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A Solid Foundation is Everything in Horse Training

Over the many years of training horses, not just our own homebreds or imports but also for clients that send them in for schooling and development, we know that horses need time to develop their own personalities and to develop their confidence. With horses that don't belong to us but are under our wing for a portion of their training and careers, we have additionally experienced a variety of clientele with a myriad of notions and levels of education as to just what constitutes what in the training pyramid.

Our mantra is based in the classical training that we have received and that we continue to receive from notable sources/masters of dressage around the world. Simply put, a solid foundation is fundamental to the success of the horse in his training. 

Some owners know basically nothing about dressage. They have seen a pretty horse or two dancing at an exhibition, have even developed an eye as a breeder and know lots about bloodlines and can read the studbooks out loud almost from memory. Of all the client owners that we have welcomed over more than 25 years to Willowview Hill Farm, I must say the most educated riders/competitors in dressage are always our favorite clients. Favorite why? Because for the most part, these clients are the ones that appreciate the fine details in training principles and are aware that different horses require a different approach in their training while always following classical training methods.

Paul Alvin-Smith, GP trainer at Willowview Hill Farm Schooling ANCCE stallion CELESTO IV in half pass in 2015.

Some clients are all about the levels. They want to have the bragging rights to say, my horse is 4th level. That is fine. But what constitutes a 4th level horse? Is it one that has been out in the competition ring and scored well? Well that's a reasonable barometer for sure, but also it is important to consider that a horse may be considered 4th level if he can execute movements above that level, even is he is still a work in progress on some of the movements that appear in 4th Level Test 1. 

We school horses to show but we also show our horses to school. The idea that a neophyte dressage horse owner, who has never ridden dressage at all, yet thinks they can tell the difference between a half pass at FEI level and a half pass at 3rd level is all too common. When asked the difference between the two they probably cannot explain it, never mind appreciate it.

As a trainer working with horses is always the fun part. The owners come along for the ride of course, and the more truly educated they are the better in my experience. We have enjoyed many repeat clients that bring their young horses to us year after year to be started in the careers. Other clients are already competing in the ring and come to gather training experience or need help transitioning past a plateau they have reached. Notably at 3rd level. Nine times out of ten this plateau is because a solid foundation has not been laid down in basic training. The remedy is to go back and fix those misunderstandings. It is so much easier of course, to put stuff in right from the beginning. A trainer that has experience to 2nd/3rd level may or may not have the wherewithal to understand that the basics they put in had better be correct or the issues will come back to haunt them down the road.

For example, when you receive a horse in training that has scored at a small show and managed to garner about 60% at training level, with an unbalanced flying canter, no trot from behind and a hasty walk you know that you have work to do. Sincere work. It is imperative to fix broken third vertabrae that you have inherited from another trainer's efforts to rush the horse to the bit before you continue the training and to remedy basic errors right way. This takes time but once it is complete the training will come along quickly. 

In classical training there are many variances in training between the 1st and 4th level. Breed is important and preparation and correctness of lateral work essential. Some of the German modalities that are used on warmbloods that are incorporated in the same way when training Iberian breeds will not garner success. The tests are very much made to work for the generic horse. For those of us that have trained in Portugal and Spain, worked with Olympic British team members and iconic masters of Germany and Switzerland and have bred, trained and competed successfully on many different breeds, we understand this difference. 

As a trainer there will always be horses that require that we defend the horse as he cannot speak for himself, and provide the horses with a solid foundation without pushing them on to make a level too fast, or take care not to destroy their confidence and physical well-being because of a pushy owner. 

Always be true to the horse first and you will never regret a moment of your work with the horse.


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