Many riders spend years and a substantial amount of money taking lessons, only to become discouraged because they are not “making any progress”. Other riders might only lesson once in a while but seem to continually advance. What is the difference? From an instructor’s perspective, there are 5 things you should do to get the most out of your lessons:
- OWN THE LEARNING PROCESS. Do you watch more advanced riders and horses at your boarding stable and instantly feel inadequate and embarrassed? Do you blame your own riding abilities, or the quality of your horse, or even your instructor? In order to make progress you need something to make progress towards, i.e. a destination or a goal. To look like the most advanced rider in your boarding stable is a lofty goal for a training level student, and you will get there one day, but setting a goal like that will not provide much reward in the short term. Have a realistic plan for what you want to achieve and set yourself and your horse up for many ‘wins’ by making short term, weekly or even daily goals. Succeeding at many small goals will equal big progress, quicker. Discuss your plan and goals with your instructor but don’t expect him or her to decide them for you. Those goals and the successes are yours to own.
- PRACTICE BETWEEN LESSONS. Every instructor knows there is no faster way to kill progress than to hear their student say ‘oh I haven’t even ridden since our last lesson’. Life happens, I get that. But you have a horse, and you want to learn, so you need to make the time to practice. If you use a lesson horse, ask if you can pay for practice rides in between lessons to try out some of the things you’ve learned. The fastest way to make progress is to do it, make mistakes, learn what went wrong, and try again!
- FOCUS DURING YOUR LESSON. Your instructor is likely your coach, teacher, and friend. You may chat and socialize a lot, but once your lesson starts you need to focus on the work. You are paying for your instructor’s time to teach you what he or she knows so it’s to your benefit to make the most of it. During breaks, ask questions about what you are working on, and at the end ask what you should work on during the time until your next lesson. Do your best to block out distractions, and leave the drama outside the arena. Believe me, your instructor can tell when you are a million miles away, because it shows in your horse and your performance.
- BE A THINKING AND FEELING RIDER. Dressage is a complex, technical sport. It takes a high level of physical and mental effort to execute well. In addition, each horse is an individual. What makes one horse better may not help another horse. Because every horse and rider pair is unique, there is an endless matrix of aides that might work in any given situation. Your instructor can recommend many ways to perform a certain movement. As you try different things, pay attention to the feedback your horse gives you. Did he perform better or worse, and why? Can you replicate the performance, and if not, why? Is his movement improving overall when you do certain exercises? The more you think through the aides and connect them to the responses your horse gives you, the faster you will develop a fluent language with your horse. Share your observations with your instructor and talk them through to help you understand why you are getting a particular response. You may be surprised at how quickly you and your horse improve using this type of feedback loop.
- IMMERSE YOURSELF IN DRESSAGE. There are many techniques and methods to train your horse in dressage, some that have been developed over centuries and others that have gained popularity more recently because of newly discovered information. Most of the techniques are rooted in similar principles, but the execution and benefit to your horse can be very different. It seems like the playing field is always changing, and in a way it is. That’s a subject for another blog, or even a book! However, if you immerse yourself in the art of dressage, you will find that some of those techniques resonate more with you than others. Finding your own philosophy can help you move forward and give your progress direction. Some riders use a ‘shotgun’ approach to learning, trying instructor after instructor, clinician after clinician, until they and their horse are utterly scattered and confused. Others simply do the same thing over and over, not realizing there are many ways to attack each training problem. The more you learn about the techniques and philosophies in dressage, the more you will recognize methods, trainers and clinicians who will click with your riding style.
These five things, from the practical to the philosophical, are but a few ideas to help you get more out of your lessons. Really, you get out of your lessons what you put into them. If you have a passion for dressage, the learning is endless and that is the joy of it. It is a lifelong journey of discovery!