The importance of planning for successful dressage.
Start planning for success and it will be far easier to achieve the things you want. Highly effective riders tend to have clear goals and use a defined process to reach those goals. Planning for optimal health and fitness (human and equine) is essential, as is deciding on a strategic competitive campaign, but the element I am going to focus on here is the training plan. Selecting the right help and varying the intensity to suit your specific needs are the keys to smart planning.
First define why you want to be in training.
The frequency, intensity and duration of the training will depend a lot on the goals a rider sets. The resources you need will be different for each scenario. These are just a few of the ways in which I have defined my own and some of my clients training needs over the years. There are probably other and better ways in which you would define your specific needs; the idea is not for you to use my framework but to think about defining your own. Hopefully this kind of analysis will give you an idea of who you need to see, when, how often and why.
- General steady progress – for example a rider who wants to be as good as they can be but is not necessarily very ambitious. This is ideal if you are a rider who enjoys improvement for it’s own sake and likes learning. This need is best met by regular but not necessarily frequent tuition, with occasional clinics to for extra inspiration and a fresh perspective.
- Continual accelerated progress – for the ambitious rider who wants to reach a very high level of competence during their lifetime. If lifetime learning at a high level is an idea that appeals then this approach is probably for you. This means basing yourself with a coach, ideally in a high performance training environment where you are one of several riders in training. Training several times per week on as many horses as possible is the ideal scenario. If that is not affordable it still makes sense to be in that environment, train when you can and the rest of the time watch all of the lessons and daily training that you are able to.
- Goal Specific (with a short term focus) – this is for times when there is a competition or event imminent. For this the best plan is to base your horse with a coach but not necessarily long term. Make sure the focus is on preparation for the specific event in question, it is no time to start making radical changes. Combine work with your horse and work on schoolmaster horses if you can because this will give you the opportunity to practice whatever you need to work on frequently without driving your horse to distraction.
- Goal Specific (with a medium term focus) – when a competition or event is planned within a time frame of several months. Generally speaking you will need to step up the frequency of coaching as you get closer to the event. If you need to make structural changes to your riding or your horse’s way of going then carefully consider whether the time frame is realistic; if you decide that it is, then begin with an intense burst of training and schedule another for the last month leading up to the event. In between times try to see a coach twice each week at least.
- Trouble shooting – when you have a problem with a specific horse, a movement, an issue of confidence or anything else that blocks progress in clearly defined way. These situations need customised solutions. What is common to them all is finding someone supportive to help you. Problems make us vulnerable and that means the person we need is not only an expert but an emotionally intelligent one. The best advice I can give is do your research and choose wisely, especially if it is a problem with a horse. Trailing a horse that has issues around several different experts usually deepens the problem. Find someone you trust and then give them enough time to really make a difference.
Decide on the type of help that you will need to access.
This is a very important step because few of us can just throw unlimited time and money at our riding. Even when there are very few constraints it is still valuable to plan; when your resources are very limited then you really need a strategy in order to make the best of them.
Coaches and clinicians are often specialists in a particular aspect of dressage. As I have mentioned before I have ‘go to’ people for meeting specific needs. You may find one coach who can help you with everything but I like to identify specialists in a few key areas
- Training young horses
- A seat and balance specialist
- A test riding specialist (a judge is often a wise choice for this)
- Jumping coaches for cross training the horses
This is in addition to working with a regular coach and riding in clinics. Finding the right coach or coaches to work with is vitally important to make progress. Personality fit is at least as important as expertise. It is important to appreciate the difference in teaching style that exists between coaching and giving a clinic. When I start to coach a rider I will often take their riding apart and put it back together; this is an in depth process which can effect radical change and unlock the doors to higher levels and better quality work. As a clinician I simply cannot do that. In clinics I tend not to make much in the way of significant changes to the rider. My focus is firmly on the horse. This is because I cannot be sure that there is enough time for me to put things back together again and let them go home feeling that it was a positive experience. Making big changes to how you ride is definitely the job of a coach rather than a clinician. This is one reason why it is a major mistake to substitute riding in clinics regularly for regular coaching. Worst of all is the idea that competing often and working on the feedback of a judges sheet is a viable alternative to coaching. This would hardly work if you saw the same judge every time; as you are likely to see different judges it will never give you a reliable idea of your progress. Seeing your percentages rise is indicative of progress, as a general trend, but it is a rather hit and miss way to train.
