Semi-Pro Horsemanship – Would this work?

By: Dr. Mike Guerini (

A semi-professional athlete is one who is paid to play and is not an amateur, but for whom sport is not a full-time occupation, generally because the level of pay is too low to make a reasonable living based solely upon that source, making the athlete not a full professional athlete. Likewise the term semi-professional can be applied to an artist such as a photographer or musician who derives some income from their artistic endeavors but who must nevertheless take a day job in order to survive.

Why do I bring up this topic?  The National Collegiate Athletic Association is once again under scrutiny regarding how much it and colleges might be making and how little student athletes receive in the way of money to live on while in college.  So there is talk about whether or not the student athletes are semi-professionals.

Well this got me to thinking about the world of horse showing, specifically in the western world but this applies to other disciplines as well. How many of you know weekend warriors who are awesome representatives of good showmanship and good horsemanship? These folks work a full 40 hour week, pack up late on Friday night and drive all night to the show. They show all day Saturday and Sunday and then head home to start the next week of work as an accountant, technician, pet groomer, grocery store clerk, etc.. Many of these folks are adult amateurs and let me tell you they sure can ride and they do one heck of a great job training.

Are these weekend warriors better than some professional trainers? In some cases yes and in other cases no.  Do these weekend warriors have something to offer?  YES THEY DO.  The issue comes down to money and if you make anything, you are most often considered a professional. (Note: rules vary but overall any compensation gets you out of having amateur status).

What could a semi-pro do? Would he/she take away from the professionals?

In many cases, a semi-pro could provide quality riding lessons to local youth and amateurs who need someone to give them help. It is not always easy to fit into a professional’s schedule and in most cases, you need to go where the professional works.

Here is an example to think about.  The 15 year old who has a horse at home and needs some lessons for safer and better riding may not have the luxury of hooking up to a trailer (because he/she cannot drive legally yet) and take the horse to the professional. But 1/4 mile away might live a person who could give a great lesson and help this youth out. I have seen this situation and found that the person who lives 1/4 mile away does not help out because he/she does not carry insurance because he/she cannot afford the insurance without getting paid for lessons.  Or the person does not give a free lesson because  they are still worried somebody might think they are getting paid. So this talented teacher does not get to share and the person needing help…does not get the necessary help and the desire to get better or stay in horses goes away because the positive role model is not easily accessible.

Would the semi-pro in the example I just shared take away from the professionals.  No–because the professionals are not in a position to help a youth like I just described because the youth cannot get to the pro’s barn.  (Yes– I hear you saying where there is a will there is a way…not always folks…not always is the way economically feasible).

I can give other examples but let us for argument sake agree that some amateurs (who could choose to be semi-pro’s) have lots to offer in the way of riding and training and they could help people who do not have easy access to professionals.

Would a semi-professional horsemanship level ever work?

I believe this could work. I have read a few arguments as to why it would not work (see this reference for one source of arguments) and yet…my mind says it is time to think outside the box. People need to quit worrying about all the ways this would create more work. Let us make it simple/easy to develop a semi-professional level in the horse world. Basically we need to figure out how to distinguish a semi-pro from a professional and a semi-pro from an amateur.

Amateur verses Semi-pro verses Professional

1) Semi-pro cannot make more than $10,000 per year in training or riding lessons. The level can be below the poverty line so that we know they could not live on what they make. The burden of proof is on the semi-pro to show that he/she is not making more than $10K per year.  Get an accountant/CPA to review your records and sign a letter certifying this information. Most accountants/CPA’s are not going to risk a lie and lose their license for someone wanting to be considered a semi-pro. Burden of proof is on the semi-pro and cost is on him/her.

2) Amateur can ride all levels .  Much like it works now.

3) Semi-pro cannot ride in amateur but they can ride in the pro level.

