Ask an Expert

Green Horses 101: Introducing Basic Dressage Training Concepts, Selecting a Young Horse, & More | Lauren Sprieser (US Grand Prix dressage rider)

Show Notes

About Lauren Sprieser

Lauren Sprieser's journey in international dressage began unexpectedly during a family bike ride when they stumbled upon a nearby stable offering dressage lessons. Within a short span of eight years, Lauren went from taking beginner riding lessons to representing her country in international competitions. She trained under renowned figures like Lendon Gray, competed in multiple North American Young Rider Championships, and achieved remarkable success in the U25 ranks. After gaining valuable experience working for esteemed trainers like Monica Theodorescu and Carol Lavell, Lauren established her own business in Virginia in 2007. She has since become a highly regarded trainer, excelling in various disciplines and producing numerous FEI horses. Alongside her riding and training pursuits, Lauren has developed a strong presence on social media and is recognized for her engaging blog posts and writing contributions to equestrian publications. With her bright future ahead, Lauren continues to compete and train, aiming for the 2023 Festival of Champions and further success with her talented string of horses.

About Ask An Expert

Ask An Expert is a weekly, live Q&A series that gives Ride iQ members direct access to a coach or guest expert. Each event is centered around an important equestrian topic, and the guest takes us on a deep dive and answers any questions members have. Just another perk of being in the Ride iQ fam!

Questions Lauren answers in this conversation:

(00:00) Introduction

(00:24) Where are you located and what is your program like?

(04:30) With 16 horses, are they all for competition? Is your main focus on your own competition schedule?

(06:00) When you add a horse to your program, is it usually a recently backed horse, or what is the typical situation?

(07:48) How do you usually find these young horses? Do you have specific sources or people you rely on?

(11:11) What qualities do you look for in three and four-year-olds that indicate the horse is worth your time and investment?

(17:02) When starting a completely blank slate, how much groundwork, lunging, and long-lining do you do before getting on?

(20:26) How has natural horsemanship influenced your training approach?

(24:29) When you get on a young horse, do you immediately start working on contact?

(31:34) How does your training differ from the babies to older but still green horses?

(34:50) What are the types of questions that you're asking a 4-year-old?

(39:07) When do you start competing your horses?

(40:40) What habits should amateurs be cautious of in five and six-year-olds, and which ones can be fixed?

(45:35) As a trainer, would you be annoyed if a student brings their young horse for a lesson on basics?

(46:51) What equipment do you use on green horses? Are they all using the same type of bit?

(51:30) How important is it to learn the letters in the dressage arena?

(51:57) Is it important to learn the training scale, and should trainers refer to it?

(53:23) Does reading books about dressage help?

(54:58) How can I better feel my horse's back legs? I can only hear them. Would riding bareback help?

(56:30) Do you have a go-to reward for your horses?

(57:54) What is your favorite part of your job?


• "I am a huge stickler for feet. They have to have at least good bone structure in the feet and ideally a good exterior, too."

• "I like a horse that goes forward, which has a lot to do with nature and a whole lot more to do with nurture."

• "If everyone taught their horses to go forward on the bit from the beginning, I would have to find a different job."

• "I tell my students that I don't sit on my 4-year-olds any differently than I sit on my Grand Prix horses, and I don't ask the questions that I ask my 4-year-olds dramatically differently at 4 than I do as Grand Prix horses, I just ask 4-year-old questions."

• "My grand unified theory of horse training is: whatever they want to do, don't do that."


• The Dressage Training Scale


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Transcript / Summary

Jessa Lux: Welcome to Ask An Expert. Today, we have Lauren Sprieser joining us to discuss training green horses. I'm really excited for this conversation. Before we begin, I have to admit that I've been avidly listening to Lauren's hack chats while hiking, and I feel like we're best friends. Hopefully, one day that will come true. But for now, I'll reel it in and formally request more hack chats from Lauren so I can enjoy hiking with my buddy. I'm sure most of you are already familiar with Lauren, but let me give a brief reminder. Lauren is a Grand Prix dressage rider with USDF gold, silver, and bronze medals. She has trained eight horses from the beginning to the Grand Prix level, which is a remarkable accomplishment. That's why she's the perfect person to talk to us tonight. I'm really excited to learn from her. You've probably seen Lauren's name in the Chronicle of the Horse, as she frequently contributes articles. If you haven't read them yet, you should. With that, thank you, Lauren, for joining us tonight and taking the time to share your knowledge.

