Beth Underhill, Jacquie Brooks and Tamie Phillips share their winning habits:
What are the most important qualities a riding instructor should possess?
BU: “I think patience is number one. Attention to detail is really important, too. Not just watching the lesson, but also being very conscious of the care, management, the tack. Particularly with younger riders, have a keen sense of the surroundings; if you see a potentially dangerous situation coming up, you want to tell your rider to get out of harm’s way.
“As they begin their career it is important that they have an honest horse who is brave and going to teach them the basics of the sport and give them confidence. The evolution of a rider is so weighted on the horse they have and what they learn along the way, so as a trainer it is very important to make good choices for your student in terms of the horse that they ride.”
“Always be honest. Sometimes it’s hard to say things like ‘this horse is not suitable,’ or ‘you’re not ready to move up to a higher division.’ You have to not be afraid to be honest when things are going a little bit south.
JB: “I think the most important factor in teaching anything is to have a complete and full understanding of what you are teaching. I am not suggesting that every riding instructor needs to be capable of teaching grand prix, but they really need to understand each level they are trying to teach.
It is also beneficial that if a coach and a student run into a training problem, they feel comfortable to go to a higher-level instructor for help. One of my favourite parts of our program at Brookhaven is that we have a lot of trainers using us for high performance training, which they then take back to their own successful barns and businesses. I hope that by sharing knowledge, our talented Canadian trainers can become even more confident in the content they are teaching, and become better instructors.”
TP: “I think experience is really key. Not just with horses, but also with people.”
In your experience as a student, what did you enjoy the most about the way your trainers coached you?
BU: “I was passionate about getting better and passionate about learning. I worked at barns on the weekends just to be around people that knew more than I did. I put myself in a position where people wanted to give me opportunities because they knew I would work hard in order to learn or have an opportunity to ride. That was very important to me, and what I really appreciated from the trainers I had over the years. They all taught me different things; they taught me horsemanship as well as evolving my riding style and my experience.”
JB: “I have been very fortunate in my career, as my first dressage dressage coach, Ashley Holzer, is still my current coach. When I began to train with Ashley she was already an Olympic bronze medalist, so she was clearly qualified to take me as far as my talent could go.
“She has an absolute genius understanding of how a horse learns and becomes capable of the requirements of every level on the training scale. She has trained every size, shape, and different personality in a horse to grand prix. I have never seen a horse stump her! She always has an exercise or effective correction to keep the learning experience positive for her horses and students.”
TP: “I have had a lot of really amazing coaches and trainers over the years – including Gail Greenough and Ian Miller – and from their vast experience it’s amazing the tips and the simple, but amazingly effective, things that they will use for training horses. I think that the attention to detail at that level is what you really notice, and their attention to detail is just really amazing.
“Gail used to tell me, ‘If you want to do this, you can do it.’ I still tell myself that to this day.”
What do you find most effective when teaching students?
BU: “It is important for trainers to lead by example and that means always trying to be professional. I always try to be neat and make sure my tack is polished. I know when I was a student I was like a sponge and watched my trainers. I think setting a good example in how you operate your stable and being professional and business-like is really important.
“Ask questions. It is easy as a trainer to say ‘you did this wrong and that wrong, try to do this or that.’ Students can get a little numb to that. As trainers we want to create independent riders. I like to ask questions when they come out of the ring like, ‘What do you think happened?’ and get their feedback. First of all, I get a better understanding of if they are absorbing the lesson, and secondly, they are going to think a little bit more and begin problem-solving themselves.
“It is important that we encourage students to watch, listen, and learn from others. Tell your students to go audit a clinic and observe a grand prix warm-up ring and watch what those top riders do. I try to encourage my students to draw on the opportunities that are around them.”
JB: “I think you have to keep a lightness to the instruction. I find, for the most part, the type of personality our sport attracts is already one of commitment, ambition, and intensity. In order to have that desire to learn the sport (meshed with the fact that the horse is an animal who may not have the same goals as his rider) I try to keep a lot of relaxation in both horse and rider. The more the rider has an intellectual understanding of what they are trying to achieve, the clearer they can communicate what they desire to the horse, and the more relaxed and open to learning both athletes stay.”
