September 2018 - Back to School
Written by by Nan Meek
Thursday, 30 August 2018 03:36


Dressage education follows a year-round, life-long calendar.

by Nan Meek

Why do we think about “back to school” in September when the new school year almost always begins in August? Isn’t August considered vacation month?

School, learning, education – it’s always a good month to learn something new, and I was fortunate to have just spent the past weekend learning a lot about my favorite subject of dressage.

For two days, I played sponge and absorbed as much as I could from George Williams, US Dressage Youth Coach, USDF President, and someone whose own education I envy. He studied at the Reitinstitute von Neindorff in Karlsruhe, Germany, worked with and alongside Karl Mikolka at Tempel Farms here in the US for 20 years, and trained in Germany with Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol, former US Dressage Team Coach.

This experience served as a welcome reminder of the importance of lifelong learning.


Prepare to Learn

“Do your homework” is something every parent tells their children, but it applies equally to adults who want to get the most from their own educational experiences.

In the weeks leading up to this clinic, I combed through old issues of dressage magazines for articles about George and his training methods. I reread Egon von Neindorff, The Art of Classical Horsemanship. I watched videos of Klaus Balkenhol and his Olympic partner Goldstern, and re-read his open letter to the FEI in which he and a list of co-signers that reads like the “who’s who” of international equestrian sport had protested the practice of rollkur (hyperflexion) and advocated “for the good of the horses and the continued good repute of international equestrian sport.”

Was that overkill for a two-day dressage clinic? Not for me. It gave me a frame of reference for what I hoped to see and learn, a perspective about the importance of the principles of dressage and a reminder that even the basics – especially the basics – of dressage really matter. They are the foundation for the training upon which a dressage horse’s life is built.

I wanted to learn as much as possible from this clinician, so I did my homework.

Engage Eyes & Ears

Some people are more visual learners, while others learn better from reading and writing. If you know which style of learner you are, it makes your choice of note taking technique much easier and more productive, whether you prefer to take photos, hand write notes or record in sound, video or text on a digital device.

US Dressage Youth Coach and United States Dressage Federation President George Williams discusses her horse, Lemuria, with Kristina Tomalesky, Chair of the San Francisco Peninsula Chapter, California Dressage Society.

With everyone attached to their smartphones these days, you might think that handwritten notetaking has disappeared – but you might be surprised. An informal survey of clinic auditors showed more than half of the note takers using the classic spiral-bound notebook and pen to record George’s words of wisdom and to scribble diagrams of the exercises he used.

The more techie auditors among us were exercising thumbs or fingertips to type into notebook computers or smartphones instead of writing. The only drawback is that it doesn’t give you the flexibility to draw diagrams, unless you have a device with a stylus and drawing capability. If you’re really talented, you could watch, listen AND type.

Riders were able to have their clinic sessions recorded for their personal use, which is an incredible learning experience – as those of you who have been clinic riders will agree. The ability to watch and hear what you experienced in the clinic arena is truly priceless, as is the ability to watch it again and again, and to review it with your regular trainer.

One of the riders asked George during her Sunday ride about something that she’d noticed in the recording of her Saturday ride. The resulting clarification and the exercises that followed their discussion helped her and her horse have an even more productive ride on the second day of the clinic.

Was that the sign of a good student? Definitely!

A lifelong horse owner, Nan Meek lives on the scenic San Mateo County coast where dressage courts and riding trails overlook the Pacific Ocean. She competed in dressage to the Prix St. Georges level with her late beloved Lipizzan Andy (Maestoso II Athena II-1), and now practices the discipline of dressage with her handsome Spanish warmblood Helio Jerez 2000 and dotes on the newest family member Mischa (Neapolitano Angelica II-1).

Whether you attend a clinic or ride in one, the learning experience is what you make it. As an auditor, you can just sit back and soak in the education, you can take a few casual notes, or you can go all out and write down every word. There’s something to be said for all of the above – there’s no right or wrong way to audit.

Clinic riders can have a variety of goals. While one rider may be looking for techniques and eyes on the ground to help with a specific movement that has been giving them trouble, another rider may be looking for a new approach to raising the overall quality of their performance. Still others may want a combination of both. George spoke with each rider in advance about their goals for the clinic, and afterward the riders expressed the euphoria that comes from results exceeding even the highest expectations.

As one of the clinic volunteers, I was helping with set up, tear down, photography, running errands – a jack of all trades. But it didn’t prevent me from taking copious notes, which I’ll be transcribing, studying, and putting into practice. I learned a lot, and I’ll continue to learn as I use the exercises and techniques George taught the clinic riders when I practice with my own horse.

Practice, Practice, Practice

There’s a reason dressage is called a discipline – it takes discipline to keep practicing day after day! Especially when learning a new movement, or teaching your horse a new movement, or attempting to do both simultaneously.

Whether it’s trying to get your 20-meter circle to actually be a circle (“ride from quarter point to quarter point,” meaning the points at each quarter of the way around the circle) or figuring out how to develop flying changes of lead (“first you have to have the quality of the canter”) it takes practice to develop your aids and your horse’s response into a seemingly effortless, invisible symphony of communication.

That’s the elusive goal of every dressage rider, from Training Level to Grand Prix – and that’s why the discipline of dressage requires us to go back to school again and again. Fortunately for us, this kind of educational experience is addictive – the more you go to clinics (as an auditor or as a rider) and the more you learn, the more you want to learn even more.

So here’s to the “back to school” spirit and to the teachers, trainers, coaches and clinicians who help us enjoy a lifetime of learning.