Lauren Sprieser: My pleasure. I must clarify thatI owe credit to the people who started them and rode them as young horses before I got involved. Tonight, we're discussing young horse training and acknowledging the amazing people who contribute to it.

Jessa Lux: Your journey is impressive, especially reaching the Grand Prix level.

Lauren Sprieser: Sometimes I question what I'm doing, to be honest.

Jessa Lux: Let's jump right in. Can you start by telling us where you're currently located and what your program looks like?

Lauren Sprieser: I'm currently in Wellington, Florida, where I have incredible clients with a farm in Loxahatchee, just outside of Wellington. For the rest of the year, my home is in Northern Virginia. I'm fortunate to have such fantastic locations. Right now, I have 16 horses with me, although the number can change frequently. This winter, I didn't keep my barn open in Virginia since many clients dispersed to other places. However, they will be returning when we go back in a couple of weeks. Managing multiple locations can be challenging, so I decided to focus on one place this winter. I'm grateful to my clients for making it possible for me to be in Florida. Despite occasional rain, the weather here is usually beautiful.

Kinsey Lux: That sounds like a great setup. Are all 16 horses for competition, and is your main focus on your own competition schedule?

Lauren Sprieser: I love horses, but I also love teaching people. Some of the horses are mine, and my staff, including my assistant trainer and working students, ride them. However, I also have a diverse group of amateur riders ranging from lower levels to Grand Prix. Some are showing, some are in retraining, and some simply want to escape the Virginia winter. We have a beautiful facility, and the weather is usually ideal for training. Although it's been raining a lot lately, which has been a bit of a challenge.

Jessa Lux: Well, at least it's better than dealing with sleet and snow in other places. When you add a horse to your program, is it typically a recently backed horse, or what's the typical situation?

Lauren Sprieser: Ideally, I prefer to get a horse when it's around three or four years old. I don't like starting them when they're too young because it can be challenging to ride them effectively. At three, they're just starting to develop their steering skills and have a bit more maturity. However, I must acknowledge that not all horses I've trained were with me from the very beginning. I give credit to the people who started them and rode them as young horses before I got involved. Sometimes I get horses at the age of five or six, either because they're behind in their training or because there's an issue that needs addressing. But my preference is to start with horses around three or four.

Kinsey Lux: That makes sense. How do you typically find these young horses? Do you have specific sources or people you rely on?

Lauren Sprieser: I have contacts both in the United States and overseas, and I reach out to them. It's a numbers game, really. I contact breeders, young horse starters, and sometimes agents. I believe in the value of agents, but when it comes to young horses, I try to keep costs down and minimize the involvement of too many professionals. In the United States, many breeders want to sell their foals because foals can be accident-prone. I prefer slightly older horses, maybe ones that were bought as foals by someone and have now outgrown them, or horses that have been started but aren't a good fit for their current riders. Facebook has been a useful resource for finding horses of all ages and breeds. However, I'm selective about working with certain breeders and trainers, so I choose carefully based on my connections and research. Buying horses in Europe can be more challenging for me due to unfamiliarity with the language and culture, so I tend to stick to contacts I know well in the United States.

Jessa Lux: That's a smart approach. When you have a three or four-year-old in front of you, what qualities do you look for that indicate the horse is worth your time and investment?

Lauren Sprieser: When initially considering a horse online, I look at bloodlines, as there are bloodlines I have worked with and like, as well as ones I prefer to avoid. I also pay attention to bone structure, confirmation, and feet. Good bone structure and healthy feet are essential for a dressage horse. It's not about finding horses that look like champions in-hand but rather horses that have the potential to move well and stay sound. When interacting with the horse, I prefer a forward-going horse that shows willingness and confidence. I appreciate a horse that is responsive to the aids and has that certain X factor, a presence and connection that's hard to explain. However, it's important to note that even with the best judgment, luck plays a role in finding the right horse. Sometimes horses that seem promising at three may not live up to expectations, and vice versa. So, while I consider these qualities, I also acknowledge the role of luck in the process.

Kinsey Lux: I love hearing your insights. They're both entertaining and informative. Moving on to the next question from Courtney. She asks, when starting a completely blank slate, how much groundwork, lunging, and long-lining do you do before getting on?

Lauren Sprieser: Well, I'll be honest, I don't start them myself. I rely on someone else to do the initial training. However, I can offer some insights. Groundwork, lunging, and long-lining are beneficial for young horses. Lunging helps with fitness and teaches horses to respond to pressure, including the use of side reins to encourage the closing of the back and front simultaneously. Long-lining also aids in teaching horses to yield to pressure and improves their overall responsiveness. These groundwork tools are not just about wearing the horse down before riding; they are valuable training methods in their own right.

