Being a beginner again gives an instructor fresh insights into dressage training—and empathy for her students
Reprinted from the March 2015 Issue of USDF Connection
By Lauren Sprieser
I’m a professional dressage instructor/trainer who started running a few years ago as a means of burning off stress and calories. I didn’t find running all that inspirational, nor was I terribly good at it. But then I got hurt and couldn’t run for a few months, and I started hitting the pool instead.
It occurred to me one day that with my experience in swimming (I swam competitively as a kid) and running, I was two-thirds of the way to being able to do a triathlon. So I got myself a bicycle, and when I recovered from my injury, I entered my first sprint-length tri (a half-mile swim, 15- mile bike ride, and 3.1-mile run).
I was hooked. It was fun, it was inspiring, and I got to eat as much pizza as I wanted after. Brilliant!
Since then I’ve done more tris, and I’ve started taking my running a lot more seriously; I’ve run 10Ks and a 10-miler, and I have hopes of taking on a half-marathon soon.
I can’t help but compare my journey into triathlete-dom with the journey of many riders into dressage as beginners, and with the sport of dressage itself. Here’s what training for and participating in triathlons have taught me about dressage— and about being an amateur.
Variety Is the Spice of Life
I’m sure it shocks no one that cross-training makes you a better all-around athlete. But even within my cross-training, I’ve found that incorporating variety improves everything else.
For example, if I’m going on longer and longer runs, trying to expand my distance capacity, I run slowly—on purpose; trying to take on both speed and distance simultaneously really stinks and tends not to be successful. But if that’s all I do for a while, when I go on my shorter runs, I find speed difficult.
Alternating longer, slower distance runs with shorter, faster runs improves my distance, and I feel it in both my biking and my swimming. Sometimes I’ll go on long, flat bike routes, but if I don’t do hills regularly, when I do encounter them, they’re really misery-inducing.
I use the same concept in my dressage training. If all I do is work in a competition outline—big, bold, up, and open—my horses get a little stuck there. I want to be able to work them all neck up or down, trot big or small, hind legs powerful or little-and-quick. I break up the days I work on a lot of collection with the days I work on big, bold sideways movements and more open lines.
Focus on Your Weaknesses; Play to Your Strengths
Of the three sports in triathlon, my weakest is biking. I spend a fair amount of time trying to improve my biking, and between my first and second tris, that’s where most of my energy went.
At my second tri, I felt awesome going into the bike stage, and I improved the heck out of my performance. But I’d taken my strong sport, swimming, for granted in a big way; and sure enough, I was dramatically slower in my second event compared to my first.
The dressage message: All horses have things they’re good at and things at which they’re not so good. It’s important to try to improve the not-so-good things; a test of nothing but sevens is a score of 70 percent. But there are elements in which your horse can score better than others, and putting a little energy into those can make sevens into eights and eights into nines.
Accept Your Limitations (or Not)
When I started competing in triathlons, I bought a hybrid bike for about $250. A hybrid bike is exactly what the name implies—not quite a road bike, not quite a mountain bike. It’s a jack of all trades but a master of none, and I bought it because I didn’t want to drop a bunch of money on a bike for a sport I wasn’t sure I’d like.
The hybrid bike did me just fine for my first two triathlons, but it kept me from winning that division. Competitor that I am, I marched immediately to my local bike store and said, “I need a better bike!” They sold me a great introductory- level road bike, and just a few days later, I shaved a mile per hour off my race pace without even breaking a sweat.
No bike on the planet is going to make me into a Tour de France contender. And even if I was wickedly talented—and let’s be clear, I am not—I have a real job and other interests that keep me from being the kind of person who would take on an Ironman or the Olympic trials. So although I accept the fact that I will never be lightning fast, I don’t want to be hindered by my equipment.
The same holds true for dressage. Many of us started riding on a placid Heinz 57 type of equine that took us to our first horse shows and taught us to jump 18-inch cross rails. But it’s unlikely that such a horse is also going to carry us through our first Prix St. Georges. An all-purpose saddle is a great way to start, but it can’t take us to the upper levels. And that’s OK; it just means that as our goals increase, our equipment must get more sophisticated, as well. In triathlon, as in riding, we have to understand the limitations of our equipment—whether it’s bikes or saddles, our horses or our own bodies—and then strive to improve what we can, physically, emotionally, and financially. It’s not that you couldn’t do an Ironman on a hybrid bike. I’m sure there are people who could, just as I know of grade horses who’ve gone Grand Prix. But equipment is important.