4) Semi-pro classes are created (opening another level of classes that can be entered and the possibility of more show revenue)

The big question is how to differentiate the amateur from the semi-pro.  People are already worried about how to make sure an amateur is not making money. Can someone lie and cheat and collect money and still ride as an amateur? YES and likely this happens today. So how would it be different….well just maybe some of these folks with good horsemanship and showmanship information who would like to be semi-pro’s would be willing to step up and share what they now, be compensated for their time, and show as a semi-pro.  I know some amateurs who would make excellent semi-pro’s and finally be able to realize a dream of helping a few people and not worrying about their amateur status.

I know some of you are shaking your head at me and wondering if I fell off a horse recently and really hit my head hard. Some may be asking -why are you bringing this up?

Each day I hear more people talk about not having access to a local lesson provider. Horse show organizations complain that less people are showing. Breeders are saying less people are buying horses.  The world of horses seems to be shrinking.  Maybe it is time we look at the entire system and find ways of making horses and horse showing more accessible.  Semi-pro’s can be excellent ambassadors of the sport and create more opportunities for the casual enthusiast to have access to a riding lesson and a horse.  Then through the magic of horses we will see the casual enthusiast get hooked and buy a horse, go to the shows, and we will see the horse world grow.

What are your thoughts?


Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at  Dr. Mike is also part of Coach’s Corral (, an online Horsemanship Coaching program that specializes in video coaching and the 5 Ride Program.  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (


The Rich Traditions of Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship

By Michael Guerini ( and Kimberly Bench (

Both Classical Dressage and Western Riding (Horsemanship with a Western Saddle) have rich traditions and long histories.  In this series of essays, Kimberly Bench and Michael Guerini have come together once again to share perspectives from the Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship worlds.  As we all embark on this journey of Western Dressage (WD), it is important to  know that each of these two disciplines that are coming together in WD arose from the need of people to perform activities on horseback and that these  needs have traditions and ideas that are 100’s of years old.  It is important that when considering WD and Classical Dressage we take the time to look at the original intentions, trainings, and look/feel of Classical Dressage since the principles and philosophy of the discipline arose from the teachings of the Classical Masters.  Likewise, the reason behind Western Horsemanship is rooted in lessons learned in the past on the backs of the Cowboy/Vaquero working horses.

Although it can be argued that classical riding has been the foundation for all other riding, our modern competitive dressage may look quite different from its original roots.  Through this journey, we must also look at both Classical Dressage and Modern Competitive Dressage and see that differences exist in these two forms of Dressage.  Likewise, some of the Western event competitions seen today have more flash than the traditional American Cowboy would display during his working day.

In both cases, the foundation and principles of the training method are first and foremost of importance to both Classical Dressage and Western Horsemanship.  Secondly, the traditions of mannerisms, tack, and language (words/meanings) handed down through these two riding disciplines are celebrated parts that complete the philosophy of the teachings.

The goal of any Dressage program, whether Traditional or Western, should be that the principles shared by the Classical Dressage Masters be learned, shared/taught, and celebrated.  The goal of any program that includes Western Traditions is to develop a horse that is capable of performing work efficiently, athletically, and with minimal effort. Through Western Dressage, these two traditions can work together in harmony to develop horses and riders that our ancestors would admire.

Our journey will cover the following topics and we realize that for the most part, we will be providing a very cursory overview of the available information.  There are large books written on many of these subjects and our intent is to not re-write what is already written but rather to consolidate and provide a summary of ideas, histories, and thoughts to help develop a deeper awareness for the knowledge and traditions of both Traditional Dressage and Western Riders.

Article I – The rich traditions of Classical Dressage and Western Riding 

Article II – Modern day Dressage and Western Riding

Article III – The tools of the trade

Article IV – What we both seek in a horse

Article V – The silent crossover that has occurred the last 25 to 50 years

Article VI – The birth of CD and WD

Article VII – Onwards and to the future

For thousands of years the horse was the pinnacle of transport.  As well as being a mode of transportation, the horse’s most demanding role was in warfare.  In essence, the horse was a tool used to help the rider accomplish a great many tasks.  Although used as a tool, horses were highly valued partners and the health and soundness of the horse was of utmost importance.