Jessa Lux: I'm curious about your experience with natural horsemanship. How has that influenced your training approach?

Lauren Sprieser: I became interested in natural horsemanship when I had a challenging six-year-old horse that was resistant to pressure and difficult to work with. A knowledgeable student of mine suggested trying some basic groundwork exercises, and it was a revelation. I learned the importance of pressure and yielding, and it helped me understand how to communicate effectively with the horse without relying on force. While I'm not an expert in natural horsemanship, I have incorporated some of its principles into my training. It has made me appreciate the value of groundwork and improved my effectiveness as a rider. It allows me to achieve more with less force and helps me communicate better with the horses, especially as I'm not as young as I used to be.

Kinsey Lux: That's fascinating. It's great to hear how different approaches can enhance training. We have another question from Courtney. She asks, when you get on a young horse, do you immediately start working on contact?

Lauren Sprieser: It depends on the horse, but generally, I do start working on contact early on. If the goal is to train a dressage horse, they need to understand how to go on the bit. It's important to teach them the concept of accepting contact from the beginning. Each horse is different, and the timeline may vary, but I believe it's crucial to address contact early in their training.

Lauren Sprieser: Yesterday, you should have started taking contact. Let's talk about contact. Contact is essential for communication with your horse. Yes, we should ride our horses from back to front, using leg and seat more than hand. But you need a front to ride your horse from back to front. Even young horses need a basic level of contact, like holding a child's hand to walk them across the street. It doesn't have to be perfect, and I won't lose my mind if they're occasionally behind the vertical. Balance takes time. Start teaching the basic concepts early on.

Jessa Lux: Having a great horse is tough. What other habits do you focus on with young horses for their development?

Lauren Sprieser: Go forward! Even if they're a bit out of balance, it's better than blocking them. It's harder for a horse in front of the leg to slam on the brakes. I have a five-year-old who just went to her first horse show. She's still in the "going like hell" phase. Eventually, you'll have to hold them back, but start with forwardness from the beginning.

Jessa Lux: How do you gauge the right amount of forwardness?

Lauren Sprieser: It helps to have someone on the ground observing and giving feedback. You don't have to be an expert; even a qualified assistant trainer can help calibrate your feel with reality. It's a fine line between going forward and just running, but running is an easier issue to correct.

Jessa Lux: How does your training differ for young but still green horses compared to older horses?

Lauren Sprieser: The amount of work and the types of exercises differ. Younger horses work fewer days a week, and their sessions are shorter in duration. I work them slightly longer than they want to work. The expectations and questions I ask are similar to what I ask of older, more experienced horses. The progression is gradual, introducing concepts like collection and flying changes at appropriate stages.

Jessa Lux: How do you introduce different movements, and when do you start competing them?

Lauren Sprieser: I take them to shows early on to get them accustomed to the environment, but winning isn't the priority. I start competing them more seriously at the third level. There's no rush; it's a gradual process. I never rush a horse; I let them figure things out at their own pace.

Jessa Lux: What habits should amateurs be cautious of in five and six-year-olds, and which ones can be fixed?

Lauren Sprieser: Amateurs should be cautious of habits like dead legs, hanging onto reins, or inconsistent contact. These can be challenging to correct. However, habits like rushing or lack of balance can be improved with training. It's important to assess the habits and determine if they are manageable and trainable.

Jessa Lux: Thank you for sharing your insights. We have one last question from Kinsey's sister, a young rider: What advice do you have for young riders aspiring to achieve success like yours?

Lauren Sprieser: Surround yourself with knowledgeable and supportive people. Find good trainers and mentors who can guide you. Ask questions and seek advice. Be patient, dedicated, and embrace the challenges. Have fun, enjoy the process, and never stop learning. Believe in yourself and your abilities. With determination and perseverance, you can achieve great things in dressage.

Jessa Lux: In terms of developing young horses, we discussed what you look for in three and four-year-olds. But I'm curious about the norm when it comes to amateurs. In the riding community we grew up in, it was common for amateurs to start riding five or six-year-olds who often already had bad habits. If an amateur is seeking a five or six-year-old horse, perhaps one of your students aiming for success but not necessarily Grand Prix, what are the habits that would make you say, "Nope, we're not taking it"? And on the other hand, what are the habits that you would consider fixable and not a major concern?

