Equine Canada’s launch of their newly-revised coaching certification program in 2011 has been met with encouraging feedback from candidates and evaluators alike. The 174 coaches certified across Canada in 2012 represent a high standard of excellence in their chosen areas of specialization. It is a program recognized internationally by the FEI and the International Group for Equestrian Qualifications (IGEQ), and here at home by the Canadian Olympic Committee and Coaches of Canada. Developed in partnership with the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP), the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC) and Sport Canada, Equine Canada’s new module of coaching development appears to be off to a good start, seeing a 70% increase in the number of certified coaches and instructors from 2011-2012.

More modules, more information

Equine Canada offers two certification streams, allowing candidates to choose an appropriate focus within the context of their coaching goals. The Instruction stream consists of a certification called Instructor of Beginners and allows candidates wishing to specialize in recreational and non-competitive markets the chance to teach beginner-level riders. This stream also allows the individual to maintain amateur status while receiving remuneration for coaching. The Coaching stream offers three certificates that have a more competitive focus: competition coach, competition coach specialist, and high performance coach – each level requiring more discipline-specific expertise and experience. Other supplementary training offered ranges from the tier-one introductory modules, Making Ethical Decisions in the Equestrian Environment, and Planning an Equestrian Lesson, to the third tier advanced modules including Equine Clean Sport (medications, drug testing requirements) and Managing Equestrian High Performance Sport (insurance and nutrition).

The goal of Equine Canada’s coaching training and certification is ultimately long-term equestrian development. The number of coach training courses offered has risen dramatically, with an increase to over 20 training modules from the previous years’ two. “In the past, I think people associated the coaching courses as something to attend only if you were interested in becoming a coach,’ said Equine Canada’s coaching manager Heather Sansom, ‘but we understand that coaching professionally is an idea that takes time to develop. The courses out there now are full of information and open to anybody. People often attend who are just interested in the content, and aren’t necessarily intending to pursue coaching certification any time soon.”

Importance of certification

Dressage Canada’s chair Sarah Bradley, an Equine Canada certified level-three eventing coach and Horse Council BC’s master learning facilitator, believes coach training gives participants a good baseline for what is considered current safe practices in horse sport. She also noted the importance of distinguishing the integral components of coaching that are found in any sport. “There are a lot of commonalities across sports: how people learn, how as a coach you progress your lessons, how to design a lesson, how to design a seasonal training program, and the kind of framework that makes it a lot more systematic to help athletes develop,” she explained. “For me, the important thing is the training, as opposed to the certification; the training has an immense amount of value and I would actually put more emphasis on coaches taking part in training even if they don’t necessarily carry on and get certified.”

‘There is growing recognition that training is as valid as certification. We’ve only just started talking about that in equestrian sport, but even if you don’t go on and get evaluated there is a huge degree of value in taking those modules and improving your ability to deliver the information. Fundamentally, and in addition to safety, the other thing at the heart of coach training and certification is athlete development; a coach is someone who helps an athlete progress towards their goals.”

Knowledge, professionalism, safety, and personal commitment to the sport are some of the reasons Equine Canada encourages coaches to pursue certification, but Sansom stresses it is also important to consider the liability issues an uncertified coach may face. “A lot of people don’t take into consideration that if you are teaching and there is an incident, there is a lot of liability that is going to fall on your shoulders. Insurance companies will ask if you are certified.” The accessibility of certified coaches and the development of the sport for the future are also primary reasons for encouraging certification, she believes. “It helps interested people develop and grow the sport with an emphasis on quality control and a methodological standard for Canadian sport coaching.”

Niche expertise and modern methods

Equine Canada’s new format allows those already coaching at a high level to obtain certification without having to take a lot time out of their business, through the consideration of their achievements and those of their students. “It is one of the most exciting things about the new program,” explained Sansom. “There’s recognition of elite level athletes and their achievements.” She also noted that the coaching certification levels ensure you find the right coach for your goals. “The coaching levels are similar to someone who has an Early Childhood Education degree, or is a kindergarten teacher or a high school teacher – they all have similar levels of education, but have specialized in working with different stages of children’s development. The coaching program ensures that you find the coach who is most suitable for the stage that the athlete is at; the coaching contexts represent different skill sets and niche expertise.”

The subjectivity of the evaluation process had received criticism in the past, and evaluators’ personal training preferences no longer play such a large role in coach testing. “The evaluation now recognizes a student-centred teaching and coaching method, which provides more opportunity for input from students,” explained Sansom. “Evaluators are now looking for you to be asking questions of the rider and providing explanations, which is a real shift from the old-school “I am the coach, you do what I say” mentality. It is an approach that works a lot better with adults, and we know there is a predominance of adult amateurs in equestrian disciplines. In the past, we received feedback that evaluators disagreed with a training direction, style, or the way a candidate rode, which aren’t coaching reflections. Evaluators now have the chance to not necessarily agree with a training decision, and it doesn’t have to affect their task of evaluating the coaching skills demonstrated. I think the whole process is really improved and much more accessible. It’s all about helping someone grow as a coach; it should be a learning experience for the candidate.”

It is the hope of Equine Canada that by encouraging communication between rider and coach, participants in the revamped coaching certification program will be capable of producing thinking riders. “There’s a growing recognition across the board, not just in equestrian sport, that for people to perform really well they have to be able to think, and you have to teach them to problem-solve,” explained Bradley. “The only way you can reliably establish that skill in people is to have a much more two-way process with them. Equestrian sport evolved from a cavalry model – with a drill sergeant standing in the middle of the arena barking orders – and the old model will absolutely get people to a certain point in their performance, but it will not produce high-level international competitors anymore. You have to become a thinking rider, and you have to learn to make good decisions.”

Coach training and certification encourages self-improvement in an industry that is in constant evolution. “Coaching is this quasi-professional designation,” noted Bradley. “In some ways it’s like a doctor or a lawyer; people tend to assume you have the training. If you’re not open to learning more, you don’t produce students who are open to learning more. People who stay on top of the game have a program and they are open to modifying and improving the details. They are always striving for more.”

Being an elite-level athlete does not denote competency in the area of instruction. It is Equine Canada’s hope that by providing a national standard for coaching excellence, the divide between the two will become widely acknowledged. “Being an athlete and an educator are two totally different skill sets,” concluded Sansom. “Being able to produce a business model where you can successfully market yourself and charge people to train their horses is one thing, but that doesn’t necessarily make you good at training athletes.”