What Are We Missing in the U.S. Training System?

What Are We Missing in the U.S. Training System?

After years competing at the top levels of eventing and, more recently, traveling to the Olympic Games in Tokyo as the traveling reserve, Tamie Smith reflects on what it will take for the U.S. to see a shift in global performance.

If you took a basic riding lesson from every U.S. rider short listed for Tokyo, I believe you would get a menagerie of lessons. Some lessons would be in great detail, some with lesser attention to the finer points. Each lesson, I believe, would present a different philosophy.

It’s not that you wouldn’t get great lessons from every one of those people -- I believe you would -- however, I can guarantee it wouldn’t be a standardized philosophy. 

We as a country lack both the basic methods of classical, fundamental training -- a system that we follow -- as well as the patience necessary to study that system. Programs might vary from individual to individual, however the basics should be very similar. You have heard the saying, ‘Beginners want to work on advanced movements and advanced riders work on the basics’. But do we truly understand what the level of standard is? Do we truly understand the basics like our competitors that are winning on the world stage? That is a question we need to ask ourselves. 

Asking Tough Questions

Our large country is at a massive geographical disadvantage and I wonder how will we ever be able to get to the place where we can compete side by side with the best in the world. Our country is the size of all of Europe and then some, and it is not part of our culture, generally speaking, to grow up with horses. If you care about our sport as much as I do, then these are things we must contemplate. 

In recent years, the U.S. has managed to accomplish excellence in dressage and show jumping, but why not eventing? What makes eventing so different? I mean, we did have two native Germans compete for the U.S. Dressage Team in Tokyo. However, our show jumping team has always had U.S.-born riders, so it’s clearly more than where riders grow up that is at play.

Like I said before, I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I do have a theory.

We as a country have a strong cultural expectation of instant gratification. We want a trick that we can perform to fix something, or a pill to take to make whatever “it” is better. We often think more is better, bigger is better, and I admit I have been guilty of that approach myself. 

My theory is that we as a culture do not have the patience, or take enough time to understand the basic fundamentals of classical training. Why? I actually don’t think it’s our fault; we are a victim of our own circumstances. However, I will say that I believe we can fix it. I know that as we speak, there are efforts to fix this very problem with the Instructors Certification Program (ICP) within the US Eventing Association. But we are still in the process of perfecting that program and perfecting a standardized system.

Training horses is about methodical, consistent training. To be frank, it can be boring! Repetitive exercises, performed correctly, a hundred thousand times, makes for very trained horses. Re-read that sentence! In the grand scheme of training, eventing doesn’t even require that high a degree of difficulty, yet we are at the bottom tier of the mainstream competitive countries when it comes to being the best.

If you are still reading, then you are someone who I think has some hope that we can make a difference in how the USA improves, instead of continuing to do the same thing and hoping for a different result. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

No Magic Pill

I’ll explain why I’ve come up with my theory. Traveling and training with the U.S. Team in Germany before the Olympic Games last summer, and then when I returned to train and compete on my own with a handful of horses last fall, I watched some of the best riders the world training and competing. A few years ago I was lucky to spend some time in the UK as well. I watched them handle their horses, hack their horses, warm up their horses for competition, and I watched what they did to prepare for competition. 

On that first trip, like a typical American, I was waiting for the magic. I was waiting for the secret ingredient. But it never seemed to appear; I never saw the trick or the special ingredient that made these superstars become what they were. It wasn’t until spending this summer in Germany that things became clear. 

"I wonder how will we ever be able to get to the place where we can compete side by side with the best in the world."

I returned home, slept for a few weeks, (because I was exhausted), and thought, ‘Why are they so good?’ Even after two months of being home I couldn’t figure it out. That was, until I went to teach a clinic. 

I watched my first lesson warm up and realized then, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s it!’ We riders here in the U.S. have no standardized training system. I mean, we have some basic understanding, but not a solid system. People don’t refer to the American Training Scale. There actually is every theory under the sun that we use and usually you will have a group that trains more one way then the other, however there isn’t really a “system”. What?! 

As I said above, if you took a basic lesson from every U.S. rider that went to Tokyo and every U.S. rider short-listed for Tokyo, you probably wouldn’t get the same lesson twice. That is our problem! Bingo! 

The Slow Way Is the Effective Way

I will concede that as a whole, the U.S. probably has the deepest pool of knowledge when it comes to horsemanship. We don’t tend to call a vet every chance we can to make sure our horse is ok because we typically are very knowledgeable when it comes to treating an injury or illness. Calling the vet usually happens when we have exhausted our own treatments and they aren’t working. You know, that American can-do mentality of fixing things comes in handy sometimes. But sticking to a boring, yet tried-and-true methodology for the long-term? That’s just not the typical American way.

I believe if we can start to have a standardized system of teaching, riding and training, we will begin to benefit from the fruits of our labor.

I remember helping one of my students and saying to them, after they asked whether they could have another lesson the next day, “It’s not having a lesson every day that will make you better. It’s time spent practicing, doing the same thing correctly over and over, that will make you better. You just can’t substitute experience.”

Reflecting on watching the top riders compete and train, in my opinion the common denominator is the consistency in their riding and the system in which they warm up their horses. Consistent, correct practice, performed a million times. I remember reading in one of Jimmy Wofford’s books that every rider needed 10,000 hours before they started to become good. It’s the same with horse training.

Ultimately, the answer is very simple. We do not have to reinvent the wheel here. Train your horses with patient, precise repetition and study the German riding and training system. Study every step thoroughly so you understand what every step means. Study what they mean by “rhythm” before you move to “relaxation” and so on. I promise if you stick to this system you will be light years ahead of many riders and trainers coming up the ranks and the U.S. Eventing Team will finally start to make headway in becoming one of the best nations in the world.

Read this next: Are there alternatives to having a trainer if it isn't working?