Become an Independent Dressage Student with Jane Savoie

Make the most of your dressage education with goal-setting and homework.

When I was training in Germany, there would typically be 10 or more people riding in the ring. The head trainer would supervise the entire group and would give the necessary amount of feedback to each rider, depending on how much help she needed at that particular moment. Some days I would get a lot of help, other days it would be only a few words. This program taught us a level of independence that strengthened us as riders. It proved that being able to work through problems without real-time help is a necessary skill. It is the true difference between exercising your horse and actually training him.

Jane Savoie rides Menno (aka Moshi), her Grand Prix Friesian, on a hack with her dog, Indy.
Rhett Savoie

At the end of the day, whether we are in full training or ride entirely on our own, every dressage rider has to leave her trainer behind when she enters the show ring. It is just you and your horse when you head down centerline. And if you do not know the “why” of what you are doing and how to solve problems on the spot, you can get only so far. The following tips and techniques will help you become more accountable in your schooling sessions and allow you to get the most out of your training.

Become Accountable

It worries me when riders “clinic hop” or switch from trainer to trainer in search of the magic bullet for making everything go well. Correct training is a three-way relationship between a horse, a student and a trainer, and students have to take some responsibility for their own growth and learning. You can be passively lectured or you can be an accountable student who listens, interacts with her instructor and finds homework to do between lessons.

I love the idea of accountability in learning. Becoming accountable starts with having a goal that is exciting and fun for you to work toward. It’s impossible to arrive somewhere if you don’t know where you are going. Your trainer can help you select a reasonable goal, but it is your responsibility to determine what you want to work toward and why that particular goal is important to you. (You need to know your “why” or you might be tempted to throw in the towel when you run into challenges.) 

Once you’ve set your end goal, “reverse engineer” how to get there by creating sub-goals. Take, for example, the goal of having your debut at First Level next spring. It is now the summer, and you have a little under a year to prepare for this goal. 

Ask yourself what you need to do before you can move up to First Level. One good sub-goal might be to plan to enter several schooling shows at Training Level. Showing at Training Level gives you a chance to practice your warm-up, deal with conditions like new footing and less-than-ideal weather, stay focused with people watching and deal with the electric atmosphere of showing without the pressure of riding at First Level. 

Other productive sub-goals might include planning to take two lessons a week and a longe lesson every other week to confirm and improve the skills you will need in your First Level test.

Another great sub-goal that I find essential to great riding is doing homework out of the saddle by looking beyond your riding lessons to seek out additional forms of education such as reading, starting a fitness program and studying videotapes of top riders. 

Do Your Homework

When I first switched to dressage, I could afford only two, two-day clinics with Cindy Sydnor each year. That did not stop me from having a goal to move up the levels and progress in this sport.

In order to stay motivated, you need to know why your goal is important to you. Work with your instructor to help determine your goal.
Nicole Watts

To achieve this goal, my sub-goal became learning as much as possible between lessons. That required taking my dressage education into my own hands. I achieved this by reading a lot of good books on training and becoming completely familiar with the dressage tests at my horse’s level. Dressage tests are written with the systematic training of the horse in mind and are a great tool for anyone looking for homework, whether or not you actually show.

Knowing tests at your horse’s current level and the one above gives you a logical guideline for mapping out your schooling sessions. They helped me achieve my goals because they are designed to move you up the levels systematically so you encounter the least possible amount of resistance. 

Once I became familiar with the tests, I would sit down with a blank copy of a test sheet and write the aids for each movement in the Comments box. This is a great way to achieve a sub-goal of improving your training with homework, as you can bring the completed test to your trainer and check not only that what you have written is correct but also you can ask any questions that might have come up as you went through this process. 

Another way to make the most of your test sheets is to read through the Directive Ideas. You will notice remarks like gait quality, willingness, straightness and balance next to corresponding movements. It is not coincidence that these Directive Ideas represent some of the most important aspects of dressage, as they help to identify how the Training Scale translates to individual moments of our ride. This is also a great way to learn what the judge is looking for if you do ride the test in a show.

The final tip for using your test sheet for homework is to print out a fresh copy and write your own personal coaching points in the Comments area. For example, movement one has you enter, halt, salute and proceed. Perhaps you could write in the corresponding Comments box, “Look up at the judge, breathe, smile, prepare for halt with half halt, crisp trot, flexion to prepare for turn at C.” Pick two or three tips that are most-suited to what you need to remember for each movement. This is a great process for anyone to do because it challenges you to ride your horse better in or out of the show ring.