Lauren Sprieser: If they don't respond to my leg aids, it's going to be a challenge. There's a horse for every life stage. Some horses are naturally lazy and need motivation to go, which is great for certain students. But if they're unresponsive to the leg because they don't want to go, that's a problem. I had a horse that started bucking when I asked her to go, and I quickly realized she wasn't properly trained. Horses' behavior is a combination of nature and nurture. Some are naturally spirited, while others have never been taught otherwise. I prefer a horse that takes a joke and is willing to work with me. When considering older horses for sale, it's important to consider why they're on the market at that age. Valid reasons include divorce, having a baby, or the horse not growing tall enough. But many five- and six-year-olds are for sale because they can be difficult during those years.

Kinsey Lux: As a trainer, would you be annoyed if a student brings their young horse for a lesson on basics? My trainer feels it would waste her time to work on things I already know, but I want confirmation on doing things correctly.

Lauren Sprieser: It absolutely makes sense to bring your young horse for a lesson on basics. A good trainer should be willing to work with young and green horses to build a solid foundation together. The basics are essential for a strong future. If your trainer refuses to help with the basics, that's not cool. Find trainers who support your and your horse's development.

Jessa Lux: What equipment do you use on green horses? Do they all use the same type of bit?

Lauren Sprieser: I use a variety of bits on green horses, including eggbutt, loose ring, and different mouthpiece bits. The choice depends on the horse's comfort and performance. I also use crank nosebands, sometimes with a flash, ensuring they are padded and the buckle is dark. I don't believe in using specialized or elastic equipment as it can encourage undesirable behavior. Additionally, I focus on ensuring that the saddles fit well, although it can be challenging with young horses.

Kinsey Lux: How important is it to learn the letters in the dressage arena?

Lauren Sprieser: Personally, I only know the centerline letters. Knowing the letters is valuable, but it's not crucial. As an experienced trainer and rider, I focus on the horse and rider in front of me and prioritize what's important in the moment.

Jessa Lux: Is it important to learn the training scale, and should trainers refer to it?

Lauren Sprieser: The training scale is a good starting point, but it's just one tool among many. As an experienced trainer, I keep it in the back of my mind, but I don't constantly refer to it. It's more about assessing the horse and rider in front of me and addressing their specific needs.

Kinsey Lux: How can I better feel my horse's back legs? I can only hear them. Would riding bareback help?

Lauren Sprieser: Riding with your eyes closed can help you better feel your horse's back legs. It heightens your kinesthetic awareness and allows you to focus on the subtle movements and sensations. However, make sure to do this in a safe and controlled environment, not in a crowded arena or challenging terrain.

Jessa Lux: What is your go-to reward for horses that perform well?

Lauren Sprieser: I like to vocally praise my horses and give them a stroke / give the reins as a reward. I want them to feel like they've accomplished something and celebrate their success. But it's important to avoid using excessive voice aids in the show ring. The best reward you can give your horse is getting off and allowing them to rest.

Jessa Lux: What is your favorite part of your job?

Lauren Sprieser: The story of how I bought Maddie, the horse, from an Instagram post while being a little drunk is a testament to the joy and excitement this profession brings me. I love seeing the progress and the connection between horse and rider. But to answer your question about my favorite part of the job, I play the long game. I don't rush anything, and I'm not in this for short-term gains. Watching humans or horses that I've helped find their way to any level is incredibly fulfilling. Whether it's their first Grand Prix or their first Prix St. George, it gives me chills just thinking about it. I have this big, complicated 17.3-hand older horse named Puck. He was a very difficult child, but he's gotten better and is fun to ride now. He's going to do his first Grand Prix in a couple of weeks if I don't get too nervous. That's going to be amazing. Because he was a monster, a rogue, and I helped make him normal, better, and more beautiful. When my students get on centerline at the Grand Prix level, I think, look what we did together. That's what gets me out of bed on the tough days. And yes, there are tough days. That's what keeps me coming back.

Jessa Lux: We just love you so much. You are amazing, and I'm speaking not only for Kinsey but for everyone at Ride iQ. When we first got introduced to you, I was hoping you'd say yes to joining us because we know how busy you are and how much we're asking of your schedule. But since day one, even before that first conversation, you've brought such a bright light of energy. You put your best foot forward, and we get to learn about your amazing horses, which I'm falling in love with. So this was an absolute blast. We learned so much, and I hope we can do more of these in the future. Just know how much we appreciate you and how much I love listening to your chat. I know I'm not alone. Thank you again for taking the time tonight.

Lauren Sprieser: You're very welcome. I'm delighted to be here with all of you, and I'm thrilled to be part of the family.

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