Monday, May 21, 2012

Dressage training: Is loyalty overrated?

One of the most frustrating aspects of the horse industry is the practice of exclusivity in trainer/training relationships. I think this is the norm in the hunter/jumper world, but it exists in the dressage world as well. To get exposure to other perspectives, many riders go to clinics.  But in NJ and PA, where the air is thick with BNTs, it's an unspoken rule or expectation that clients will use, and be loyal to, one trainer. As clients, why don't we call the shots on how we work with our trainers? Why is it more like a marriage than a true business partnership?

Where did it all begin, and why?
I suppose there are some plausible reasons for this...
  •  trainers often have "a system" that they feel needs 100% commitment; 
  •  a client going to multiple trainers might be confused by too many opinions and divergent approaches;
  •  Assuming  a systematic training program is in place, there would be loss of continuity.
However... I'm not sure that the average dressage trainer follows a system, or even a systematic approach. They walk in, they tell you what they see, they help you, then it's over. That's whole 'nuther blog post. But as far as exclusivity, I think it's practiced because it suits the trainer financially -- the old  economic motive. They need a steady income and the security of having a client who invests in them and doesn't vary their investment. 

I'm not advocating dressage "free love" either
I'm not recommending that riders flit from trainer to trainer -- but must we pinky-swear that we'll never train with another? Do we need permission to go to another trainer? Do we worry that a trainer will lose interest in training us if our eye wanders?

 Is it a two-way street?
Do trainers show us the same loyalty they expect from us? Or do they take advantage of the system we're in? I've heard many stories of trainers playing favorites, bad-mouthing or trashing their best clients, talking on their cellphones through a lesson, blah, blah, blah. I know you've all heard this kind of stuff.

Middle ground?
I firmly believe that if we're paying for a service, at the end of the day it's a business transaction--albeit one with an emotional element. That's true of a lot of business relationships, especially ones that are longstanding.

What would an alternate system look like? Have any of you designed your own training program independent of any one trainer? How does it work?

In my next post I'll throw out some advantages to working with multiple trainers...


  1. I've been effectively "trainer free" for several years now mostly due to becoming a poor college student. I used to be a working student for one trainer, but at the same time she encouraged me to take lessons with other instructors and go attend clinics, etc. I got a really well rounded education. We were also in a very rural area so there wasn't exactly any "competition" either. I've taken a lesson here and there, but haven't been able to commit to any one person. I did experience trainer jealous once where i was working off jumping lessons with someone, and enjoying them! I heard about an eventing trainer in the area and thought I'd call her to get a second perspective on my riding. Interestingly enough, just a few days after that lesson the other gal I had been working off lessons with emailed me to say she no longer needed my help and I'd have to pay for regular lessons. It was really odd. Needless to say I didn't take any more lessons with her as I simply didn't have that kind of money, it had been a one time splurge.

    I guess that's another reason i enjoy Eventing so much, because it is not at all uncommon to have one trainer for dressage, and another for the jumping phases, and the instruction from each will often overlap.

    As my OTTB starts to get to a point where I can take him out to clinics and shows and lessons here in about 6months to a year, I certainly don't plan on keeping it exclusive. I mean, haven't we all heard how beneficial cross training is? ;)

  2. I work mostly independently, more out of necessity than choice (limits of time and finances). I have used a lot of instructors and clinicians over the years; some I wouldn't (and didn't) repeat, and a couple I got/get a lot out of and use as often as I am able. I have never gotten the "loyalty" thing, and don't abide by it. And fortunately, the two instructors/clinicians I have used most are not divas protecting their territory.

  3. I kind of have a best of both worlds approach. There aren't many trainers local to me, so few options. I highly value my trainer and her knowledge of the big picture my horse and I fit in - our progress, our recurring problems, etc. My horse has a tendency to build tension away from home to the point he is crooked enough to look lame to someone who doesn't know him. My trainer knows his history and that if he is worked hard through it when he gets home the next day and doesn't have that tension he'll be totally even and look fine. It's ugly, and emotionally hard to push him through the tension to the point he looks even away from home - but it's something he does (he twists his spine so his haunches are far right and hind legs are therefore used unevenly) and one example of the things where she has the experience with us to know what and why it's happening.
    There is a biomechanics instructor who comes to town once a month during fall/winter/spring and I try to ride with her twice each time she's here. She sees the details of the small issues within my position which affect our partnership. She isn't helping me train my horse, but is helping me train my body. I have never had an instructor so focused on the use of individual muscles and how I use them and how they affect me and my horse. This focus has really helped me transition my own position from "former hunter rider" to simply "dressage rider."
    I also have two specific clinicians with whom I ride whenever possible. One is an upper level eventing trainer who is great at cutting to the nitty gritty for me and what I need to work on with my horse. The other is a BN dressage trainer who comes to the area several times a year. Neither of them tell me anything which contradicts with my trainer, but they tell me things a bit more forcefully and focused on what they see as the single specific item affecting my partnership with my horse at the time. They give advice geared toward a very big picture problem and spending the next 6 months or so working on it, not toward preparing for a lesson the next week.
    For me, the key riding with all those individuals is that they value correct riding rather than fitting some specific system. Riding the hind end up into the front, working on an uphill balance, etc. They don't contradict each other so I am struggling to clarify differences or decide between the advice on who to listen to. I tend to be suspicious of anyone who says "this is my system and you must follow it." I'm much more trusting of someone having a specific perspective and strength of knowledge developed from that.

