It’s no surprise that the best piece of riding advice Chase Hickok has ever received comes from her trainer, USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist, Endel Ots: “Don’t ride last year’s horse.” It’s an expression that refers to your ring mindset, of course—don’t let past setbacks or experiences hold you back from where you are with your horse and your training today. But it can just as easily refer to life, in a bigger sense, and the ability to appreciate both the partner you’re on and the moment you’re in.

For Chase, that’s just one of the many lessons that has come in handy this year while competing the experienced 18-year-old KWPN gelding, Sagacious SF. The pair earned top finishes in their first Grand Prix Special CDI3* and Grand Prix Freestyle competitions during their debut in the Open Grand Prix division at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida.

From staying positive and training patience to riding in balance no matter what horse you’re on, here are 10 lessons Chase has learned from her coach, Endel Ots.

1. Start small.

Whether training a young horse or schooling my Grand Prix horse, Sagacious, Endel always stresses the importance of starting small. This applies to all the movements, including tempi changes, piaffe-passage, and lateral work. This allows horses to develop their balance in the high level of collection before growing the steps, thereby asking them for additional energy, cadence, and brilliance.

2. Place your steps.

You must always think that you are telling the horse exactly where and when each foot will fall. Don’t just say, “I’m going to piaffe at A,” but rather, plan your steps so that you control exactly where the piaffe will happen. This is especially true in the canter pirouettes as well. Imagine your pirouette is the middle of a pinwheel—you must place each step of the rotation in one of the eight ‘slices’. This helps to not only control the speed and the forward momentum of your turning, but also ensures that each step is of equal size to the next.

3. Respect for the horse.

This one seems obvious. Of course, we all love and respect our horses and do everything we can to protect their welfare, but it is also important to respect their knowledge, intuition, and individual experiences, strengths and weaknesses. This is one lesson that has been incredibly important for Sagacious and me. Sagacious has done well in over 100 Grand Prix tests. He knows the tests and the movements so well that it would be easy for him to become jaded or bored with the work. Similarly, it is not uncommon for horses like him to become unwilling. So for us, it is our first priority to make sure that Sagacious knows we respect his knowledge and experience, and never feels like he is being disrespected or pushed to do something he can’t. That’s not to say that he calls all the shots (although he might beg to differ!) but rather, that it’s a conversation that is rooted in mutual respect and compromise.

4. Horses have to learn to wait.

We all love a horse that is willing and eager to work. However, it is a fundamental concept of Endel’s everyday training that they must learn to wait. This means a combination of strategically placed half-halts, lots of transitions, and variation in work and patterns. By mixing up what is asked of them, he teaches the horse that they have to wait and listen for cues.

5. No negative talk.

Don’t demean or belittle yourself. While you can accept responsibility for a mistake, it is important not to fall victim to negative ‘self-talk’. This can often lead to a downward spiral and loss of confidence, which can be very difficult to recover from. A little positivity can go a long way.

6. Planning and goal-setting. 

Never make a decision unless it’s in line with a set plan or goal. That doesn’t mean you don’t deviate from the plan at times, but it all has to contribute to a set end goal. These goals can be short term (for example, improving a specific movement from one day of a show to the next) or long term (qualifying for a certain Championship or moving up to a new level). But they always have to be realistic, fair to both horse and rider, and come along with a plan of how to achieve them. Make plans years in advance. That way, you have a specific destination you’re working towards, which helps keep you focused, especially when you feel stuck in a rut or aimless. I’ve found in my own riding that I ride better and more clearly when I have a plan and a goal. Also, don’t be ashamed to share or say your goals out loud! We have goals meetings a couple times a year to ensure that we are all on the same page and working towards a shared destination.

7. Balance, balance, balance!

This is something to work on every single day regardless of the horse’s age, level of training, or intensity of their training session. Horses have an innate sense of balance, but throw a rider on their back and ask them to execute a pirouette, and it completely changes their natural balance. It is important that this is a process. Horses need time and patience to find their own balance. Rather than trying to hold the horse and control their balance for them, help them to discover and understand what balance they need to be in.

8. Know your limitations.

Horses and people all have natural limitations which need to be respected. That doesn’t mean things can’t be improved, however, riders have to be realistic and honest as to what can be changed or improved, and what things are outside of your control.

9. How to peak at the right time.

While this applies quite obviously to long-term goals and training plans, it is especially important in preparation for and while riding at a competition. All too often, you see riders performing their best work in the warm up ring, and then they’re left with nothing in the show ring. The warm up should be just that—preparation and exercises that allow you to show off your best work in the test. Practice your warm up at home to decide what exercises work best for you, keeping an eye on the time, so that you head into the show with a very specific plan. Your warm up should be as long as you need, but as short as possible. Don’t strive for perfection in the schooling, but rather, use that time effectively to set yourself up for success when it counts!

10.  Trust your gut.

No one knows you or your horse as well as you do. You have to trust your instinct and be your and your horse’s own advocate. If something doesn’t feel right or make sense to you, don’t be afraid to speak up. If you don’t, it’s likely that no one else will.

-Photo credits: Al Guden.