Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Top Photo: Trainer Cathi and Cindy during 2002 event at Lake Oswego Hunt.
Right Photo: Trainer Tracey on Lefty, 2008 AHA Region IV Sport Horse Championships.

Last week I shared the arena with a rider taking a lesson from Trainer Tracey. As she was reminding the other rider not to collapse her ribcage, to ride into the outside rein, etc., I was checking myself for the same issues. One of the advantages of boarding at a lesson facility -- a reminder of my checklist! :-)

Several months ago a fellow boarder asked me if I planned on showing Phantom this summer. The first thing that popped out of my mouth was "I haven't taken a lesson in years!" She didn't think that should stop me and indicated she thought Phantom and I would be competitive based on what she'd observed of my rides. That was kind of her!

But it got me thinking about the role of our trainers and why I said what I said. Over the years I've read about and observed riders who prepped for and competed with minimal or no assistance from a trainer. Frankly, I don't know how they do it.

Maybe my attitude is shaped by my years of doing hunters with Kiyara. It's dangerous to fling yourself and your horse over fences without wise guidance! I've got books on riding, I read equine magazines, I observe riders in the warmup ring and in competition at shows, there are DVDs by Olympic stars -- but to my mind, nothing beats an experienced observer in real time.

We get into bad habits that we aren't aware of. Drooping shoulders, sliding hips, collapsed midsections, uneven hands, legs too far forward or behind.... Feels fine to us, but the trainer on the ground immediately notes the problems that can interfere with the very movement we're asking for. Man, it can feel weird when the trainer corrects your position and you're actually sitting in proper balance!!

Trainers assist us with the timing of our cues. Most amateur riders are a "day late and a dollar short" with our cues. We don't catch the horse's evasive action in time, ask for a change of gait at the wrong moment. fail to repeat hand/seat/leg cues to continue the desired movement, etc. The trainer can improve our timing and results.

The knowledgable eye on the ground will let us know if we're REALLY getting the requested movement from the horse. Is the rear leg actually crossing over? Is the horse really traveling on three tracks, or is it just snaking its neck to the side? Are you getting a genuine pivot, or is the horse cheating? With the appropriate guidance we can reinforce the correct movements instead of settling for approximations.

A good trainer helps the horse and rider build solid basics on which to build future skills. He or she will push the rider beyond his or her comfort level -- just enough to move to the next stage but not so much as to frighten or confuse. The trainer will know when you're ready to grasp and apply the next skill.

Not that our horses are perfect. Trainer Cathi diagnosed Phantom as bulging his midsection to the right and tipping his nose left. He was blocking his own movement. So we worked on exercises and homework to correct my position and to straighten out the little gray guy and viola! Hunter-jumper trainers place poles all over the place to slow a horse from rushing fences, or drifting over a jump, etc. Years of experience have given trainers an arsenal of tools for correcting problems.

I didn't get a horse in order to pay someone else to ride it, but a trainer can assess a horse from the saddle, apply remedies, and teach the owner to get the same results.

But of course, there are trainers and there are trainers. It can take a lot of shopping to locate a knowledgable trainer who can help you attain your riding goals in a safe manner suitable to you and your horse. I'm not much for the trainers who immediately go to gear and gadgets. Gadgets have their place on occasion, but I'd rather work with the biomechanics of both species to create a cohesive team. And there are the trainers who talk clients into buying a horse more suitable for the trainer instead of the owner. Guaranteed training and lesson income from an owner who is afraid of her horse.

So why am I not taking lessons if I believe trainers are so important? Primarily finances...a lack thereof. But we'll see. Maybe I can do my part to stimulate the economy via dressage lessons if any of the government funds come my way. :-)

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