There Are Lots of Levels at Which to Play
There are many kinds of triathlons. The sprint length (the races I’ve done) is short, and there are also the Olympic distance (one-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride, 6.2-mile run), the half Ironman (1.2, 56, 13), and the Ironman, which is twice that.
Some triathlon swims are in pools; others are in open water. Some are advertised as beginner-friendly; others tout their challenges. And then entrants are grouped into various divisions by gender, age, and even body size.
In dressage, a score of 60 percent at Training Level at a local schooling show is quite different from 60 percent at Grand Prix at that schooling show, which is different from 60 percent in the Grand Prix at a major championship. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be a “Grand Prix level” triathlete in any type of competition. But I can try to be competitive in my division in my local races, and if I’m successful there, I can increase my distances and start the process all over again.
Consult a Professional
Neither triathlon nor dressage is a sport in which one can go it alone.
When I started running, I was on my own—and I was often sore, discouraged, and inconsistent in my performance. One day, I decided I was going to go bang out a longer distance and came home with two strained Achilles tendons. I could barely walk for weeks, and I couldn’t run for six months.
The injuries led me to the office of a client’s husband, a sports-medicine doctor as well as an amateur triathlete. He gave me the names of some books and suggested an app for my iPhone. That brought me to the local pool, where I learned of the local Masters swim team; and to my local bike shop. From there I got into a bike group, and another doctor friend introduced me to a running store and school.
None of us can go this journey alone. Even if we’re wonderfully intuitive and can learn from our mistakes really well, having eyes on the ground—as often as we can afford them, and with as much consistency as possible—is crucial.
It’s OK to Be a Beginner
The biggest lesson of my triathlon journey has been how scary, exciting, and confusing it is to be a beginner at something.
When you’re a beginner, you have little choice but to trust the advice of professionals. My non-horsey parents picked a lesson barn when I wanted to start riding because it was a few miles from our house. We bought our first horse because the trainer there told us to. We bought whatever breeches our local tack shop suggested and took the word of veterinarians and saddle fitters. Even as I gained expertise, sometimes I didn’t know what questions to ask of the professionals I was consulting for advice, much less be able to determine whether their opinions were valid.
Likewise, when I started out in triathlon, my local bike shop could have sold me a complete bill of goods. They could have said, Hey, you need this $4,000 bicycle, this $300 kit, these $700 tires. We all know a novice dressage rider who’s been sold a fancy-schmancy horse well beyond her skill level, just as I wouldn’t have known I didn’t need the expensive bike setup.
As a beginner, it’s important to brace yourself for the inevitable mistakes. It’s not a matter of whether you’ll buy the wrong saddle, the wrong horse, or lessons with the wrong trainer; it’s when. I had to go through three bike seats before I got it right, ripped my legs apart a few times before I learned that I really did need the padded bike shorts, discovered that I had mountain-bike pedals on my road bike, and eventually determined that my running style was putting unnecessary wear and tear on my big toes. Both professional and amateur dressage riders learn by screwing up. It’s part of being a beginner.
My triathlon journey has reminded me that there are many reasons for getting involved in a sport, and many levels of involvement—something that’s important to keep in mind as I help my dressage students, many of them amateur riders, navigate their own aspirations and set goals. As a triathlete, I’m quite content being the “schooling-show champion” for now. Maybe I’ll splurge on the fancier wheels, or maybe I’ll decide I’m OK being a few minutes slower with the rims I’ve got. Perhaps I’ll sign up for a triathlon clinic one day, or maybe I’ll just plug away at it, gleaning tips from books and magazines and my fellow athletes. Wherever the journey takes me, it’s rewarding and fascinating and fun. As in dressage, there’s something for everyone.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver, and bronze medalist who has trained several horses from green to Grand Prix. Her students range from the “grass roots” to the international levels of dressage and eventing. Also a well-read blogger for The Chronicle of the Horse, she trains out of her own Clearwater Farm in Marshall, VA.