Cre­at­ing Ex­cel­lence

Part 1: Olympian Sue Blinks ex­am­ines the qual­i­ties that con­tribute to suc­cess at every level.


Olympian Sue Blinks ex­am­ines seven qual­i­ties that con­tribute to rider suc­cess at every level

Rider suc­cess is a di­rect re­sult of cer­tain, very spe­cific, pos­i­tive qual­i­ties. One rider, for ex­am­ple, may have the phys­i­cal abil­ity and skill set nec­es­sary to be an ex­tra­or­di­nary clas­si­cal rider, giv­ing clear, con­sis­tent aids in all sit­u­a­tions. We might call that be­ing a “skilled dres­sage rider.” Some rid­ers (not nec­es­sar­ily the skilled dres­sage rider) have the abil­ity to teach horses to un­der­stand what they want. We might call that be­ing “an ef­fec­tive horse trainer,” and that qual­ity can get you pretty far.

Some rid­ers have con­sid­er­able knowl­edge of dres­sage the­ory and oth­ers have con­sid­er­able knowl­edge of horse­man­ship and they take ex­quis­ite care of their horses. You could be the best rider in the world and not man­age your horse’s emo­tional and phys­i­cal well-be­ing, thereby pre­vent­ing the horse from do­ing his job. Peo­ple skills are also key. I can think of in­cred­i­ble rid­ers who didn’t have the peo­ple skills re­quired. You also need to be able to fo­cus and have a pos­i­tive, re­silient, pa­tient, con­cen­trated per­son­al­ity.

All of these qual­i­ties are not nec­es­sar­ily in the same per­son! But when they are, when one per­son “has it all,” we’re likely to find her on the podium.

I hope this ar­ti­cle helps rid­ers as­sess them­selves, fo­cus on their weak points and work on im­prov­ing.

the ef­fec­tive horse trainer

Many of us can think of train­ers who have pro­duced Grand Prix horse af­ter Grand Prix horse—or have great suc­cess at the lower lev­els—but they have no con­cept of what clas­si­cal rid­ing is. Even a be­gin­ner can be a good horse trainer but not be a good dres­sage rider if she is able to teach her horse, for ex­am­ple, that she wants a can­ter de­part at F. Re­gard­less of the less-than-ideal rid­ing, the horse has con­fi­dence in what his job is and clearly un­der­stands what is ex­pected and when. An ef­fec­tive horse trainer can teach the horse through all the lev­els to un­der­stand what she wants.

Horse train­ers “speak” horse. They have con­ver­sa­tions with their horses through their aids and their re­sponses. The rider com­mu­ni­cates, the horse re­sponds and the rider speaks again. It goes on and on. To be a good horse trainer, you need to be able to think like a horse and clearly, con­sis­tently con­vey to him the de­sired re­sults. You need to be able to ad­min­is­ter ques­tions with log­i­cally evolv­ing dif­fi­culty and si­mul­ta­ne­ously un­der­stand his phys­i­cal and men­tal sit­u­a­tion. This skill can get you quite far, but you’ll also want to be a skilled clas­si­cal dres­sage rider.

2. The Skilled Dres­sage Rider

To be a clas­si­cal dres­sage rider, you need a phys­i­cal skill set—an in­de­pen­dent seat and po­si­tion, elas­tic­ity, the abil­ity to move with the horse’s mo­tion and ab­sorb it with­out com­pro­mis­ing bal­ance, feel and tim­ing. That skill set en­ables the abil­ity to give pre­cise and con­sis­tent aids de­spite a horse’s re­sis­tance, his lack of for­ward de­sire or what­ever sit­u­a­tion might present it­self. All rid­ers strug­gle with the phys­i­cal­ity of that.

Horses, on the other hand, are con­tin­u­ally try­ing to process and un­der­stand ev­ery­thing you, the rider, do up there—whether you mean to do it or not. They’re play­ing Pic­tionary, which is so hard! Rid­ers need to help the horse by be­ing as clear and con­sis­tent as pos­si­ble—black and white. Horses don’t un­der­stand rider in­con­sis­ten­cies. For ex­am­ple, if you pre­cisely and cor­rectly ask your horse for a shoul­der-in five times and then you lose your fo­cus and let him get away on the sixth and sev­enth ef­forts, then you’ve made the re­quest for shoul­der-in a mul­ti­ple-choice ques­tion.