  4. As far as I'm concerned, if I'm writing the check, I'm in charge of the people I write the checks TO. I haven't had a regular person for years, but I'm off on my own journey and not training to ride in competition, so that's a bit different.

    If anyone ever told me I had to follow a "system" I would balk worse than any horse they'd ever encountered. There IS no system except doing what is right and what works for that horse, that ride.

    The funny thing? If you look at the resumes of the BN trainers, they all have long laundry lists of folks THEY'VE ridden with. Why shouldn't their students do the same thing? It's called a diverse education.

  5. I am all for shopping around and finding what works best for you. With so many different personalities and styles, what works for someone won't for another. What I think gets lost is the fact that what worked well for you in the beginning may not continue to do so as you advance. Maybe the intro level instruction was great to be given in one style for you to follow and learn, but as you move on you may need a different approach for more complex or difficult things.

    Keeping an open mind about who you are, what you need and your goals is necessary and needs to be looked at from time to time.

  6. I think the financial justification is a pretty good guess. Ego probably comes into play too, but I have only observed this with some local professionals. You pose some really interesting questions, each one worthy of lengthy discussion.

    I meet with a trainer periodically and work on my own the rest of the time. I blend my past experiences with the new instruction. One perk of being loyal to my trainer is that she will go out of her way to meet with me even if I cannot get a group together to ride. She knows me and my horse and seems to genuinely care about our progress. Since we have known each other for several years, she is comfortable being straight with me and I am comfortable playing the devil's advocate with questions. I am not sure that would work quite as well with a random trainer. Trainer/Rider rapport is very important to me.

    On the other hand, I can also appreciate how a pair of fresh eyes can be a helpful training tool and will ride with another clinician if the opportunity presents itself. My teacher has even encouraged this.

    1. "each one worthy of lengthy discussion" - fantastically said Val! And I think it would be great to HAVE a lengthy discussion on each from a variety of riders/ trainers. It is true that a positive relationship with a trainer, who 'cares genuinely about your progress' is a relationship based in respect; she honors you by giving her best, and respectful relationship requires that we give back generously to the trainer with our finances, time, patience, and yes perhaps even... loyalty

  7. Complicated issue here. Fortunately, in my early years of dressage exploration, I had an excellent trainer who taught me all the basics. After several years with her, when I mentioned a clinic offered by an international trainer she said, "Go on do it. You know enough now to separate the wheat from the chaff."

    I've kept her words in my head ever since. Essentially, I know what's right. I may not always be able to get it from my horses, but I know how "good" feels. I've been lucky enough to clinic with dozens of famous riders/trainers over the years and always "kept the wheat and got rid of the chaff."

    It's really amazing how many techniques and skills you can acquire in your "bag of training tricks" when you can ride with many people. One exercise might work with your horse on one day and the next you might need an entirely different approach to get him to cooperate. The more kernels of wheat you have at your disposal, the better.

  8. I have been fortunate in that my home trainer is very understanding and likes me to get different perspective. Unfortunately since coming to New York for school I know all to well what you're talking about. Some trainers are just jerks about it and will absolutely not share. In general I've found those super rigid people to be not to greatest trainers.
    On the other hand, I also feel like there is a culture of loyalty that can create guilt even if the person isn't really mad. For example I started riding with a girl who is a great rider but not particularly dressage focused and not that far ahead of me in skills. When she left for a surgery I switched to one of the trainers that rides Grand Prix and loved it and definitely wanted to stay with her. I think the first trainer totally understood my decision and I kept riding with the upper level trainer even after my first trainer returned to the barn.
    The awkward part was when my upper level trainer left for winter shows. I ended up going back to the first trainer even though I was secretly leaning towards one of the dressage working students/trainers, mainly because I felt like I would hurt my original trainers feelings. I mean part of it is wanting to be all dressage, but part of it is I think this other person is a better, more accomplished rider and I think I was afraid my first trainer would realize that and be really hurt and hate me.
    After a winter of riding with her I realized I had made a mistake and should have just gone with my instincts. Hopefully I'll have the nerve to next time this situation rolls around.

