How do you become a better dressage rider?

brett parbery dressage performance dressage training rider effectiveness Jun 18, 2022


We all spend time wondering how to become a better dressage rider and how to look like the professionals. It's common, trust me I do it too!

If you’re on a quest to find that magic spell that gives you the ability to train your horse into a world-class dressage horse, then you've come to the right place. For the spell to work you need to be standing in front of a mirror, so quickly go and find one! 

Okay, are you there? Now, look into the mirror and repeat these words to yourself... training starts with me, training starts with me, training starts with me. 

Did you turn into Charlotte Dujardin? Well, I’m not THAT good! But there you have it... The spell to becoming a better rider. The magic is in you, and ONLY YOU can bring its power to life. YOU are responsible for becoming the best trainer you can be because the best trainer is the best dressage rider. It's one and the same. 


Take your training into your own hands 

How often do you go to a lesson, and get asked “what do you want to work on?” Do you say... "oh just whatever you think we need to work on!” 

The problem with that situation is that YOU should be your horse’s trainer, NOT your coach! They don’t know what you’ve been working on, how the horse has been feeling, or what you’ve found challenging.

I want you to keep that mantra in mind, 

"training my horse starts with me"

Rather than being a passive learner, I love to see riders take action and actively become the leader in their horse's education. 

Now that the magic tricks are out of the way, let's get down to business. How exactly do you become a better dressage rider? I'm going to lead you through three concepts for you: planning, progression, and self-development.


Step One: Make a Plan 

The trick is to PLAN. Know your horse, know yourself as a rider, and know what you want to achieve. Take the time to review and reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, then build a solid training plan and put it into action. 

Every time you have a lesson, or a training session, you need to have a plan of ‘this is what I’m going to work on today’. The lesson might go in another direction and that is ok, but at least you had a plan to start with.

A great way to plan your training is to reflect and map it out in writing. We love to do that with our Dressage Training Planner, it’ll have you diving deep into not only your goals but your progress and most importantly, the reasons behind your successes and challenges. 

Just remember that if you ever have a lesson with me I’m going to expect a great answer when I ask the magic question “what do you want to work on?” ;) 


Step Two: Make Imperfect Progression 

When riders come to me for help, they usually have a goal either to perfect the level at which they’re competing at that time or to progress up the levels. I love the goal of progression, because waiting to achieve perfection at a level is a recipe for stagnation, and before you know it you’ve been at the same level for three (four? or five, anyone??) years. 

Whether or not you think you can achieve it right now, I want you to strive to progress to Grand Prix, and here’s what I want you to focus on to do that:

Embrace Experimentation

Don't be scared to make mistakes or to try new things. Your horse is very forgiving. The ability to experiment, self analyse, see where your weaknesses are and break down the issues is key. 

Stick to a System

All of the answers are in your chosen system. It doesn’t have to be mine, but it does have to be consistent. The foundations of your system must create clarity. When problems arise in riding and training, your horse may make a mistake or be struggling with something in particular in their work, it is essential to stay true to the foundations of your system. Creating clarity for your horse is the most important element in training. Clear foundations, clear riding and clear solutions lead to positive progression.  

Stay the Course

Nothing good comes easy. Working hard, making mistakes and learning from them is the only way to improve and be the best you can be. Everyone's journey and timeline are different. You must do what is right for you and your horse.  

“Be determined, but not rushed” 

Find Your Tribe

You’re not alone. Everyone goes through hard times. Don’t panic! Believe in your abilities as a rider. Believe in your horse. Believe in the foundations of your system. Keep reflecting, keep reflecting, keep working on yourself, and build a support network around you of people who build you up, believe in you and are there for you in challenging times as well as the great times.

Step Three: Seek Self-Development Opportunities

Back in the day when I was first interested in dressage after my rodeo career, I wanted to know anything and everything about dressage. Every second of every day I was wanting to know more and more, and from that point, I only wanted to become better and better.         

To this day I get so much joy out of setting myself up to be the best I can be every day. I always ask myself ‘how committed am I today to being a better rider?’. Then I think about ‘what do I need to do to be better?’ 

