Right now, there’s a very active thread in the dressage forum on the Chronicle of the Horse bulletin board. Thirty-seven pages have been filled in the last six days by dozens of posters.
It’s all in response to a blog post by Catherine Haddad Staller, also on the Chronicle of the Horse, entitled “It’s Time To Train the Trainers.” When I read it, I thought the message was clear: riders are deficient in the basics, and that’s the fault of the trainers.
Clearly, however, the message was not clear. Because my interpretation of Catherine’s words were only one interpretation, and in a minority. Some people read the blog post and felt insulted. Some people read it and felt that it insulted every adult amateur in America. Some people felt it was high time that someone said something about the problem. Others felt that Catherine should stop talking altogether.
There wasn’t a lot of middle ground. Catherine has strong opinions and a somewhat brash delivery. I find her blog amusing even when I disagree with her. I have a feeling that we could sit down over coffee and hash it out and still smile at the end. I understand the sense of humor that could lead her to write a sentence like this:
“These people are trying like hell to learn the most basic principles of riding and are struggling along at the pace of a rabid garden snail.”
One poster on the bb, who happens to be a vet, pointed out that since snails are mollusks, they don’t get rabies, but that’s beside the point. The point is that it’s sometimes hard to hear what people have to say because of the way they say it.
I’m sure I’m guilty of the same failing. My last blog post told my readers that the chances were that their horses’ mistakes were their own fault. Was I blunt? Yes. Did I think that my words were a bit wry, a la the late William F. Buckley or, to be politically even-handed, Gore Vidal? Yes. Did the possibility that I might offend someone make me take a different tack? No. Should it have? Maybe.
Because I didn’t realize, until reading Catherine’s rant about the deficiencies of instructors in America, that sometimes the delivery system is the problem, not what’s being delivered. It’s not just the “shoot the messenger” problem, it’s the fact that the messenger may be delivering more than just a message. The messenger may be delivering an attitude that makes it impossible to hear the message at all.
I don’t have a big name like Catherine Haddad Staller or a CDI sandbox or a big platform like the Chronicle. But if I did offend any of my readers with my delivery, I apologize. I could have been softer and gentler in my delivery, and frankly, I would have been if you were a horse.
There’s something to look at there for me, for sure. I try hard to give the gentlest and clearest aids I can when I ask the horse to do something. I try to help my students do the same, and teach or re-teach their horses to listen to the whispers. I strive to be gentle and clear with my students, because my experience is that people hear better when you speak softly than when you shout.
Why don’t I do so on my blog? Because I write my blog not only to share my thoughts and feelings but also to amuse myself. It’s a nice added benefit when I amuse others, but not everyone has the same sense of humor or an equally thick skin. The now iconic Rabid Garden Snail can attest to that.
In defending her blog post, Catherine said that she wrote it with the words she would use if she were talking to a friend. And that’s how I feel when I write my blog. I think of my readers as having strong egos and equally strong senses of humor, acceptance of their weaknesses and mine, and boundless courage to pursue self-examination without feeling the need to retreat or attack.
However, just as sure as some horse will teach me that I don’t know everything yet, I’m bound to offend someone. I’m sorry about that, because a failed delivery system is the worst way to lose a message.
With that in mind, let me reassure you that while I do think we create most of the problems that our horses have, it’s not my intention to blame you or to make you feel bad about it. I wouldn’t be telling you anything I haven’t told myself and I know as well as anyone our mistakes with horses can be bitter pills to swallow, embarassing at best and sorrowful at worst.
So when you read my words, please think of me as your madcap aunt — outspoken and occasionally out of bounds but someone you can always trust to give you the honest truth, as she sees it, and who wants only the best for you. And your horse. Who, I should mention, is first in line.
Oh there I go again…
I enjoy your outspoken posts 🙂
Ahhh…one sentence can be interpreted 10 million different ways. I’ve had several different trainers over the years. Some I “clicked” with immediately and everything they said made sense, others, not so much. It’s not that they were necessarily bad instructors, it’s just they way they instructed was not conducive to MY learning. I’ve experienced that not just in the saddle, but in the classroom, at seminars, even at work.
Your post about about my horse’s problems being my fault did not offend me at all, instead, made me take a few steps back and really think about how I am influencing and training him. What mistakes am I making? Where can I do better? What can I do different? And I do think that was your intent…at least, that was MY interpretation of it. 🙂
Right you are. That’s exactly what I meant. Asking the same questions of myself have improved my riding and training so dramatically that my first thought these days is rarely “how do I fix the horse,” but rather “how do I fix myself?”