Now that you know your tests inside and out, you should feel like you can ride the movements on autopilot. If your goal involves showing, achieving this sub-goal is essential. You cannot ride the test and your horse at the same time. One way I confirm tests is to quiz myself throughout my day. I will pick a random movement from my level and challenge myself to recall what I should be doing both before and after that moment in the test. If you are 100-percent familiar with your test, you can pick it up at any point and know what movement came before as well as what to do next.

Enjoy the Journey

As you work toward your goal and sub-goals, remember that you are doing this because you enjoy riding and training. By identifying goals and doing your homework, you will become more comfortable with the variables you can control in your riding. In the end, this allows you to achieve the ultimate goal of being able to focus more on your horse.

With all of this talk of working toward goals, it is important to talk about some obstacles that you might face along the way. It is a common misconception that “good” learning happens as continuous upward progress. That is not the case. After being exposed to or learning a new skill and feeling like you’re making a lot of progress, you’ll hit a plateau for awhile. The plateau will eventually be followed by a surge or upward bump in your learning. Then you’ll hit another plateau. A lot of times riders get frustrated because they are at a plateau and they think they aren’t getting better. Sometimes, they think they are getting worse. I can assure you that the real progress happens during the plateau while you’re practicing. So rather than get discouraged, enjoy the plateaus! 

These plateaus are normal and part of everyone’s journey. I believe that you cannot enjoy learning any new skill if you do not understand and accept this fact. You need to have confidence that when you are at a learning plateau, you are getting better. Only through practice and repetition during that plateau can you get to the next bump. If you understand that learning is still taking place in those plateaus, you can relax and enjoy the journey.

Test Yourself

When you understand that visible progress happens in stages and you’re actually getting better during the plateaus, you can avoid the all-too-common trap of switching trainers just because you think someone can get you over a hurdle faster. Maybe that is the case, but not necessarily. You can’t always be looking to someone else to progress. In your quest to be an independent rider, you have to learn to evaluate the quality of your work on your own. (See “Self-Test” below for two ways to check your own riding.)

While you are working toward your goal and sub-goals, remember that you are doing this because you enjoy riding.
Rhett Savoie

Another great way to check your grasp of new concepts is by pretending to teach what you have learned back to someone. This makes you accountable for what you are learning. Don’t forget to add the what-if moments so that you can include how to troubleshoot if something happens. If you can teach it, you can ride it. If you can’t repeat the aids for an exercise back to your instructor, you need clarification.

Lastly, I encourage everyone to make it a sub-goal to videotape as many rides as possible and study them when you have the time. It will give you a chance to review your lessons, see what you are doing in a dressage test and better achieve your goal.

Whether you are showing or not, setting a goal and reverse engineering sub-goals to achieve it will help you become a better rider. Becoming accountable for your own learning will transform you into a purposeful rider who knows the “why” behind what you are doing. These are all the qualities of an independent student who finds success in her pursuit of dressage as well as enjoys the journey.

Self-Test: Is your horse “thinking” forward?

The best way to check your progress is by having ways to test the quality of your work between lessons. Two valuable tests include checking your horse’s responsibility and reactivity to the driving aids.

Responsibility: If your horse is “thinking” forward he takes responsibility for the activity in each of his gaits. It’s your job to tell him how much activity you want, but it’s not your job to keep him going. If you take on that role, not only do you make him dull but also you have used yourself up. If you need to constantly use your driving aids to keep him going, you end up exhausted and there is no “you” left to ask him to do anything else. 

Test One: This is your information-gathering stage. 

  1. Start in the walk.
  2. Ask for an energetic, active walk. 
  3. Take your legs completely off your horse’s sides. Note that this action of your legs is part of the test. Even though you are doing it here, I do not want you to ride with your legs off on a regular basis. 
  4. Notice how many strides your horse takes before he either slows down or stops. The number of strides he takes before losing activity tells you how much you’ve been helping him. This information can be a great aha moment for you. 

