I rode western, barrels, and poles in 4-H as a kid growing up in Texas. When I asked my parents if I could ride dressage they looked upon me as if I’d sprouted a second head. So it wasn’t until adulthood I was about to jump feet first into dressage. Jump I did… without looking to see how deep the waters were and set my sights on learning as much as possible and moving up through the levels in my education, schooling and testing. This wasn’t possible without some clearly defined goals and, whether I knew it or not at the time, a complex team of people.  

What is your goal? It might be to get a 60-percent score (or higher) from your local schooling show. I might be to ride your first upper-level test with sights on that U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) silver medal. Or perhaps you want to be long-listed with the country’s top riders for either the small or big tour. Local, national, international—it doesn’t matter—the team it takes to excel in dressage remains the same. More often than not, dressage is described as a sport based on the individual or the horse-and-rider pair. But it’s vastly more complex than that. I learned that success in dressage takes an ambitious rider, a talented horse, a collection of consummate professionals and generous support, all united to achieve the same goal. Success is where hard work meets opportunity. I was fortunate to have a local trainer who had several quality schoolmasters and she wasn’t shy about letting her ambitious students aboard to get the feel of quality gates as well as high school movements. A good schoolmaster is key. How can you teach a flying change, shoulder-in or even a leg yield if you haven’t felt the proper movement achieved through a competent aid?

So... begin by sitting down and thinking about your dressage goals. Then write down your key goal for this coming show season. It’s amazing how writing something down solidifies it as a legitimate goal for you. Next, form your team. I’m certain you’ll find some of the members already in place, helping or waiting in the wings. Below, mostly in alphabetical order, are some team members that all successful dressage teams contain:

1. Trainer (Eyes From The Ground)
This is your right-hand man (or woman). If you are the team captain, then your coach is most definitely your co-captain. Hopefully, there’s someone in your area that you adore working with, who challenges you almost every schooling to be better and better and who is willing to attend competitions with you if asked. A talented, articulate and like-minded set of eyes from the ground is crucial to your development as a rider and as a team with your horse. You can’t go down this training path solo and be all that you can be.

Going to clinicians is superb and necessary to broaden your skills set but that one special person you meld with inside the sandbox can really help solidify your partnership. Especially when you make the jump from national to international-level tests as you’ll need all the exact pointers you can garner to enter successfully at A and land that superb square, immobile halt. Yet, finding someone whom you click with is often a challenge. I’ve been consulting and coaching with one of my best friends and colleagues, Geoff Butler of Unique Sporthorses regularly since 2010 and in this past year of working together I would think something to myself, almost at the exact same time, what Geoff would say the same thing in regards to our session. That sort of synched, succinct communication was paramount in excelling in my training and bringing my young horse from unbroke to schooling FEI.

2. Support (Your Cockroaches)
In 2005, I was warming up for my first Grand Prix test, and a fellow boarder at my stable came up to say hello. “I’m here to be your ‘cockroach,’” she said, smiling up at me. Due to my extremely puzzled look, she went on to explain about a study she had read of cockroaches given tasks to perform with no audience and others given the same tasks with an audience of peer cockroaches looking on. It seems the cockroaches with the audience far out performed the other group. So give thanks for people who are at the show just to give you moral support. Sometimes the more cockroaches the better, as their very presence can improve your performance. The next time you see a family member, friend or colleague out to support you in your riding, think of the cockroach story and it will bring a smile to your face, which will invariably lower your stress level.

The key to this business is personal relationships. Develop the relationships you have with people you believe in and enjoy being around. Foster new relationships with people you admire, respect and who have a positive influence on you. Thank them and be thankful for them.

3. Equipment (Pack Your Parachute)
You can’t go skydiving without a parachute. Likewise with dressage, it’s not just a matter of buying a saddle, slapping it on your horse’s back and having a go. You’ll need to continually check your saddle’s fit as both you and your horse develop physically and mentally in your training. I’m not saying to flock your own saddle but work with someone who truly knows and understands saddle fit with significant experience in the field. You wouldn’t ask a first-time skydiver to pack your parachute for you now would you? Certainly not.

Find what works for you by studying the innovative products that are available on the market. I am fortunate to have the perfect saddle for both my horse and me at this time, but it hasn’t been without years of trial-and-error, so don’t give up. What worked well for your Training-level partner might not be ideal for your FEI horse.