Classical Dressage Traditions

Classical Dressage can be traced back to four Classical Dressage schools, which include –the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, the Cadre Noir of the French National Riding School in Saumur, the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, Spain, and Lisbon’s Portuguese School of Equestrian Art.

The knowledge of how to train the horse for its role in warfare was refined by specialist trainers, often referred to as the classical masters, over hundreds of years.  Some of these wrote down their techniques and these were passed on for others to develop further but all were interested in three things:

  • Training the horse to carry a rider.
  • Training the horse to be obedient to the rider’s commands.
  • Improving the horse’s athletic ability through balance and fitness so that it could more effectively perform its role.

Classical dressage is the art of riding in harmony with, rather than against, the horse and this evolved from cavalry movements and training for the battlefield.  Cavalry mounts had to be fit, supple, obedient, and instantly responsive to the lightest of commands from the rider.  The horse understands rider aids and the rider understands the horse’s mind and ability.  In Classical Dressage, horse and rider would perform a variety of movements with a progression of these movements that fit both the skill and rider abilities, never exceeding the level of horse and rider until both were ready.  The measurements of the individual movements developed into the Dressage tests that are used to evaluate the skill and training progression of both horse and rider.

Classical dressage is the development of a mutually respectful and harmonious relationship between horse and rider.  In classical dressage, rather than disciplining the horse because his conformation did not allow perfection, the rider accepted his horse’s best on that given day.  Continuous work and proper conditioning was put into the horse to improve carriage and ability.

As with the horse, not all riders were capable of performing perfectly at the highest levels.  The training brought each horse to his own maximum potential.  Classical dressage is all about taking the appropriate amount of time to allow for a proper progression of both training and fitness.  Both the horse and rider must be conditioned over time.

Kimberly Bench stresses that “conditioning is as necessary as the training itself.  The horse is conditioned through correct, consistent, and progressive training.  Dressage is a discipline, not merely a sport and to achieve true success both the rider and the horse must train as any athlete.  A horse and rider must train progressively and regularly, increasing as the work becomes more demanding.  Many years ago, I had a horse that had been ridden and shown at third level.  When I purchased him, he had been turned out to pasture for several years.  Even though he knew the “language,” his body was not capable of performing at his previous level.  With regular work, he was able to achieve a certain level of athleticism but a soundness issue prevented him from progressing further.  So in addition to the training, fitness, and soundness are equally as important.”

The rider must understand his/her abilities and limitations.  A rider must achieve self-carriage (independent balance) in order to help the horse develop self-carriage.  Harmony only occurs when the rider has an effective, balanced seat and body position, independent hands, moves with the horse’s motion, and delivers the aids timely and correctly.

All horses and riders following the classical training scale will make some degree of improvement in condition and athleticism.  Please note, this does not mean all horses are able to achieve the most advanced movements or the level of expression we see in modern competitive dressage.

Western Riding Traditions

Western Riding, just like classical dressage, can be traced back to Xenophon around 400 years B.C. Xenophon spoke to the basics of riding a well-schooled horse that would move based on rider weight transference, away from leg pressure, and be supple through its head, neck, shoulder, and rib cage and hip.  This has been interpreted by some to describe a horse that would be so light and responsive that it could be ridden one handed, and yet perform correctly enough that a man’s life could depend on that horse working with his rider as a harmonious team.  Western riding is a style that evolved from the ranching and warfare traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors.

Introduced to the America’s between the early 1500’s and the 1700’s from the Spanish, this style of riding has changed over time but the foundation training is still the goal of the western horse.  Most importantly — this style of riding lends itself to use in numerous practical disciplines.  By the late 1700’s, the equipment and riding style of western riding was heavily influenced by the Spanish vaqueros.  Both the equipment and riding style evolved to meet the working needs of the cowboy in the American West.

