Lauren Sprieser: No One Can Train a Horse Alone

A top dressage rider shares a lesson she wishes she had learned sooner.
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I have this very vivid memory from when I was 24 years old. Clairvoya, or “Cleo,” my late Hanoverian mare, was right on the brink of Grand Prix, and I just couldn’t get the pieces finished. I had opened my own business two years before and was hustling, getting lessons where I could, but like every other young (and even many old!) trainers, inevitably having to dedicate more of my time and energy to my students and fledgling business. And I had called one of my heroes, Lendon Gray, because I was crushed at the idea of sending Cleo to Florida to have my coach ride her and get her over the Grand Prix hump.

Bawling into the phone, I cried, “This feels like failure. I should be able to do this on my own.” Lendon was stunned. “What in the world are you talking about? No one gets there by themselves. No one goes it alone.”

Firstly, going it alone means going by feel, and feel is a liar. Those who convert from the hunters and jumpers to dressage are terrific examples. How many lessons have those folks taken where their coaches tell them to sit up straight, that they’re leaning forward, and the riders swear that they couldn’t possibly lean back any further or they’ll bang their helmet into their horse’s butts until they go by a mirror? Their normal correct jumping position—upper body forward and hips behind and out of the tack—has to be reset for dressage, and for a while, their body feel will lie to them.

Horses do this, too. How many times have you been sure your horse is straight, only to see a video later and he’s in clear haunches-in? And this isn’t limited just to amateurs or the inexperienced. Professionals get the same lessons: that our reins are not short enough, that the trot is not quick enough, that the poll is not high enough.

I’ve heard some riders tell me that because they’ve purchased a schoolmaster they expect the horse to teach them, to tell them when they’re wrong and when they’re right. The problem in that comes when that rider is wrong and she ends up untraining her nicely trained horse, sometimes very quickly. Horses aren’t computers, where once they’re programmed right, they never leave their program. They’re constantly evolving, even in the hands of the most experienced trainers.

Being ridden every now and then by a professional can help keep a horse sharper. Regular lessons make sure that the path we’re going down is the right one and that we’re not being led astray by our feel. And while, yes, it’s absolutely possible to push a horse too hard too fast, it’s also possible to go too slowly. If it takes too long for a rider on a young horse to put the leg on and make said horse face the bridle honestly, it’s combat later. If the horse doesn’t understand how to use his neck and back in a round way to package himself, it’s a much harder battle. If the changes aren’t started by a certain time and if they’re not made honestly clean fairly early on, they’re a much longer and more difficult process.

Cleo went to Florida and came home a Grand Prix horse. More importantly, I came home with a toolbox of skills to apply to horses who came after her. And while it was the first time I’ve needed to send a horse for outside help, it certainly hasn’t been the last.

Any rider who is any good should get with the best coach she can find, one who has taken people like her to the places that she wants to go—whether that’s the local shows, the national championships or the Olympic Games—and who not only has ridden at those levels but actually trained horses to those levels. That coach should respect that rider’s life situation—her budget and the amount of time the rider has to dedicate to her sport—and help her craft a plan that makes the most of both. It is not failure. It is the way that it has to be done in order to be done right. 

Lauren Sprieser is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist, and is well-known for producing Grand Prix horses from the ground up, including Clairvoya, winner of the 2009 Young Rider Grand Prix at Gladstone; Victorious, fourth at the 2012 USEF Developing Grand Prix Championships; and Ellegria, on whom she is hoping to qualify for the 2016 World Cup Final and Olympic Selection Trials. Lauren trains horses and riders from the grassroots to the international levels of both dressage and eventing from her home base in Marshall, Virginia.

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