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Lauren Chumley Explains Why Dressage Demands Versatility

If there's one thing Lauren Chumley is not, it's a one trick pony. As arguably one of the most versatile riders in dressage, Chumley's well rounded approach to training riders and horses is a breath of fresh air. The USDF Gold Medalist boasts an impressive resume including bootstrapping her way to Grand Prix entirely on self-trained horses. Growing up "catching rides" Chumley gained exposure to all breeds and types of horses, and today she is an advocate for non-traditional dressage mounts. You can easily spot her in the Grand Prix warmup on a 14.1h Morgan pony, or occasionally barreling her dressage horses around the cross country course where she lets them enjoy a change of pace. Chumley's story of breaking the mold is particularly relevant today as talk in the sport increases about cross training and 'leaving the sandbox' in favor of varied environments. Taking a page from Chumley's book, we discussed how riders can increase their own versatility and why broadening our horizons can be the key to success in the dressage ring.

Dressage trainer Lauren Chumley on Morgan pony, Avatar's Jazzman

(Lauren Chumley on Avatar's Jazzman, a Morgan pony. Photo by Flatlands Photo.)

First, Chumley encourages riders to seize EVERY riding opportunity. As dressage riders we often have a "type" - 'tall, dark, and warmblood' - but Chumley credits her experience on numerous, vastly different horses with teaching her the importance of approaching each animal individually.

"Training an off the track Thoroughbred to go softly on the bit in a connected, round frame is considerably different than teaching a Norwegian Fjord or Saddlebred to do the same. The end result is hopefully the same, but the method used to achieve said results is not always the same. I really try to take each horse as a complete individual. Some horses require a different set of communication skills. Teaching my Morgan pony one tempi changes was completely different from teaching a big Dutch Warmblood the same movement."

Knowing how to speak each horse's language is a skill that comes from throwing your leg over any horse you can get your hands on. In addition, Chumley recommends gaining experience with young horses as well as branching out from the warmblood bubble.

"I can ride a Prix St Georges test on a 17h imported Hanoverian and then get right onto a 13.3h Fjord horse and knock off a killer Training level test 3. We demand adjustability from our horses; we ought to demand it of ourselves as well! I also very much enjoy working with young horses. Young horses require a completely different skill set since it doesn't matter how perfectly you're asking for the left bend if the horse has no idea what left bend is!"

Chumley also applies her individualistic approach to training out of the saddle, encouraging riders to break free from routine and explore options that work best for each horse.

"I think a good portion of developing horses to their fullest potential happens out of the saddle. Every horse should be treated as an individual and managed accordingly. Some horses do better if they are turned out before they are ridden, some not. Several of my hotter and more tense personalities do best with all night turnout. Some horses need a quick lunge to diffuse the tension in their backs, others wilt if worked five minutes too long. I think the key is to listen to each horse. Don't be afraid to experiment a little with your management routine."

Dressage trainer Lauren Chumley

While they say practice makes perfect, turning dressage into a chore is one of the fastest ways to kill your horse's work ethic. One training tool Chumley has found immensely beneficial is to provide her horses with mental stimulation by leaving the dressage court behind, or even dabbling in other disciplines.

"I think riders can very easily lose the ability to comfortably ride out in the open at more than a walk if they lock themselves into a dressage arena. I feel so strongly that the horses need to be allowed out of the arena from time to time. I can understand why many amateur riders are uncomfortable with this but I always advise them to let my working students hack the horses once per week if the schedule allows. The horses who event are the most versatile and well rounded athletes in the barn. For example, my Grand Prix horse (pony), Avatar's Jazzman, also competes in training level eventing. He is fit enough to very easily do two FEI dressage tests in one day, and we often do, usually with his second test being the better of the two!"

Chumley involves many of her dressage horses in "extra curriculars" like eventing. The veteran trainer firmly believes that the experience has helped her horses to succeed from both a mental and physical standpoint.

"For a long time in my life eventing was this terrible dark secret passion that I hid from the world. So I would sneak off to horse trials on the weekend and not tell anyone! My first event horse was a 13.2h Fjord mare named SNF Maarta. She was brave as a lion over fences and we both had a blast jumping, so I began eventing her. She won the American Eventing Championships in 2007 in a field of 75 horses of all sizes and breeds."

"Eventing uses a very different skill set than pure dressage. Acquiring the tools for eventing has only added to my strengths as a rider and trainer. I feel very strongly that the cross training really helps the horses become well-rounded and better athletes. Most every other sport advocates some form of athlete cross training, so why shouldn't we do the same with our horses, and ourselves? My dressage horses who also event are the most reliable show horses in the barn. They are mentally stable in many different situations and weather conditions as they've been previously exposed to so much between the dressage shows and horse trials."

For those wondering how to improve their own versatility as an equestrian or who want to seek out additional opportunities to learn but don't know how, Chumley shares some powerful tips from her experience.

"My advice to those who may lack the financial resources or the opportunities to get where you want to go is this: work hard. No, really work HARD. Harder than everyone else. Do the jobs no one else wants to do. Get there early and stay late. Go the extra mile. Do the right thing when no one is looking and you think it doesn't matter. Be focused. Don't sit on your hands and wait for the opportunities to come to you. If you work hard enough you will MAKE the opportunities come. And when they come, take them. You will find a way to make it work. Surround yourself with people who ride and train better than you. This will motivate you every single day. I moved out of my parent's house at 17 and moved eight hours away in search of more training and better opportunities. Was it scary? It was terrifying. Was it worth it? Absolutely."

Spoken like a true coach Chumley leaves riders with one last rallying cry, and a quote by Robin Sharma: "Change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous in the end".

"So chin up, work hard, and I'll see you on the centerline."


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