TP: “I try to describe the feeling of how it should be. For instance, you have to pick up a canter and you want to have a really even rhythm from start to finish of a course; I want them to know that that rhythm is like a metronome. I also find that visual imagery is so key. I love to point out people, for instance, ‘There is Richard Spooner; he picks up a great canter and that rhythm stays the same. It’s quite big from the beginning, but it stays the same throughout the entire course, so try to copy that.’ People learn differently, and I find that if you can use visual imagery it’s almost easier than trying to describe it – ‘here is what it is supposed to look like, now go and try to copy that.’”
What is the best way for a trainer to create a positive learning environment?
BU: “Set realistic goals. We have to be very conscious of what we take away when we make mistakes as we move up the ladder. As a trainer I am always mindful of protecting not only my students, but protecting the horses because that’s what gives them longevity. I think it’s important to have a realistic plan of what your expectations are. Have long-term and short-term goals and be prepared to make changes along the way.
“Practice in ways that won’t take so much out of the horse. If your student only has one horse, make your lesson plan one day to really stress the flatwork, and then maybe a day of pole work. This recreates the show environment without taking too much out of their horse, while still learning those skills of understanding stride length and measuring of distance.”
JB: “You have to set both horse and rider up for success. You have to teach at a level both athletes are capable of mastering. As an instructor, your understanding of the building blocks of balance and reactions to aids should allow you to quickly assess where the student is on the training scale and teach them accordingly.”
TP: “I think it is super important for people to enjoy what they’re doing as well as learning and being safe. Always start with a positive comment and then get into what might be constructive criticism. I think what is also important is to not bombard people with what they did wrong; pick one or two things and work on that.”
Are there specific personal attributes that trainers should possess?
BU: “A willingness to be creative; to be a very detail-oriented person; to be a hard worker; to prepare to work extra in the event that a class goes wrong; to be willing to do your homework. Be a good listener, even if it’s through someone’s body language. Having a good mental attitude is very important so you’re able to motivate your students.
“Know when to be a cheerleader and when to say, ‘listen, you need to go in and make this work.’ Have judgement to know when it’s time to move a horse up, when it’s time to sit still for a bit, when it’s time to tell someone to pull up their socks.”
JB: “I think these are the same characteristics any good teacher of any subject has to possess. You have to be quick to assess both the student and the horse’s needs, be appropriate in the level you are going to try to teach, and be very good at listening to both the horse and student to see where the education may be lacking. You then have to deliver the information with patience and humour so everyone enjoys the learning process.”
TP: “I think it helps if they have a good sense of calm. Whenever people are competing it is important to have a sense of calm because everyone has nerves – the riders and horses – and it is always a bit of a high-paced and fast environment. And I think that it’s important as a coach that you reinforce positive things and what people have done right; I think that is huge.”
If you could offer advice to other trainers, what would it be?
BU: “Stay educated and stay open-minded. You have to keep reinventing yourself, staying current and knowing what’s going on in the sport and in the rest of the world. Even if you just go and watch some of the bigger shows, you are staying educated with the rules and training methods, because the sport develops and gets more technical as the years go by. If you stay in your comfort zone and only go to local shows, you are not going to be staying on that cutting edge of how the sport is evolving and you’ll get left behind.”
JB: “Get as much education as you can. Watch the top trainers and riders and stay current so you know the expectations of the sport. While the basic aids and classical system has not changed much, both the athletic abilities and athletic requirements of the horses have. The dressage horses that are bred for today’s sport are mega-athletes, and with this increased athletic energy, speed, and impulsion there comes an even greater necessity for perfect athletic balance. When we acknowledge that basic power and speed in other sports is the greatest challenge to balance, we also have to accept it in our sport.
“Problems with contact, posture, and ability to learn the required exercises of the sport can all be traced back to a lack of balance when the energy is turned up. That perfect harmonious balance that results in a classical piaffe is the balance we should be teaching in training level. Collection will come with time and education, but if you don’t completely understand how important the basic balance is, and how to teach a horse to stay in that balance, find someone who can teach that to you. You will become a much better instructor and advocate for the horse.”
TP: “Reinforce the positive parts. You still want to find the things that people need to work on, but also make sure it stays a positive and fun experience. Honestly, 95 per cent of people aren’t going to the Olympics, so let’s make it a good, positive and fun experience for them. Obviously, you have to stay safe, but make it so they can walk away from most lessons and most horse shows and say, ‘that was great and I can’t wait for the next time.’”