My Virtual Eventing Coach: Handling Conflicting Advice From Trainers

Photo:  Flickr/Steven Lilley/Creative Commons License.
Photo: Flickr/Steven Lilley/Creative Commons License.

Trainer A told me to do THIS but Trainer B told me to THAT — what gives? Lesley Stevenson of My Virtual Eventing Coach offers some advice on how to handle this confusing but common situation.

From Lesley:

Take enough lessons and you will inevitably come across some conflicting advice. How do you know which advice to take? Hands up or hands down? Quiet and still hands or vibrate the reins? Weigh the inside or outside seat bone? Or neither?? Sit to the jumps or stay off your horse’s back? Contact or loose reins? When you are an amateur rider who is still learning the ropes, it can be very confusing (and even upsetting) to get such conflicting advice! Here’s how to best handle these situations, and how to figure out which methods you should use for your horse.

The key is to arm yourself with knowledge. You may be showing at the Novice level, but there is no reason you can’t read and educate yourself to a much higher level. By reading lots of reputable published material, you will begin to see common themes. And will therefore go into each lesson already having an idea of what is right and what is wrong.

Here are some examples:

Most good authors agree that we should strive to have a straight line from the rider’s elbow to the horse’s mouth. This is the way our aids will work the best, with the horse feeling the bit exactly as it was designed to be felt. So if you take a lesson with someone who tells you to keep your hands up in the air, you will have a good idea that this is not really correct.

If all the dressage books tell you that you should ride from your leg into your hand, and not pull the horse’s head down with the reins to make him round. Then you will be ready to doubt the trainer who is telling you to pull your horse’s head down.

If all of the well-known instructors say to train your green horse slowly over his first cross-country jumps like ditches and water to give him confidence, and you find yourself with an instructor who wants you to come at his first ditch at a strong gallop “to make sure he gets over it the first time” — you will have a good idea that this is wrong.

What should you do if you are riding with someone new and one of these situations presents itself? It depends on how damaging the advice would be.

In the case of galloping up to your horse’s first ditch ever, I would have the confidence to say, “No, I don’t think I want to do that. Can we please introduce him to the concept of a ditch slowly?” This is really important, as while your horse may get over his first ditch at a fast gallop, he may look down, become scared in the air and end up harboring a fear about ditches for a long time. If he is allowed to look and figure it out quietly his first time, he will be more likely to think ditches are not a big deal.

If you are taking a lesson with someone who wants you to see saw on the reins to put your horse’s head down, or someone who wants you to carry your hands up in the air above the elbow to bit line, there is probably no danger of long-term damage for things like this. So I would tend to do what they are saying during the lesson, discard that info afterwards, and probably never take another lesson from that trainer again!

When a trainer says something that you are unsure of…. ask questions! You may find that they have a perfectly logical reason for asking you to do something out of the ordinary. For example, if I have a rider who tends to ride with their hands too low, below the elbow-to-bit line, I might have them ride with their hands too high as a temporary correction. As I always say, the best way to correct a bad habit is to exaggerate the opposite — as a temporary exercise.

Always remember that each horse is an individual, and should be treated as such. So while there are many truisms that will apply to every horse, it’s best to keep an open mind, and be ready to let the horse tell you how he will go best.

The most experienced trainers have many different ideas in their toolbox, and can just sense what methods will work best for your horse. Some trainers are somewhat limited in experience, and only know one way of doing everything — specifically what worked for them and their horse. So if you have a sensitive thoroughbred, and they only know how to get the best out of the less-sensitive warmblood type, you may find that their advice may not work as well for you. So you need to be aware of the experience level of the person you are taking a lesson from, to have an idea as to whether or not you should employ their methods. Something that works great for one type of horse may not for another.

While I believe that riders progress the fastest and easiest when they find the best trainer available to them, and stick with that trainer until they are quite solid in their foundation, getting different perspectives occasionally can often be quite helpful. And you can learn something from everyone, even if it’s what NOT to do.

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