All posts by Heather Black

Heather started riding as a child on the hunter/jumper circuit in Montana. Making the transition to dressage in her late teens, Heather was a working student for dressage judges Sonja Vracko and Anne Gribbons. Heather was introduced to exhibition and haute ecole training when she joined Matt and Lori on the Lipizzaner Stallion Show. In the 1990s, Heather obtained her law degree and became an analyst in Washington DC. In 2010, she returned to the horse industry, joining Matt McLaughlin Dressage as a trainer and business manager. Heather is a USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold Medalist and was a participant in the USDF ‘L’ judge program.

Return to the Spotlights

Our focus for the past few years, has been on competitive dressage.  Earning USDF rider medals, collecting scores for all breed awards, traveling to regional championships, and participating in the USDF and USEF judging program.  This year, we decided to return to our roots in exhibition performance starting with the March 2015 Pennsylvania Horse World Exhibition in Harrisburg, PA.  Matt was hired as a featured performer for the Theater Equus variety show, provided dressage seminars at the exhibition, and had a booth in the vendor’s area.  As our last exhibition was in 2011, there was quite a frenzy locating, updating and dusting off our exhibition equipment!  Our Andalusian stallion Pecos and American Saddlebred Confetti, who were happily torturing dressage students, were somewhat shocked to have to revisit their rusty high school training.  Our Lusitano, Versatil Imagem, joined the crew for his first out of state venue as the dressage seminar demonstration horse.  The trip to Harrisburg went smoothly, although Heather’s lower lip did stick out more and more as we headed north, gradually transitioning from a gorgeous 80 degrees to a snow and ice covered low of 7 degrees.  A nice reminder of how lucky we are to live in Florida!  Thankfully the barn and exhibition area were heated, so once we were settled in, the horses were quite comfortable.

Pecos delivered his usual spectacular performance as the fiery Spanish bullfighting stallion in his La Garrocha act.  Although a bit nervous at first, Versatil quickly adapted to the demonstration rhythm of work for a bit then stand around and chat.  The highlight at the exhibition was our newest acquisition, Confetti.  While Confetti was a veteran exhibition horse as a former solo horse at the Arabian Nights Dinner Theater in Florida, this was his first time at an exhibition with Matt.  Matt had worked with Confetti at the Theater and was accustomed to Confetti’s bomb-proof, solid work as a FEI school horse on the farm.  However, Confetti was supposed to take Coral’s place in the exhibition.  Coral’s high energy, powerful passage and amazing presence was a tough act to follow and Confetti’s gentle demeanor and low energy that were so excellent for our students did not fit into that image.  While all the tricks and movements were there, we just could not imagine Confetti electrifying the audience like Coral.  Resigned to a lesser impression, Matt entered the arena the first night of Theater Equus and was caught completely off guard as Confetti transformed into an exhibition Super Star once he entered the spotlights!  Described later by Matt as ‘finding three gears I never knew were there’, Confetti burst out of the gate with energy, engagement and reach we never knew he was capable of producing.  Clearly enjoying himself, his ground covering half passes, athletic turns and vertical rears were so far above and beyond what we practiced at home, Matt could not keep the smile off his face for hours after the flamboyant, crowd pleasing performance.

As with most things, we have been so focused on the serious business of competition and building our business in Florida, that the concepts of fun, play and the sheer beauty of the partnership between man and horse go unacknowledged.  This exhibition has allowed us to revel in those concepts and renewed our love for what we do.  We are looking forward to our next venue at the April 2015 Mid-West Horse Fair in Columbus, Wisconsin.

Using Inner Calm to Influence Equine Behavior

Your example can often dictate a horse’s behavior.  This included both your physical and emotional example.  If your movements are sudden, jerky and abrupt, do not be surprised to see the same type of behavior from your horse.  If you, their leader, is frightened, startled, hyper or even distracted by too many thoughts going through your head while working with the horse, the horse will notice and act accordingly.  Focus on your work with the horse.  Make your mind and body calm with easy flowing movements.  Make sure you consciously breathe in and out, especially when your instinct is to hold your breath from nerves or other factors.  Even if you are not calm, this will help project calm to your horse.  When something occurs that is frightening or abrupt it is your obligation to keep calm and act as a guide to your horse in how to react to the situation.  From the horse’s perspective, if the rider is afraid, the world must be ending and the horse is justified in taking evasive action.  If the rider is calm, maybe the situation is not so bad and by following the rider’s example everything will be okay.  Be the leader, the authority figure, the answer for your horse by maintaining calm inside and out.