When you, the rider, are “con­se­quent” (see side­bar on p. 29), your aids are clear and con­sis­tent and you teach your horse pre­cisely how to re­spond to those clear, con­sis­tent aids. You give your horse a trail to fol­low that’s al­ways go­ing in the same di­rec­tion and is sup­ported by your own body lan­guage and your own body parts. Very suc­cess­ful rid­ers are able to think like a horse and are phys­i­cally able to keep com­ing up with con­sis­tent, clear state­ments time af­ter time, re­gard­less of the sit­u­a­tion. At the same time, the clas­si­cal rider main­tains and de­vel­ops the qual­ity of the horse and his gaits and her rid­ing is based in clas­si­cal dres­sage the­ory— which brings us to the next qual­ity of ex­cep­tional rid­ing.

3. The The­o­ret­i­cal Rider

The suc­cess­ful rider has to have the­o­ret­i­cal dres­sage knowl­edge. When you un­der­stand why you’re do­ing what you’re do­ing, your de­ci­sions come from a very clear place.

Olympians Chris­tine Trau­rig, Gün­ter Sei­del and St­ef­fen Peters grew up in the Euro­pean cul­ture of dres­sage the­ory, and many oth­ers have gone over­seas to get the in­cred­i­ble ben­e­fit of be­ing im­mersed in that the­ory. At this point in his­tory, it’s pos­si­ble to do that in this coun­try, too. You’ll never come to those clear de­ci­sions if you haven’t been im­mersed in that world and sur­rounded by a bub­ble of in­for­ma­tion that pro­vides you with an un­der­stand­ing of the log­i­cal pro­gres­sion of horse train­ing. I’m for­ever grate­ful for the time I spent at Wal­ter Chris­tensen’s in Ger­many. His the­ory was the old clas­si­cal the­ory writ­ten in books. They said, train­ing has been done this way for hun­dreds of years and the process is just a given.

When your train­ing isn’t go­ing in the right di­rec­tion, you need to be able to draw on that clas­si­cal, the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge base to find a dif­fer­ent way to ex­plain a con­cept to your horse. For ex­am­ple, why is the horse not able to do a fly­ing change? It might be the way you’re in­ter­act­ing with him or a lack of un­der­stand­ing on his part or maybe it’s his body me­chan­ics. Per­haps you need to fig­ure out how your horse can jump through in such a way that he doesn’t lose his back and his hind legs. In some cases, that has to be done in an up­hill frame and in other times in a frame with a lower neck. Some­times you just need to find an­other ap­proach and go down a dif­fer­ent road be­cause every horse is dif­fer­ent. That dif­fer­ent road, for most of us, needs to be a clas­si­cal road be­cause we re­quire that the end re­sult al­ways main­tains and de­vel­ops the gaits.

Then there’s an­other kind of knowl­edge: Horse­man­ship. For some rid­ers, the fa­tal flaw is lack of horse­man­ship.

4. The Rider With Good Horse­man­ship

Many rid­ers never learn about horse­man­ship be­cause they didn’t spend a large part of their lives in an en­vi­ron­ment where they could learn the count­less ways in which we need to watch out for our horses’ phys­i­cal and emo­tional well-be­ing. Be­ing with the horse at 7 p.m. when the vet can be there is one tiny part of the end­less work ethic that is re­quired.

I re­cently read an ar­ti­cle writ­ten by one of the show-jump­ing Leones, who said that if your breeches are still clean at the end of the day, you’re not a horse­man. That’s why the Leones ride in chaps. Horse­men braid and muck. If the horse is sick or in­jured, they hand­walk and stay on top of the horse’s every need. At some level you have to re­ally care about and love horses to sus­tain that work ethic.

Most di­rectly, the horse’s well-be­ing is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the rider and it’s para­mount to the horse’s abil­ity to per­form well. But to some de­gree, the team around the rider sup­ports that re­spon­si­bil­ity.

When I had the op­por­tu­nity to train with Dr. Uwe Schul­ten-Baumer, Is­abell Werth’s long-time trainer, I saw that Is­abell trav­eled with her horse to the vet. The greats that I know op­er­ate that way. The Dutch su­per­star of the time, Anky van Grunsven was al­ways in­volved, clip­ping her own horse and work­ing di­rectly with the vet.

