Earlier this month we spoke with dressage trainer Lauren Sprieser about managing expectations from ride to ride, but today she addresses setting long term goals for our horse's training or in some cases - adjusting long term goals. As someone who has taken multiple horses from scratch and turned them into Grand Prix competitors, Sprieser explains that training a horse to the FEI levels can be like trying to hit a moving target. Horse training brings a variety of curveballs ranging from lameness to behavioral challenges, and Sprieser believes that in order to progress towards the holy grail that is Grand Pix, riders must adapt to the circumstances.
"I think that the one universal truth in horses is that there are no universal truths. There will absolutely be horse and rider combinations that advance one level per year and are successful at every level and are the USDF poster child for methodical training. However the reality for most people is that horses that can piaffe and passage and are great Grand Prix horses at twelve are usually schmucks at four and five. The horses that are loose and supple, and big eighty percent movers at four years old usually don't piaffe and passage. The ones that are amateur friendly at four and five usually don't piaffe and passage."
While keeping in mind a horse's maturity level (or lack thereof) as training progresses, Sprieser reminds riders that each year and each level will presumably not mirror those before it.
"I have never a met a horse that was successful at training level one year, then successful at first level the next year, then at second level, and so on. I've never met that horse. And I've never met that person. Maybe they are out there, but I've never met them."
More than likely, training progression comes in spurts with developmental droughts in between. Some years will be better than others. And in some cases horses will reach the end of their road before Grand Prix.
"There are horses that were put on this Earth to take riders to Second Level and no further. There are horses that were put on this Earth to take kids to Young Riders and no further. I find there's a second level plateau, a Prix St. Georges plateau, and a National Grand Prix vs. International Grand Prix plateau, which usually has to do with putting down the whip."
"There's nothing wrong with a plateau, plateaus happen. There is a time in the life of everything that works, where for awhile it doesn't work. The strength that it takes to do the upper levels its massive and takes a tremendous amount of time."
And that strength and skill doesn't just lie within our horses either, Sprieser encourages riders new to the FEI levels to be patient with themselves as well.
"I think we learn by falling and rising, and I can tell you from my own experience that everyone that does their first Prix St. Georges gets the deer in the headlights 'Oh my God, what happened?' look. It takes a little while to get good at riding that level of collection. The movements come up so fast."
Sprieser also reminds us that for every dazzling Grand Prix horse and rider you see dancing across a dressage court, that pair likely suffered many ungraceful moments on road to harmony.
"Anytime I suggest that horse training is anything but puppies and rainbows there's usually someone on Facebook that accuses me of being the worst animal cruelty offender in the history of people."
According to Sprieser, "Far more often than not there's some bad behavior (that riders will encounter) with kicking at the leg, running backwards, and the rider despairing and crying in their truck because the trainer they took a clinic with says the horse is dog food. Look at Laura Graves and everything that horse put her through. I know they make Charlotte and Valegro sound like this incredible fairytale and maybe it was, but I'm willing to bet that at some point Valegro was a cheeky six year old and at some point Charlotte cried in her truck."
These trying moments are why Sprieser insists that riders need a team of people who help them by providing expert advice, or simply offering encouragement.
"The other big secret is to not go it alone. So you work with a coach who has been there and done that and you bring in a veterinarian so that if you encounter a problem you know there's no physical source, that the saddle fits well, and the bit is fair, and then you just go until you can't go anymore. You might hit a wall and then you find your way around it, or under it, or through it, or whatever and you get good advice and you solider on."
"Right now the youngest of my group is eight, so they're all nice to ride, and I'm about to sell one or two and buy the next group and be filled with despair for awhile. But when this group was young I had this group text with other trainers of young horses and once every two weeks I'd tell them I was quitting and everything was terrible. They would tell me to hang in there, give it a couple more days, and a few days would go by and the plateau would lift or I would see the light at the end of the tunnel. It definitely takes a village."
With the time and dedication required to train a young horse it may make buying a finished horse look tempting, but Sprieser warns that this route has its own set of challenges.
"Buying an older horse is really tough because it's like speed dating with a really complete, finished product. The great thing about young horses is that you can mold them into what you want them to be, but the crappy thing about young horses is that it takes a long time and the molding process sometimes really stinks. I find in general that the warmblood horse gets it's shit together when it's about nine, give or take a year or two. In my dream world all of my ambitious clients would go buy a four year old and leave it with me for awhile. Because by the time it's eight or nine, I know who it is. I'll know that the horse is forgiving, and can take a joke, and that the world isn't going to end if my rider kicks too hard, or accidentally pulls too hard on the mouth."
Regardless of where you start the journey with your horse "you do the best you can with what you've got" says Sprieser. Even the most experienced riders and trainers should foresee a few bumps in the road, as Sprieser cautions "If it's going too smoothly it makes me terribly nervous."
Instead Sprieser promises the few things you can count on in your training journey. Expect adversity. Expect to have your resolution shaken to its core and your patience tried over and over again. Put your helmet on with conviction and remember that your horse is a living, breathing being that like life itself does not necessarily follow the plan you projected. Instead, adapt to the curves in the road and Sprieser encourages riders to welcome the challenges they face as those obstacles are the greatest indication that you and your horse are on a road to progress.
Sprieser concludes, "There's no such thing as a linear path. If it's a linear path then it's not going to the top."