The snail sentence perfectly describes me 🙂 perhaps it’s because I’m still struggling with the basics that I always assume things are the rider’s fault, but perhaps it’s because horses didn’t ask to be ridden, so it’s always the rider’s responsibility to deal with the log in their own eye first.
Good thoughts. Of course, we all have to return to the basics. It’s so easy to have our hands take over…to look down at our horse’s necks rather than where we going, to become lopsided in the saddle. Sometimes it happens gradually, and we won’t notice if we think of what’s wrong with our horses instead of checking ourselvelves to make sure that the basics — which themselves are hard to achieve — are in place.
I agree with you, I too sometimes think that I could say things differently or close an eye on this and that but I think when we write we should be true to ourselves.
Sometimes, if we are passionate about something, some words might sound a little harsh but I do believe only we can make ourselves feel any particular way (due to certain beliefs, experiences, emotions etc). As a blogger I can’t control every single readers’ interpretation. If deep down someone knows they are not doing the right thing, any mention of it might trigger an emotional, self-denial filled response.
When I read something, I rather it was harsh and straightforward but honest than convoluted and wrapped in cotton wool…
Do you have a link to the article by Catherine Haddad? I would be interested in reading it 🙂
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I should have thought to hyperlink Catherine’s article. It’s done now, so you can easily get to it. After you read it, I’d love to hear what you think!
I have just read it and wow, thank you so much for linking to it. I absolutely loved it…
I think that although you can sense an undercurrent of irritation in her words, I haven’t read such a great summary of “training pyramid” for a long time.
I believe that if there were more trainers learning from top riders and then passing this knowledge to their pupils, the overall benefit would be massive.
I see many riders with basic seat issues raring to go to clinics with top riders. I find this insane. Not only that it undermines the work of trainers who, like me, are proud to be teaching decent foundations at grassroots level, but it also takes away motivation, drive, the journey for an ambitious rider. I wouldn’t say, as Catharine did, that the amateur riders should “deserve” a clinic with top rider, I think it’s more a case of being proud to get to the level where they can truly benefit from advanced knowledge.
The key is that the grassroots coaches must be well educated, in anatomy, physiology, learning theory (both equine and human) and lay foundations. And be proud of it too.
Having said that, I think riders seek top riders tuition not only to be able to say “I trained with this and that person” but because they feel under informed, under coached by current trainers.
Fabulous article and I do hope many trainers and riders will have a food for thought reading it…Thank you again for sharing!
Ah, I just realised I didn’t quite answer your title-question: yes, I do believe you are right on delivery front…it’s tricky. She’s honest though and I do appreciate honesty more than political correctness.
P.S. I do think that beginner/novice riders should have all right and opportunity to audit and watch and learn from advanced clinics but not be tempted to necessarily take part. If I am learning the basic maths I wouldn’t call Einstein to teach me sums 🙂
Great – Thanks for coming back and sharing your thoughts. I particularly value what you said about why riders seek out BNTs — because as you say, “they feel under informed, under coached” by their current trainers. I agree.
I agree that ego doesn’t necessarily drive the decision to take a clinic with a BNT. And I see more ego involvement in upper level riders riding with BNTs, especially the professionals, than I do with beginners or intermediate level riders. I understand why, especially if the lesson incorporates a return to the basics.
I think every pro who rides in a clinic has a lot on the line, with students/clients watching. When Kyra Kyrland says you’re not sitting properly (gasp!) or Tina Konyot says your stirrups are uneven (gasp!) that’s a difficult moment.
But professionals still seek out those top trainers for the same reason that lower level amateurs do — to learn from the best.
The trainer who helped me the most always said, “I teach everyone, from beginner to Grand Prix.” And he does, and he does it well, and all benefit. But not everyone is suited to teaching beginners, and doesn’t have to be.
I don’t know why the comments in this section are posting out of order, but just saw your addendum come in. I too value honesty more than political correctness. But I guess that’s obvious to anyone reading my blog! Thanks so much for joining in.
Calm, Forward, Straight said:
After reading CHS’s original post, and then many of the posts on Coth’s thread as well, my thoughts are…
To avoid having to teach folks whose skill level is below what you would like to tolerate – it would be a good idea to make that fact known in your clinic announcement – website – info… that puts everyone in the same ballpark.
Something about the tone of the original post was off-putting… honesty doesn’t preclude tact.
My one and only clinic with a BNT was when I was green as grass to dressage, as was my straight from the hunter world tb whom I had ridden three times. The clinic was already paid for months ahead of the horse purchase. We were certainly not on the bit.
After consulting with my trainer – a long time student of the BNT – I was assured the clinician would be happy to teach me even so.