I was al­ways the de­ci­sion-maker re­gard­ing treat­ments and sound­ness, but when I was in the thick of things—1998 Rome World Eques­trian Games (WEG), 2000 Syd­ney Olympic Games and 2002 Jerez WEG—I was for­tu­nate to have a great team, in­clud­ing Dr. Midge Leitch and Dr. Car­olyn Wein­berg along with fab­u­lous grooms, Christy Bax­ter and Ali­son Brock, all of whom worked to­gether. We all made de­ci­sions to­gether as a team, and that lux­ury takes a great weight off the rider.

5. The Emo­tional As­pect Of the Puz­zle

In the face of re­sis­tance, lack of for­ward­ness or what­ever sit­u­a­tion your horse presents, you have to re­tain your emo­tion­ally sta­bil­ity. Be­ing con­se­quent is re­lated to our emo­tional way of be­ing. Our emo­tions, from mo­ment to mo­ment shouldn’t make us in­con­sis­tent, tense, short-tem­pered, overde­mand­ing, un­sym­pa­thetic or feel­ing de­feated.

Phys­i­cal fear, fear of fail­ure or fear of suc­cess needs to be dealt with by some rid­ers.

Pos­i­tive emo­tions need to rule your horse life. It’s im­por­tant to be a per­son who learns from mis­takes and turns fail­ure into growth. All rid­ers get knocked down. Even the best of the best end up in the fe­tal po­si­tion at times. Do you learn from your mis­takes and carry on as a wiser rider?

My phi­los­o­phy is that you’re al­lowed to be in the fe­tal po­si­tion for 24 hours and then you need to try the next ap­proach, the new idea, and start the train­ing from a dif­fer­ent an­gle. Peo­ple who suc­ceed are al­ways able to get some­thing pos­i­tive out of fail­ure and they emerge from the fe­tal po­si­tion feel­ing ex­cited about the next step for­ward.

6. Short- and Long-term Con­cen­tra­tion

Some peo­ple sim­ply have too many as­pects to their lives so they’re not able to com­mit and fo­cus. You can’t bale hay, play the stock mar­ket, travel the world and also be able to man­age and pri­or­i­tize your horse life: read­ing up on the new rules, think­ing about the feed­ing pro­gram, con­cen­trat­ing on long- and short-term goals, sched­ul­ing vet, far­rier and al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies, and, and, and.

Some rid­ers have dif­fi­culty with short-term con­cen­tra­tion when they’re rid­ing. They ex­er­cise their horses with­out us­ing their brains. They’re in their own

world day­dream­ing, teach­ing or talk­ing in­ces­santly, and I of­ten say that’s wast­ing the horse’s time. You can’t pos­si­bly be pre­oc­cu­pied with some­thing or some­one else and also be rid­ing well, but rid­ers do that all the time.

If you aim to be clear, con­sis­tent and con­se­quent in the sad­dle, you have a lot to con­cen­trate on. I re­mem­ber af­ter an im­por­tant test one time, an ob­server said to me, “I can’t be­lieve your horse didn’t re­act to that dis­trac­tion.” And I said, “I didn’t even no­tice that.” I had no idea what was go­ing on around me and my horse didn’t ei­ther. That’s your goal.

When you’re hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with your horse and you miss a mo­ment be­cause you lost your con­cen­tra­tion and you aren’t able to stay in swing with your horse, that means your horse didn’t get the mes­sage. When you’re be­ing im­pacted by the out­side en­vi­ron­ment or the phys­i­cal­ity of your horse’s re­ac­tions, a lack of con­cen­tra­tion com­pro­mises your abil­ity to be con­sis­tent, de­lib­er­ate and pre­cise time af­ter time, so it un­der­mines the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing con­se­quent.

7. Peo­ple Skills

Young peo­ple some­times ask me, “How do I get my first spon­sor?” If you’re out there pas­sion­ately do­ing what you’re do­ing, your horse looks like a mil­lion bucks, is ob­vi­ously healthy and well cared for and you’re rid­ing well, you will be ad­mired for that. That’s what makes some­one buy a horse and put it in your care. That’s what makes a ven­dor want you to rep­re­sent his prod­uct. But the re­la­tion­ship is not the re­sult of a rider say­ing, “Gimme, gimme, gimme.”

