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Book Review: “Keys to the Kingdom of Dressage” by Susan B. Stegmeyer

“A small problem, unfixed, at the lower levels becomes a big problem at the upper levels.” Stegmeyer works to keep those small problems from becoming large problems and helps readers to do so a well.

Susan Stegmeyer is a horsewoman’s horsewoman. She is a rider, trainer, teacher and author. Her book, “Keys to the Kingdom of Dressage” — 188 pages, self-published in 2011 — is a wealth of knowledge and practical information.

Susan G. Stegmeyer, author of “Keys to the Kingdom of Dressage.”

Stegmeyer is both teacher and pupil: she consistently trains with riders more advanced than she is, “because the best riders are constantly learning, and I know I can always learn something more.” It is this hunger for knowledge that grounds her so well as a writer. One of her favorite teaching phrases is, “a small problem, unfixed, at the lower levels becomes a big problem at the upper levels.” Her goal — both as instructor and author — is to eliminate those small problems while they’re small.

The book is available on Stegmeyer’s website. Photo provided by Susan G. Stegmeyer.

Divided into three parts, the book contains separate “keys” instead of chapters.

Part I consists of five keys, with each key detailing, in turn, the history of dressage, the arena, the horse, dressage tack and finding a suitable instructor. Part II, also in five parts, covers mounting, aids, the training pyramid, timing and balance and bend. Part III covers the final six “keys” including how to manage your first dressage test.

The book is full of illustrative photographs. One of this reviewer’s personal favorites was an illustration of the “following seat.” In this exercise, Stegmeyer has her pupils sit on a three-step mounting block, facing away from the steps. With their hands holding imaginary reins, the student is asked to move the block forward using only their seat until the mounting block pivots on its base edge.

Stegmeyer is a proponent of the four stages of learning:

  1. Unconscious incompetence — when the rider doesn’t know what they don’t know.
  2. Conscious incompetence — when the rider becomes aware of what they don’t know, but they cannot execute the corrections.
  3. Conscious competence — when the rider becomes aware of what they are doing, and they are proactive in making corrections.
  4. Unconscious competence — when the rider has learned a skill so thoroughly they make the required adjustments subconsciously.

She appreciates every horse, and every effort. “There are no bad horses, just bad balance.”

Her in-depth discussion of the training pyramid is one of the best I’ve ever come across, from a checklist on relaxation to a dance-class analogy on thoroughness.

“As you work on your horse’s relaxation, take time to ask yourself, how relaxed are you? . . . Are you carrying tension from he day? Your horse can feel a tiny fly on his body, so he can certainly feel any ’emotional baggage’ you are bringing along during your ride. Is your body conveying relaxation? Are your hips swinging while your neck, shoulders and elbows are relaxed? Is your breathing relaxed, regular and rhythmic?”

Stegmeyer supports longe line lessons for riders at any stage, to help the rider find his/her balance, relaxation and coherent movement with his/her horse. She aptly calls such longe line lessons “yoga on horseback.”

She invests time and words in providing a fun and memorable way for riders to recall the primary lessons learned from attending a riding clinic or seminar. Noting that so many of us attend clinics and fill notebooks with pages upon pages of notes, yet we cannot ride with notepad in hand, Stegmeyer suggests using the instructor’s name and creating a meme.

Citing an example of her own notes from a clinic with Olympic rider Lisa Wilcox, Stegmeyer came up with the following list:

  • Loosen your legs
  • Inside soften, outside half halt
  • Shoulder-fore, shoulder-in thinking
  • Always Upper body Up Up Up

When asked to create a meme for her own name and instruction, Stegmeyer offered this meme as her core teaching points:

  • Steps — of the training pyramid
  • Understand — the timing and effectiveness of the aids
  • Self-carriage awareness — balance
  • Always teaching — every interaction, mounted or not, with your horse is teaching the animal something, either positive or negative
  • Njoy the journey

Stegmeyer has plans for future books along the same vein, including Keys for Longeing, Keys for Jumping, and Advanced Keys to the Kingdom of Dressage. Keys for Longeing will be next in the queue.

Her voice is sincere when she states, “I’ll hold off on the ‘Advanced Keys to the Kingdom of Dressage’ because I only want to write it when I feel I have mastered those concepts myself.  Not just learned them, mastered them.”

With such a humble and willing spirit, it is not surprising that Stegmeyer’s current book, and any future books, appear destined for success.

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