Training in the Right Way: How Can You Tell When the Training Is Being Done Effectively?

“In the right way is intentionally separate from the meaning of more concrete words like talented, perfect, and correct as it denotes that good training is completely separate from natural talent, that perfection is, in fact, unattainable…”

Gwyneth McPherson is an FEI rider with over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage. Her education began in the 1970s and was developed largely by Lendon Gray, Carol Lavell, and Michael Poulin. Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage, is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and the art of dressage, as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.

This second article explores the idea of  riding “in the right way,” and why it is integral to productive training.

If you have competed in dressage-the-sport, you are at least a little bit familiar with the 0-10 scale used to score in competition. You may also have a general understanding of how the judges are supposed to use the scoring system, perhaps a working knowledge of the United States Dressage Federation Handbook, or even the Dressage sections of United States Equestrian Federation Rulebook (or, if you happen to be from a country other than the US, the rulebook provided by your own FN). 

Excerpt from the New England Dressage Association’s 2022 Omnibus.

All of these are very useful tools to more or less gauge how well the test is presented in competition, but they are not necessarily how one would determine if a rider is riding in a productive way, or if a horse is well-trained. Of course, there is a way, but it is not defined solely by competition or scoring. 

If you have attended shows, clinics, or symposia given by top judges or top riders/trainers, you may have heard them refer to the training, or producing an exercise, as being done “in the right way.” This terminology is an extremely important part of understanding dressage training and riding. It is the most neutral way to determine if quality work is being done as it encompasses all types of dressage training while excluding fads, finances, politics, and opinions. Training done in the right way is effective training.

So, what does it mean, exactly? In the most basic sense, in the right way denotes that the training is going properly for that level or age of the animal and that the exercises that are being asked of the horse are improving its natural abilities rather than degrading them. It also means that the exercise or movement that is being performed is being done in such a way that the horse can learn and improve through performing it. 

In the right way is intentionally separate from the meaning of more concrete words like talented, perfect, and correct as it denotes that good training is completely separate from natural talent, that perfection is, in fact, unattainable, and being correct is subject to time, place, and level of training. Additionally, training/riding that is done in the right way means that it is being done without force, without sharp aids, and with the clear intention of improving the horse’s balance, suppleness, and strength. 

Let’s for a moment consider the role of talent in the training process. Talent is an inherent trait, not learned. The horse or the rider are either born with talent or lack degrees of it. Although we tend to embrace the idea that talent is this magical piece for upper-level success, it is key to note that talent alone—which can be helpful and is certainly necessary at the Olympic level—will not produce positive results; effective training is still necessary. Additionally, a lack of talent does not make training an absolute exercise in futility because dressage training done in the right way works regardless of talent as it improves the horse’s athletic development. Untalented riders and untalented horses can learn most, if not all, of the movements in the Grand Prix, even though they may not be extremely competitive in the show ring at the highest level of sport. 

Apollo, 14.2 hh QH gelding before Gwyneth purchased him. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson

Apollo and Gwyneth’s student Alison Rehnberg schooling Third Level. Photo (c) Jennifer Dillon

When we talk about training in the right way, we also shy away from the word perfect because there is an understanding that the right way allows for imperfection and that mistakes are a necessary and unavoidable part of the process of training. It is, in fact, incorrect to try to make a horse perfect. Perfection can only be a fleeting (although perhaps repeatable) moment whenever a living organism is involved. 

For example, imagine all the qualities you need for training horses can be measured on a scale from -10 (way too little) to +10 (way too much). The point in the center (zero) is “perfection.” An easy example to consider is the roundness of the neck. If the horse’s neck is completely inverted that is a -10 (as little roundness as possible) and roll keur—chin on the horse’s chest— is +10 (way too much). Zero would denote perfectly on the vertical. Because no living thing can maintain perfection 100% of the time in anything, we have to accept that excellence occurs in a space greater than a pinpoint, perhaps an area of -1 to +1. Really, really good would then be -2 to +2, mostly good would be -3 to +3, not so good would be -4 to +4 or perhaps even -5 to +5, with anything after that just simply being not ok. 

