How to Get the Most out of Dressage Clinics

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Clinics can be invaluable, but you do have to ride in front of an audience. Dressage pro Lauren Sprieser rides Helio at the 2020 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference, a symposium-style event. See “Dressage Symposiums” to learn the difference between a clinic and a symposium. (Jennifer Bryant photo)

By Jennifer O. Bryant

Besides lessons with a local instructor, there are several forms of in-person dressage educational events that can be wonderful adjuncts to your learning.

The most common are clinics, which are lessons with a guest instructor. Some clinics are privately hosted by a stable and open exclusively to that facility’s clients, with no outside riders or spectators allowed. Others are open to members of a dressage club or to the general public, as well as to spectators, known as auditors. 

In this article, I’ll explain how clinics work, and I’ll give you tips on getting the most out of your clinic experience.

Why Are Clinics More Expensive Than Regular Lessons?

A clinic may consist of one, two, or more days. A common format is the two-day clinic, with 45-minute lesson slots commencing at 8:00 a.m. and concluding in the late afternoon, with eight or so rides per day and a lunch break.

The clinic organizer sets the fee for each ride slot—usually the clinician’s “day rate” plus any applicable travel and lodging expenses, divided by the total number of slots being offered. As a result, the average clinic ride is more expensive than the average lesson because the fee has to help offset the clinician’s travel expenses. Big names also command hefty daily rates.

Choosing a Clinician

Although some riders seem to participate in clinics for the bragging rights—“I’ve ridden with So-and-So!”—and others clinic with anybody who comes to town, you’ll get more bang for your clinic buck if you’re selective. Different instructors have different teaching and training methods. They also have different personalities, different styles of interacting with students, and different ways of explaining things. Some will work for you and your horse; others won’t. Find out as much as you can about a clinician before you sign up. Learn about the person’s credentials and achievements. Ask your instructor or other knowledgeable dressage people whether they’d recommend the person. If you can, audit a clinic before you sign up to ride (see “Auditing Clinics” below). You’ll see firsthand whether you like the person’s style and training methods.

Auditing Clinics

Especially if you’re on a budget, auditing clinics is a valuable way to further your dressage knowledge. An auditor is a spectator, and watching a good clinician work with different horses and riders for a day or two can yield insights into ways to solve various training problems and to work with different types of horses.

In many cases, auditing is free. If your own stable is hosting a clinic, for example, clients and friends may be permitted to watch at no charge. Other times, facilities charge a modest daily auditing fee. Still others charge higher fees but provide lunch in return.

If you hear about a clinic that you’re interested in auditing, contact the clinic organizer for details. Find out whether you need to reserve a spot in the audience and the cost, if any. Ask whether seating will be provided (often it’s not, so be prepared to bring a chair) and whether refreshments will be available (often they’re not, so be prepared to bring a bag lunch). If you’re not familiar with the facility, find out whether the clinic will be held indoors or outside, and dress appropriately.

Take notes during the clinic. Ideally, you’ll review your notes after you get home—but even if you don’t, take notes anyway. Doing so will force you to pay close attention to the clinician and the riders and horses, and studies have shown that note-taking improves comprehension and retention of information, even if you never look at your notes again.

To get the most out of your auditing experience, pay attention! You’ll be surprised at the number of spectators who tune out the lessons to chat with friends or to fiddle with their phones. Watch how the horses change during the course of the sessions. When the clinician tells a rider to do something, see if you can figure out why that correction or exercise was recommended at that moment; then watch to see if you can notice improvement in the horse’s way of going. In other words, start thinking like a trainer: Assess the horse’s correctness using the pyramid of training, identify areas that need improvement, choose appropriate gymnastic exercises, and gauge their effectiveness.

Unless the clinician or the clinic organizer instructs the audience otherwise, save any questions for between rides, the lunch break, or the end of the day. The clinician may not be prepared to engage in a lengthy discourse with auditors, but most are happy to answer brief questions or to clear up confusion.