American cowboys needed to work long hours in the saddle over rough terrain and still be comfortable and able to use the limited equipment available on horseback for many uses.  It is important to understand that much of today’s western styles of riding were born of necessity to survive, earn a living, and feed a family/town/region.

Michael Guerini emphasizes that in the traditions of the American cowboy, the horse was an equal partner for without his mount, the American Cowboy would never have been able to survive at work.  Western riding of the past goes beyond being a discipline and certainly was never promoted as a sport in the early days; rather Western riding and the ways of the American Cowboy and Vaqueros were a lifestyle for these men and women.  Success was graded on survival of the horse and rider, getting livestock to market, getting home to see family or visiting friends, and getting to new places for work.

The American cowboy often had a string of horses that he used in his work.  Some of the horses were considered advanced and others were young stock in the early stages of development.  Those Cowboys that were fortunate enough to have a string of horses continually worked to cultivate the horse to be the best, capable of helping the Cowboy perform his duties.  The American Cowboy would ensure the young horses worked with balance, and had cadence, timing, and tempo.  A horse with smooth transitions that was responsive to light touch was the goal of the cowboy training.

Because of the necessity to control the horse with one hand and use a lariat with the other, western horses were trained to neck rein, that is, to change direction with light pressure of a rein against the horse’s neck.  A cowboy trying to rope a cow so that it could be doctored or branded, needed to be able to guide his horse with one hand.  This would free the other hand to rope with.  One of the most important points to understand is that a good cowhorse quickly picked up the idea of moving away from rein pressure on its neck.  Horses were also trained to exercise a certain degree of independence  in using their natural instincts to follow the movements of a cow, thus a  riding style developed that emphasized a deep, secure seat, and training  methods encouraged a horse to be responsive on very light rein contact.


Both styles require riders to have a solid seat, with the hips and shoulders balanced over the feet, with hands independent of the seat to avoid jerking the horse in the mouth and interfering with its performance.  To the classical dressage rider of ancient times and to the Western Cowboy, the horse was a cherished belonging, a source of pride or status, often more important than money.  For with the horse, these people could work, wage war, and move across distances with relative ease.

Horses for warfare needed to be stout, capable of carrying significant weight of battle armor yet they also needed to be agile, balanced, reliable and obedient.  Horses for Western riding need to be quick, agile, have some natural instincts for the work being done, and have a certain amount of independence.  In both cases, self-carriage and balance by the horse and rider were two important elements of the relationship.

Kimberly Bench is a clinician, instructor and horsewoman specializing in Classical Dressage.  She owns and operates Benchmark Farm in Hudsonville, MI.  She has developed a program she calls “Practical Dressage” which is designed to teach riders of any discipline how the classical training scale can work for them.  Find more information at

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at  Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (

Riding and Training success with Ground Poles.

Riding and Training success with Ground Poles.

A few months ago I posted one of my ground pole pattern configurations on the North American Western Dressage Association (NAWD) Facebook page soliciting comments and thoughts.  Here is the resulting article and information we put together and I wrote up for sharing. 

Recently, this diagram of ground poles (shown below) was posted for discussion on the NAWD open group and NAWD Professional group.  The question asked “How many different exercises, movements, or patterns can you think of with this configuration of ground poles.  Looking forward to hearing from TD, WD, WP, HUS and everyone else here.  Look forward to hearing your ideas.

In both the open and Professional groups, great ideas where shared among the horsemen/women.  Jen Collman, Cynthia Stotler Koscinch, Patrick King, Bethe Mounce, and Michael Guerini took part in this discussion.  These Professionals come from a variety of backgrounds with experience in Traditional Dressage, Vaquero horsemanship, young horse starting, Dressage/Hunter Jumper, Western Horsemanship, Western Pleasure, cowhorse/cutting/reining, and Natural Horsemanship Together we covered four important discussion points including: 1) how many ways we can work the horse with these ground poles, 2) the importance of pre-planning the ride, 3) the importance of walk work, and 4) footfalls. 