Positive Repetition in Training

Just like humans, horses learn through repetition in training.  Repeat, repeat, repeat and repeat again until whatever movement or skill you are training becomes automatic, like a habit.  According to sports psychologists, it takes 300-500 good repetitions for a person to make a physical movement a habit.  It takes 3,000-5,000 repetitions for a person to break a bad habit of movement.  This is an important concept when training your horse.  If your horse is not doing the movement correctly and you cannot correct it within a few steps, stop what you are doing, regroup, and begin again.  The more you practice a movement incorrectly, the more you are teaching the horse, through repetition, that the incorrect movement is what you want.  It is better to have two steps of a correct movement followed by an immediate reward and regrouping, then ten steps of a movement done incorrectly.

Lessons Learned in Quest for USDF Gold

This article written by Heather Black was published in the 2014 Winter edition of Florida Sporthorse Magazine produced by Christie Gold:

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) has a series of awards called the USDF Rider Awards.  Riders must earn two scores of 60% or higher from two different judges at certain levels to obtain the awards.  A bronze medal is awarded to a rider who earns the required scores at 1st, 2nd and 3rd level.  A silver medal is awarded to a rider who earns the required scores at 4th level and Prix St. Georges.  A rider who earns the required scores at Intermediare and Grand Prix receives a gold medal.  Grand Prix is the highest level in dressage competition and represents the ultimate in collection, strength and precision from a horse and rider.  Seen in the Olympics, the test includes movements such as a canter half pass zigzag, canter pirouettes, one and two tempi flying changes, piaffe, and passage.  A Grand Prix horse needs to have a certain amount of natural talent and receives years of training.  They are a rare find and I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to ride Danish warmblood Cooper V to earn my silver medal in 2011 and my gold medal in 2014.

During my first Grand Prix competition, I just barely scored a 60% toward my USDF gold rider medal.  I was worried I would go off course.  I was afraid I would make mistakes in the dreaded canter half pass zigzag, the one tempi changes, the piaffe, and the passage.  I over-schooled on the Friday before the show, determined to figure out my timing issues I’d been working on for months, in one session.  The session ended with a tired horse, a frustrated rider and no improvement on my timing issues.  During the test itself, I was so distracted by my focus on what was coming up, whether it was where to go or how I could possibly pull off 15 one tempi changes, I gave insufficient attention to the simple details of my ride:  riding a square halt, centering a movement on the centerline, or even preparing for a movement, instead of rushing to get it over as quickly as possible.  The test felt hurried and panicked, one movement followed by the next and the next with no time to think or breathe in between.  My thoughts as I exited the arena were grim.  My only positive thought was that it was over!  This feeling was not why I had dedicated myself to dressage, pursuing my childhood dream and life-long passion for horses.  Here I was, riding at the highest level, earning a respectable score, and I was relieved it was over.  Clearly I was doing something wrong.

One month later, I was back in the show ring for my second attempt at Grand Prix and my final score to earn my gold medal.  This time I scored a 69% and had a fantastic ride during the test.  While the additional month of practice helped, I also changed a few things during the competition that transformed my experience.  The Friday before the show, my schooling session was designed to get familiar with the show grounds and make sure all of my aides were in place.  I walked around my competition and schooling arenas.  While my competitors were drilling their horses on movements as their trainers bellowed instructions across the showground, I did big circles at walk, trot and canter.  I made sure my horse was listening to my legs and seat and was light in the bridle.  I tested a little bit of lateral work and a couple of changes.  Then we took a 30 minute stroll around the show grounds.  Later I returned to the arena alone and visualized riding the test in the arena.  Not just the movements, but every step, the quality of the gaits I wanted, how I would prepare for the entry and exit of each movement, and reminded myself how to actively ride the challenging parts of the test.  During the month before the show, while I practiced improving the individual pieces of the test on my competition horse, I practice the test pattern on every horse I rode.  Whether they could actually do the movements or not was not important.  What was important was that the test pattern became automatic and part of my muscle memory.  Last but not least, I made myself focus on the smallest elements of the test.  Concentrating on each step, rather than fixating on the bigger picture of a complete movement or the test itself.

