Finding the right trainer is just as hard, if not more so, than finding the right horse. Trainers come in all shapes and sizes: classical, Dutch or German style, talkative, reserved, confident, arrogant, fun, or a mixture of many or all of those. Searching for one that will not just take your money at the end of the lesson, but actually give a damn whether you improve or not, is actually not that easy to come across, and while many trainers may know the right way, it takes a lot of effort to actually help someone get it right.
We've all seen it, a rider goes off to train with Mr Amazing and comes back 6 months later riding exaclty the same way they did when they left, minus their savings account. This is not always the trainer's fault, though, as many riders don't appreciate being told and trainers pick up on the reality that the rider just wants to be told they are beautiful.
So how then do you find a trainer that will actually push you to be better, that will force you out of your comfort zone and tell you the harsh realities that you sometimes need to be told! The mother or father trainer is often very handy in this situation, as they have a vested interest in your improvement, usually because it's their bank balance that is taking the hit and of course because they love you. In addition if they rode themselves, they usually had many of the same problems that you have, so therefore can more easily recognise your faults and help you fix them. However this poses new issues, as often the closer the relations, the more likely the rider is to answer back, or be disrespectful, no matter how much they intend to listen and behave.
Sven Rothenberger talked at the Portuguese Dressage Forum in 2010 about his experience with his daughters and found that they would listen far better to a foreign trainer than to him. He therefore brought in a dummy trainer to stand and shout orders at the girls, when it was actually he who was whispering the instructions into the man's ear.
Long-Term Trainers, Trainers in Sheep's Clothing, Trainer with a Personal Connection
Classical rider Anja Beran believes the key to correct training is in developing a long-term relationship, so that you become a part of their inner workings and knowledge. "Stay with one master for many many years! Don't visit hundreds of clinics from different trainers, because you will never get deep inside the system," Beran explained. "If you have the chance to find a brilliant rider, try to learn as much as possible from him and you will see, even after years there are new things you will discover. It takes time to speak “one language” in lessons and to truly understand the master. That is why I trained with my Portuguese trainer, Manuel Jorge de Oliveira, for 25 years!"
The second thing to remember, is that you must find a trainer that is genuinely invested in your best interests and does not have another agenda to fulfill like selling you horses to pocket big commission fees. "I chose to train with Michele Betti as he is my partner and because he knows me very well! Even more importantly, he knows my horse," Italy's Silvia Rizzo explained. "Beyond that, I am sure that he really wants me to succeed without any other interest!"
Certain that finding the right trainer is the most important thing you can do for your success, Silvia believes that it's not about longevity and that you can learn different things from everybody. "Everybody has something to teach, but it's so important to have a trainer that believes in you and your horse! It's the main important thing and unfortunately the most difficult thing to find," she believes.
According to Silvia, around 75% of trainers are horse dealers "dressed as trainers." She also believes that having a close relationship with your trainer means they are of course more invested in your dream. "However, as with everything it has positive and negative sides. If it's someone of the family there must be a really clear relation for keeping separate the private life from the working life. What is sure is that with your family your success is also their success."
Starting with her trainer Rune Willum in 2004, Danish rider Cathrine Dufour chose him because he was the trainer connected to the place where her horses were being stabled. "He had some good pony riders so we wanted to try him," says 21-year old Dufour. According to Cathrine she is now far more aware of why it's Rune she is training with. Among other things, it's because of the way he is with her horses. "He's very soft to the horses and very good at making things the right way instead of making training short cuts. It's all about old school riding and very basic stuff."
Adamant that the right trainer is the "No. 1 in a team" Cathrine believes that no matter what, you can't join the top if you don't have competent eyes on the ground. "This is particularly important for us very young riders, who still have so much to learn." Agreeing with Anja that it's best to find the right one and stick with them, Cathrine has been with Rune for over 8 years and knows it takes time for a trainer to get to know the rider and the horse inside and out! "Of course it can be good to get tips and so on from other good trainers, but for me it's the best thing to stick with Rune because he knows me and my horses better than anyone else," Cathrine stated.
How then do you know if your trainer truly wants you to succeed? "If the trainer isn't truly invested in your success, then I do not think that the connection can be perfect between horse, rider and trainer," she added. "If the trainer was just out there telling me what I wanted to hear, I would never use that trainer. The trainer needs to commit to the team. If he or she does it half-heartedly it's just not enough to go all the way to the top."
The other difficulty lies in finding not just someone willing to go that extra mile for you, but also someone that trains in the style and philosophy that you wish to follow. "In Denmark there is a lot of riders who just jump over the basics. For me the basic principles of dressage are the most important thing of all. If you can do all the basic stuff to perfection it's easy to do the test. If not, it's impossible to make a good test," says Cathrine.
