How to select, care for, and learn from a dressage schoolmaster
By Anne Gribbons
Reprinted from July/August 2014 USDF Connection
From the first time you sit on a horse’s back, you will learn something from that animal. You will instinctively learn to search for his center of gravity in order to stay on, to connect with him by using your body and hands, and to read his reactions to find a way to communicate.
If the horse is young, inexperienced, or both, chances are that he will be as unsure and tentative as you, his novice rider, and that scenario is not very promising. It is best if one of you knows what you are doing!
It has been tradition in Europe for hundreds of years to teach new riders on experienced, older horses, but when I first arrived in the US some decades ago, this concept was not generally accepted. Dressage and warmblood fever was running high, but the tendency of new enthusiasts was to acquire a lovely youngster to start and train, although they had but a dim view of how to go about it.
Along with other dressage instructors, I vigorously preached the virtues of the schoolmaster, but our words sometimes fell on deaf ears. More than once, a client who seemed completely on board with the idea of buying an older, trained horse forgot her intentions and proudly presented me with a two-year-old fire-breathing dragon of a colt. The dragon, the client would explain, was a better investment because he was young and represented the future—and besides, her husband much preferred the Black Stallion to a sedate, “boring” animal that could do all the movements.
Such impulsive decisions frequently resulted in young, confused horses carrying (and sometimes losing) their frustrated budding dressage riders. Even with good help, the result of these green horse/green rider pairings is often disappointing. Worse, it sometimes ends with an injured rider and a promising horse down the drain. It is very difficult to erase incorrect information that has entered a horse’s brain. Poor training does not delete well.
Eventually the American dressage community began to accept the idea that a well-schooled horse and his amassed knowledge should command a decent price, and that the investment in an education is the smarter way to go before flirting with young Adonis.
Why a Schoolmaster Is Worth His Weight in Gold
Once you have made the decision to learn from a master, you just go out and select your new teaching tool and get on with the ABCs of dressage, right? Whoa, not so fast! Trained horses come in many varieties, and finding the right one for you can be a daunting enterprise. A well-trained horse, sound enough to compete and willing to serve as a teacher, is a rare commodity.
You will be looking for a horse suitable to your size and conformation, properly schooled, kind enough to allow you to make mistakes, and generous enough to repeat the lesson until you “get it” without becoming bored and cranky. He also needs to be easy to handle on the ground, accommodating in the stable, and reasonably normal to feed, ship, and care for. He cannot be heavy in the bridle or lazy, which will only teach the rider to pull and kick. Preferably, he should not be a huge mover, which is difficult to sit on, but he needs to have three basically clean gaits. He should be able to work on a lunge line so that the rider can learn to sit correctly without having to worry about making the horse perform.
The schoolmaster ought to be several levels ahead of his rider—not necessarily an FEI horse, just a well-trained horse that can be of benefit to the rider. He has to be people-oriented, patient, and sound enough to be able to perform his daily work without pain or discomfort, plus possibly compete within the national legal limits of medication. A pretty tall order, I’d say!
On a mission to acquire such a horse, you will find that they do not grow on trees. And they are neither young nor inexpensive. What you are looking for is a vehicle for your education, and what you will pay for is in essence college tuition for Dressage 101 upwards to a PhD in piaffe. Keep in mind that, for many years, some rider/owner has spent oceans of time and money training and maintaining the instant professor you need, not to mention overcoming all the hiccups a horse delivers along the way. The time and risk you save is, as they say, priceless.
Searching for a Schoolmaster
How do you go about finding this dancing partner who is going to lead you through the intricate steps of dressage? The easiest and safest way is to put your instructor to the task of locating and testing the horse. After all, your human teacher is an important part of the triangle of learning. He or she knows how you ride and what you need, and will help to ensure that you and the horse are a good match.