So here is what to do next:

  1. Repeat the exercise.
  2. The moment your horse slows down, make a correction. 

    This correction should suit your horse’s character, personality and temperment. Your goal is to educate your horse, not scare him. Maybe you bump with your legs, maybe you tap with the whip, maybe both. 
  3. The correction should send your horse forward to the trot. 
  4. Then, the important part is to go back to the walk, take your legs off and see if your horse maintains his activity on his own.
  5. Praise him for every stride he walks actively without help. 
  6. If he slows down again, repeat the correction. By doing so, you’re telling him that it’s his responsibility to go on his own. 

Reactivity: Once your horse is taking responsibility for the activity of his gaits, the next step is to check his reaction to each of your driving aids: legs, seat and voice. Your goal is to whisper with your aids and have him shout his response. 

Test Two: Your inside leg, seat and voice ask for activity within a gait. Your two legs ask for a transition either from halt to walk or walk to trot or a transition within the gait. Train your horse to react to aids that are as light as a fly on his side. Here is the sequence: 

  1. Step number one is to give a feather-light aid. You want to feel a rear-wheel-drive-surge-from-behind reaction to your light driving aid. Do not adjust your aid by repeating it or making it stronger. 
  2. If you don’t get an enthusiastic response to your light aid, make the same correction you did when you were checking that he was taking responsibility for his gaits. 
  3. Go back to what you were doing and retest with the original feather-light aid. This step is vital. If you skip it, you’ll just make your horse more dull.
  4. If you get the rear-wheel-drive response from your horse, praise him. 
  5. If he doesn’t give a 100-percent answer, repeat the correction. 

Repeat the correction and the retest until you have the 100-percent rear-wheel drive. Then you can praise him. 

Maybe your horse is happy to go forward but has the opposite problem of rushing and running through the bridle. In the same way that you tested that your horse was “thinking” forward, you can also check your brakes using your outside rein (your rein of opposition). Try this “slowing down” test in the walk first: 

  1. Give a quick squeeze–release with your outside hand. Close your fist like you’re snatching a fly out of the air.
  2. If necessary, add a voice command like “whoa” or “slow” as you close your fingers. 
  3. You want him to slow his speed by about 50 percent. 
  4. If he doesn’t slow down by 50 percent, use your seat, legs and outside rein to ask for a transition to the halt. 
  5. Go back to the walk and retest with your outside rein.
  6. If he immediately slows down by 50 percent, praise him. 

Remember that your goal is to explain what your outside hand means. The transition to the halt is a simple way to show him what you want without scaring him.

Jane Savoie’s “The Art of Teaching”

Students at Jane Savoie’s “The Art of Teaching” in Gladstone, New Jersey, learned about the “why” and “how” of movements and exercises. (Credit: Nicole Watts)

For four days last fall, in the midst of Hurricane Sandy, dressage competitor, coach, instructor and author Jane Savoie debuted a program called “The Art of Teaching” at the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation Headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey. Designed primarily for instructors, the course focused on demystifying the “why” and “how” of movements and exercises. Subject matter devoted specifically to horses and to riders offered insight into ways to help both instructors and students better train their equine partners and become independent and effective in the saddle. Some 135 participants from around the globe attended. Two filed exclusive reports for Dressage Today. The first, Amanda Hocking, is a British Horse Society instructor, Australian Level 2 national coach and a mentor to trainee coaches. She is based at the Equestrian Centre in Melbourne, Australia. The second, Aimee Victoria, is a part-time instructor at Reintree Stables in Canton, New York. Here’s a look at some of the lessons they learned.

Reflections from Amanda Hocking:

In “The Art of Teaching” Jane Savoie took information from the traditional schools of dressage and broke it into its basic components. She employed a simple, easy-to-follow system to explain the hard-to-interpret Training Scale.

“The Training Scale gives riders a systematic plan for riding and training as well as a guideline for problem-solving,” Savoie said. “The movements are not an end in themselves,” she continued. “They are a means to an end—a way to develop certain qualities. For example, we do school figures not because we’re bored going straight down the long side. One reason we do them is to develop flexibility—the horse’s ability to bend laterally. We do transitions not to simply get from one gait to another. We do them to develop suppleness.”

Early in the program Savoie discussed the first three elements of the Training Scale—rhythm, suppleness and contact/connection—and what checks we can do to test that we have achieved them. Regardless of our horse’s level of expertise, she made it clear that we must live, breathe and work with these three elements if we wish to achieve consistent and correct results. We saw her guide a variety of riders and horses through numerous exercises and processes. She showed us that a rhythmic and relaxed horse, working with a forward attitude, on the bit, in front of the leg, with correct flexion/bend had a steady, even and elastic contact. It was inspiring.