Rider mental health and well-being 

Working on your physical and mental well-being is the best starting point. Find a routine for your day that helps you focus on what's important to you. 

Nothing happens fast in this sport. All you can do is use every day to your advantage and work to be better. I put so much effort into coming down to my stable in the morning with the right mindset, to give my horses the respect to try and ride them properly. I wouldn't say I have always had this approach to my daily routine, but I just love it and the horses are going so much better for it. 

Recently in our Gold Performance Program, we discovered that it’s the daily habitual building blocks of good mental health that we all need to work on. In a session with Clinical Psychologist (and dressage competitor) Samantha McCarthy, we discussed the concept of an underlying state of overstimulation that many of us are unaware we function in day-to-day, and some strategies to build those foundations of good mental health.

"Self care isn’t self indulgence"

No doubt like many of our Gold Program members, you think of self-care as a massage or a special treat, but Sam explained that self-care is actually the fuel in the tank and that it’s a vital piece of the puzzle of any healthy person (which you certainly need to be if you want to be a great rider). A couple of strategies Sam discussed that we felt were highly relevant to riders were:

  • Doing one thing at a time.

You might make a ‘relaxing’ cup of tea but then are you on the phone, on emails, mapping out something, doing the washing? You get the idea! Having a coffee or tea is no problem but sit down and enjoy it, focus on it, and then move on to the next thing. It’s another step to reducing overstimulation for our brains.  

  • Remember, life isn't supposed to suck. 

Take the time to do something enjoyable and relaxing in your day. You don’t have to live a stressful life 100% of the time. Find a good balance between your adult duties and the things that you love to do. Doesn't have to be a big task, it can be anything, as long as it allows you to have some sort of relaxation and relief from the stress of life. 

  • Humans are social creatures.

Make the effort to get out to see family or friends to just talk (and not always about horses!) and have fun. Have people there to support you through highs and lows or have them there to distract you from the pressures of life. Do what works best for you!

Your body and brain works at full speed every day. Creating a self-care routine is what you need to just be in the moment, recuperate, and put the petrol back in the tank. Taking the time for your own body and mind every day will lead you to a happier mindset and then you’ll be in the best possible position to thrive on competition day.

I encourage you to make an improvement within yourself and see for yourself whether you think it benefits your riding and your horse. At the end of the day, if we love what we do then our horses are gonna love it even more.  

Developing Your Third Eye 

Now, there is definitely not a magic spell to grow another eye! So don’t worry you won't have to look like a mythical creature. The majority of what we do in our everyday lives is tunnel-visioned to things that are right in front of our eyes and in our hands. It’s no surprise, then, that as riders we often only ride the parts of the horse we can see, and we become fixated on the head and neck.

In fact, effective riding is so much about being aware of the parts of the horse that we can’t see. It’s about having the awareness of what’s happening in front of you, behind you and beneath you, this is what we refer to as the ’third eye’. Knowing where your horse's feet are landing, taking off, how much power they are using, how they’re holding their neck, their back, and where their hindquarters are.

Another way to think about it is that you want to feel the horse right through to their feet. Yes, I do get some funny looks when I bring up this topic! I also play with the idea of a 360-degree camera around me when I’m riding, so at any point, I can mentally ‘switch’ to another view of the horse and consider what that might look like from that angle. When you think about it, it's a sort of magic power when you do this, to have the feel for what’s happening and what might happen next without being able to directly see it. 

Next time you ride, try to engage your own ‘third eye’ and see if you can develop more awareness and ultimately feel your horse right through to their feet. 

So there you have it! A guide on how to become a better dressage rider. There should definitely not be any more excuses next time you get asked what you want to work on in your lesson, or the next time you get on your horse to train at home. Enjoy the magic of feeling good inside and out, and as always happy training!



Not entirely sure what to work on, especially when you're by yourself?

Unsure if you're focusing on the right things at the right time?

I challenge you to take on my 5 rules to making every dressage training session productive and enjoyable.

It's all in our free guide... 'Beyond the 20 Metre Circle'

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