If you do not have a regular instructor, an alternative method is to approach a reputable professional with whom you are familiar. Of course, you can also surf the Internet or reply to ads in the horse magazines, but this method will involve much more time and effort because you will have to examine every prospect yourself. Unless you routinely buy horses and can accurately evaluate them, this method is risky. In any case, you will ultimately have to go and ride the horses that interest you to assure that you are comfortable sitting on an animal you will spend a lot of hours on.
There is no need for love at first sight, but the horse should have a positive attitude—no pinned ears, clapping teeth, wringing tail, or tendency to “think backward.” He must willingly perform the movements of the level he is represented at, over and over again.
Stay cool and try to regard this purchase as an arranged marriage. Real love can, and often will, develop later. Do not get frightened off if the horse is over fifteen years of age. The ones who got that far and can still pass a vet check usually keep clocking for many more years!
Prepurchase Exams and Maintenance
When it comes to the prepurchase exam, there may be concessions to be made. You cannot expect flawless radiographs or perfect flexion tests. There will be comments indicating wear and tear, but if the horse’s history of performance is consistent and he passes the clinical exam in good order, your risk is actually less than when buying a young horse without any history.
USDF-certified instructor and certification faculty member Vicki Hammers-O’Neil, Meriden, CT, who gave me some valuable ideas for this article, has the following to say about keeping your new partner in shape:
“Many schoolmasters need maintenance, usually because they are older by the time they have earned the title. I don’t personally feel that having an older horse who needs maintenance should make or break the situation. Keeping a horse ‘glued together’ just to get around the arena is different from having a horse who needs specific assistance a couple of times per year and then is competitively sound and happy in his work because his body does not hurt.”
Getting to Know Your New Teacher
When you have your schoolmaster home in your barn, what can you expect? First, anticipate lessons on the lunge line, which will seem endless and will bore you, your horse, and your instructor to tears and make you wish golf was your game—that is, until the day you realize that sitting comfortably, feeling in control, and being balanced and coordinated with your horse is a certain kind of bliss.
Now you can start operating your new “tool” and gradually find the “buttons” that somebody else installed. Over a year or so, those buttons will become adjusted to your specifications, and little by little the horse becomes your horse, reacting better to your aids than anybody else’s. That process normally takes about a year, with both you and your horse needing to adjust to the new language of aids you will develop to communicate.
In fairly short order after acquiring your professor, you will learn to produce the movements. When the euphoria of that experience wears off , you will be ready and better equipped to dig into the issues of throughness, suppleness, and “oneness” with the horse and really start to appreciate the finer points of riding.
If you have hit the jackpot by finding a schoolmaster that is also competitive in the show ring, he has a whole other dimension for you to discover. Without all the young-horse nonsense and hazards, your seasoned veteran will take you through the tests while focusing on your aids in a businesslike manner. However, even this type of horse is not a free ride or a guarantee of blue ribbons and high scores. The results of your performance together still depend on how well you have adjusted to your horse’s body language and how far you have come in your work to tune his reactions to your station. No dressage horse, however well trained, is completely “push button” because there are just too many variations on the theme. To gain success in competition and perhaps even to be able to train a horse from scratch one day, you first have to learn to ride. And for sure nobody can teach riding as well as a horse!
Meet the Expert
Anne Gribbons was the US Equestrian Federation’s technical advisor for dressage from 2010 to 2012. She developed the USEF educational dressage pipeline and guided the US riders through the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, with Steffen Peters winning two individual medals; the 2011 Pan American Games, in which the US won team gold and swept all three individual medals; and the 2012 London Olympics, where the US finished sixth with all three team members scoring over 70 percent for the first time.
Gribbons has trained and shown sixteen horses to Grand Prix, competed in ten USET championships, and was a member of the US silver-medal-winning team at the 1995 Pan Am Games.
An FEI 5* dressage judge, Gribbons is a former member of the FEI Dressage Committee, and in 2013 she was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame. She and her husband, David, own and operate Knoll Dressage near Orlando, FL.