After developing your daily Riding Lesson Plan*, the next step to success is to keep a Training Journal. It takes a half hour to set up your journal and then 10 minutes after your ride to make an entry. There is a massive success return on your minimal time investment. Here is how to do it.
Step 1. Buy a notebook and a pen that can live in your tack trunk
Set up a word doc on you computer/mobile device
Utilize the United States Dressage Federation HART
online journaling program (membership required)
Step 2. Set up your First Page in your journal**
- Picture of your fabulous steed
- Description i.e. Color, breed, height, weight, age sex
- List what skills the horse has now i.e. Walk, trot, canter, leg yield, shoulder-in etc.
- State what skills you want to develop in the next year
- State any hard goals for the year i.e. Attend a Clinic, Compete at Schooling Show, Compete at Recognized Show, show the next level
Step 3. Write a brief synopsis of your ride before you leave the barn.**
- Keep this synopsis brief. Three to five sentences
- Be accurate. Limit your observations to training skills or goals
- Make helpful comments. “I sucked” is not helpful.
- Include lameness, heat/swelling, illnesses or track mare’s estrus cycles, and medications
Step 4. Review your notes monthly to reassess your training goals.
- As you succeed in one goal, write a ‘congrats to me’ statement
- Set a new training goal
Important Thoughts about Journaling
It is key to make a short list of reasonable goals and skills (five-eight). Ask your instructor for help in making this list. The goals change as you progress in your training program, add new goals as you conquer the original goal/skill. To be successful you must be clear about your priorities and you need to communicate them with your trainer so you both are on the same page.
Stay focused on your planned goals. Veering from the lesson plan in response to a horse’s action may derail your development. Many times your plan already addresses the problem. In many instances by improving that skill (shoulder-in?) you will overcome the distraction (spooking?). Chasing after a distraction will have you feeling unprepared and overwhelmed. Stay the course. Your trainer will help you decide when to adjust your program.
What should these goals and skills be? The United States Dressage Federation defines Dressage as a system of training that makes the horse a happy partner and athlete. This system starts at Introductory Level and builds up to Grand Prix. Each level has a list of skills associated with that level. The front of each score sheet states The Purpose of This Level. This statement clarifies what is being judged and rewarded during a judged test. Download the score sheets (click here for Intro, click here for training – fourth, click here for FEI score sheets). Use these statements of purpose of the level to set your training goals.
Study the test. Each box describes a section of the test that is scored. Next to that description are the Directive Ideas. This box tells you what the judging priorities are for that movement. Use these directive ideas to set specific training goals. If you don’t understand the directive ideas, ask your trainer to explain them! Videos of the test movements are available on USDF.org in the University tab (membership required). Look at examples of what well-ridden tests look like and then decide what you need to improve. This will be part of your list of skills in your journal. The test also has coefficients of x 2 to a couple boxes. This means that that movement is weighted heavier and therefore you should pay extra attention to that movement during your training sessions. Make sure you include those skills in your training journal. The bottom of the score sheet has Collective Remarks with 4 or more boxes. Understand each collective remark box and include work on each of those boxes every ride. The rider position box is especially important. When you (and your trainer) work on your position and the use of your aids every day the training gets easier. Your horse will enjoy your improved skill and balance.
After each ride, sit down on your tack trunk (or in your lounge or in your car) and write the date; then write 3 – 5 sentences about the ride. “I sucked” is not a helpful comment. Start by being accurate with your observations. Limit the comments to your stated training skills or goals. “Our canter departs were more uphill today after working on the walk/trot transitions” is an accurate and helpful comment. If you make a mistake you can state it but you must immediately state how you will avoid that mistake the next ride i.e. “I hung on my inside rein during shoulder-in today. Tomorrow I will practice releasing the inside rein during shoulder-in and focus on the feel in my inside leg to outside instead”.
Make entries in you Training Journal every ride, every time, and immediately after the ride while its fresh in your mind. You may think, “Oh, I’ll remember this. I’ll write it later”. No, you are going to forget or get things confused. Write it down. Now.
Health issues are sometimes related to stress or overtraining. Training should never degrade a horse’s health. Training should help a horse “bloom” with health and happiness. Schooling shoulder in can improve balance and strength. However schooling shoulder intensely for 20 minutes can and will make the horse muscle sore as a result the horse will be reluctant to do more of them. Limit your schooling on demanding movements to three efforts each side. Go home and think about your tactics, then return the next day when both you and your horse are both fresh. Present the movement again, not as a punishment but as a fun learning experience.
Riders have a tendency to focus on what they can’t do yet and take for granted what you do well. This negative attitude will soon lead to a sour or nervous training session. Your daily lesson program uses the warm up and the first work session to reinforce the correct and comfortable geometry or movements. This builds the horse’s confidence and prepares the horse for the more demanding exercises to come in the lesson plan. Never ride a difficult movement when the warm up/first exercise shows the horse to be able to move freely forward in a rhythmic and steady gait. Instead make the second exercise in the Lesson Plan a movement or simple geometry that will encourage the horse to relax on the rider’s aids and become more rhythmic and steady in tempo.
Do you need help identifying what’s wrong and how to fix it? Go to the Dressage Training Pyramid.
Now ask yourself:
- Did your horse move in a steady and correct rhythm?
- I.e. a clear two beat trot, a steady four beat walk or a three beat canter with a “pause”. Feel for the beat and listen to the sound of the footfalls for the rhythm.
- Did your horse move forward in an energetic and steady tempo?
- I.e. could you sing a happy marching tune to the tempo of the walk/trot/canter?
- Did your horse move forward in a relaxed, elastic and supple way?
- I.e. was the horse tense and stiff as a board?
- Did your horse reach forward to accept/seek contact with your hand?
- I.e. was the horse stiff in the jaw or neck and run through your hand or did the horse evade contact by ducking his chin towards his chest?
- Did your horse move forward with good impulsion?
- I.e. did you feel like you had enough energy to the trot that you could easily jump a small cross rail or did you feel like you were practicing for a western jog?
- Did your horse feel straight?
- I.e. were his shoulders falling in or were your horse’s haunches angled to the inside of the track?
- Did your horse feel collected?
- I.e. did you feel your horse gather his haunches under you? Did the forehand feel lighter and more uphill? Could you feel your horse move in self-carriage?
By identifying what part of the Dressage Training Pyramid was lacking you can decide how to improve it using your schooling figures or movements that relate to that issue. For example, if you decide that your horse trotted in an unsteady tempo you could set up some cavaletti to regulate the tempo or use a metronome to set the correct tempo (there is a phone app for that!). Another example: you decide that your horse is not reaching out the correct contact with the hand. You then decide to school the stretchy circle exercise (where you practice signaling the horse to reach out to contact and then down lower as if he/she were going to graze).
To sum up, keeping a Training Journal:
- Allows you to identify reasonable goals for the short term and the longer term so you know where you are going.
- Uses the Daily Lesson Plan for achieving reasonable goals
- Keeps you focused on a system of correct training
- Keeps you from continuing to make the same mistakes every day
- Allows you to trouble shoot problems before they get to be habits
- Reminds you of the progress you have already made
- Keeps track of all important health and welfare issues
You get all these advantages for a modest amount of time and thoughtfulness. Ride smarter. Use your time wisely. Enjoy the process of training not just the end goal. Make training fun for your horse and yourself; then you both will be happy athletes.
*Sample Lesson Plan
What is your experience with keeping a Training Journal?