  9. Hi Stacy,

    Once a rider has basic skills they owe it to themselves and their horses to expand their own horizons. This means reading books, watching videos on you tube (what an amazing and wonderful learning tool that is!), and auditing as many clinics as possible. Without this how do they know if their instructor is making any sense at all?

    As an instructor I want my students looking beyond the lesson to see how what I tell them fits into the entirety of dressage. When they eventually move on - as they should - we hope they take refined skills, in depth knowledge, a better relationship with their horse and fond memories. That's the job - we give you what we know and part of that has to be the ability to find another instructor that will take you even further down the road. Petty jealousy is for junior HS - don't waste any time with it.

  10. Even the BNTs take lessons or go to clinics with "BIGGER BNTs," so this business of "trainer loyalty" doesn't fly with me. I audit every chance I get because, while I'm not very skilled in riding, I DO learn things I can try "on my own"--and I am getting a FEEL for what "dressage" should be. Everything helps.

    I live a minimum of 40 miles from any dressage facility. I'm in my late 60s and am working with a woman who is a bit younger than I am but who understands TBs (my horse ;o) and being stiff and "old" but still having goals. And about loving dressage.

    I left a dressage wannabe trainer who had a reputation for "taking on bad actor horses" when I first met her. I have since observed that she MAKES bad actors because HER understanding of "ride every stride" is "nag, grab, snatch, jerk, half halt, half halt, half halt, grab, nag, pick, pick, pick" and after awhile the horse starts to object. Her horses wag their tongues, "talk with their tails," and grind their jaws--if they aren't just plain sullen, refusing to go forward by the time they reach Second Level. Not much of a resume.

    Thank GOD I did not put my horse in training with her so she could ruin him, too.

    I rode once or twice a month off and on for several years. Got tired of her playing favorites and being rude to me.

    You read about BIG BNTs on the "circuit" changing barns or "parting ways" all the time. Often difficult to know who initiated the switch, what the real story is, etc. Professionals keep their mouths shut about this sort of thing--small world and all that.

    As an aging adult amateur, I think having a roster from which to choose is a good thing. That way, NO ONE takes ANYONE for granted. My money spends just as good as the next person's, and if I'm not happy or I don't feel like I'm learning anything, it's time to move on.

  11. I'm a big believer in having a regular trainer in conjunction with clinics with other trainers a couple times a year. It is incredibly important that your regular trainer DOES use a systematic (with some flexibility of course) approach and gives you full attention during your lessons.

  12. Just thinking about the "loyalty" drama at my old hunter barn almost makes me break into a sweat. In my experience, unfortunately, the main motivation for NOT trying out other trainers/training methods was the imediate shunning the rider would recieve by other clients. Of course, this was at a large boarding stable of 10+ trainers with mostly teenage riders and crazy parents. Knowing what I know now, I don't think I would train with and instuctor that does not encourage trying new methods/clinics/trainers.

  13. I'm going to leave my comment then go back and read the others, so forgive me if I am repetitive... in the hunter/jumper world, this is totally the norm- and SO frustrating! I'm fortunate to keep my horse at home so I can stay out of a lot of the much, but particularly if I go to show it must be with one particular trainer. And if I buy a horse or sell a horse, it must be through the trainer (implied, not by express contract of course) because either 1. she wants the commission or 2. she wants to scratch another trainer's back by buying a horse from him/her (and thus permitting her friend to get a commission). I think its because trainers' livelihood utterly depends on loyalty that loyalty is demanded (much like a hair dresser perhaps?), and because of a trainers' emotional investment in a horse/rider team; trainers truly control the whole show/ competition world. Pony Club was great for NOT falling into the trap- while there are benefits to the loyalty program, there are also losses incurred. But I'm not sure on the whole where the balance falls.... ok, off to read the other insights (wouldn't a guest post from a trainer on the loyalty subject be great?!)

  14. I've always had a hard time with the possessiveness of trainers. When I was competing, I usually rode with a dressage trainer and a jumping trainer but even then I made clear that I was going to take clinics or "sample the waters" as needed. Some trainers made it clear they didn't like that. Those are usually the same ones who want to be involved when you purchase your horse, too.

    Being part of that system works fine for some folks but I think there are always going to be times when another perspective or a different way of describing a technique can be beneficial.

    On the flip side, there have been times when I felt my trainer was so tuned into what I wanted to accomplish and knew my horse so well that I felt it was pointless to attend clinics.


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