Consider the resources available to you.
We all work with different constraints. Location, finances, time, health and other commitments in our lives impose limitations. The ideal scenario for making progress with your horse may be impossible for any number of reasons but sit down and work out how to make the best of the resources you do have.
Know your budget and how it can fluctuate from month to month. Set aside a realistic portion for your training and work out how much that represents per year. The bulk of this will be spent on working with your regular coach but it does not have to be evenly distributed throughout the year. I take December, January and August out of the equation because I rarely get enough peace through those months to train consistently. Consider the actual value of any big ticket items like high profile clinics or training breaks abroad; they may be expensive but they may also be highly beneficial, inspirational experiences. However if you think they are not going to represent real value for money then cut them out.
Consider the possibility of competing less frequently and using the money you save to access more training. In my experience the better the rider the more strategic and sparing they are with their competitive outings. Get out frequently enough to keep you and your horse at ease with the competition environment but beyond that set distinct goals and make a competition plan for the year that enables you to reach them. Sinking more of your resources into coaching means that when you do go out next there will be a visible difference in the quality or even the level of your performance.
If time, rather than money, is the thing you are short of then consider focusing your training into intensive short courses. This is particularly helpful if childcare or eldercare is needed in order to let you relax and focus on your horse. Block out a day or two when you can and get training on several horses instead of having two lessons a week through the month. I find this approach is sometimes easier than fitting in regular training sessions. If work is really not letting you spend the time you want to on training then taking a coaching holiday might be a good idea. Book some holiday time and head off to a training yard, with or without your horse for an intensive and hopefully also a fun break.
Look for creative solutions to help meet your training needs.
My ideal is to be based with a coach and to participate in clinics several times a year. I have worked out that my optimal schedule is to have three or four training days each week and ride as many horses under instruction as I can afford to. This is expensive and frankly it isn’t always possible. When there have been times that I could not sustain this level of training I found it really difficult to stay motivated.
- I found the best way round this was to engage the help of a another rider, a training buddy, who could give me accurate feedback. Sharing space with good riders helps you to keep your edge and your motivation. If you find someone you get along with well then support one another in training by being each others ‘eyes on the ground’. I have learned a lot from being in this role for some of my coaches in the past. For me it starts to recreate the collegiate environment of a professional training yard, which is where I am happiest.
- Having regular video footage taken of your work is a great help too. This is particularly useful if the people around you are not riders who know enough to give you constructive help. Keep the footage for at least a year because it is great to look back over and see how much you have changed. When you watch it don’t be harsh on yourself, as we all tend to be; instead look at it as though the person on the screen were your pupil rather than yourself. Self awareness is the key to learning but self criticism can be destructive if it is excessively harsh. One of the best bits of advice I was ever given was to be proud of the rider I am today as well as to be aware of the rider I want to become in future.
- Offer to write for judges. This is useful in itself but it often leads to being invited along to sit in, which means you are free to look up and watch for a change! So long as you save any questions for the end and are totally discreet about any conversations you have with the judge it is a learning opportunity not to miss. If you don’t know anyone who judges the best thing is to get in touch with a regional or national federation and volunteer.
- Audit at as many clinics as you can and go along to seminars when possible. Federations and clubs often have training events available at subsidised rates. There is a wealth of information out there for little or no money at all; some of the best books about dressage can be bought as older editions for pennies. Online resources have become increasingly abundant and it is even possible to have your work assessed remotely by expert teachers. Whilst this doesn’t give you the instant feedback that a coach on the spot would be able to, it is a useful training tool nonetheless.
Dressage can be a seriously expensive pursuit but, whatever your budget may be, training really is a core priority. Getting the best out of the resources you have at your disposal is one of the keys to successful and happy training. With good training experiences comes confidence and that is the most vital ingredient in success.