How many exercises can you do with these ground poles?


This list includes the following: Walk through it, Sidepass to turn on forehand, Sidepass to turn on haunches, Walk through and sidepass out, Sidepass in and back out, Trot over the poles, Back through it, Get your horse to roll one of the poles with his nose, Use outside of the L for pirouettes, inside of the L for turn on the forehand, come at them from a 45 degree angle (like this — >>) to help the young horse go over without feeling overwhelmed.

Some list we developed, and rather quickly.  We are certain there are even more things that people can do with these ground poles in this configuration.  The key point we would all like to share is that the rider is only limited by his/her imagination.  Work with your horse and turn this into a learning opportunity and a way to make sure your backing, walking, turn on forehand, turn on haunches and side passing works everywhere and at any time.

The Importance of Pre-Planning the Ride.

One of the things we all discussed was that something like this can help the rider start thinking and pre-planning the ride.  Many times people “warm-up” their horses with walk, trot, canter (until the horse is sweating) and then figure the warm up is complete.

By going beyond the traditional walk, trot and canter warm-ups, you begin to ride your horse and engage his/her mind.  You also begin to pre-plan what you are doing, how you are giving your aides, when to give your aides and how to help your horse.  As the rider — you are active and guiding and this leads to success.

Take for example a drive on the highway.  If you’re driving on the highway, you do not wait until the last min to whip over four lanes of traffic to take the right exit because if you do so you are setting yourself up for a possible accident.  Same thing with a horse…think ahead, be pro-active instead of reactive.  😉

The Importance of Walk Work.

Simply walking your horse through the different exercises we just mentioned above can help you in getting your horse to use the correct muscles.  We all agreed that 30 to 45 minutes of walk work and using as many of the horse’s muscles as possible can lead to a rather warmed up (even sweaty) horse because we are achieving suppleness.  Walk work reveals so much about riders’ knowledge and the preparation of the horse.  😉 When youngsters are struggling, a “session” of walk work brings success because the horse answers a simple question of whether he/she understands what you are asking at the slowest of speeds.  If you do not have success at the walk, it will not come at the trot or canter.

Once you have used the correct muscles at the walk, the horse is then warmed up and ready for trot work that helps develop the push needed for canter and the canter helps warm the back up because both sides of the back are being used at the same time.


Regulation of size and placement of the step/foot is so critical in training your horse and learning to ride and is integral to the classical methods of horsemanship.  There are three key points in the stride of a leg that we must acknowledge.  Foot in mid air, foot forward and touching the ground, and foot backward just at the point in which it lifts off the ground.  All three are important in understanding where your horse is and what aides are appropriate to use at that moment in time.

It has been said by many that the moment in time where the horse is just starting to lift the foot to bring it forward is when the aide must be applied, any later or any earlier and the response is not clean.

So just as a reminder — think of your horse at the walk, then at the trot and the canter.  How fast are the feet rotating through the footfalls?  Each progressive speed increase makes your timing even more critical — hence why we had a good discussion on walk work.  Get your aides and footfalls together at the walk and you will be doing a favor for your horse.  You need to develop your feel of the horse’s hooves WITHOUT looking down.  With lateral work (sidepass, turn on haunches etc) and the poles, horses tend to move more slowly and rider can almost count the footfalls at the walk. 

On the horse training aspect, a young horse who is finding his balance with rider on board during those first few rides can help both rider and horse know where the feet are by using these poles.  This is a simplest of exercise but needs the rider to be active and it keeps the horse from rubbernecking because the horse begins to look to the rider for guidance to navigate these poles.

All agrees that is you have control of the feet, you have control of the horse…not his mind necessarily, but placement of those feet are crucial to rider being an effective rider and not a passenger.  This can become as detailed as the rider chooses or as detailed as the rider knowledge.

