Being a good Student and client–Dale’s take.

Dale’s take on Being a Good Student/Client.

For a word on coaching dynamics, this post precedes:

These are my experiences–if you have others, as people certainly will, I’d like to hear about them below.

I define being a good student not as being popular with your coach–though that may happen too–but as mastering the skill you want with as little wasted effort as possible.

In a recent post I detailed the challenges of communicating with a coach.  Keep in mind you are NOT in charge of what happens on any given day.  They are.   But, thankfully, if you are unhappy, you are 100% in charge of the direction you steer.  You MUST make your own decisions.

If it is not worth you time and money, don’t do it.  (But don’t argue about it either!)

I have a long background being coached in riding, but I have also as an adult taken up a rather vigorous martial art which taught me a lot–by giving me a new experience as a beginner.

(It was awful!  I sucked!!!)

But I worked at it rather a lot, and eventually got better.  Keep in mind I also trained five days a week at the start.  I did this because I know about body  memory and I hated the clumsy beginner stage.  Like mucking a stall, get it done efficiently  and move on.)

Aikido.  It looks like this:


(Actually, it looks like this after eight years of practice, three times a week: at first it looks a great deal more like scary flopping on the ground.)

One thing that does NOT work is an experienced practitioner showing you a beautiful roll, jumping up and saying: “It’s easy!  Just do that!”

(You are likely to hurt yourself.)

Learning to flip yourself over starts with very basic, safe, correct body movements, that eventually turn into body memories.  These are done at first very close to the ground.

Is this right for later?  No.  Later will be later. 

Practice according to your skill level now.

Develop as few bad habits as possible–some are inevitable.

Prevention of these non-inevitable bad habits is where an experienced instructor is invaluable, “even” at the lower level.

Because, as you will see below, it is getting rid of the old learning that is fantastically painful, time-consuming–and also where many, many people fail to improve.

Truly, it’s not the future that holds you back.  It’s the past.  The more invested you are in your own “rightness” the more painful improvement will be–or not happen at all.

So you should not get too attached to your own success too early–or really ever.

I’m also going to remind you of a very good book, Mastery, by a fellow Rick has worked with, George Leonard.

In it he notes that one must “Embrace the Plateau.”  Also points out the difference between a true student and a “Dabbler, Obsessive and the Hacker.”  Then a great chapter on “America’s War against Mastery.”  A good book.

Anyway, if you split learning into basic phases (Dale’s version) it looks like this:

1. Don’t know what to do, don’t know how to do it.

2. Know what to do but cannot do it.

3. Know what you are doing is not resulting in success, but don’t know what the problem is.

4. Know what the basic problem is, but are unaware of small, lodged “body memories” that take over.

5. Discover small body memories and painfully eradicate them by more advanced practice.

6. Develop new, more functional body memories to replace old ones.

7. Begin to have fun and real success.

Riders (and lots of other folks) frequently get stopped at stages 2 and 5.  Of these, number five is most painful because you have to give up something you were depending on–and frequently things will look worse for a brief period until you develop a skill to replace the bad habit.

There is typically a lot of anger waged at the “perpetrator” of this change. 

(That would be “the coach.”)

Keep it to yourself, or vent to a therapist.   Keep practicing.


1.When learning a physical skill it is important to “be” in your body. 

That means able to experience what is happening, take in new information and make small and systematic changes.  Signs of being out of your body are mind wandering, a sense of looking on from the outside, critical self-thoughts.  If these happen, let them pass and keep focus.  Humm.  (Takes up critical part of brain–quieting it.) Keep things as simple as possible.  Look where you are going, listen, feel, and make habits of each corner.  This helps to ground you.

2. What happens if you are frightened?

That depends.  If you are frightened of being hurt by the action, or the horse, you must stop and tell you coach.  Right now.  This is very important.

If you are afraid of failure (more often the case) listen and try to do what you are told.  Failure is natural.  Nobody who is good at something thinks much about it.  Your coach must see you actually try something before they can tell you what actions need to be taken to give a better outcome.  If you keep your “perhaps” failure to yourself then there is no chance for success or help.

3. If you are in a muddle or stuck, put your horse in training or increase your own training.

You probably do not want to savor the experience of being frustrated and stuck.  Do something different.

Even a week of training can help.  It gives the trainer (notice I have stopped using “coach” briefly) a chance to clarify the horse’s understanding, gain perspective on what you are experiencing, and help bring both of you together.  A quick tune up is NOT training, though it can add to perspective.

If you are unwilling to put your horse in training, you should think about the direction you are taking.  Why would you want to ride with someone whose experience and feel you do not want in your horse?

That said, trainers are human, sometimes lazy, sometimes frightened themselves.  They get sick, they go lame they get tired. The very best strategy (if you can find the time) is to tack the horse up for the trainer, hand it to them and then sit quietly and watch, cooling it out after.


1. You got to see how the trainer handled the horse–not as a value judgement, but as a learning experience.

2. You know that the horse got worked.

If your horse does not feel better, more clear and focused after the number of rides you and your trainer have agreed to,  (angry, pushed, sore, no different are other possibilities) consider your program.  You do NOT need to talk to your trainer about this.  You are in charge of who you hire.  They are in charge of their strategy.  There is a boundary, and sharing might or might not be the best policy.

