What are we missing in the American training system? – NOEL FLOYD

After years of competing at the highest level of eventing and most recently heading to the Tokyo Olympics as a traveling reserve, Tamie Smith reflects on what it will take for the United States to see a change in the global performance.

If you took a basic riding lesson from every American rider shortlisted for Tokyo, I think you’d get a menagerie of lessons. Some lessons would be very detailed, others with less attention to detail. Each lesson, I believe, would introduce a different philosophy.

It’s not that you wouldn’t get great lessons from each of these people – I believe you would – however, I can guarantee it wouldn’t be a standardized philosophy.

As a country, we lack both the basic methods of classical and foundational training — a system we follow — as well as patience necessary to study this system. Programs may vary from individual to individual, but the basics should be very similar. You’ve heard the saying, “Beginners want to work on advanced moves and advanced riders work on the basics.” But do we really understand what the standard level is? Do we really understand the basics like our competitors who are winning on the world stage? This is a question we need to ask ourselves.

Ask difficult questions

Our great country is at a huge geographical disadvantage and I wonder how we can ever get to a place where we can compete side by side with the best in the world. Our country is the size of the whole of Europe and even more, and it is not part of our culture, in general, to grow up with horses. If you care about our sport as much as I do, then these are things we need to consider.

In recent years, the United States has managed to achieve excellence in dressage and show jumping, but why not in eventing? What makes eventing so different? I mean, we had two native Germans who competed for the US dressage team in Tokyo. However, our show jumping team has always had riders born in the United States, so clearly more than where the riders grow up is at stake.

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

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

My theory is that we as a culture don’t have the patience or take enough time to understand the basics of classical training. Why? In fact, I don’t think it’s our fault; we are victims of our own circumstances. However, I will say that I believe we can fix it. I know as we speak there are efforts being made to address this issue with the Instructor Certification Program (ICP) within the US Eventing Association. But we are still in the process of refining this program and developing a standardized system.

Horse training is methodical and consistent training. Frankly, it can be boring! Repetitive exercises, performed correctly, a hundred thousand times, make highly trained horses. Reread this sentence! In the grand scheme of training, eventing doesn’t even require such a high degree of difficulty, but we’re at the low end of traditional competitive countries when it comes to being the best.

If you’re still reading, then you’re someone who I think has some hope that we can make a difference in how the United States improves, instead of just keeping doing the same thing and expect a different result. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

No magic pill

I will explain to you why I have developed my theory. Traveling and training with Team USA in Germany before the Olympics last summer, then when I returned to train and compete alone with a handful of horses last fall, I saw some of the best riders of the world to train and compete. A few years ago I also had the chance to spend some time in the UK. I watched them handle their horses, chop 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 expected magic. I was waiting for the secret ingredient. But that never seemed to show up; I’ve never seen the special trick or ingredient that made these superstars what they were. It was only while spending this summer in Germany that things became clear.

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

I came home, slept for a few weeks (because I was exhausted) and thought, ‘Why are they so good?’ Even after two months at home, I couldn’t understand. That was, until I went to teach in a clinic.

I watched my first lesson warm up and then realized, “Oh my God, that’s it!” We runners here in the United States don’t have a standardized training system. I mean, we have a basic understanding, but not a solid system. People don’t refer to the American Training Scale. There’s actually every theory under the sun that we use and usually you’ll have a group that trains more one way than the other, but there really isn’t a ‘system’. What?!

Like I said above, if you took a basic lesson from every American rider who went to Tokyo and every American rider shortlisted for Tokyo, you probably wouldn’t get the same lesson twice. It’s our problem! Bingo!

The slow way is the efficient way

I will concede that overall the United States probably has the deepest reservoir of knowledge when it comes to riding. We don’t tend to call a vet whenever we can to make sure our horse is okay, as we’re usually very knowledgeable when it comes to treating injury or illness. Calling the vet usually happens when we have exhausted our own treatments and they are not working. You know, that American mentality of fixing things sometimes helps. But sticking to a boring but proven methodology for the long term? It’s just not the typical American way.

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

I remember helping one of my students and telling him, after he asked if he could have another lesson the next day: “It’s not having a lesson every day that will make you better. It’s the time spent practicing, doing the same thing correctly over and over again, that will make you better. You simply cannot replace experience.

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

In the end, the answer is very simple. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. Train your horses with patient and precise repetition and study the German riding and training system. Study each step carefully to understand what each step means. Study what they mean by “rhythm” before moving on to “relaxation” and so on. I promise you that if you stick to this system, you will be light years ahead of many riders and trainers rising through the ranks and the USA Eventing Team will finally begin to progress towards becoming one of the best nations in the world.

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