Illustration (c) Morgane Schmidt of The Idea of Order.

Both extremes are equally undesirable as they both put the horse out of balance under the rider and can cause suffering. Training a horse in the right way requires that the horse is allowed to make some mistakes in both directions – slightly in front of the vertical as well as slightly behind it. The rider should be able to influence the horse in both directions to help the horse balance and improve. If the training always allows for a little bit of error in both directions equally, then “perfect” is happening more frequently each time the horse passes over that center point to go a little too much in each direction. Even with this though, we must at the same time accept that there is a point where it becomes unacceptable, and then wildly out of bounds in each direction.

Similarly, correct is often used to denote that an exercise was done in the right way, but it does not allow for the necessary variations of doing the work properly for that animal in that moment.  In other words, doing something correctly implies a degree of rigidity and in the right way allows for some latitude from the rigid pinpoint of correct. 

Steffi Wolf and the young German stallion, For Gold.

So, in consideration of those points, it becomes clear that training in the right way means that with the natural talent, conformation, and temperament the horse has to offer, the trainer has developed the intellect, musculature, balance, and suppleness of the horse. It speaks to the fact as well that the trainer has not degraded any of those aspects and is an acknowledgement of the harmony that’s been subsequently fostered between the human and the animal. Thus, the result is not merely a faux image of throughness created by strength or force, but actual harmony.

Gwyneth and Well Done warming up. Photo (c) Jennifer Dillon

When watching, a horse ridden in the right way is not afraid, angry, or dejected in his work but rather takes some pleasure in his time spent being trained and ridden. There is a look of ease to his performance as he not only understands what’s being asked of him, but also trusts his rider to help him stay balanced within the work. A horse ridden in the right way is often then in better balance and more supple when being ridden than when left to his own devices. This does not mean that the rider never has to use a strong aid, or an artificial aid, it simply means that these things are done only to add to the horse’s understanding and to limit unwanted behaviors rather than as a punitive measure. 

Too often we see horses (not just in dressage) held in a shape with tight reins, tight curb chains, and other equipment. Often there is a clear appearance of surrender to discomfort. This is exactly in opposition of the right way. While the more egregious examples are obvious, others are more insidious and often (unfortunately) get eclipsed by the horse’s inherent talent in a test setting. 

Forced roundness in the warm up arena. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson

Reins that are too loose and offer no useful input from the rider through the connection to direct and assist the horse, and the resulting lack of balance under the rider, is also distinctly not in the right way. Therefore, once again, the place for good training is in an area in the middle, and not a fixed pinpoint.

In both examples, the horse is not being educated effectively to understand the aids as he is not being allowed to make the appropriate, necessary small mistakes that his understanding will develop  from. Instead, he’s been held in a specific shape or left to figure it out on his own with little input from his rider. While this may seem to work in the short term, it is not a proper foundation to build on and will ultimately fail—resulting in either a physically or mentally unsound horse. This is why knowledge of the training process and appropriate techniques are so important: it allows the rider to modify the exercises for the improvement of the animal, creating actual balance, thoroughness, and self-carriage rather than merely a faux image of it.  

Ultimately, just because a horse has impressive gaits and can be ‘managed’ through an upper level test does not necessarily mean that he has been properly developed or trained. Many times the fanciest horse in a class shows clear signs of tension with a rider who is merely holding it all together. The resulting scores might be passable, or even good if the horse is talented enough. But whatever the score may be, it’s a small fraction of what would be possible with training in the right way. And, eventually, that sort of forced riding will degrade the horse’s mental and physical health, rather than build a foundation for greater understanding and further training. Comparatively, a horse ridden in the right way has an honest understanding of what’s being asked of him and the resulting harmony should be apparent. He learns that his job is to stay on the aids and that his rider will help him, keeping him safe and balanced. This relationship is necessarily built on trust and understanding and further developed through balanced, systematic training. It is not something that can be forced or done quickly, but rather must be developed “in the right way” and over time.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.