Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Trainers, Coaches, Instructors - Oh My!

We all need a trainer, coach or instructor...whatever you choose to call them. So bear with my thoughts about this topic, then let's hear your take on it.

Of course in the very beginning you must have an instructor, that's obvious. You need someone who knows more than you to teach you what to do so you can at least do it safely and humanely, if not perfectly. Even as we gain skills and independence and perhaps don't need as many lessons as before, at some time or another, we all need another person to call us on our mistakes or bad habits. Even the most experienced riders have a ground man to catch these things and refine their skills.

Sometimes you can be an accomplished rider and very capable of doing things by yourself. You've ridden quite a few different kinds of horses through the years with good levels of success. Then you meet a situation where what you knew before doesn't solve the problem with this particular horse. One thing experience partnered with a modest ego will get you is knowing the right moment to seek the help of someone who has more experience in a particular field than you. Instead of forging ahead and tackling the problem yourself, the plan should include a competent trainer to help you see your mistakes and move you forward with a different path.

Now, to define a competent trainer may take a lot of time or be as easy as 1 phone call. I always suggest watching a trainer do 2 things before seeking their guidance, watch them ride and work with a horse and watch their students ride and work with a horse. Watching the trainer should inspire you and when watching their students at work the key is to study how they solve the problems presented by the exercise they are performing. If the trainer is competent, the students will have a confidence to work through issues that may arise with a good success rate. That is a clue that how the education is being presented is having the desired effect.

The next step is to agree with the ethics of the trainer - are they overly rough or too easy-going with either the horses or the students? Someone too accomodating probably won't have students who are polished (because they are rewarded for any effort instead of mainly being rewarded for a successful effort). I have seen trainers stand around and watch their students ride with the occasional command to "put your heels down" or "shorten the reins" but they are not really teaching anything. They will "babysit" the rider while in the saddle but not ask them to grow and challenge them. I've seen lots of little kids posting around in a "chair seat" and not being taught to keep their heels down and their knees bent. Yet the trainers tell them they are doing great and the kids think it's all great - until they go to a show and don't understand why they didn't win a prize when they were doing so "great".

There are instructors who push too hard and intimidate the student. Their students often are afraid to make a mistake for fear of more reprisals and it becomes an escalating series of dependancy (which guarantees the student will keep paying for the lessons because they are afraid to ride without someone watching their every move).

A good trainer is firm and will work you, challenge your skills and make you step occasionally outside your comfort zone. I also like to see or hear of a trainer who will be honest and tell you they can't take you any further and that you need to move on to someone with those skills. (When I taught years ago, I was given the rank beginners as the Master didn't have time to start riders from scratch. I made it clear to my students all I would teach were the basics. I'd work on a good seat, independant and soft hands, mastering the 4 gaits W/T/C/G and transitions and start jumping. If the rider wanted to move up or start going to shows I would then pass them on to the Master.)

I like trainers who are totally focused on you and your ride or on your horse and teaching it as they ride. If they are teaching you as you ride, often their commands come at you in furious bursts. It's as if they are right there in the saddle with you, catching the movement just before you make it and helping you to feel it as it happens. I would rather have a trainer who is focused on me and me alone (LOL, yes, it's all about ME) like this for the duration of our session. And I have found, for me, the best trainers are those who are like this.

In some ways it's like the quality of a stallion is shown in the quality of his offspring - the quality of a trainer is in the quality of the riders and horses they work with.

How did you find your trainer? Or are you looking for one you respect? What are your thoughts on trainer/instructors/coaches? Are you currently a trainer, yourself? I'm sure anyone who's been at this awhile has stories of a few stinkers they've met along the way but let's try to keep this mainly constructive!


Kritter Keeper said...

good post! i have a couple of instructors when i am showing. my self preservation gets stronger as i get older so i am not a kid wanting to climb the ladder and prove something. my instructors know my limits and very gently will push. they never overface me or my horse with jumps and one instructor in particular has a great knack at getting me to want to go over a difficult cross country fence, etc. that is a sign of a true professional, not someone pushing, pushing, pushing causing great fear, and treating the horse as though it was a machine. i experienced that at my first barn and many of us were miserable!

i will always seek advice as i know no human will ever know everything there is to know about riding a horse. all of us have so much to learn about this great animal no matter how many years they have been riding. i believe in quality not quantity anyway. i can tell when someone brags about how many years they have been riding that they probably would not be someone i would approach for advice.

horses are such sensitive, wonderful creatures. i feel that if i am going to get on its back that i better be the best i can be to benefit that animal...and that means always seeking to better my riding ability through an instructor that puts both me and my horses needs up front.

Oregon Equestrian said...

I posted a blog several months ago on this same topic.

I think it's essential to have a trainer/coach -- even the best riders (including pros) get into bad habits that can be corrected with the aid of a proficient eye from the ground.

Of course, the crux of the issue, as you pointed out, is finding a competent trainer with an approach that suits you and your horse.

I too like the idea of observing trainers with their students in the warm up area at a show. Listen to what they are saying, how they are saying it, and how they deal with a variety of ages and personalities. Just because someone may be a top trainer in your area of interest and location doesn't mean he or she will be a good match for you.

My favorite trainer regrettably must work in the "real world" to make ends meet and cannot give lessons full time. She takes a biomechanical approach to riding, has a great sense of humor, and tries to use imagery that works for the student to get the instruction across. She pushes students just enough and seems to know when its time to move instruction up to the next level. If you want to compete in shows or events, great. If not, fine.

Riding can be an inspiring adventure with the right trainer.

Jean said...

Took me forever to find the right instructor years ago when I was bringing my young Thoroughbred along.

