How to be a better trainer. Do the easy stuff first.
Rudolf said to me once, with some disgust, “What is all this talk about teachers? It is the student that makes the difference!”
Well, yes. But there are some notable teachers, himself included, who have changed the course of many riders. And historically riding teachers have been more or less directive. Recall this sport started with the cavalry?
The cruel trick now is most enthusiasts are adult and professional women. People not exactly accustomed a sound butt-kicking on a daily basis–as might have been a more common teaching strategy in the old days.
The pendulum swings. But here is something for any stalled students who wonder sometimes plaintively, where to go next: you may have the best horse in your area, more money than most, time enough to ride, a facility lots of riders dream about. But, if you cannot or will not take instruction, if in your heart you want praise for what you are doing more than you want to improve what you are doing, then you will someday come across someone who has all those same things–a horse, money, time–and perseverance. Someone who knows how to be trained. And that person, the one who knows how to be trained, will quietly leave you in the dust. Think about it.
From what I can see currently there is a big love-in happening in the dressage community between the students (the ones with the check book that are actually in charge) and the teacher who assumes a role of being in charge for a short period. People are so nice now! What happened? And are riders doing better for it?
I’ve been at this a long time. I was a girl in the hunter circuit on the East Coast in the seventies when George Morris sent everyone on a crash diet. Mr. Morris was (and is) one of the most revered and feared jumper coaches of our time.
(Thank you Amy.)
This is very good advice, by the way. Dressage riders, take it to heart on any line of changes that you engage in.
So this little ditty has some references to George and is largely about how to be a better (and possibly hated) trainer by actually making a difference in your riders. Its also about how to determine the correct moment to duck and run if that is what is indicated. And it has a pointer at the end to something that actually makes life easier for your horses–and thereby you. I’m going to say this several times. In almost all cases the best teaching plan is to do the easy and obvious things first. Horse limping? Check his feet before you buy a new saddle. Do the obvious–because 9/10 that is what the problem is. Horse bites at you when girthed?
It means it hurts. Do something.
More on this seemingly-obvious, but never-addressed issue at the base of the post. Making your horse more comfortable is a great example of picking the low hanging fruit. Do first the easy (and inexpensive) things that make the biggest difference. Bit trouble? Maybe. Get his teeth looked at before you splurge on a new bit. Avoid trends. They are expensive, designed to get you to focus on equipment rather than riding.
Anyway, in our social media-enabled age of instant perfection, coaching is getting to be a complicated subject, largely because actually being a better trainer is likely to get you fired.
Though changing old behavior into new is the reason riders presumably hire coaches, people tend to get mad when you actually ask them to change.
First off, and question of note: why would you WANT to be a trainer in this country? Never mind a better one?
Point one, there is a lot of free competition: a seemingly endless supply of U-tube and Facebook experts willing to give an opinion, watch a thirty second clip and make a judgement.
Point two, the liability aspect of the game in the USA is enough to send all but the impoverished (or extremely well-insured) running.
And then there is the, point three, “meanie” quotient.
George Morris fairly terrorized a generation of young riders–myself among them. Many of which amounted to something. There is nothing that says you have to be a tyrant to train aspiring riders. You do not have to insult them or send them on crash diets, or be unsympathetic to their individual needs and learning styles.
But it helps.
Some advice from George:
Look at how relaxed and at peace that horse looks. I guarantee you, the rider at the other end of that gaze did not.
Well, trainers, maybe you do need to ignore “their learning style.”
(George once famously accused a rider in a clinic of appearing like a wart on a horse. Ouch.)
Trainers DO need to ask (and sometimes demand) their students to change. And as I have begun advising in clinics of late: “This part of what I’m about to tell you (over and over) is probably going to make you angry. You are going to hate me. That’s okay.”
(That’s also why I have a hotel room on a clinic and probably don’t want to go out to dinner with the larger group.)
Hands up who has been mad at their teacher !!!!!!!!!!!!!! 0
(There is at least one liar in every group.)
Teachers can (should) be demanding.
(Trust me I’ve been there.)