He was super gracious with my horse and I. He never once made me feel badly about my incompetence. The tone and level of his instruction was the same with every one of the variously skilled students. Firm, tough and fair – with all emphasis on the rider’s responsibility to help their horse. (I audited every ride that week) The riders invariably rose to the occasion.
I have seen several references to Einstein in response to CHS’s post, which remind me of a quote attributed to him, to the effect of –
If you can’t explain something to a ten year old, you probably don’t understand it yourself…
I do love that quote and often think about it when trying to explain something well.However, I wasn’t referring to it meaning that I am thinking top trainers can’t explain something simply. It was more of a thought short-cut describing the level of information needed.
It is very interesting to read comments to that article. I didn’t have an impression not have I found anywhere any mention to anyone being treated disrespectfully during a clinic with CHS so find this angle puzzling but perhaps I missed something.
I don’t know her and have never attended any of her clinics so can’t really have a fully informed opinion.
Interestingly, I didn’t take that article as a criticism of novice riders so much as criticism of trainers.
It’s true though that perhaps a note of the levels welcome on a clinic schedule would help avoid all the misunderstanding.
Calm, Forward, Straight said:
Didn’t mean to imply anything about your comment (or CHS) with the Einstein quote. There were a number of references to Einstein on Coth, which initially brought the quote to mind.
I was addressing the implication (not yours) that (some) BNTs are above interacting with beginners. It seems to me that is what was being communicated in the initial post by CHS.
I have always been taught that once a rider has the fundamentals down, upper level movements have more to do with fitness of horse and discipline of rider. If (when) problems arise, a review of the training scale can shed a lot of light.
This of course is more theoretical than anything else for me, as my horse and I are still struggling with connection and throughness. I am presently driving a fourteen hour round trip to access a quality trainer, and can only do that every month or so. More quality trainers would certainly help my situation.
Regarding Einstein though, I have a hard time imagining him being above working with beginner minds, even though he was literally “above” most every mind that’s ever been.
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TarrSteps Services said:
Reblogged this on Helping horses understand people. and commented:
An interesting article about and interesting article!
This, of course, goes for teaching horses, too. Sometimes it’s not WHAT we are trying to teach them that that’s the problem, it’s the way we’re trying to get it done. The content is fine, the delivery systems is faulty.
Next time you are getting frustrated because your horse “doesn’t understand” – or your horse is getting frustrated because he doesn’t understand – stop and think for a minute. Is there a way you could explain things differently? Is your tone correct for the horse and the situation? Is it the time and place to have the discussion in the first place? Are you teaching/conversing well?
Never hurts to check. You can defend yourself to people if you upset or offend them, but horses are both harder and easier in this way. Harder because you cannot use your most advanced skill, language, to get the job done or to explain your actions, Easier because, most of the time, they will forgive you. Just don’t use that capacity for forgiveness to avoid examining your side of the conversation.
Great direction to take the discussion — our failed delivery systems with horses. They’re the most important ones after all, aren’t they? I love what you have to say here.
Pardon me for being my usual blunt self but I just don’t see the problem. If you have a trainer and you aren’t progressing…..find another trainer. If you find another trainer and you and he/she doesn’t click for a multitude of reasons…..find another trainer. There are enough trainers (hot shot or not) looking for students.
Elaine – Your comment really made me smile. It seems there were at least a few people who had decided they were never going to clinic with CHS after reading her blog!
But don’t you think that one of the problems for the newer rider is not knowing how to evaluate their trainers? How do they know what reasonable progress is? Is it being able to improve your sitting trot after a year? Is it moving up to Second Level? Is it figuring out how to work the bit so that your horse tucks his nose into his chest?
And what if someone LIKES their trainer and doesn’t want to hurt his or her feelings? That’s not a problem for people like you and me — but it is a problem for many.
I personally think that you should improve and feel improvement in your riding or your horse or both, ideally from the very first lesson. Sometimes it can take a bit longer, especially if there’s an injury in horse or rider, or fear to overcome, in which case it’s time for baby steps, no pushing, and the progress will be more gradual. Certainly, after a handful of lessons, if progress isn’t achieved, it’s time to move on.
Sometimes it’s no one’s fault. Sometimes it’s just not a good match, as you point out. Then, too, it’s time to move on.
I love you Katie Hill. I love your blog, I love your compassion for each and every horse you have the privilege to meet, and I love your tactful training techniques. Don’t change anything with your relationship with the horse or with the rider , ever. You are the horse’s angel and the rider’s North Star.
Oh my goodness. I am so touched. You made my day, week, year, decade. Thank you.
I’d like to suggest that perhaps Catherine resorts to provoking people because she is frustrated with the degree of complacency and incompetence in the horse world and anything less blunt doesn’t get a response. Insults at least get people talking, and perhaps a few will actually think a bit or maybe even do something.
