Training in the Right Way: Different TYPES of Equestrian Professionals

This week’s article discusses different types of equestrian dressage professionals and what they may be able to offer depending on their expertise and educational background.

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier it is to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him. That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it absolutely is necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Most riders understand that they need to research a trainer/instructor/clinician’s background prior to riding with them. At the very least, they rely on name recognition and fame to give them a sense of whether they want help from a specific professional. But there is more to choosing a teacher than name recognition or assuming that because they ride at a higher level anything they say will be helpful.

In previous articles I have discussed some of the considerations one should take when choosing a teacher, including skill levels, credentials, theory, style, and ability to produce what you would like to learn. In this article, I would like to discuss what different TYPES of dressage professionals are going to focus on and what they likely have to offer you in the way of education, based on their own background and type of education. In other words, depending on what you need help with, you might need to search for someone with a specific type of knowledge base. (While this article is geared specifically towards dressage riders, the idea holds true for most disciplines).

In this article, I want to highlight what a riding instructor, a horse trainer, a judge, a competition rider, and a young horse rider can provide for education as well as note what their limits are. While most dressage professionals are multifaceted and have more than one area of expertise, if you show up to train with an exceptional young horse trainer who competes very successfully in the young horse tests, and is an “L” graduate judge, but has never produced an FEI horse, you will likely have a very hard time getting help starting your one-tempis.


Riding Instructor

Photo (C) Gwyneth McPherson.

This category could be an article of its own as obviously there are different types and levels of riding instructors. A riding instructor who teaches children and beginner adults is pretty obviously not the person that you would go to for help with your Third Level horse. However, there are some very advanced riding teachers out there who may have insight into how to better ride your Third Level horse. Most instructors have experience with training and competition, or judging, but not all of them. In general though, someone who is a riding instructor can help the student learn how to ride better. This may include teaching the rider the aids for new exercises, working on the rider’s equitation, and longe lessons. This professional may or may not have the ability to teach the rider how to ride a competitive dressage test or how to train their horse to do flying changes and piaffe, for instance, but it all depends on whether they have been trained and have experience in those fields as well.

Horse Trainer

Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

A horse trainer is a professional that not only knows how to teach a horse what his job is, but also knows how to solve the problems that other riders have with their horses. The horse trainer is a professional that focuses on the advancement of the horse. Depending on their background, they may or may not be proficient at teaching riders how to ride, but they can impart knowledge about how to make your horse better. If you are inclined to ride, train, and/or compete your horse, you absolutely must have the assistance of a horse trainer. No amount of equitation and longe lessons will get you there. If you wish to compete in dressage above Second Level (or at all), you really need a horse trainer involved that has trained multiple horses PAST the level you hope to achieve. It helps dramatically if this professional is also a riding instructor, and has experience in competition and/or judging.

Competition rider

Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

A competition rider is an expert at competing. This does not mean that they are also a horse trainer or a riding instructor. This does not take away from their wealth of knowledge and experience with competition, maybe even through the Olympic level. Here is where a lot of people get confused about what a competition rider can offer them. If the competition rider is also a riding instructor and a horse trainer, then you have hit a gold mine. However, that isn’t always, or even often, the case. In the current state of US Dressage, many of our Olympic level athletes do not train their own horses from the young horse phase through Grand Prix. This does not mean that they aren’t knowledgeable or that they are not good riders—you cannot take away their obvious skill and ability in the competition arena. Grand Prix is HARD, and high-performance competition is HARD, but being exceptionally good at these skills does not also automatically qualify that professional as a trainer or riding instructor. They can convey a great deal of knowledge about competing, preparation of the horse and rider for high level competition, how to ride a top-level test, and they may be very good coaches. But they may or may not be able to teach you how to ride or train a horse from the beginning to Grand Prix. Unless they have a history of actually doing these things, you should not expect them to be able to provide you with that type of education.

Young Horse Rider

Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

A young horse rider is a professional that starts young horses and often prepares them for competition or sales. Their expertise is in making a young horse rideable enough to look good for what the owner needs to do with them. These professionals are usually very fit, well-balanced, and bold. They can stick to almost anything, but they may or may not have knowledge of how to bring these young horses up through the levels past the “young horse” phase. If you wish to ride, train, and compete above Second Level, you will need to ride with a trainer that has experience and expertise in riding instruction and upper-level training. If your young horse trainer has a history of producing upper-level horses and riders, as well as training happy, healthy, well- mannered young horses, then you have hit another gold mine.

Dressage Judge

Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

A dressage judge, particularly an upper-level dressage judge, is a professional with highly trained expertise in watching horses and riders and determining the quality of the riding presented at a specific moment in front of them. Judges have to have achieved scores at levels that correspond with the levels that they are judging prior to becoming a licensed judge at that level, but it is important to note though that judges are not required to TRAIN a horse to that level, nor are they required to TEACH a rider to compete at that level. Many of them have experience in both of these categories however, and some are amazing teachers and trainers. The important things to remember are that not all judges can teach a rider to become an upper-level rider and not all judges can train a horse beyond First Level. What they are very good at is telling you what your dressage test exercises should look like and they can be extremely helpful with creating “the right picture.” This knowledge is very valuable if you are a competitor. However, unless the judge has a history of training horses from the beginning to Grand Prix, and teaching riders through the upper levels, they may not be able to help you with your training problems or riding challenges.

While most dressage professionals are experts in more than one skill category, it is important to gain as much insight as possible into what their greatest expertise is in, and choose accordingly depending on what you need help with. Each of the professionals mentioned can be extremely helpful when they are concentrating on their area of expertise. Unfortunately, many times riders misunderstand what type of information they are going to receive from a clinician or teacher, because they do not understand that each of these skill sets have a different focus. Quite often a rider just assumes that someone who rides or competes at a higher level than them is just simply “better” or more knowledgeable and can thus help them. This can lead to a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. Be certain to choose teachers, trainers, and clinicians that have the specific TYPE and depth of knowledge you and your horse require when choosing who to ride with. It is the student’s responsibility to understand and seek out the professionals that have the history that will help them with their education journey.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.

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.