Nowadays, I am very picky and need a coach who will discuss options with me and listen to my imput as to what is happening.

However, the most important thing is a trainer who is not stuck in "one way" of dealing with a horse's problems. I like someone who has a variety of approaches and techniques to get a horse to work through its issues. Every horse is an individual and might need an indiviualized program suite to its temperament, physical ability, and attitude.

I have ridden with dozens and dozens of international level trainers and had both good and bad lessons. My original trainer once told me I had learned enough to "separate the wheat from the chaff," as far as training methods go, so nearly every ride, I've learned something useful. But I've also thrown out a ton of stuff as well.

Yet, I always keep most of it catalogued somewhere in the recesses of my brain, just in case the particular horse I am riding needs some of the "chaff" in order to make some progress.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post - it is true that we all need someone to notice the things we can't see. Finding someone good to work with is difficult, however. There are an amazing number of bad trainers out there, even at the upper levels and even where their students win a lot of ribbons. To me, watching the trainer in action is key. Watch them teach (if they yell, that's a non-starter for me), watch how they interact with students and horses - if possible watch them ride to see how they work with the horses. Watch them at a show - this amps up the tension and interesting things can appear - particularly in the warm-up area. Watch how their students treat their horses - if they're rough or impatient that says something about what they've been taught.

I look for patience, humor, kindness, attention (no taking calls on the cell phone), and respect for horse and rider - if all they care about is the horse respecting them or you, forget it. Use of a lot of gadgets - drawreins, tight nosebands, etc. - is a danger sign for me.

Listening skills are key - do the students ask questions and does the instructor listen and answer or brush them off - or do the students ask no questions, which may mean they're intimidated. See how the students look - are they relaxed and enjoying the lesson or tense or even fearful?

Then take some trial lessons to see how you feel. Check references, and finally, trust your gut.

Psychotic Raccoon said...

Great post. =D
It was sheer luck that I met my trainer. She came to my barn to look at a potential new horse, and we got to talking. She mentioned that she used to be a champion hunter jumper and she was interested in giving lessons. She also said Thoroughbreds were her specialty, so it was perfect. (I have a loony TB whom my trainer adores even though he's too pretty for his own britches. lol)

I've been taking lessons from her ever since, and she's by far the best trainer/instructor I've ever had. All the other ones I was with were happy to just take my money, tell me to sit up, and that I looked great. I was getting nowhere with them. However, my current trainer pushes me and my horse to give 100% in every lesson, and she accepts no less than our best. She's very in-depth and picky about all the things my previous instructors overlooked (i.e., deep seat, weight in the heels, using seat and leg before rein, etc.) Plus she's not afraid to be honest and tell me I'm not a strong enough rider yet and she lets me know whenever I could use improvement. I'd improved more in my first lesson with her than I did in four lessons from the other instructors, who just had us walking and trotting around the arena and never teaching us anything new.

Marissa said...

So true! After all these years of being yelled at, I have finally found an extremely gifted trainer who gets through to me without confusing me or stressing me out, and who really understands my horse. I met her by coincidence. I moved my horse temporarily to this very fancy full-service type boarding barn, where I knew I probably didn't really fit in and wouldn't last, but which was an excellent facility. My trainer was training some students there, and I took one lesson with her and it was like someone opened up a whole new world for me. Over the next few months, we basically went back to the drawing board, laying a proper foundation in my young horse's education and working our way back up. It was rough, but now I am riding him better than I ever have, and he is going amazingly well. He's more confident because my directions are clearer and I'm more relaxed because I'm getting the help I need. A good trainer can really change your life.

monstersmama said...

I had the same trainer for 8yrs...then moved and seems everyone here is called a trainer. I had a lesson with a girl she was 23 never sat on a green horse before..and thats all i have ridden and thats what I I am in the process of finding one...with no luck as some like to charge a ton of money ughh $75 a lesson! Thats crazy...anywho know of any reasonably priced instructors in the Alpharetta area let me know! Great post!

EveryoneThinksThey'reGoodDrivers said...

Great post, I am new here. I am a trainer and instructor. Actually I prefer teaching to training but I need to keep riding myself in order to continue to be better. I am only 30 so I have a few years left of learning... :)

The people that worry me the most are the ones who are not honest. Some people just seem like snakes in the grass. I stay away from them as best I can.

I am choosy about clients. I won't take on someone that will not listen to instruction and use it. This is for two reasons. The first is that it is often a safety hazard not to. The second is because we need to be consistant for the sake of the horse.

My biggest pet peeve are those that pull horses out of training early because they think the rest is easy - even when they haven't had the experience of owning a horse before or advancing a horse that's only had 60 days. They always wreck the horse in some way.

That is why I like teaching better. When people are open to improving upon themeselves, they are usually successful. When they think the only learning that has to happen is with their horse, that is where the problems start to come up.

I continue to take lessons myself! I love to take lessons. But, I also want to know EVERYTHING. :)

This is a subject I could go on and on about. Cool blog.

Nicku said...

Awesome post. I think there are a lot of so-so trainers out there. I have a younger trainer but he is so talented. I think we've grown together over the past year a half and he's coached me now on 2 horses. My take on the relationship between student and trainer at the upper levels is that good communication is critical, we talk A LOT. I trust him to push me when I need it but I also expect him to listen to me when I tell him something isnt quite right. Whether it's his issue or my issue or my mare's issue, we take a minute when it's needed and productively discuss things when I feel something is out of whack or, even better, when something is working really well! If you cant do that with your trainer without getting the brush off or feeling like youre walking on eggshells, it's time to find a new trainer who'll listen!