Words work for me (as you’ve probably noticed) so I talk when I teach. I use the ten minute warm up of every lesson not only to talk theory but also to “check in” with horse and rider. While I observe the horse, I talk to the rider. How have the rides been since the last lesson? Have there been any struggles or difficulties? Is there anything in particular the rider would like to work on?
While I’m talking, I’m walking. This helps me stay fit, keeps me warm in the winter months, prevents me from having to shout, and most importantly, allows me a varied viewpoint. If I’m not planted in a corner or in the middle of the ring, I’m able to see more, so I’m able to help more.
Plus, it’s the only real way to check the straightness of horse and rider. My riders may not be ready for the Olympics, but there’s a reason why there are so many judges, all seated at different points around the ring, at international events. The plain fact is that no matter how good a trainer’s eye might be, it’s not going to be very good if its focus comes from a single position.
My goal is to help horse and rider be their best, even when I’m not there to assist. That means building confidence, filling a rider’s toolbox, introducing new skills, and refining the aids.
When you’re on a horse, and you’re learning something new, it can be hard to know exactly what you did that made the horse perform well. That makes it hard to recreate in the lesson and hard, if not impossible, to recreate outside the lesson. Sometimes it can feel like magic — it just happened — which is why, sometimes, riders don’t make any progress in between lessons.
That’s not good enough for me, so I try, while I’m walking and talking, to solidify connections for the rider. Some riders “learn” more in their bodies, through practice and muscle memory, so for them, repetition of the exercise is highly effective. Other riders learn by putting things into context and organizing things in their mind (the training pyramid is a good example). For them, taking a break to talk through why something works and discussing the “what if’s” lets them feel without the distraction of intellectualizing.
Regardless of whether a rider is physically or intellectually oriented, they will need educated aids to ride their best. I consider every rider, regardless of their fitness level, to be an athlete, and I want the riders I work with to be in touch with their own bodies. The current vogue for “biomechanics” makes my style of teaching trendy…although it was the way good trainers (not just good riders) were teaching long before the word made it into the lexicon. During the lesson, my words are focused less on what the horse should do than what the rider should do to get the horse to do what she wants.
You’ll never hear me say “Make the horse rounder!” I work to help the rider refine her aids, so the horse responds by being rounder. If the aids are correct, the horse responds correctly. It works like a charm. Every single time. For many riders, after years of struggling with how to make the horse round, and feeling like a failure for being unable to do so, this can be a game changer.
When it comes together, I talk. “Did you feel that?” I’ll say. Or “What just happened?” So often, the response from the rider is, “I did X and the horse did Y.” Along with a big smile. And that’s the takeaway.
When a trainer takes the time to focus on the success and solidify why it happened, the rider can takes ownership of that success and start to think as a trainer. Which is the way it should be every time you’re on your horse.
There is a select group of trainers out there who refer to themselves as “trainers’ trainers.” But every instructor, in every lesson, should have the goal of training in mind. Not just training their students but helping their students think of themselves as trainers, even if they never earn a dime out of the activity that makes them the happiest.