Before You Go

If you decide to sign up to ride, reserve your slot or slots early. The clinic organizer can tell you what you need to do. You may need to submit an application, your horse’s current Coggins certificate, and payment by a closing date, similar to entering a show. And as with a show, there may be no refunds after the closing date unless the organizer can fill your slot(s), so make sure you understand the policies.

If you like the clinician and want to get the most out of the event, sign up to ride both days of a two-day clinic if there are slots available and you can afford it. When you and the clinician first meet, day one is spent partially on assessment of your and your horse’s skills, strengths, and weaknesses. Oftentimes, the bulk of the progress is made on day two. If you ride repeatedly with the same clinician, the person will get to know you and your horse, and you’ll establish a working rapport that can carry over from clinic to clinic.

Before the clinic, think about what you want to accomplish. A clinic is not a magic bullet; don’t expect the clinician to fix all of your training and riding issues. It’s more realistic to go in with one or two goals in mind, such as “I’d like help with my walk-canter transitions.” Doing so gives the clinician a starting point and a clear understanding of your expectations. (But keep in mind that the clinician may believe that you need to address another area first.)

Tips for Clinic Day

Arrive at the facility in plenty of time to tack up and get warmed up by your ride time. You don’t want to waste the first fifteen minutes of your session loosening up your horse so that you can go to work.

Most clinicians will ask for a brief summary of your and your horse’s experience and level. Be prepared to give a short introduction, mentioning your horse’s age, breeding, and level of training, as well as your goals for the clinic.

Show respect to the clinician by turning yourself and your horse out nicely. Braiding isn’t usually necessary, but a spotlessly clean horse and tack are. For yourself, a collared shirt or nice sweater paired with gloves, breeches, protective headgear, and polished boots present a neat appearance.

Be prepared to try new exercises and perhaps to be asked to do some things differently. (After all, isn’t that the point of a clinic?) You shouldn’t be asked to do anything that’s downright dangerous, but you might be pushed out of your comfort zone a bit. Unless you feel that what you’re being asked to do is jeopardizing your horse’s welfare or your safety, try to be open to new concepts and approaches. But know that ultimately you are responsible for your horse’s well-being, and that paying for a clinician’s time does not obligate you to finish a session if you feel that it is counterproductive for your horse or yourself.

Some clinicians have very encouraging teaching styles, while others don’t mince words and tell you exactly what they think the problems are. Such bluntness can come as a rude shock to some riders, if they’re not prepared for a frank assessment of themselves and their horses.

Maximize Your Learning

There are several things you can do to get the most out of your clinic fee. First, have a friend take video of your rides. Review the video as soon as possible after the session, while the ride is still fresh in your mind. Replay it later at home and any time you want a refresher course.

Second, as soon as possible after your ride, make some notes. Jot down exercises, insights, and any questions that come to mind. Review the questions with the clinician or your regular instructor. If your instructor can watch your session, so much the better.

Third, watch as many of the other sessions as you can. You’ll probably hear some familiar phrases and exercises repeated, which will reinforce your own learning. It’s also instructive to see how the clinician works with horses and riders of different skill levels and with different training and riding issues.

Dressage Symposiums

Dressage symposiums differ from clinics in a few significant ways. Clinic sessions are dressage lessons, meaning that the rider is paying for the clinician’s time, and the purpose of the session is for the clinician to help that rider and horse. Auditors may be permitted, but the clinician is there for the participants, not for the audience.

A symposium, on the other hand, is held primarily for the benefit of the audience, and the ticket prices reflect this. The horses and riders in a symposium are “demonstration” pairs, chosen by the clinician(s) or possibly a selection committee to show the audience various training methods, levels of training, horse types, and so on that the clinician wishes to emphasize. Although the clinician still works one-on-one with each demo pair, and the session may seem like a typical lesson (and the riders and horses can still benefit tremendously), there’s usually a certain amount of planning and staging involved in symposium rides. A symposium is more of a production overall, with bigger audiences and sometimes with extras like catered lunches, vendors, and even VIP seating, especially if the clinician is a world-renowned rider and trainer.

Jennifer Bryant is the editor of USDF Connection.

Adapted from The USDF Guide to Dressage by Jennifer O. Bryant. Used by permission of the author and Storey Publishing, Storey.com.

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