But what happens if one of several things occur that are not ideal? 

(Remember, you brought you horse in because things were not going exactly as you wanted. It was not ideal in the start–though perhaps well-hidden.  You are here to find things out.)

1. Your trainer says the horse is in pain and needs attention.  Don’t let this happen.  Over the normal year the horse should be monitored for soundness, have properly fitting tack and cared-for teeth.  Why pay your trainer to wait on the blacksmith’s arrival to replace shoes that ought to have been solid at the start?  It’s a waste of money!  Never mind that piles a shoeing, vet and medication bill right on top of a training bill.  Don’t do it.

2. You find “marks” on your horse.  Say a bee sting from the dressage whip, or a sore on his mouth.

Ask your trainer, in an informational way, what behavior the horse was exhibiting that resulted in the “wear spots.”  Kind remarks go a long way here, “I notice there are some marks and you have a black eye, (cracked tooth, bandaged hand, limp–whatever) is everything okay???”

They should be able to tell you what the issue was, how they dealt with it and if the issue is likely to come up again.

People are remarkably protective of their own horse, money and time and can be remarkably callous about the trainer.  If you are not willing to get on in all three gaits then don’t expect them to. Period.

I’m going to tell you a quick story here in trainers defense of “marks.”  It is a good one.  Even names one name.

When I was in my twenties I had a big Trakhener gelding from Germany.  17.2, 1600 lbs, Five or six years old. 

Encouraged by one of the national gurus (who was not particularly a horse trainer, but who was getting a lot of play at the time) I put him in a fat snaffle and taught him to pull downward.  He was now, “round and on the bit.”  I was very proud. 

But the horse was getting “heavy.”

I took him to Jan Ebling at Capricorn (we lived in Colorado at the time) who rode him, raised his eyebrows and said: “You have given yourself quite a project.”

He was of course right.

A year went by and the horse learned that he could rip the reins from my hands and gallop around the arena at will. 

Afraid at what the people in the barn would say if I used artificial aids, (The SHAME!) I’d get into two point and gallop around until it occurred to him to stop. 

Perhaps I was frightening him?  (He was certainly frightening me!)

So Jan had moved, reasonably not looking real interested anyway, and I took The Runaway farther south to a barn below Colorado Springs with another very good trainer.  I told him the whole story. 

In effect I had ruined the horse.  100% my fault.  The horse’s idea of connection as a boundary, with softness and communication within that boundary, was ruined.   His carriage (none) was ruined.  His discipline was ruined.  Through my “kindness” (and utter ignorance) I had really messed up.

(Title of event: US EVENT RIDER MEETS LARGE WARMBLOOD!  . . .scary music)

Note: Given that he was totally wrecked, the horse was really pretty happy.  He liked running around at will as though  he was on turnout.

I, however, was TERRIFIED! (Never mind being an ex-event rider.)

The southern professional agreed to help, I went away rightly shamed, and when I came back in two weeks the horse had marks in his mouth and was going in a double bridle.  But I rode him and he was much better.  He’d think about seeing the spot of light, and then taking me for a ride, but he did not act on it. He was soft in the bridle and respectful.  It was a miracle.

The trainer told me, “The bridle belongs to YOU not the horse.  He cannot grab it. Never. What’s done is done, but don’t ever take this horse out of a double bridle again.  And don’t you hang on his mouth either–set a limit, not a death grip.” 

Okay.  I thanked him and went humbly home, moving shortly after to Spokane where there was literally no help at the time.  But, I had a five-year very happy relationship with that horse. Lots of fun.  Taught him flying changes.  Good boy!

So was that southern trainer a villain or a saint?  There were marks on the mouth! 

(I think he was a saint–saved the horse–and me–with some “tough love.”)

Eventually when I wanted to spend time in Germany, I sold the horse inexpensively, telling the new owners, “Never take him out of the double bridle.” 

He went for six months, they put him in the snaffle, reconnected him with the bit in the “old” manner and in three weeks he was running away.  I do not know, but I hear they put him in a paddock and never rode him again.  Five years, no incidence. Zero.  Six months, back at it–through what I suspect was similarly misguided “kindness.”

The moral of the story is that when you take a horse needing change to a trainer, it is often the marks and experiences you have failed to give them on your own that you will see when you pick them up.  Be very sure you know what you are talking about if you cast judgement–but of course the “tell all” is, is the horse better?  If they are better, have learned something, let it go and say thanks. Thanks are well-deserved.

The other moral is to take very very seriously any warnings you are given about a horse.  They all have a past, and the past owner wants the horse to succeed.  If you are unwilling to pay attention, pass on the horse.  It is kinder.

Back to Aikido.  It is very good for your core and connection issues.


Where else do you allow someone to try to choke you out? 

The secret here is for him to grab my pinkie finger and twist vigorously. 

As Larry Sensei  used to say (he’s a police officer), “Big against small!”

That is a real attention-getter.  Please remember this if you get in a tight spot, then practice “Nikedo”–that is running.

Consider cross training.  Unless you have a penchant for sailplanes, nothing is as expensive as riding.


(Never mind in the martial arts or yoga you do not have to feed every one of your partners. . . . )

Happy riding!

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