Hilary Moore Hebert: A U.S. Dressage School?

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What is wrong with the state of dressage instruction/training in this country? When I hear people weighing in on this question, they often say that the lack of a formal educational system is to blame. I don't completely agree. While we can look at the models in various European countries and admire what their national schools have done for the sport, the obvious size difference of our home country must be taken into more account. While any of the top riders in a medal-winning country can get to any centralized training base within a day, with their horses, it is simply impossible to design a U.S.-based center that would allow for even just our Olympic team members to drive from their home barns. As a result, our only solution for having a centralized school would be to run it in a place that the majority of our best trainers and riders are located. You might think that is Florida or California, but (besides deciding on the two or maybe having two) there are two issues with that idea: 1. The dressage scene is somewhat seasonal and 2. during times like Olympic years, many of the high-performance riders are no longer where they usually reside.

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Which leads me to the second problem of creating a system of training in this country: Some of our most sought-after instuctors are also members of our high-performance teams. Unfortunately, teaching (not clinics, but really working with someone every day to develop their understanding of your system) does not go hand-in-hand with the demands of qualifying for something like the Olympics. This isn't a secret-many athletes openly talk about how hard it is to raise money while qualifying because they do not have time to run their training business as they do when they are on an off season. So if this is the case, we have to pull from our elite trainers/instructors that no longer compete or are willing to take a break from it. Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions, but it seems that the struggle to get a new USEF coach might hint at how hard it is to find non-competing, top-level trainers who are willing to take a huge amount of time away from their own business to commit themselves to the growth of U.S. dressage (and possibly relocate their family).

And that leads to the next problem with a centralized dressage program: the money. If someone is already making a nice living as a dressage trainer (and for the best teachers, one would assume that they are), why would they give that up to spend time and money at a dressage school? Similarly, it seems like a tricky problem because it would take an entire generation before the current mid-level trainers were too old to teach, which makes the entire set of credentials one could achieve unimportant to many possible clients. Why go with a certified younger trainer when you could go with an uncertified trainer with more experience? On the other hand, why consider the certification at all? With all due respect, I have seen a lot of students move between trainers over the years and not all of them settle on the trainer that is most qualified. "Sure, but it is about people skills and a positive attitude and ..." Let me stop you there. I don't mean that someone who is a friendlier trainer might be more inviting when compared with a cranky old Grand Prix rider. What I am saying is that I have also seen people move for material reasons: this barn looks more impressive to their friends, that trainer has a fancier show horse that they can brag about to auditors at a clinic they attend, those students have more expensive horses, those clients get together on Saturday night for martinis on the patio overlooking the outdoor ring ... I am not saying those reason are wrong, but it is a far cry from basing your choices on the trainer's skills or certification. Regardless of how you feel about it, no smart business person is going to invest all of their money into training for years when the trainer up the street is getting the majority of the local clients the second they see her competing her 18-hand black stallion in the Grand Prix ring, no matter his score. That trainer might be better off to buy her own 18-hand Grand Prix stallion with her school money.

It becomes a catch-22 for the trainer devoted to continuing her education because she wants to learn and grow as a trainer and rider, but if she doesn't look out for what is pulling in the money, she won't have any to spend on what matters to her: having horses to train, learning more and getting to compete.

And that leads us to the final problem: having enough money to do what matters most. The average trainer is putting every drop of blood, sweat and tears into building a business so that they can profit as much as possible from their efforts. This is not a profession you get rich in, so asking someone to become a professor of dressage at a centralized school is like asking someone to become a professor of English at a college. Both allow you to pursue what you love and have the time and support to do so. However, while an English professor needs the right working environment, time in their schedule and a computer, a dressage professor needs millions of dollars (give or take) to become the "Pulitzer Prize" star of their sport to afford horses and show fees at the Olympic level. I would imagine that it would be hard to find a way to pay the teachers at a centralized school that much money, but maybe I am wrong.

I think these reasons explain why we do not have a centralized training program in our country. Instead, professionals teach, train and toil so they can afford horses and lessons and shows, to earn the ride on fancier horses, the money for more lessons and the ability to enter better shows. The cycle continues in the hope that one day someone will notice them and sponsor a horse, training, showing. Until then, they keep at it--mostly every minute, of every hour, of every day. And in the end, despite a centralized training school, I would like to believe those people who are quietly working away, investing all they can into education, will be recognized for the horses they can and will produce. When that other trainer's 18-hand Grand Prix stallion has retired, I would like to believe that those same old clients will go looking for the next best thing again and end up at the hardworking trainer's door.

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