One of the first things I did after buying my horse was find a trainer/coach. Before making that big purchase, my friend Heidi, who is a lovely upper level dressage rider, helped me learn the basics of riding on her horse, but it became abundantly clear that in order to progress, I needed someone to help me on a more formal, regular basis.
My first trainer was a woman who judged some of our local schooling shows. Her methods were founded in the old classical German school of dressage training. She believed in building a rider single skill by single skill. Lessons were often done at a walk until the movements were perfected. I spent a lot of time carrying a brush in my hands while holding the reins, so my hands would be quiet.
I tried to appreciate that dressage skills take a long time to perfect, but I have to admit, I was bored a lot of the time. More than me, my horse was changing before my eyes. He went from being a willing partner to a more and more belligerent jerk. The more we drilled, the worse he got. The worse he got, the more we drilled. You can see where this was going.
I toughed it out with that trainer for about a year and a half. I wanted so badly to please her, and show her that I could do what she was asking of me. As the work became more difficult, I thought I was getting better. The reality is, I was only getting better at controlling my increasingly unhappy horse.
He would be fine when we were just riding, but as soon as we started a lesson, “Bad Timmy” would show up. If I would complain about him throwing his shoulder or bracing against the bit, she would just tell me to do something different…but that usually didn’t help. She would never get on my horse, to feel for herself what he was doing. That concerned me. I was a beginner and I was on him – why wouldn’t she get on? Was she afraid of him? How could she see what I was going through?
My last lesson with her was in June of 2009. It was another disappointing day, with Timmy about to lose his cookies every 10 steps he took. He was miserable and so was I. I couldn’t wait for the hour to pass so I could get off and end the lesson. My trainer assured me things were going well and these were just “growing pains”.
I spent some alone time with Timmy that night and realized this wasn’t what I wanted for us. I made up my mind then and there, that our lessons were over and I was just going to spend some time riding for pleasure. No lessons…no drilling…no worrying about his frame…just plain “get on and have fun” rides. I spent the next 2 months enjoying my horse and watching him change back into the sweet gelding I bought.
During that summer, my friends began to ride with another trainer. She was a 4 star eventer who lived in our area and gave lessons. I watched their lessons with envy. They were having fun and their horses were getting better by the week. More importantly, the horses enjoyed their work. This trainer actually got on their horses to assess their skills and feel what the riders were feeling.
I began to wonder what Timmy would do if I started working with her. Now being a beginner (and a 50+ year old at that), I knew eventing wasn’t going to be my thing, but I asked her if she would be willing to do a training ride on my horse to figure out what some of his issues were. The next thing I knew, this 4 star eventer was riding my horse and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He was LOVELY! He worked in frame, in a rhythmic trot and did everything she asked of him. I could tell he was enjoying his work for the first time in a very long while.
I immediately started taking weekly lessons and they continue to this day. My current trainer acknowledged that I had learned some good basics from my former trainer, but what she saw was that my horse learned quickly and hated drilling. He is a horse that needs variety and challenge in his training, so he doesn’t get bored and “naughty”. As soon as he started working with her, he was much happier. He enjoyed pleasing her and when my work obligations had me traveling more than I wanted, she would not only do training rides on him, but took him on weekly hacks, so he could enjoy running around in the fields and getting a change of scenery. I had a happy horse and he had a happy rider…and a fantastic trainer.
Now, each lesson leaves me energized and excited for the next one. I always end on a good note with a huge smile on my face. My dressage scores have gone from mediocre to actually quite good. The Judges comment on what a lovely pair we make and I see lots of 7’s and 8’s on our tests. Working on our weaknesses is not a chore – it’s fun! I see Timmy improve all the time. He loves his trainer and so do I. What a difference from the old days.
I am far from an expert on trainers, having had only two in my short riding career, but I have learned a few lessons along the way.
- If you are working hard but things are getting worse, consider finding another trainer.
- If you aren’t enjoying your work, it maybe time to figure out why and FIX IT!
- If your horse is turning into Gunga Din–there is a reason for it. Cut your losses and find someone who can help you and get you to the point where lessons are FUN!
It’s ok to have lessons that are tough and challenging, but you should always get off feeling that you accomplished something. It should be a positive experience. I never would have thought I would end up training with an eventer, but it was the best decision I ever made. The difference for me was night and day. My friends continue to train with her as well and the progress they have made is palpable.
I can only wonder what Timmy would be like today if we didn’t “break up” with my first trainer. She still doesn’t speak to me and made it clear she thinks I am a “quitter”. She told me my horse would suffer for it.
But as they say, “the best revenge is living well” and we are! We have had a very successful show season so far…even got a blue ribbon doing our first jumping competition! I have the BEST TRAINER I could have asked for and Timmy is totally smitten with her. Riding is hard work, but it should also be fun. The right trainer makes all the difference. (This one’s for you L.E.A.!).