This exercise and Training Scale

So let us take a few moments and see how what we have discussed so far fits within the Training Scale. 

In a layout such as this one proposed, the horse and rider need to develop a Rhythm that comes with energy and tempo resulting from an active rider pre-planning and guiding the horse.  As the rider guides the horse and uses many muscle groups to work over these ground poles, Relaxation with elasticity and suppleness can be achieved.  It is often said that the hands connect to the bit with the weight of a fly and the bit in turn connects to the spine which in turn connects to the feet and this Connection results in accepting the guidance through the bit and guidance of the aides — all of which rely on controlling the footfalls.  As you advance the horse and rider skill and continue these maneuvers at the walk and trot, Impulsion is essential to get that increased energy and trust of the horse to the rider because the rider has established the placement and proper timing of aides through feel of the footfalls.  Straightness is on demand and display with the simple walk through or haunch turn or side pass because without straightness there is a lack of balance of horse and rider.  To work over ground poles and not stumble or fall over them requires a lightness of the front end that comes from engagement of the rear as presented in Collection.  Although we just went through the Training Scale list one at a time, the use of ground poles for exercises, with focus on walk work, pre-planning and footfalls can better help you as the team of horse and rider work within the principles of the Training Scale.

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (

The Rider – Clinician Relationship in Horsemanship

The Rider – Clinician Relationship in Horsemanship

By Dr. Mike Guerini ( and Kimberly Bench (

This is the third in a series of blogs on how we as owners interact with the different professionals that we rely on in the horse world. For this blog, we have brought together Kimberly Bench and Dr. Mike Guerini. Some of these interactions in the horse world include:

Horse Owner – Horse Trainer

Rider – Riding Instructor

Rider – Clinician

Horse Owner – Veterinarian

Horse Owner – Farrier

Horse Owner – Stable/arena owner/manager

Dr. Mike discussed the Rider – riding Instructor relationship in the last blog. This time we are looking to the Rider – Clinician relationship and things you can do to help this interaction be a success. Many thanks to Kimberly Bench for adding her expertise to this discussion.

Kimberly Bench comes from a classical dressage background and Dr. Mike comes from a western performance background, so in this blog you are getting the advice from two distinct backgrounds — but you are also getting to see that we have many similarities and shared perspectives.

The rider – clinician relationship is different from that of a rider and riding instructor. Often, the relationship with the clinician occurs only once or infrequently. The rider – riding instructor relationship is one built for the long term with goals and objectives.

The importance of the clinician/owner relationship and how this compliments owner/trainer relationship.

Many riders have successful careers by taking weekly lessons, formulating plans with an instructor, and following through on those plans. Other riders learn from multiple/different instructors and/or a clinician(s) visiting the area that can provide an opportunity for additional learning. For some riders, learning from a trusted trainer and clinician is the optimal combination.

It is important that you take the time to evaluate different clinicians and choose those who will challenge you as a rider, teach you something new, or help you overcome an issue with your horse. If you are working routinely with an instructor, discuss with him/her why you feel that you will benefit from attending the clinic.

Kimberly Bench describes in detail how her farm operates with respect to continuing education and advising students on clinicians. At our farm, continuing education is a big focus so I try to provide outside educational opportunities for both my students and myself regularly. Last year we had an FEI coach/rider come in monthly – this spring we are lucky enough to be hosting her as a guest instructor for weekly lessons.

I pick clinicians that will compliment my program and enhance what my students are learning at home. Continuity is important, especially in newer/less-experienced riders. I try to go be as involved as possible with my students’ education, and I find that attending clinics with them not only allows me the opportunity to learn as well, but also helps me further explain and reinforce the material at home.  I will also often speak with the clinician about “homework” for my student after the clinic, which helps make the clinic beneficial to the rider longer term.  More seasoned riders may feel confident trying many different clinicians who will offer them a broader perspective, but I find that often times the newer rider is overwhelmed and confused by too many different approaches when it comes very early in their education. It is a great benefit to the rider if the at home instructor attends the clinic with the student, either as a participant or as an auditor. 

