Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Good Fit

When I started keeping this blog years ago, my goal to tell the stories behind the blurbs that show up on SFD’s Facebook Page.  I still think this is a great platform to do that, but I find a lot of my writing these days has more of a musing manner.  Sometimes these musings are related to the day-to-day events, and sometimes they are related to more general events in the dressage world. As I’ve been unsure if these musings apply to the original goal, I’ve been a bit reluctant to share them. But heck, it’s my blog, so I think it’s going to evolve a bit.

One of my recent musings has been about how different dressage professionals gear their business, and how that affects the type of clients they attract.  Some horse professionals build their business around their personal competition goals.  Others, me included, built their business around client support.  Neither plan is inherently wrong, and both business models need to incorperate elements of both in order to be sustainable.  I have been extremely fortunate that my client-support business model has, thanks to some amazing clients, allowed me to continue to achieve my personal competition goals.  But not all client-support-based trainers have been so lucky.

What I find interesting is the dressage community’s assumptions.  For some reason, many dressage students believe a business built around the trainer’s competition goals to be superior to a business built around client support.  Which I find ironic, as students are coming in as clients. 

From where I sit, it seems most goal-based businesses started with a springboard –  a nice horse or two, a family farm, an investor.  Often, that is the main difference. Because I promise you, every one of us who have dediated our careers to developing dressage horses, deep in their hearts, wants to be in that CDI victory gallop and in the latest issue of Dressage Today.  Every one of us works hard to hone our craft, improve our seats, and polish our skills.

Which comes to the topic of which model is better for clients.  I know many pros with goal-based businesses that do a great job supporting clients, equal to or even better than some client-based business models. I also know many client-centered-business pros that are overlooked because they are so dedicated to supporting their students that their own show goals go by the wayside. 

So which model is better for the AA student?  I think, at the end of the day, it comes down to good fit.

The hard part is figuring out what comprises a "good fit."  Sometimes the right fit is about instruction, or showing, or training. Sometimes the right fit is more about the barn itself – location, society in the barn, accessibility to hacking – than the trainer.  When looking for a barn, determining what is "good fit" takes a bit of honest evaluation.  A rider who knows not only their goals, but also their limitations will have the best chances of finding "good fit."  

A big part of determining "good fit" is the goals. If your goal is to earn your bronze or silver medal, boarding at a barn with a relaxed atmosphere, full of AAs who enjoy a paper chase one weekend, a dressage schooling show the next, and a hunter show the third, may be a great barn, but will, in the end, leave you dissatisfied with your goals.  Often, an all-around rider, who would thrive in the more relaxed barn, will feel pressured in a more competitive program, even if that program is right around the corner from their house. 

The hard part is when in your heart, you want those medals, but your comfort zone is with the more recreational program. That’s when some serious soul-searching needs to happen. Are you willing to push your comfort zone for your goals, or sacrifice your goals for your comfort zone? That is a personal decision each rider makes at some point in their riding, and neither decision is inherently wrong, and therefore shouldn’t be criticized.

 The second part of determining “good fit” is limitations.  If a rider has a goal of competing GP, but has a 20-year-old 2nd level horse they won’t part with and budget for just one horse, the horse becomes a limitation on their goals, not their trainer. Switching to a trainer who has developed several GP horses won’t change that.  If a limitation is 2 kids and a full-time job, the limitation becomes time, so a trainer willing to school your horse a couple times a week becomes a key component to “fit.” 

Regardless of what creates fit, I think all students should not settle until they find a fit that fulfills them as riders, trainers, and people. Regardless of if the head trainer dons a magazine cover.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016


I am currently on a plane headed from sunny FL, returning home from a couple days watching Johann Hinnemann teach at the FEI Trainer’s Conference.  I debated attending this year, but in the end I decided to buy my ticket. 

My debate was a bit based on the nature of my business. SFD’s business model is helping adult amatures achieve their dressage goals. This means a majority of the horses I train are “shared rides,” meaning I ride a few times a week, and I help the horse’s owner from the ground a few times a week. Which means my training goals are about consistency over brilliance.  I want the horses I develop to have such a clear understanding of what I want that they are able to help their owners out a bit.  How do you make a horse consistent, you ask? Well, consistency in the training. 

Normally, I have a few horses that are not “shared rides,” temporarily or permanently. These horses I don’t have to be as careful with. Yes, I want them consistent, but I also have more freedom to develop the expressison in their gaits.  In order to do that, I often need to push the boundary of what they are currently willing and able to offer, which means I risk tension.  I think it’s most fair to the horses to help them get to the other side of that tension before I ask the horse to teach that new skill to their rider.

The FEI Conference is generally all about creating the best balance and gaits that a horse is capable of, so I debated whether it was worth the time and money for information that, in theory, only applies to some of my horses, some of the time. Plus right now, for various reasons, I have fewer non-shared rides than normal, so I wondered how much of what I saw I would be able to use every day. 

But even as SFD is about helping riders develop their horses, Ange-the-trainer, wants to see the best my mounts can offer. As I watched the horses and riders in the conference, I realized that routine has been winning over expression lately.  Which is not bad for business, but it isn’t everything. 

I took Johann Hinnemann's words to heart -- "That’s really our job as trainers, to always think about something, every day how to make something better, better ideas to school the horses and teach our students.”

So I am now recharged, refueled, and ready to see how many of the techniques that develop the best gaits in horses can be applied to my “shared rides,” and how I can help coach my students to when tension is acceptable and when consistency is better.   

Let the winter training begin.

If you are interested in details about the FEI Conference itself, here are a few blogs about the rides themselves: