According to Jeremy Steinberg the average, run-of-the-mill horse can be a blessing in disguise for aspiring dressage riders. The highly coveted clinician and former USEF Youth Coach first reached Grand Prix on his own self-trained Off The Track Thoroughbred, and knows from experience that the average horse can be an educational gift. Steinberg explains, "The lesser talented horses are sometimes training riders a better methodology to their approach. Being on something less talented puts you in a position where you have to actually think through the process and you have to understand how one movement really does systematically lead to another movement."
Steinberg goes on to say that "if you can choose between one that has more talent or one that has less talent, of course don't be foolish and go for the one with less talent, but don't give up on the one that doesn't instantly produce the feeling and the form."
All too often Steinberg runs into riders looking for quick fixes and instant results. "I hear a lot of 'the horse isn't talented enough to do something' so they (riders and trainers) cut corners or give up on classical or standardized methodology that really takes a lot of time to bring the horse to that level."
This tendency towards taking the fast track seems to go hand in hand with the growing athleticism of horses in the country. Steinberg has witnessed the impressive transformation of American breeding since he started in the sport and he believes that in some cases access to higher quality horses has backfired, resulting in lower quality riders.
"There's definitely been a change in the quality of horses since I was a kid. (There are now horses) that instantly can produce that passage-like trot and can do flying changes at three and four years old because of the quality of their canter but later (if training steps are skipped) they have no mental aptitude or ability for any piaffe work or passage."
"I look back 20, 30 years ago when I grew up riding and we didn't have horses that moved like that and the only way to develop passage was to really teach the piaffe well. They had to really carry the weight of their forehand without the huge trampoline like cadence that we see a lot of nowadays."
"It's creating an environment where often the riders are able to get the horses to perform a certain movement or a certain exercise without the strength to produce that (movement) for a long period of time." As a result, "because they don't have the stair step approach to training - there are holes."
Steinberg views riders and trainers that either intentionally or even unintentionally skip training steps as one of the greatest threats to American dressage. It's for this reason that Steinberg enjoys teaching students on all horses, including those with less than ideal dressage horses as he feels the average horse can be an exceptional opportunity for learning and igniting growth in riders.
"I don't mind working with some of the lesser talented horses and a lot of my riders that have those lesser talented horses I see with light bulbs going off and things registering in their minds in terms of the methodology. And when they are lucky enough to have something with more talent I know they are going to be exceptional horsemen and trainers who are going to be able to produce really good results."
"My fear is with a lot of the horses that are genetically able to produce the work without the training, (and this isn't necessarily the riders' faults or the trainers' faults if they don't know that methodology) but it's producing a lot of riders who are giving up on horses too soon or pushing horses past where they should be pushed."
Steinberg is quick to remind riders that true classical training takes time, regardless of a horse's talent level. He recounts the story of one of his young rider students whose temperamental horse had other high level trainers suggesting that she bail ship if she ever wanted to make it in the Grand Prix ring.
"Everyone told her to sell the horse. We had the talk that 'if you want to teach this horse to piaffe, it's going to be a two to three year process, and you're not going to be able to jump into this under 25 that everyone wants you to do.' '"
The young woman headed Steinberg's warning to maintain patience through the process and have faith in the classical training system.
"Sure enough I told her it would take 2 to 3 years and we're at the end of 3 years and he's starting to piaffe well enough considering everyone told her he would never piaffe. She's learned this amazing thought process and method that I'm so proud of. I don't understand the disconnect is with a lot of these other trainers where instead of leaving their stamp on producing a rider who on a sustainability level could produce another horse later down the road or be a top rider for us on another horse - instead it's about the instant results and if the ribbons aren't there they walk away."
Steinberg says he sees this phenomenon even in the very top level rankings of dressage, particularly with younger riders who are simply following the advice of their coaches.
"A lot of those trainers know what they are doing, but a lot of them have produced new riders that are going with this mentality that they find a sponsor, go with a horse that is trained, and become a top rider along the way instead of becoming a good horseman. And as a good horseman and good horse trainer producing results in the long run and horses that people will actually want. Of course that's not everyone and there are people out there who train their own horses like Laura Graves who has completely trained that one (Verdades). I always feel that those combinations stand out so much more than the other ones because the relationship is so much stronger."
What Steinberg seems to suggest is that being a great rider and being a winner doesn't always intersect, at least not always in the beginning. As in the case of Laura Graves and Verdades who faced countless hurdles on their road to Olympic stardom, it can be argued that Graves' skills have been shaped as much by the notoriously challenging gelding as the other way around. The demonstration of patience and a thoughtful application of training is an investment not only in the horse, but in a rider's own talent. Lest we not forget that horse and rider are invariably intertwined.
To hear to the entire conversation with Jeremy Steinberg listen to the podcast below, find it under Dressage Talk in iTunes, or download it directly here.