It’s the same as mak­ing the Olympic team. You don’t have to set out to do it. Rather, it can be a wind­fall that is a re­sult of many other qual­i­ties and events in your life. Spon­sor­ship is a mat­ter of hav­ing char­ac­ter, in­tegrity and the abil­ity to of­fer your sup­port­ers what­ever they

need to sus­tain a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship. Spon­sor­ship sit­u­a­tions that work well and last over time are a re­sult of the rider con­sciously or un­con­sciously pri­or­i­tiz­ing and mak­ing sure the spon­sor gets what­ever floats his boat. The ven­dor ob­vi­ously wants ac­co­lades. The horse owner may want any num­ber of things. They might want to ride the horse them­selves some­times or maybe they want to sit in the VIP tent, vi­car­i­ously en­joy­ing the ride or maybe they want to be in­volved in the train­ing process. Oth­ers don’t even care if the horse goes to a show, but they might want to be in­cluded in every lit­tle de­ci­sion. Each owner has things that they like and you have to be sen­si­tive enough to know and give back what­ever that is.

Some­times it’s not pos­si­ble be­cause what the spon­sor wants doesn’t mesh with your way or your abil­i­ties. A spon­sor might want in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, more rib­bons and ac­co­lades, and that’s not your way. You can ab­so­lutely end up in a sit­u­a­tion in which the mo­ti­va­tion of the spon­sor doesn’t fit with who you are. But some rid­ers are sim­ply in­sen­si­tive to the spon­sors’ needs or they of­ten aren’t good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing. The sym­bi­otic as­pect of the re­la­tion­ship is re­ally im­por­tant to its longevity and it re­quires a strong com­mit­ment and lots of work as any re­la­tion­ship does.

Peo­ple skills with clients are im­por­tant for the rider who earns a liv­ing teach­ing and coach­ing. Teach­ing styles, at their worst, can be de­mean­ing or be­lit­tling to­ward the stu­dent be­cause the teacher isn’t a big enough per­son to want to give away the knowl­edge or he doesn’t get joy out of help­ing rid­ers and see­ing their suc­cess. It’s im­por­tant for rid­ers to know that a prob­lem isn’t al­ways their fault.

I of­ten watched Dr. Shul­ten-Baumer teach Is­abell. He never rode, but he pro­vided ob­jec­tive feed­back with the con­stant goal of per­fec­tion re­gard­ing the shape of the horse, his move­ment and the execution of ex­er­cises. He pro­vided the voice of rea­son when the sit­u­a­tion wasn’t ideal. He might sim­ply say, “The horse is too short in the neck.” Or if some­thing wasn’t work­ing one day, he might point out that the horse had had the pre­vi­ous day off, and he would as­sure Is­abell that the work would be eas­ier for the horse to­mor­row. That sim­ple, ob­jec­tive feed­back from a trainer is vi­tal.

The above cat­e­gories don’t each ex­ist on an is­land. There’s over­lap, and per­haps you can think of other de­sir­able qual­i­ties, but the fact re­mains that to be a suc­cess­ful in­ter­na­tional rider or at least one of great ac­com­plish­ment, you need to have all these at­tributes. If you fall short (as most rid­ers do), you need

to be will­ing to do what­ever it takes to as­sim­i­late the full skill set and tend to all the de­tails within each piece of the puz­zle. That means long hours and missed so­cial en­gage­ments. And it’s hard to work on some of these pieces.

I know some rid­ers who have worked hard but were miss­ing one of the lit­tle pieces, so suc­cess at the high­est level didn’t hap­pen for them. I know other rid­ers who have taken own­er­ship and made a long-term com­mit­ment to work­ing on each of these pieces and they have each found ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess.

Next month, I’d like to take a prac­ti­cal look at how you can uti­lize some of these at­tributes as you teach your horse a few stan­dard dres­sage move­ments.


The The­o­ret­i­cal Rider: When she un­der­stands why she’s do­ing what she’s do­ing, her de­ci­sions come from a very clear place.

The Good Horse­man is in­volved in all that’s needed to watch out for the horses’ phys­i­cal and emo­tional well-be­ing.

Be­hind every great rider is a great sup­port team: own­ers, vets, far­ri­ers, al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pists, nu­tri­tion­ists and so on.

All rid­ers have dis­ap­point­ments. Al­low your­self to be in the fe­tal po­si­tion for 24 hours, then carry on with pos­i­tive think­ing and a new ap­proach.

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