Dressage trainers, and indeed trainers and instructors of all disciplines, must balance the convergence of commerce and ethics. On one hand, most people who become dressage trainers do so because of their love of horses. A person doesn’t wake up one morning, stare into the rosy fingers of dawn and think, “By golly, I want to be rich! I think I’ll become a dressage trainer!” There is a huge amount of passion that is poured into this sport, dreams and ideals and aspirations that have nothing to do with a month to month paycheck. Dressage trainers, for the most part, have ridden a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows along their careers that most adult amateurs can not even imagine. But that aside, the practicalities of a mortgage, insurance and a car payment cannot be ignored and so we must put a price on our services, hang our shingle and run a business.
There are a few responsibilities that the student has to the instructor. First and foremost you must come to the lesson ready to learn. You must listen with both ears and leave your ego on the mounting block. You will be surprised to find it is sometimes difficult to do. Coming to a lesson with a mind that is ready to learn, without preconceived notions of what should and should not happen, is essential to learning. Think about it, you are paying money to learn from a person who has greater expertise in a sport in which you would like to excel. Why would you do yourself the disservice of hijacking the short amount of time you have with them? You would not go into a restaurant kitchen and tell the chef how to cook your meal, so why go into a lesson and try and install your own beliefs, or structure?
Secondly, recognize what you want from dressage and do not force your instructor to be something they are not. Dressage trainer’s responsibilities can be split into four basic subsets: instructor, trainer, competitor and businessperson. Different trainers have different strengths, some are amazing teachers and business people but have no urge to compete. Others train and ride with ease while teaching is a challenge for them. Some are wonderful with young horses. Some love children. Essentially, they are human, and need to be recognized as such. If you are looking to compete and choose a teacher who has not been to a show in the last twenty years, then you will be setting yourself up for disappointment. Similarly, there are amazing advanced instructors that are not in their element in a beginning lesson. There are those who prefer to move quickly through their instruction and those who have a slower pace. Some prefer little talking and others want to check in with you often. Think about how you best learn in other areas of your life and attempt to apply that to dressage. It is unfair to your instructor to push them to be something they are not.
Thirdly, on the heels of that, no dressage trainer can be all things to you. The relationship between student and teacher is a unique one in most circumstances, and none so more than in the dressage ring. Dressage trainers are privy to a huge amount of vulnerability both physical and psychological from their students and have the giant job of guiding someone in a state of ignorance to one of being more proficient (preferably without them being flung across the ring in the process). It is easy to allow that dynamic to become all encompassing. There is no such thing as the perfect dressage trainer and expecting an omnipotent god-like being with the answers to all questions will end with two very unhappy people. There will always be aspects of your instructor that you value and some pieces – ahem – you’d rather replace.
And finally, there will be times when your dressage trainer will have to make hard calls. Realize that these are not reflections of how much or little they care for you, or what they think of your potential or riding abilities. There are times when you might pay for a vet call that was unnecessary because your trainer requested it. Sometimes horses are not suitable for the rider and an unsafe environment is being created. There are times when the owner must be pulled from the horse for a period of time to ensure the success of the relationship. There are endless scenarios where the dressage trainer is faced with a tangled decision, and must make the call on how to deal with it. That is our job. It is easy to second guess with the hindsight on your side, but realize your trainer (if they are worth their salt), is doing all they can to build success in both you and your horse.
This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the dynamics between the adult amateur and the dressage professional. They combine the roles of friend, student, client and sometimes sponsor. Oftentimes the boundaries blur and elements of all four are involved. It is no simple thing to break down what one owes to the other. Even the most experienced of riders benefit from an eye on the ground, tweaking and finessing, or giving another opinion on an issue that may confound them. No matter how long you have been in the saddle, you never reach the point where you are beyond further improvement.
In the end, we are all students.