Finding the Right Trainer in Your Area
For those not at international level, finding the right trainer can be equally as frustrating, trying to find not only the right philosophy, but also the right style of getting their message across.
"I found my recent trainer more or less by chance. A friend rides with him and what he offered seemed worth the try. He is not a renowned dressage rider, so my choice has come as a surprise to a lot of people. He used to compete successfully in jumping, but he has learned to ride the classic way. A good jumper needs to be well ridden in the basics and it appeals to me to train with someone who prioritises a horse that willingly moves forward, is attentive to aids (all aids) and has a bit of a bounce in the canter and does everything with ease. Just what I want in dressage. The good exercises come from these basics, right?, " says Swedish rider Kicki Linnell-Fraser.
Having trained for over 30 years, Kicki has had everything, from the "puppets" to the "take your cash and run" type of trainers. "An older colleague used to call these trainers "prostitutes", since they did what they had to do, just to get the payment. Horrible," said Linnell-Fraser. "And I have been riding with these also: Do a circle - good, Make the centre line - very good. At the end I told my husband he might as well give me the lesson, or buy me a parrot," Kicki added.
"Just saying "good" every 10 minutes did not make me a better rider. Not providing any useful tools nor exercises, just the same old phrases out of the book: straighten up, look forward, ride a half-halt.. There was no improvement in my riding really, but on the other hand there are actually lots of riders who are quite happy with this," Kicki continued. "All they want to hear is that they are doing well and that the horse is fantastic and the rider is so talented. They just need to have their egos flattered and are not necessarily planning to achieve anything major. If they, with some help, can make the horse piaffe a few steps, they think they are the next star in the making!"
Trainers with Poor Communication or Judgement Skills
Furthermore, if you find a trainer with the right ideals, one that will push you to achieve your goals in the right way, the next difficulty comes in how they express these ideals, and whether they can do it in a way that you understand. We all know top riders, who turned out to be bad communications. Even though it comes naturally to them, these type of trainers can't understand why you cannot do something that to them seems so simple and therefore can't describe to you how to do it. Alternatively, they may be able to describe what to do, but their tone or method of communication makes you nervous, frustrated, or makes you want to cry.
"Some people need to be yelled at and be put under some pressure to perform, while others in the same situation will totally lose their confidence," Linnell-Fraser added. "The chemistry between trainer and rider is of utmost importance. The rider needs to trust the trainer and be comfortable with his methods and the trainer must enjoy working with the rider and be confident that "the team" will perform well."
The next thing to watch out for are those common trainer Faux Pas and while there are some things that I will mildly accept in social context, I will never accept them when I'm paying god knows how much for a 60 minute lesson. My favorite is the trainer who is so concentrated on you and what you are doing, that he is comfortable answering his phone and having an in-depth conversation about selling a horse, in the middle of your valuable, and expensive, training session. "Unless there is an Emergency then mobiles should be on silent, " says Australian dressage rider Rebecca Williams-O'brien. "It really ticks me off when you’re paying for someone’s time and knowledge and they start organising the next days' lessons while they should be working with you."
The next is overlooking a valuable component and while a trainer may be exceptional in one area, you need to find one who can cover everything, from horse to rider, to mental capacity and physical strength. "Position is often overlooked, with trainers focusing on the horse and it's way of going," says Rebecca. "It is such a vital element to your ability to actually ride, and the simplest advice can make all the difference to the horse's ability to relax."
Another fun one is arrogance. Even though the best trainers must be confident in their advice, if they make you feel like you are somehow incompetent, then you will certainly not be able to ride at your best. There is a very fine line between "fluffing you up" and "giving you a confidence boost." The right trainer must know where this line is for you and balance carefully on the boosting, motivational side of it!
So finally if you find someone who ticks all these boxes -- right method, right philosophy, right approach, tone -- who gives you confidence without giving you false praise, who doesn't talk on the phone, or put you down, and s/he expresses to you the knowledge they have in a coherent manner, the next problem will be: They are probably all booked!
"The very good trainers usually don't have any time to spare. They are fully booked! If someone has a lot of time to spare are they really that good? Why doesn't anyone else ride with them? " Kicki wonders. "It can also be complicated by many other things; goals, personalities, distance/location, they are all part of this sport. Distance (especially in Australia) is a massive issue and some top level coaches will only train in 1 or 2 locations (because of time constraints) and therefore other states will miss out unless you have a bucket load of money to travel you and your horse to them," Rebecca added.
No wonder it's so hard to find the perfect match, and I'm not talking about horse and rider.
By Sarah Warne for Eurodressage
Photos © Astrid Appels
Sarah Warne's Classical Training Articles