April 2017 - Dressage Life
Written by Michele Vaughn
Friday, 31 March 2017 19:07
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Great Expectations: Expectations can work for or against us.

by Michele Vaughn

Sometimes we expect more of ourselves than we can actually do at the time, or we expect more of our horses than they are capable of giving us. Other times we underestimate ourselves or our horses. Having great expectations can push us beyond our comfort zone, but it can also get in our way.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about managing expectations.

Michele Vaughn’s student Annie Ray rides Calvin Klein, a Prix St Georges Young Rider horse that Michele found for Annie through Willie Arts at DG Bar Ranch. 'I really wanted to find the right horse for Annie,' Michele says, 'and Calvin has been great.' Michele coached Annie and Calvin to qualify and compete at the 2016 North American Junior/Young Rider Championships in Colorado, where they represented USDF Region 7. Photo: Tamara Torti, Tamara with the Camera

When I get a new student, first I want to find out what level they ride, and what level their horse is at. The rider can only do as much as the horse is capable of. If the rider is Prix St Georges and the horse has only been trained to Second Level, then Second Level is where we start. If it’s the opposite, with a Second Level rider and a PSG horse, then I work with the rider to help her move up to her horse’s level.

If the student is a teen, I want to find out if she is outgrowing the Juniors, if she’s ready for Young Riders, and what are her goals. Maybe she has really big goals, or maybe she doesn’t. In any case, as her trainer I need to know where she’s at right now and what she wants to achieve, so I can help her.

When the student is an amateur, she might be coming to dressage from another discipline, like western or hunter/jumper, or she might be returning to riding after a long time away from horses. Many amateurs work at a desk all day and then when they’re on their horse they have to change the position and dynamics of their body while riding a moving animal. As a trainer, you need to keep it positive!

Competitiveness can be a great motivator but it needs to be used wisely. I teach 12-year-old twins, and I make sure they are not riding the same test. Then the results are all about each girl and her horse, not one compared to the other. I’ve seen competitiveness work for and against friends also, sometimes at a completely unconscious level.

To help my students prepare for a show, I vary their routine. You can’t work on everything at once, so one day I have them ride their test, then work the next couple of days on their position, then for a day or two, work on the movements, and another two or three days they ride the tests. This way, they can focus on each day’s lesson and still cover everything they need to learn.

It’s important to find out what they know, as well as what they think they can do but really can’t. For instance, maybe on a previous horse they could do shoulder-in really well, but on their new horse they have trouble with too much bend in the neck. Every horse gives us a new examination of what we know and what we need to learn more thoroughly.

Some trainers have different teaching styles, and some stress different aspects of dressage’s principles. Some want a straighter neck to the outside rein, while others focus on more bend and want the horse super round. What a student has done in the past will be reflected in her riding in the present.

I once had a new student who couldn’t ride the walk-canter transition, and it all boiled down to how she had been taught to ask for the canter. She had been taught to use only the outside leg – no inside leg – but that wasn’t working for this movement on this horse. It was a different scenario than she had been used to, and it could have been very frustrating for her if we hadn’t been able to analyze what was going wrong.

It’s important for the trainer to ride the student’s horse, to understand what the horse is like for the student to ride. It might not make you look so good sometimes, but that’s how you find out what they’re riding! You can look at a rider and think her contact is a little strong, but then get on the horse and you might find out he’s pulling like a freight train. Once you ride the horse, you can better tell the rider what to do to fix the problem.

Ready Or Not?

Sometimes you’ll have a student who wants to show, but they’re not really ready. That’s when you have them ride the test, and if they can’t do it, they know it. Let them discover it for themselves. If they’re between levels, it’s not so bad for them to show at the higher level if they’re really set on the idea. Every time you show, you learn. It’s very helpful to have the judge’s opinion. Their remarks say what to work on and the scores tell a story all by themselves.

It’s never perfect, but you can see what you have to work on and learn from that. You can be really good on one horse, then not so good on another. It could be that the new horse is too much for you, or it’s not a good fit for you, or you just simply have to take the time to learn the new horse.

With a new horse, if it’s in a new place, it’s nervous and everything has changed, it could be a real process, and that takes time and patience. If it’s the rider, it depends on their level; as they get better, you can refine your teaching, step by step. If you try to do it all in the beginning, it’s not fun for anyone – horse, rider or trainer. You definitely have to have fun, otherwise why do it?

A lot of success lies in being positive and building confidence. You can’t drill too much. Some days are harder and you need to tell your students that. If they’re sore the next day, then do a light day. Every day is different, but every day can be a great learning experience in its own way.

For instance, if a student has become discouraged – maybe they weren’t able to get a clean flying change or a good canter-walk transition – and they feel like they’re not as good as they want to be, you need to be positive and tell them how good they really are. More people focus on their problems and what they can’t do, and they lose sight of what they can do. Everybody needs a cheerleader sometimes to encourage, support and praise what they do well.

On the other hand, the rider needs to try doing what their trainer tells them, even if they don’t think they can do it. If your trainer tells you to give the inside rein 500 times, then you must not be doing it, even if you think you are. It’s not unusual to see that happen: a trainer says the same thing over and over, the rider tries over and over, but the result never happens. That’s when you need to say it in a different way, or the rider needs to exaggerate what she’s being told to do.

I’ve used some pretty silly expressions to get riders to understand, like “get loosey goosey” for riding a canter to trot transition, or “be like jello,” but sometimes that’s what works! Everybody is different, but using a different description for the same concept can be just what it takes to create that light bulb moment.

I tell everybody to read a lot. When you’ve read the classic dressage books, and you know the theory, it’s much easier to put it into practice in your lessons. You can understand why your trainer is asking you to do something, and you can get more out of every ride.


Dressage Life author Michele Vaughn is a dressage rider and trainer who earned USDF gold and silver rider medals. She has coached her daughter Genay from her first ride through Grand Prix competition, and now coaches other riders as well. At her Starr Vaughn Equestrian in Elk Grove, CA, she breeds and trains champion Hanoverian sport horses, manages dressage and hunter/jumper shows, and hosts clinics and breed inspections. For more information, visit www.svequestrian.com and www.dressagelifecoach.com.