Interesting take on things! I hadn’t considered that point of view, and it’s certainly possible that this is exactly what Catherine had in mind. In which case, it certainly succeeded.
I have just looked through the COTH comments and I must say that many replies made me really sad. It’s true that some amateur riders cherish an opportunity to train with an accomplished, successful Pro and to read a very blunt article like Catherine’s must have hurt a lot of feelings. Valid points but Delivery Systems Failed indeed 😦
Perhaps it is meant as a provocation as saraannon says…I read Catherine’s reply in comments on the actual article and it does sound like a cry out to all trainers out there to get their act together and start learning how to teach good basics.
Of course the costs and difficulties in organising pricey clinics mustn’t be overlooked and crashing someone’s passion, dreams and goals with choice of delivery is unimpressive.
It’s near impossible to ride at a clinic with top pros in the UK if you are a low level amateur (Carl Hester for example doesn’t take any new students regardless the level). There are some great international dressage riders who will happily teach anyone but to train with the top rider for a low level amateur with fundamentals not established would be very unlikely.
Re Einstein analogy, yes, perhaps he is not the best choice to illustrate the point.
Wiola – Thank you for sharing your latest thoughts. I also read the comments following Catherine’s post. I’m sorry that so many people “took it personally.” Interestingly, it was largely adult amateurs who took umbrage, even though I think Catherine feels empathy for them and their predicament.
Given the different structure in the UK (and with the BHS), I have to wonder how such an editorial would have been received by the general riding public (although as I write this I realize that the COTH board is far from the general riding public).
I think the saddest thing I’ve read on the topic is the fact that Carl Hester doesn’t take any new students regardless of the level!
I have had the same problems on LinkedIn groups.
I do think you need to realize that online is basically a static way of communicating. You don’t see body language, hear the tone of voice etc.
Yet where I feel the problem lies not so much with the message but the tone. I like it when people are making a statement which is against the grain, which may not be my believe. But I hate it when people tell me I should follow their believes. That it is not enough to share your opinion, but rather you shoved it down my throat (not you but a writer in general).
Plus everybody reads something else into it. What I thought was a negative remark on a LinkedIn group, my friend thought it was a positive remark.
But please remain outspoken, it is much more fun to read. I will be just as outspoken myself.
It’s great to hear your point of view Monique. I appreciate your own outspokenness on your blog. And you make such an important point about the fact that words on the Internet lack the context of facial expression, tone of voice, body language, etc. As Jenn pointed out early in this thread, one sentence can be interpreted a million different ways.
You know from history that you and I occasionally disagree, and neither of us has been afraid to say so. But it is always with respect that we talk to one another. I also hate when people tell me that I should follow their beliefs, but at my ripe old age, I’m not afraid to say “no, I won’t and here’s why…”
Still, hearing another point of view always makes me revisit my assumptions and beliefs. There’s a place in my mind that’s reserved for the undecided, and I try to visit it periodically, because that’s how I grow as a horseman. As those who follow my blog know, clicker training is the perfect example of a training technique that I didn’t value or use. I saw many problems in it. I still see some. But I kept an open mind, and it has since proved invaluable to me and the horses I work with.
These days, I’m thinking about Buck Brannaman’s belief that the inside leg should be further back than the outside leg. That’s a good one.
Katie, thanks for your thoughts on the CHS’s article, in particular, and on communication, in general. I enjoy your honest posts – please do not change!
I read CHS’s post and some of the ensuing madness on COTH and was not surprised that most posters immediately took her comments personally. What really bothered me was the ignorance (or iwas it arrogance?) of most of the posters. The lack of good trainers/teachers is not unique to the United States nor is it unique to the equestrian world. I think Heather Moffett (Enlightened Equitation) has commented before on how many riders lack a grasp of the basics in the United Kingdom. Also, look at how students in the USA compare to other countries’ students in terms of reading, math and science – not good. Teaching anything is difficult and not everyone has the talent, aptitude or desire to be a good teacher.
I do not have a solution to the problem 🙂 but I think one of the best ways to determine if your current trainer is competent and/or the right fit for you is to ride with other trainers. My current trainer encourages all of her students to ride with other folks, including BNTs. Sometimes, riding with one of these people can result in a light bulb moment (oh, so that is what my trainer was talking about) or a wake-up call (I need to find another trainer).
Good points you make and it’s good to hear the point of view from across the pond. I totally agree that everyone should ride with instructors other than their primary instructors. I always encourage my students to go to clinics with other instructors. Sometimes it’s simply the way someone else puts something or presents something that can facilitate that light bulb moment. And as you rightly point out, sometimes that light bulb moment is the realization that one needs a new trainer.