It is also a good idea to observe (audit) a clinician before participating as a rider. Often times a clinic sounds good but when you get there you realize the ideas presented are completely contrary to what you believe or perhaps the instructor has a teaching style not suited for your learning abilities. It also gives you the opportunity to be introduced to the material and have a little time to prepare yourself mentally for what you may learn. See how the clinician interacts with the students, the auditors. Is he/she willing to get the horses? Does his teaching approach compliment your existing educational program, your goals? Is the clinician open to questions about why they want you to do something and is he/she willing to break it down if you need further explanation? Is she patient? Does he work well with all levels of riders or is he better with specific groups?

Dr. Mike says, “As an instructor, I encourage my students to attend clinics with other clinicians a few times a year. This helps my riders grow in experience and reinforce or deepen what they are learning at home. After a student attends a clinic, we speak about what he or she learned and how it applies to what is happening on our regular lessons.”

One of the benefits of the rider – clinician relationship is that the rider gets to hear the clinician discuss principles and concepts being spoken about and taught by the regular riding instructor. There is a true harmony between the clinician and riding instructor if the clinician is chosen wisely. As is often said “There are many roads to Rome” but you need to find professional horsemen and horsewomen who will compliment your goals. A clinician may do things differently or discuss something from a different perspective but it is important that it make sense with respect to what you are doing with your horse.

For example, Kimberly Bench recently attended a clinic that presented some material that contradicted what she believes about classical riding.  Several of the horses became increasingly tense and resistant during their sessions. Kimberly determined that some of this clinician’s techniques may have worked for certain horses and riders, but overall it was not an approach she would adopt in her own training/teaching. She was, however, still able to find some valuable insight and a few good idea’s to take home, reinforcing the idea that everyone can teach you something – sometimes it’s what not to do – but even that has merrit!

Both Dr. Mike and Kimberly want to share a moral of this story. As professionals, we often attend a variety of clinics and can find something to learn from the experience. New and less-experienced riders can be caught up in something that doesn’t/won’t work for them but can’t get past the “but I saw it at this clinic and…”.   Having an educated professional with you at your clinic can help you sort through all of the information and incorporate what is appropriate for you, your horse, and your goals. 

Dr. Mike says, “As a clinician I present in areas I have never visited and have no connection to any of the riders or trainers in that location. Because of this, it is very critical that I spend time on the phone or on email with riders or auditors so that I can share my philosophy and approach and let them know the goals of the clinic. I also welcome, at no cost, local instructors to audit my clinics. I want the local trainers, many of whom might have a student attending my clinic, see what I am doing, and ask me questions — it enhances the learning for all. My Dr. Mike’s Horsemanship series highlights what I teach and these books, along with my website and blogs help people understand who I am as a clinician. It is also important to ask EVERY student throughout the day — “Do you follow what I am teaching?

How to be a successful rider in a clinic (preparation and how to be active and learn there).

Be prepared for the time commitment of a clinic. You and your horse both need to be physically able to take part in whatever clinic format (discussed later) you have chosen to attend. You and the horse must be up to the demands of more difficult work, therefore, if you have serious goals, you must dedicate the time necessary to reach the level of fitness required to reach those goals in the clinic.

Talk to the clinician about the warm up policy. Some clinicians like to observe the horse and rider in warm up because it can give valuable insight to the horse and rider relationship. Other times a clinician may expect that you have already warmed up and are ready to work so it is important to discuss this with your clinician or clinic organizer before the start of the clinic. Also, ask if you will be allowed into the ring for your warm-up while the rider before you is finishing up. (If you need to lunge your horse also ask about opportunities to do that.)

For your attendance at the clinic, minimize the number of distractions during your lesson time. When you cannot pay full attention to the lesson, you and your horse are not optimally prepared for learning. Distractions can keep you from focusing on the task and this leads to a situation where you or the horse can get hurt. Also consider the other riders – bringing young children, pets, or other distractions may not only distract you, but the clinician, horses and other riders as well.

