Training in the Right Way: The Process vs The End Goal

This week’s article discusses the significant difference between the end goal and the process of getting there. Although they obviously are inextricably linked, it’s important to understand that they often look very different.

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.

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In this week’s article, I’d like to discuss the very important difference between the process and the end goal.

Developing a horse’s ability to do a skill (an exercise) and the horse performing the exercise proficiently, are two completely different things. This is critical to understanding how the process of training works. The process of teaching a horse to perform piaffe, for instance, is not about trying to get the horse to piaffe, but to give the horse all the physical strength, balance, and understanding of the aids that learning how to piaffe gives them. The hallmarks of finished piaffe (on the spot, sitting, elevated, and confident) as seen at Grand Prix or Haute Ecole, is the culmination of years of work. Years of work where piaffe does not look like the finished product, and often, in the beginning, may not look much like piaffe at all.

Velvet in an “unfinished” but still very good piaffe. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

Piaffe is not the only exercise that takes years to develop, but it is an excellent example, especially because if you wait too long to start developing it, you lose the opportunity to produce the final product. That said, as with all exercises, it must be introduced AFTER the horse has learned the necessary skills that prepare it for piaffe. The skills must not be skipped and also need to be introduced at the right times.

As a riding instructor, and a dressage trainer, and writer, I regularly get criticized about the information I share on the timing for introducing a horse to certain exercises by readers and riders alike. About half of the criticism comes from the “that’s too early” side, and the other half of the criticism comes from the “he should know this by now” group. As with all horse training, the correct time is somewhere in the middle, and it directly relates to the horse in question and what that horse needs to learn to better understand his job as a riding horse.

Certainly, there is some validity to both arguments. Absolutely you cannot successfully teach a horse something he is not physically or mentally prepared to learn with any real lasting success. And, there is also a point in the horse’s life that if he has not already learned something, he will not have enough years of suppleness and soundness to become excellent at that skill. That being said, the discussion here is not about too early and too late. This article is about understanding that the finished product is too much to expect at the beginning of the process of training it, and that there are many things that have to be introduced in order to reach that goal. Many of those things may not look like the finished product but are absolutely necessary training points along the way.

Horses have no knowledge or ability to understand the human construct of dressage training. They will never be able to read a book or an article on the subject, they cannot attend a lecture or symposium to learn the process, and they will never be able to watch a video to learn it. Their only hope of learning dressage is through interactions with their human partners. The human’s knowledge and understanding of the training process is the only avenue through which a horse can learn dressage. This means that the horse’s learning process is limited by the rider’s understanding of the process. On the most basic level then, before trying to teach a horse an exercise, the rider must understand the purpose of the exercise. Next, they must be able to break down the components of what makes the exercise work to teach the horse a skill. They must know the correct aids, or sequence of aids, to produce the exercise. And lastly, they must have learned the order in which to teach these components and why it must be in that order.

To illustrate this concept, I will use the example of teaching the flying change. First of all, the purpose of the flying change is not just to have a super nifty way to hop from one lead to another without stopping. However, it is an extra cool by-product of the process that, when performed consistently in the right way, PROVES that all of the training that led to that super nifty result was completed on time and properly.

The purpose of TEACHING the flying change to the horse is to improve the quality of the canter (it also increases the effect of the outside leg aid of the rider).

I’ll just let you mull on that a little bit before we move on.

Dio mid-flying change. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson.

The qualities we look for in the FINISHED PRODUCT flying change are that the horse is straight between the rider’s aids and on the line, has an uphill tendency, and is round, forward, and supple. The horse should also complete the exercise in one stride, leaving the ground on one lead and landing hind-feet first on the net lead, with all four legs changing leads while in the air, AND without additional, flamboyant acrobatics.

The aids for the flying change are uni-lateral and involve using both the outside rein and outside leg (in the right moment of the canter stride) to get the horse to literally pick up the other lead from the canter lead you are on.

There are a few exercises that need to be INTRODUCED before trying to teach the flying change:

  • Counter canter
  • Haunches-in
  • Half pass
  • Canter-walk-canter transitions
  • Turns on the haunches (baby walk pirouettes)
  • Beginning (baby) piaffe

There are a few exercises that need to be confirmed (easy) before trying to teach the flying change:

  • Counter canter
  • Haunches-in
  • Canter-walk-canter transitions
  • Turns on the haunches

(If you are paying attention, you might have noticed that most of these exercises involve the use of the outside leg aid. Almost like that aid is going to be important at some point in the next part of the process….)

When these exercises are easily produced on a daily basis, the horse is ready to start TRYING the flying change. Of course, there are exercises that are supposed to be learned and confirmed before these exercises are introduced and confirmed. You cannot pull a horse out of the field with no training and start with these exercises (obviously).

When teaching the flying change, the rider must know how and when to use these exercises to set up the canter quality and balance that allows for the horse to (in a balanced way) jump into the air, re-arrange its legs, and land on the other lead in one stride. This is where people get bogged down in trying to produce the finished result as the attempt to train it. This is also where, even if you know what you are doing, you must have a trusted person on the ground to help you identify the quality of the canter and the balance necessary to help the horse produce the change, as well as a constructive evaluation of the attempted change.

Both of you need to know what the “right wrong things” are that generally happen while teaching the horse this exercise successfully, and what the “wrong wrong things” are that you absolutely must avoid. Unfortunately, that stuff is way too complex to try to explain in one article, but the most important thing to get out of that is that the horse is SUPPOSED to do some things wrong in the process of learning the exercise, like being a little crooked, or over exuberant, or anticipating the change, for example. Knowing the exercises and aids that help the horse improve is critical to producing the correct end-result. It is in this part of the process that it is crucial to understand that the process and the goal DO NOT always look the same.

So why, exactly, is noting this so important? It’s because those who fail to recognize the difference between the process and the end goal will be largely unsuccessful in effectively training their horse. And, in some instances, will end up unfairly pressuring or punishing their horse because they will be attempting to strength ride some approximation of the end goal that the horse either fails to understand or cannot physically mimic yet.

Ultimately, training a horse to do an exercise, especially a complex exercise like the flying change, is a process predicated on a systematic approach that includes knowing what the exercise is supposed to create in the horse’s way of going, what the aids are to produce it, and a working knowledge of the exercises that must be accomplished before trying to teach the new exercise. The rider also must be able to recognize the normal and appropriate mistakes that the horse SHOULD make during the process as well as recognizing the mistakes that absolutely must be corrected or limited to have success later. If you do not understand and embrace the process necessary enroute to the end goal, you will never reach the end goal.

So, remember: the goal is the finished product, but the journey building it rarely looks like the finished product, with many mistakes and returns to the supporting exercises to create the final result.

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.