Emily Watson Ragan of Hidden Bridge Stables and Emily Ragan Eventing in Prospect, Kentucky sent PRO this very thoughtful letter describing a common problem that many trainers encounter. Ashley Leith and Marcia Kulak were part of this month's PRO Rider Panel that responded to Emily and addressed her comments and concerns. PRO will feature a new question each month answered by a panel of riders or grooms. Email us your questions or post them on PRO's Facebook page.
Are Riders Moving Up Too Soon?
This morning I was texting another trainer. Both of us are experiencing a problem with trying to keep kids from moving up the levels that we do not feel they are ready for. I recently lost a rider who, after doing three training level events felt like she should move up to preliminary! The other trainer is experienced a similar situation. Her rider takes lots of dressage lessons because she wants to do well in the dressage phase but her horses scope is somewhat limited and riding at the preliminary level may prove to be too much of a challenge for that horse. The fact that as trainers we don't have any input whether these riders have the ability to move up is a shame.
Decades ago, I had a training level horse that I wanted to move up to preliminary. At that time, I became a working for Derek DeGrazia. It took him about one ride on my horse for him to tell me know this horse would not make a preliminary level of that horse. I took his advice to heart and then bought a new horse that had the scope to go preliminary.
My question is probably a societal one. Why is it that riders feel that they should be able to take their horse at whatever level they want, even if their trainers do not embrace the idea? With all the concern about eventing being a dangerous sport, this to me seems like one caveat in our system that we could prevent.
I would be interested to know what other PRO riders think.
Emily Watson Ragan
Hidden Bridge Stables
PRO RIDER PANEL RESPONSES
Yes, you are right, this is a tough topic with many riders. First, I would suggest that you have a frank conversation with your students about what riding at the preliminary level actually entails. Of course the USEA states that a rider must have four NQR's at training level before moving up, but there is much more to it than that. I would focus on the horse and rider skills involved as well as the horsemanship and safety aspects of it. For example, someone may be able to clear a 3'6" show jump at home, but could they competently navigate a technical show jumping course at that height? Even more important is cross country. I believe that as a rider moves up the levels, he or she must be more and more able to get the horse to the correct take-off zone of a jump. Of course everyone will miss some of the time, but missing often will cause a horse to loose confidence or make a mistake. On top of this, the different types of cross country questions truly becomes influential at the preliminary level. There is a reason that preliminary is the beginning of the upper levels, and that is because your margin for error gets smaller. The verticals become more vertical, the tables become wider, the skinnies become skinnier and the strides in combinations become more concrete. Riders must have a solid and effective understanding of how to negotiate each of the different types of questions posed on a course. I believe that most reasonably capable horses can safely compete at training level, however only more elite athletes (equine and human) can safely compete at preliminary level. This is a very important distinction.
Another thought is to explore your students' motivation. Do they feel that they will only be real riders if they are competing at preliminary? Are they working off of peer pressure? For my students who have unrealistic goals, I try to come up with a doable goal and get them focused on that. For example, if you feel your student's horse is going to be scoped out at prelim, why not get them to train for a training three-day? This is a milestone of a different sort. The bottom line is that students come to me for advice and they have to trust my judgement. If they tell me a goal that I don't think is reasonable, I try to find a way to make it reasonable, like what Derek did in telling you that you needed a horse with more scope. Another great tool is to set milestones. When I was a kid my mom wouldn't let me move up on a horse until I was in the top three ribbons at my current level at least three times in a season. It is actually a good rule of thumb! You could also set goals at home, such as, "Let's set up some preliminary type exercises at home and school them in a lesson and see where the holes are." or, "OK, you want to ride at preliminary level? Let's lay out a four month plan of attack for showing and schooling to get you there."
Those are my thoughts. I hope some of them are helpful!
You have encountered a very common challenge in the coaching of event riders. It requires some careful tactics on your part to help a student come to the correct conclusion and feel good about it.
Initially, prepare yourself for a frank conversation. If this is a young rider be sure to include a parent in the meeting. This will allow you to be less emotional in what might be a heated discussion. Do it privately, not while riding or with other people around and allow plenty of time. Make it personal, professional and be well prepared yourself!! Take a minute to list the facts on paper as to their actual qualifications. Then review their scores (as opposed to their placing) in all 3 phases. Perhaps include a review of video footage of them competing. Once the facts are in order, try to determine what’s behind their motivation to move up. Discuss their horses strengths and weakness and the challenges they may have, Soundness, scope, temperament. There may be additional financial considerations in veterinary and farrier care required to have a horse move up a level. Clearly indicate that moving up to prelim requires a stronger skill set, especially on the cross country. Then move on to their own personal strengths and weaknesses in all 3 phases. Keep the conversation calm and be sure to allow them an uninterrupted flow of their point of view.
Next come up with a plan that has a number of short and long term goals. This allows both you and your rider to have a master plan. Give them what you think is the safest and best route, including their own additional physical and mental preparation. It’s vital that they understand the greater commitment required to go further. Most riders will be relieved to have their coach’s expertise and experience guide them!!
Another tool is to make up a mock event at a schooling site. For example design a short cross country course that includes some challenging training and prelim fences. Make the degree of difficulty realistic and there will be no second chances, circling etc. put the pressure on them just like a real event and score it accordingly! Wheel the course so you have an optimum time. Then warm up and let them have a go. Video is important to accurately review how they handled the speed and accuracy questions. Of course you can add in the dressage and show jumping as well. This gives everyone a real barometer of how things went. If doing a mock event is logistically too difficult, have them aim for a Preliminary/ Training division. These offer an ideal opportunity to test the waters and keep the horses and riders safe while challenging their readiness to move up a level. Another great program and incredibly fun experience is the Training level 3-day. That alone is a challenge that requires a very focused and committed program to prepare for. It’s a perfect stepping stone to the next level and would certainly create more training time to hone the skills necessary to move to the preliminary level!
In closing, remember to stress your desire to have them be safe and successful. If they clearly understand that you have their best interests in mind and a ready plan in place to help them achieve their goals, everyone wins!