Make sure you take the time to email or communicate with the clinician or his/her team about your background and goals. A good clinician should be able to help you grow as a rider and push you to excel and you need to accept or discuss with them how much they might be pushing you. Be honest with yourself as well as the clinician as to your level of commitment to reach those goals.

Clinic formats and how to decide what works best for you.

Multiple clinic formats exist and are utilized throughout the US and the rest of the world. We will discuss three formats most commonly encountered.

In every clinic, regardless of the format, it is important for the clinician to adapt to the needs of each rider on that particular day.

As Kimberly Bench said,

The clinic plan needs to be flexible. I always have a rough idea of what I’d like to work on, however, I have to work with what is in front of me that day. Perhaps the horse is a little distracted because snow is sliding off the arena roof. Maybe the rider had a tough workout at the gym and has a stiff back and is having difficulty sitting the trot. A few weeks ago I taught a clinic; one of the riders had emailed me in advance to tell me she wanted to improve her horse’s connection at the canter.  I believe she thought we would spend the lesson in the canter after the warm up. What I found when I began the lesson was that the horse was not forward and therefore was behind the bit and on the forehand. He was also dull to her leg aides. We went back to the basics of sending the horse forward into the contact, we worked on leg yielding in and out on a circle and then on a parallel line. I also adjusted her position as the way she was sitting had her seat bones facing backwards, restricting the horses desire to swing through in the back. The majority of the lesson was spent in the walk and trot. However, near the end of the lesson when I asked them to canter again the connection problem had resolved.

If I had restricted myself to a detailed lesson plan, we could have spent 45 minutes of cantering poorly. Cantering itself does not improve cantering, just as asking for 100 flying changes does not fix a problem with the flying change. It is my job to identify what issues need to be addressed; guide the horse and rider through exercises that help improve the work and instruct them on how to achieve the desired results. It is also my job to help the rider understand the bigger picture and strict lesson plans are often detrimental to the overall goal.

Similar experiences have been encountered by Dr. Mike who says, “It is the job of the clinician to adjust and adapt to accommodate each student’s learning style and to help make sure a strong foundation exists. Once that foundation exists and is the basis for good fundamentals, many problems are solved.”

Format #1 — Multiple riders over a single day or multiple days — the group option.

In the group format, anywhere from 5 to 30 riders may attend a clinic and take instruction. For some people this works well because they have frequent break periods while the clinician is working with someone else on a particular issue. Also, for some people, learning is easier when they see everything done by someone else and can process what they are learning   simultaneously. This type of clinic may run 1 to 4 days and can be a lot to take in for some riders and horses.

Format #2 — Riders scheduled one at a time with auditors — the one-on-one option.

With private sessions, one on one time is set and the clinician works with riders independently. Other riders and auditors may watch and learn. Often times the clinician will stop and ask if the auditors have any questions about what was covered in between riders.  This format allows the clinician to give more focused feedback and works well for rider who want a more detailed, intense lesson.

Format #3 — Group lesson in the morning and then private sessions with each rider in the afternoon.

This format can provide the benefits of the two previously mentioned formats where the group session introduces the concepts and then the individual sessions can fine tune the application of them.

In summary:

1) Find a clinic and clinician that will help you move forward with your goals. Make sure the clinic format works for you and that you and your riding instructor (if applicable) have discussed the right clinician for you.

2) Be prepared to learn. By this you need to be physically fit, not distracted, and devoted to the learning opportunity.

3) As always — have fun and practice safe horsemanship.

Kimberly Bench is a clinician, instructor and horsewoman specializing in Classical Dressage. She owns and operates Benchmark Farm in Hudsonville, MI. She has developed a program she calls “Practical Dressage” which is designed to teach riders of any discipline how the classical training scale can work for them. Find more information at

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (