In a perfect world, we’d all be able to travel to clinics with top trainers and benefit from regular lessons. Lottery winnings also wouldn’t hurt. Yet given the reality of limited budgets, time, and travel opportunities, how can a rider maximize their efforts, both in and out of the saddle?
FEI rider Janine Little believes the answer lies in self-education. In fact, Little - who rose through the ranks to eventually be listed for the Canadian Team - is a strong believer that one's riding education should never conclude at the end of a lesson. With a little diligence, riders can learn to build the personal analytical skills to better their riding both in lessons, and outside of professional instruction. And for those who master the skill of self-education, the payoff can be big. According to Little, riders who experience the greatest progress often soak up riding and training feedback from a variety of situations.
(Janine Little's long distance student Tara Morrison and her horse Ehlviss enjoy a moment during their lesson.)
“When you attend a clinic, watch as many of the other riders’ lessons too,” she recommends. “To this day, I always try and watch everything I can at clinics and in warm-up rings at shows.” She also suggests recording videos of your lessons whenever possible, and watching them repeatedly to see what works best, plus areas to improve further.
That’s the case for Little’s “part time” and “distance education” students such as Tara Morrison, who runs a cattle and horse farm in rural Manitoba, and Shannon Sluser, of Glenavon, Saskatchewan. Both serious riders balance their passion for dressage alongside raising young families and running their farms. Although they live in regions geographically far removed from what many consider high-level dressage epicenters, and far from Little herself, they are committed to optimizing their training.
Morrison, who is schooling Third Level with her locally-bred, home-raised KWPN-NA gelding, Ehlviss, keeps a riding diary to record insights she garners from coaches and clinicians. She also makes the most of long drives home from clinics to reflect on what she’s learned. She finds this practice solidifies a day’s ride and helps her build on future training opportunities.
“I think of one moment in my ride that felt amazing,” Morrison explains. “How did it feel? Why? And then I try to visualize it as well. I think of the training scale and mentally check off whatever components I felt my horse and I had to have that amazing feeling. Then I think of a moment where it wasn’t so good – and what it was that I did or didn’t do that led to that.” She uses the same process when watching other riders’ lessons. By analyzing great moments and not-so-great moments, and considering them alongside the training scale, she revisits her own lessons, and those of others, as ongoing opportunities to learn.
Shannon Sluser, who is working towards Prix St. Georges with her young horse, Solaris, agrees. After bringing multiple horses, including homebred Andalusians, to the FEI levels, Sluser took time away from the sport to start a family. Now back to riding, she soaks up instruction from Little whenever she can.
“I write down key points we’ve worked on,” Sluser says. “I also make sure someone takes a video of my lessons. I watch those when I’m on my own so I can see what’s going on from a different perspective. It encourages you to become your own set of eyes, and to connect eyes and feel.” She also watches other riders training online, especially videos with commentary or scores to further develop her eye, and uses mirrors in her arena as feedback.
Little emphasizes self-analysis using mirrors. “A lot of people have access to mirrors in their arena but don’t use them. Mirrors can be your best friend – learn how something is supposed to look and then use your mirrors to make it match.”
Doing homework independently is essential, but building a longstanding relationship with a clinician can make a tremendous difference long term. While it may be tempting to attend clinics for the “I rode with so-and-so” factor, riders can optimally benefit from continuity of instruction with the same clinician, who can become familiar with them and their horses.
“Working with a clinician who’s committed to the development of you and your horse in the longer term is a real advantage,” Little says. “It’s always worthwhile to see if a clinician is open and available to you contacting them for help and feedback.” She encourages riders who clinic with her regularly to contact her if they’re struggling or have questions; some send iPhone video clips to get suggestions and progress.
In addition to in-person training and clinics, Little advocates utilizing all opportunities for feedback including online horse/rider assessments. These learning tools provide written feedback so riders can watch their videos and review commentary as often as they like. Online assessments aren’t designed to replace lessons; rather, they’re aimed towards developing a rider’s eye. Online critiques enable riders to learn by watching and plan for the future so they can start to see the problem areas and perform mental training to address those issues in real time. Whereas in-person lessons or clinics focus on ‘feel’ with a coach/trainer there to offer moment-by-moment support, online lessons or assessments are opportunities to learn to identify problems and mentally train to optimize future rides.
Little believes that openness towards different approaches – and pairing hard work with creativity – can lead to great results.
“Don’t be afraid to be innovative when you’re on your own,” Little encourages, noting that trial and error – and a bit of ingenuity – can go a long way. Riding is as much a physical exercise as it is cognitive. “Sometimes you have to be inventive for yourself and your horse. Learn to self-analyze. Try something out, and if it doesn’t work, tweak it until you find the right mix. Learning doesn’t end when you get out of the saddle. With the will to listen, try, and an ongoing commitment to learning, you can optimize any situation.”