How to know if you have the right saddle? This is what I’ve learned: When you step into, sit down on and forget it’s there with zero repositioning it works for you. The same holds true for the rest of your appointments. A quality bridle that doesn’t pinch or pull and apparel where form follows function—those things provide advantages of being both aesthetically pleasing and technically proficient in design. If I’m finely coiffed with my hairnet, nicely appointed in well cared for attire, including my clean boots matching my belt, I feel better. While looking pretty doesn’t necessarily directly correlate with quality training, feeling better about yourself can raise your self esteem enough which, in turn, can improve your mentality about your ride.

4. Farrier (No Hoof, No Horse)
How many times have you heard ‘no hoof, no horse’ and sighed? But seriously, he or she is correct. Your farrier is a crucial component to your team and if you’re lucky enough you can find a farrier that is willing to work hand-in-hand with your veterinarian to discuss body and movement then props to you. You’ll hear there’s not much more to shoeing than proper medial, lateral balance and having them land in a flat, level balance but it’s surely different strokes for different folks when it comes to tweaking those hard-and-fast basics to improve your horses locomotion. Do your homework on hoof care, trimming and proper blacksmith work but first and foremost find a qualified, and hopefully certified, blacksmith in your area to explain what that previous sentence meant. When you’re making the jump to FEI or high performance, that extra mobility and correct angle of the coffin bone can mean the difference between getting that invitation to regionals, nationals or not.
5. Nutrition (Feed, Supplements, and all that other stuff)
We all know that we need to treat our horses and ourselves like the athletes we are, feeding a balanced diet with the proper supplements. Have you discussed a nutritional plan with your barn manager and another key player on your team, your veterinarian? Read feed bag labels. Understand those labels. Empower yourself to be aware what your horse is consuming and how different products like corn, sugar and, minerals affect his performance. Do you need less sugar, no sugar, higher fat, higher protein? Ask your veterinarian or ask a respected professional in the horse industry whose focus and educational background is nutrition. Find out what works for you and your horse, and keep in mind that the plan may need to evolve with your training program.

6. Support 2.0 (Benefactors)
Benevolent companies and individuals truly drive our sport. We should all give thanks for the amazing advancements in the last 10 years that have developed horse sport and the benefactors there to drive that along. There are so many wonderful, innovative products out there now, and if you’re a talented rider who uses and believes in a specific product or two, then don’t hesitate to contact those companies. Give them an opportunity to say yes to giving you a pair of gloves, breeches, a therapy sheet or even a saddle.  

If you want to compete FEI or step into the CDI arena, financial or product support always lightens the load and, unless you’re pockets are deep, you’re going to require assistance. Where there is a will, there is a way. Success truly is where hard work meets opportunity, so as you keep training hard with your team, always keep your thinking helmet strapped on as to ways to finance your endeavors. If you’re a talented, handy rider with a truly talented horse, there is a chance you could find an individual or company to sponsor you. First and foremost, however, remain true to yourself.
7. Veterinarian (Horse Health)
This might be someone you wish to only see in the fall and spring for shots, and that’s great if it works for you, but I haven’t seen many top sport athletes that don’t have fairly intimate relationships with their doctors, horse and human. If you want to ride FEI or top sport, both you and your horse will need top physical care. Simple things like maintenance dental care can be directly reflected in a happily bitted mouth that, in turn, allows continued improvements in training.

Regular physicals can result in preventative measures to keep bones, joints and ligaments in top form for both you and your horse. If you’re horse is rather mature, it might be a consideration to seek vet advice on wrapping, aqua therapies, treadmills or other options to keep your horse’s body comfortable in the workouts and keep you focused on the goal.

All in all, look at your goal and when you desire to achieve it. Back track on the calendar from that date as to milestones of where you need to be along the path to reach that goal. Write in your team players to that timeline with appropriate milestones. Most important, don’t fret if you’re not meeting your milestones. Perhaps your timeline is too accelerated or you need to consult with some of your team members on how you can get up to speed to reach your goals. Dressage is truly the journey and not the destination, but I do like to visualize the postcard I’ll buy when I get there and I certainly hope it has a USET logo on it!

Whether it's local, national, or international AND no matter where I travel for training - I always take my Bye Bye Odor and Bye Bye Insects with me!