I recently had a discussion with a fellow rider and trainer about teaching. We both recognized that our most successful students (“success” defined as progress in their ability/education, NOT strictly show ring success) have one thing in common: they take responsibility for their own education.
Before I start, let me first say that yes, of course there are also responsibilities that trainers have to students. Trainers need to be invested in educating themselves, so that they can become better teachers. Trainers need to make sure that they are giving their students their full attention during lessons, and they need to be willing to work to help a student understand a concept, if their usual ways aren’t getting the job done. They also need to teach students the theory of dressage, and how various exercises help shape the horse as an athlete. But even the best trainer can’t be there when you’re riding on your own—and that’s when taking responsibility for your own education becomes important.
Discipline is crucial. After a lesson, do you take the concepts and exercises you have worked on that day and do your best to apply them in your future schooling sessions, experimenting with your aids and noting your horse’s reactions? Or do you simply ride around by route, with no plan? If you ride a bad transition, do you analyze what went wrong and ride it again, and try to fix it? Or do you just ignore it? By choosing the latter in each example, progress will be slow to nonexistent. It is incredibly important to take the time to school on your own, to put into daily practice the things you have learned. I know that at the end of a long day at work, finding motivation can be hard (especially if you live in an area with real winter weather)—but that is where discipline comes into play. It is better to ride for 25-30 minutes with discipline and focus, than to ride sloppily for 45 minutes to an hour. And for those who may think, “Easy for her to say! She rides horses all day long!”, I will let you know that I have a day job that helps pay the bills, so I have been there and done that.
I see a lot of riders who have no idea how to ride without their trainer present and directing their every move. What happens if you go to a show and you and your trainer have conflicting ride times, and now you must warm up on your own? If you do not understand the theory behind the exercises you are doing, and you haven’t spent time putting theory into practice on your own, you will probably find the prospect of warming up on your own daunting. From my prospective, I have succeeded when my students can confidently warm themselves up when I’m not there—I know I have been successful in giving them the tools to be able to judge what exercises will best help their horse in that moment. To be fair, many instructors tend to be light on theory, for a variety of reasons. If you don’t understand why you’re doing an exercise, ASK!
Some riders mention a fear of “doing the wrong thing” while schooling. This is nonsense. As long as you are treating your horse fairly, the best way to learn is by experimenting and, yes, making mistakes. I made a ton of mistakes with the first horse I trained to FEI—and learned a tremendous amount in the process. And I still make mistakes to this day! Rather than getting worried or upset, learn from your mistakes and move on. Horses are incredibly forgiving.
Your trainer can give you a roadmap and guide you along the way, but ultimately YOU are responsible for working on improving your skills through dedicated practice and experimentation. Not even a world-renowned Olympian can put in the blood, sweat and tears for you.