Allison is one of the country’s top riders and has been consistently named to the USEF High Performance Training Lists for the past decade. She’s traveled all over the world and won a myriad of FEI and national events with numerous horses over the years and among her most famous partners was Arthur. The stunning, 17-hand liver chestnut Irish Sport Horse gelding is now happily retired, but during his heyday in the 2000s, he and Allison were fan favorites everywhere they went. Even though he’s an extremely sweet horse, he was known for having a bit of a wild, spooky side, too… you’ll enjoy hearing Allison talk about that experience!
I’ve been lucky enough to have interviewed Allison dozens of times over the past decade, but this is the first time I’ve chatted with her about her some of her training and teaching philosophies. Education has always been important to Allison and she’s worked hard to earn her A-rating in Pony Club as a young rider and later became a level IV (the highest level) of the USEA’s Instructor Certified Program. She’s trained with lots of respected riders over the years, including Olympic eventers Karen and David O’Connor and legendary show jumper Katie Prudent, and she’s created her own successful program at her homebase in northern Virginia.
Allison tries to lead her students by setting a good example. Horsemanship is at the top of the list, and she always makes sure to put her horses first. Allison has the reputation for being an incredibly hard worker, and she’s constantly polishing her own position and style to give her horses the best rides possible, making sure she’s mentally and physically at her peak and is also a huge advocate of rider safety.
Even though just about every FEI-level event rider wears an ASTM-certified helmet in the dressage phase these days, Allison was the first to wear an approved helmet at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, back in 2010. You’ll hear more about what this experience was like during our interview, but it was thanks to her long-time sponsor, Charles Owen, that she was able to set a new safety standard on the world stage in style.
About a month ago, Roy Burek, the chairman and leader of the Charles Owen team, sadly passed away. Allison remembered Roy fondly, saying quote “I first met Roy many years ago when I decided to wear a helmet in the dressage phase at Rolex. I was the first person to do so and Roy made sure I looked and felt great doing it! That was the start of our friendship and I have proudly represented Charles Owen helmets ever since. What an amazing trend that dressage day in Kentucky started!”
Here a just a few of the excerpts from our conversation which you can listen to in full on Apple podcasts, Stitcher and Soundcloud:
What are some of the keys to your success over the years?
Allison: I think it’s just my love of the horses and training. This is not an easy sport, as everyone knows, so you have to truly be in love with the process and the training of the horses. Everybody wants the winning result, and that is important, but you have to embrace all the improvements along the way. And I think that’s hard for a lot of people.
What are some of your greatest strengths as a rider and what are some things you struggle with?
I think my biggest strength is the basic training of the horse. Obviously, Arthur was one of my greatest partners, but he was a very tricky horse. He’s very spooky, but he’s very sweet. And a few of my other horses, like Bonfire, and some of the other horses I had growing up, they were really tricky horses. I had Bonfire when I was working with Karen and David O’Connor and that’s when they had a partnership with Parelli and I was introduced to some of the natural horsemanship stuff that they do. And that was so helpful in my training and understanding of the horse. That, to me, is my biggest strength.
I guess for my weakness… I think becoming a great cross-country rider at the highest level–that’s a hard thing. But I enjoy it so much and that’s why I do this sport. I’m always learning and I feel like I’ve really made great strides in the last couple of years, certainly with the help of Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin…they’re both great cross-country instructors and they’ve been incredibly helpful.
How do you handle disappointments and setbacks in this sport?
You ask any rider, and you’re probably crying more than you’re celebrating, and that’s the truth of it. It’s just the nature of owning these animals and it’s a tough sport. Especially when you’re an upper-level rider and a professional and you’re trying for teams. There are so many armchair quarterbacks out there and there’s a lot of negative stuff out on the internet and social media and everybody thinks they can ride your horse better than you…these are people watching from afar. So, you have to be able to know how to deal with that.
I’ve always said you have to build your community and support system around you. That’s the most important thing. And certainly having good owners and sponsors… I”m really blessed that everyone in my life right now – they get it. Because I’ve certainly had some owners in the past that didn’t understand the process. They want to show up to the party and they want to win and that’s it. Winning is important, but it just takes a long time to produce these horses. It’s a tough, tough sport.
Certainly as you’re training these horses, they’re just animals. And they have such huge hearts and they do so much because we simply ask them to do it and to try. They’re not always going to get it right the first time and you have to keep going and really, really be thankful and joyful for the improvements that you’re feeling and know that you’re on the right path. I think that’s really important for amateurs and young riders and all those people coming up… and parents of these young riders, too! We see some pretty competitive parents out there.
It’s all about the process. I talk to my students about this. When they come out of the dressage ring at a show and they feel so happy because they’ve felt the improvement, but then your score still puts you in the middle of the pack, you can’t let that put you in a foul mood and think that you haven’t improved. You’ve got to really understand this path that you’re down. I think really believing in the process and having joy in the training is important.
What are some of the key training philosophies you share with your students?
Anyone who’s done a clinic with me or been in my lessons know that I’m really strict about correct equitation. You see too many people compromise their position on the flat to make up for their horse’s lack of throughness or alignment or whatnot. I think a horse always improves through their rider’s correct equitation. I struggle with it myself all the time. So, that is a huge part of my training.
I’ve had a number of students who’ve won the Charles Owen Technical Merit awards which, to me, is great! It’s just people judging them at the Training level on cross country. I think it’s happened a few years to my students at Pine Top [Horse Trials]. That’s an honor for me. Obviously, the students have a good understanding [of cross-country riding] and good position.
Then there’s the understanding of how horses learn. A lot of times I sound like that Parelli system or that O’Connor system–it’s just as simple as applying pressure and then releasing that pressure. The release of the pressure is actually your more valuable tool than the pressure itself.
I want people to understand how to problem-solve on their own. It’s never a good thing when you’re teaching a student and they say, “Well, my horses started doing this and I know it’s wrong, but I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything at all.” In that case, they actually trained the horse to do that problem–by releasing the pressure and making it easy. How do you respond to that? By getting people to use their correct equitation to train the horse better.
Don’t miss the rest of the interview on the podcast!
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New episodes of the Practical Horseman Podcast are released every other Friday, and feature conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts to inform and inspire listeners. It is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors Sandra Oliynyk, Emily Daily and Jocelyn Pierce. Upcoming conversations are with eventers Selena O’Hanlon, Buck Davidson and Matt Brown, as well as hunter riders Liza Boyd and Shelley Campf. You can subscribe and listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, Stitcher and while you’re there please rate and review the show.