Training in the Right Way: Finding a Knowledgeable Teacher

This week’s article was born of the recent discussion regarding the education problem in our sport and looks at the importance of, and ways to, begin to assess potential dressage teachers.

There are many difficult aspects of dressage, but perhaps hardest part about learning dressage is finding a good teacher. This is because it is essentially impossible to determine who has been trained in a system of knowledge and who has not when you do not yet know enough to be able to tell.

In this country, there is no list or licensing or college degree to look for. Although there currently is a USDF certification program— which absolutely is a step in the right direction — some trainers who are highly qualified are not certified because they learned what they know outside of the USDF system, or before it even existed. Additionally, many capable trainers see no need for the certification as they’re already successfully working.

When selecting a teacher for dressage training (and competition), you must look for someone who has a clear systematic approach, with replicable, successful results. This individual must also have clear expectations and answers to training problems. While a person who has been riding longer than you have may have something to teach you, and someone who competes at a higher level than you may be able to give you some good advice, or a rider who is more successful in competition may be able to offer you some new insights, none of these is the same as riding with a trainer educated in the systematic approach of dressage training.

It is also important to acknowledge that there are different types of dressage professionals. Some people are very good at all of these skills, and some are best educated and experienced in only one or two of them. The differences among a rider, an instructor, a judge, a coach, and a trainer are significant. Especially so when you are in the process of finding a teacher. It is important that the student understands what each of these sub-professions are and how they may (or may not) be helpful in their education.

  • A professional dressage rider competes at high levels of competition and is an expert at going down centerline and getting the most out the horse that they are riding.
  • A professional instructor is very good at teaching people the mechanics of how to ride.
  • A judge is a specialized professional who has completed extensive training in recognizing dressage theory while in motion and applying a numeric value to what they see.
  • A coach is very experienced in helping competitors prepare for competition, building their confidence, and helping them use their training to create their best results.
  • A trainer knows how to take on the problems and challenges of a rider and/or horse and uses their knowledge of conformation, genetics, dressage theory and riding mechanics to develop both horses and riders to Grand Prix. The trainer is supposed to take on and solve the challenges of their student and horse, not increase them.

The trainer solves the challenges of the horse and rider. Photo (c) Jennifer Dillon.

In order to advance in dressage training, you need a riding instructor and a trainer to help you. This can be found in one person or you may have to advance from an instructor to a trainer. And, if you intend to compete, the input of a judge and a professional competitive rider would be very helpful, but you must also have a trainer. Maybe all three of these qualities can be found in one person, but it is also quite possible that you may need to work with a trainer and follow their suggestions about judges and riders to learn from as well.

While all of these professionals add a piece to the dressage puzzle, it is of the utmost importance that the student find a trainer with a systematic approach with replicable results across multiple types of horses and riders and that this trainer can articulate it all in an accessible way that the student can absorb. Having found this trainer, the student must then dedicate themselves to the system. While you can learn from multiple people, it is best to try not to ride with multiple other trainers, clinicians, instructors, judges and coaches as this lack of consistency voids the systemic approach that’s so crucial. Instead, the student must stay in the system they are learning and complete the process. While this sounds relatively straightforward in theory, the problem is that sometimes you can’t find this situation easily.

Photo courtesy of author. 

So how, then, do you go about assessing potential teachers?

Unfortunately, there’s not a one size fits all approach. Often you will need to spend time observing teaching and training, educating yourself on what to look for, and—unfortunately—kissing a few frogs in the process.

Top trainers speak the same language. Although they may have some small differences in the focus of their theory, and they may have different native languages, they have learned the system of training and therefore how to solve the training problems. They can also recognize each other’s knowledge immediately when watching each other train, teach, and lecture. It is exactly the same with other professionals such as lawyers, nurses, physicians, etc. The difficulty for those coming up the ranks in the sport and looking for a mentor is that they often do not yet have the knowledge to recognize it in others.

The result of the above is that students often resort to simply seeking out successful riders to train with. While a successful rider can be physically and mentally talented for riding, without having been taught the history, vocabulary, and theory of dressage, they will not have a systematic approach to training and therefore teaching. So, although it may be tempting to look for a top rider to train with, this does not guarantee that they are also a proficient trainer. This does not mean they have nothing to offer, but they will not to be able to pass on the necessary systematic approach to training.

Differentiation and definitions aside, the absolute most important factors in finding a teacher for dressage are as follows:

  • They are capable of what they profess to be teaching — or at least they have a documented history of doing what you want them to help you do, and have done it with other riders and horses.
  • You should be able to identify who educated them and what system they were trained in (German, French, SRS, some combination of these, or perhaps another system?)
  • They must allow you to progress, expect you to progress, and can give you the tools to progress.
  • They absolutely MUST NOT tear down your confidence and speak to you abusively (telling you that you are “inadequate, incompetent, or incapable” is not the same as raising their voice to increase your reaction, or pushing you to achieve more). Sometimes a good trainer has to tell you things you do not want to hear, but it should be useful information that you can act on (such as you need to get fitter or take on a healthier lifestyle in order to be more competitive), not just empty criticism.
  • They MUST NOT train horses with chemicals, force, and pain. Some horses will come to excellent trainers with training problems and behavioral issues that may require more strength or stronger equipment. But an excellent trainer will not apply the same techniques, amount of strength, and equipment to all the other horses they train.

The coach should give the rider confidence. Photo (c) Gwen Poulin.

Finally, in order for the trainer to succeed in producing a successful student, the student must take on the responsibility of being a good student. If you have thoughtfully chosen someone to train with, you have already done a great deal of research in learning their teaching style, history, and education. Ask your teacher where they would like you to look for more information, what books would they like you to read, what videos you should watch, what riders and trainers you should observe and emulate, and which ones you should avoid. Do what your teacher tells you to try to do in your training sessions and between lessons and follow their advice on the training process for your horse. And always ask questions and get clarification when needed!

There’s no doubt that dressage is HARD, but the process should be enjoyable and rewarding with a knowledgeable teacher.

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.