Change is the process of letting go of what you thought you knew or understood. Change (learning) often evokes grief, rage, disappointment, and even momentary despair. Change is about doing something different.
That’s all part of learning something that in the end may be deeply satisfying, but the road towards it is a real PITA.
So, as a teacher, if you are basically there to cheer on your students, they may feel great–but will not change/improve. Good side of this “cheer on” plan, short term, is they won’t ever be really mad at you either, so you can probably get on for a while, and everything will be okay. Until they decide to go to a horse show and encounter a thing called, a score.
More on simple changes that make a big difference below, but here is my advice on training, some of it gleaned from some good sources.
Check the tack. Make sure the most simple details are attended to before you ever start. Make sure the tack fits, the equipment is in good order and comfortable for the horse. (Unites States Pony Club. Remember, I am a graduate A . . . we never start a lesson without checking the tack.)
Have a plan and sit outside the arena. (Anders Lindgren, Rocky Mountain Instructor’s Series.)
Make sure it is the student who is putting in the majority of the effort. (Rudolf Zeilinger, my hero and a master of inspiring his students, both equine and human.)
Be very demanding, but when they are really working make them more at ease by forgiving small mistakes–which inevitably happen. (Meg Plumb, who coined the phrase I often use, “not to worry!” Rudolf Zeilinger’s equally profound version is: “Es macht nicht” or “it does not matter.”)
Knowing when something does not matter is critically important.
Only care deeply when change is possible. (I’m not going to attribute this to anyone, but there is no point in knocking yourself (and the student) out when change is not really wanted or it is just too hard. If the horse is old or lame, or the client is frightened, making excuses, or rides only twice a month, let it go. They have given you a message: you have been assigned educational hospice care, not intervention. You might choose not to teach them if it annoys you. But let them down easily. There is no shame in that. They are in charge of how much effort they put in).
I’m going to repeat this: The student is in charge of how much effort they put in. Time, money, commitment, goals. They belong to the student. And if the student does not organize these to a level that may make a difference, there is nothing you can do as a trainer but collect a (small) check and go home.
People used to (annoyingly) say to me, You’re so lucky that you “get” to go to Germany and train!
Luck had nothing to do with it. And my raised eyebrows at the comment had to do with the grief, rage, disappointment and despair that were often my companions on the journey. It was not fun. Gratifying, but not fun. And truth was, I made it happen by giving up many things the people claiming I was “lucky” possessed. They could have done it too. I did it because I wanted the training very, very badly–I was tired of the grind of “almost” knowing. But many parts of that journey were humiliating, confusing, expensive and painful.
So I am amused when my casual students seem to expect that lessons are in some way entertainment. Sure, you can use humor to keep the mood light, but that’s not the goal. Nor is marketing.
Which leads us to client choice.
As a trainer do not work with horses or riders whose talent, temperament, or level of training are outside your training skills and goals. That means both horses too green and horses too experienced.
There are probably other people better suited to these jobs, and it is silly to think you are an expert in every one of the various fields. No one is. If you are a Grand Prix rider with good cred and no experience with young horses, then teach the upper level. If you know about bringing a young warmblood along the levels, do that. If you know how to break a horse and gentle them in, do that. Some people have two out of three of theses skills. Almost no one is an expert in all three. Live with it.
I have never done polo or tent pegging, but I have watched both with enthusiasm.
I have experience in breaking and training young horses. I don’t do it because I don’t find it very interesting–and you need really specific facilities, help, and other very broke horses.
I have experience in jumping, eventing, trail riding. I don’t do those much because I already have. (Well, sometimes I still jump, and sometimes I take the horses out. But I don’t get paid for it.)
I have experience in upper level dressage, a background in science, a degree in English, Brown belt in Aikido, and know something about biomechanics, carriage and suspension. I teach because I enjoy making it easier for people to understand (and feel) how they are going to get where they are going–if indeed they want to go. If they do not want to do it my way, it is usually not a good fit.
So my training group is really limited.
That’s fine! I don’t have all that much time.
Another great piece of advice from Rudolf? “Get done with your riding day and go do something else.”
Sometimes productive things happen when you step back and think.