These changes had a dramatic impact on my test experience.  Focusing on each step and breaking the movements down into their smallest elements created a slow motion effect for the entire test.  I was no longer fixated on getting a movement finished.  Instead, I was focusing and actually enjoying the level of collection in the gait as we went through the movements.  I remember thinking that the short side was taking forever.  I had so much time to prepare because consciously placing every stride allowed me to use the arena more effectively.  I only thought about what I was doing in that moment, allowing total concentration on one thing at a time, like each of the eight strides in my canter pirouette, instead of being distracted by future events.  I felt relaxed and confident and had moments of awe in the beauty and grace of the horse beneath me.  I rode the dreaded canter half pass zigzag with a smile and laughed during my one tempi changes.  My thoughts as I exited the arena were jubilant.  Regardless of my score or the things I could have done better, I had fun during the test and was re-energized in my passion for horses and the sport of dressage.  This feeling was why I had worked so hard!

So, for my next show, regardless of the level I plan to compete, I will keep three things in mind:

1)      The day before the show is not the time to fix or change things.  If a riding pair is still having issues with parts of the test, it will not be solved the day before a competition.  The level of proficiency achieved in the week before the competition is what a pair will have for the show.  Better to focus on making sure all aides are in working order and that the movements already mastered are at their best so those scores can be maximized.  Figure out how to minimize the damage to scores from challenging issues, but be cautious not to focus so much on what a pair cannot do well.  You want a positive attitude going into a competition so build confidence in the rider and horse by having a positive schooling session.

2)      Know the test.  Whether you have a reader or not, the rider must know the test thoroughly so it becomes second nature.  The effort that goes toward trying to hear a reader or straining to remember the next movement takes away from the rider’s ability to focus on the ride.  Instead of riding in the present, moment by moment, the rider is fixated on what is coming next.  That division of focus diminishes the quality of the test and adds another level of anxiety to an event that is already stressful enough.  Practice the test as much as possible on horseback and use detailed visualization exercises to cement not only the test pattern, but the rider’s aides as well.

3)      Ride each step.  A test is not just about each score or each movement.  It is the journey of each step that creates harmony and fluidity, transforming what is a series of tasks into a ballet between horse and rider.  Concentrating on the steps or small elements, allows the rider to build a strong foundation for each movement.  Without quality and accuracy in the building blocks, there cannot be success in the final product.  This focus on the steps also provides additional occasions for the pair to have successful moments, building confidence and a positive outlook on the ride.

These are the lessons I learned on the final phase of my quest for a USDF gold medal award.  I could not have done it without the support of the training team at Matt McLaughlin Dressage and Cooper V’s owners, Matt McLaughlin and Ronald Wright.  Most importantly, Cooper V’s generosity, willingness to forgive my errors for a cookie, and insistence that I get it right before he would perform, made him an excellent instructor and companion throughout the experience.  Horses like him are a rare find indeed!


When working with a horse, the rider must be the leader in the relationship and earn the horse’s respect.  Compared to a rider, horses are stronger, faster and heavier with much larger teeth.  Instinctively they have a flight response and a need for hierarchy.  While love and affection have their place, the underlying core of the relationship must appreciate these traits for a safe and harmonious relationship.  Earning respect and being a leader does not mean breaking a horse’s spirit or being abusive.  A rider must be fair, confident, focused, and strong.  Boundaries of acceptable behavior must be defined and re-enforced every time they are tested.  If there is a question in the horse’s mind, he must trust in the rider enough to look to the rider for guidance.  Guidance, not a cookie!

Ride Your Horse Like An Athlete

Left to his own devises, your horse would have a day of walking, eating, drinking and sleeping with the possibility of a gallop if danger appears.  When we ask them to go to work and use their muscles for jumping, dressage or any other discipline, it is not a natural state and care must be taken to train them as an athlete to avoid injury and obtain the best result.  Think of your riding as sessions in the gym with a personal trainer.  You warm-up, work out, and cool down.  You do repetitions with different exercises, using different muscles and taking small breaks between sets.  You are careful not to overly fatigue muscles with a single exercise, but focus on building muscle and overall strength with a variety of movements targeting both sides of the body equally.  If something needs additional work, you alternate the exercise with others to avoid injury.  You also plan to work out a few times a week with one or two days off to rest.  Applying this philosophy to your riding will help you structure your time and bring out the best in your horse athlete.