All parts of dressage training were covered in the program, from basic Training Level requirements (Preliminary for us Aussies) through Grand Prix—which seemed a monumental task in such a short space of time. But Savoie was up to the challenge, accomplishing her goals with skill and enthusiasm. 

At the end of each session, Savoie stressed the importance of checking that students understand each part of a lesson by asking them to teach it back to you. This, she said, develops their independence and confidence to train on their own. 

Woven throughout were threads of philosophy and psychology, anecdotes about horses from the past and funny stories of many a training faux pas. Of the many gems Savoie shared with us, the most memorable for me was this: “By separating each task into small steps, similar to how you were taught to write by learning your ABCs, you give your horse the chance to be successful,” she said. “It is your job to always make your horse feel like a champion.” Words to ride and train by.—Amanda Hocking

Reflections from Aimee Victoria: 

Jane Savoie encouraged us not to lose sight of the joy inherent in the process of working with our horses and students. She reminded us to be grateful for the horses we are privileged to ride. “It makes me so sad when I hear people call their horses ‘brats’ or ‘pigs,’” Savoie said. Mistakes and problems, she reminded, are windows of opportunity for learning. She offered many strategies for teaching and training. For me, these five stood above the rest.

Accept imperfection. Many students find themselves paralyzed by the spotlight of a lesson. Savoie suggested loosening them up by saying, “We don’t have to do anything right today. It’s OK to totally suck!” Lifting the weight of perfection makes it far easier to truly engage in learning. There is no fear of failure.

Discover how each student learns. Determining how a rider processes information—be it kinesthetically (through touch), auditorily (by listening) or visually (by sight)—is the key to tapping in to how she learns and developing lessons that she can readily respond to. 

To illustrate, Savoie instructed a rider who is an auditory learner to say out loud, “add, add, add,” as she began to apply pressure with her legs when initiating the connecting aids. The spoken reminder helped her coordinate the physical timing of her aids so she could focus on adding power from the horse’s hind legs to meet her hand.

Another rider learned a visual and kinesthetic aid when asking her horse to flex at the poll with an indirect rein. Savoie asked her to visualizethat she was turning a key in a lock with one hand and supporting with the other. If her horse were supple at the poll, she wouldn’t feelan increase in the weight of the rein when she asked for flexion.

Recognize her goals. Establishing goals for a rider, rather than acknowledging those she already may have set for herself or working with her to develop them, can result in an unhappy student who feels out of touch with her personal riding journey. Equally frustrating can be goals that aren’t immediately attainable. For example, Savoie explained, a student who is just beginning to ride may expect to canter by the end of the lesson. But her goal is incongruent with her abilities. Explaining the milestones to canter and then celebrating them when they are reached helps the rider to understand the physical requirements for moving at a faster speed.

Tackle problems with triage. Virtually every instructor faces that moment when it seems everything about a rider and horse needs fixing. What to do? It’s important, explained Savoie, to have a method for sorting things out and getting a lesson on a positive track. For instance, when analyzing a rider’s position, always start with the seat. 

Use the Training Scale to help you prioritize what to turn your attention to first.

Double-check understanding. To be an effective instructor, it is essential to tell a student what you are going to teach her, teach it, tell her what you have taught her and then ask her to teach it back to you. Having a student assume the role of instructor empowers her to process a lesson and reveals to the instructor any gaps in the student’s understanding of the information.

When I left the USET headquarters last fall, I could hear Savoie’s parting reminder: “to teach the truth, but remember to have fun.” They are words that continue to inspire me and guide my efforts each time I enter the arena to teach.

The Art of Teaching course is Savoie’s brainchild and helps instructors learn the “how” and “why” of dressage exercises and movements. The program’s first session took place from October 27–30, 2012, in Gladstone, New Jersey.

Jane Savoie (shown here with a student) is an accomplished dressage trainer, competitor and coach. She was the reserve rider for the 1992 U.S. Olympic dressage team. In 1996 and 2004, Savoie was the dressage coach for the Canadian Olympic eventing team. In 2000, she helped Susan Blinks earn Olympic team bronze for the United States dressage team. Savoie is also a well-known writer and speaker, covering topics in sports psychology and dressage. Her work includes the book Jane Savoie’s Dressage 101 and the two-part DVD “Riding in Your Mind’s Eye” (available at






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