some real fun, head on over to The Chronicle of the Horse Forums and search there); you’d be amazed at what you can find out.
Some questions to consider:
- What’s the clinician’s background? (Or, who IS this person?)
- What are the clinician’s credentials? (Can you confirm those credentials or are they so nebulous and untraceable that he might as well be claiming to have invented the half halt?)
- Does this person sound like someone I’d WANT to learn from? (i.e. do they really know what they’re talking about or are they mostly shenanigans?)
- Does this person sound like I COULD learn from them given my current riding level and my horse’s current level of training? (Again, you can learn from anyone but if you’re just learning to trot ground poles it might be a bit soon to attend a George Morris clinic … I personally rode in a lesson with Karen O’Conner after I’d been riding a grand total of 6 months; I was certainly in over my head on that one.)
- Is the cost of working with this person in line with what I can reasonably expect to gain from the experience? (Essentially, is it worth the price?)
2. Consider the venue and clinic style.
A private barn with one-on-one instruction is one thing, the fairgrounds working in groups of 20 next to the team roping pen is another. This distinction matters.
Some horses are rock steady in nearly any environment and others are a bit more particular. If your horse is in the latter camp, do yourself a favor and look into where the clinic is being held and the format (individual lessons or group sessions). Then assess if you think that will be a suitable environment for you and your horse to learn in. While I think stepping outside your comfort zone is super, and exposing your horse to new things highly beneficial, I think that both need to be done in such a way that no one’s brain is fried in the process.
While I would ride my ten-year-old, I-1, APHA horse nearly anywhere without a second thought, I’d be less inclined to do so with my young Dutch horse.
Whatever the venue and format, be sure to arrive with plenty of time to acclimate both you and your horse. With my young horse, if it’s a new place for him and I have the option of going a day ahead I often will. I want my horse to be as relaxed as possible so that I can focus on the lesson rather than merely trying to survive my unruly youngster while he tries to plant me in the arena footing.
For your warm-up, try to do the same routine you do at home. The familiarity of the warm-up can help relax your horse even when the environment isn’t familiar.
3. Ride your ride.
Trying new things is great; doing things that you know will get you bronced into the rafters is just poor decision-making.
While there are a myriad assortment of training techniques, and there’s usually no harm in trying new ones, if you know your horse is likely to have a melt down with something it’s best to let the clinician know and see if adjustments can be made. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t trust the clinician’s instruction — after all, that’s what you’re paying for — but it is to say that you know your horse best and ultimately will need to make the call regarding what’s best for you both.
There have been a few times in my riding career where I’ve pushed my horse past his comfort zone in the name of being a good student and I’ve always regretted it. You and your horse are a team; don’t forget his part in that.
4. Remember the importance of presentation.
Just because they make breeches in ‘blaze orange’ doesn’t mean you should wear them.
I’m a huge fan of fun colors and bling (and harassing my less adventurous DQs with both), but even I know there’s a line (somewhere). Regardless of the discipline, you can’t go wrong with mostly conservative colors and a tidy appearance. Adding a dash of color or bling is totally fine, but try to avoid head-to-toe blinding color and sparkles if you want to be taken at all seriously.
It’s also necessary to make sure your horse is well groomed and turned out. Be sure his tail is brushed through and his coat is free of crud. If you use boots they should be clean and tidy, as should all of your tack. For some upper-level clinicians, braiding is also appropriate.
5. Assess the take-home message.
What DID you actually gain from this besides killing a day (or two!) and having a lower balance in your bank account?
After each clinic I try to review what we worked on and how/where it applies in the grand scheme of my riding and training. Essentially I ask myself how what I learned will shape my next training steps. This helps me determine the value of the clinic and if I’d want to ride with the clinician again in the future.
While I feel like I’ve been fortunate and have learned something from almost every clinic I’ve attended, there are sadly times when that doesn’t happen. Unfortunately I think that there are clinicians who are able to make you feel positive and successful during the clinic by focusing on a small gimmick or trick but that success is not necessarily useful later because it doesn’t actually have a place in your greater training picture (i.e. it doesn’t further your training). For instance, I’ve taught my horse how to “smile,” which is really cool, but it isn’t something that’s going to help our future piaffe.
Ultimately, if you ride in or audit a clinic that seems to offer a lot more tricks than actual tools/methods that can be used to develop your horse, keep that in mind for the future.
Morgane Schmidt Gabriel is a 32-year-old teacher/artist/dressage trainer/show announcer/ who still hasn’t quite decided what she wants to be when she grows up. A native Floridian, she now lives in Reno, NV, where she’s been able to confirm her suspicion that snow is utterly worthless. Though she has run the gamut of equestrian disciplines, her favorite is dressage. She was recently able to complete her USDF bronze and silver medals and is currently working on her gold. Generally speaking her life is largely ruled by Woody, a 14.2 hand beastly quarter horse, Willie, a now beastly 5-year-old Dutch gelding, and Stormy, her friend’s nearly all white paint gelding with a penchant for finding every mud hole and pee spot in existence. Visit her website at www.theideaoforder.com.