Topics in this article
The 12 fundamentals
- Protecting your professional image
- Getting positive results for your clients
- Observing your duty of care
- Knowing coaching from teaching
- Respecting your limitations
- Being tactful
- Upholding your principles
- Maintaining your integrity
- Trusting your feelings and the Little Voice
- Being able to say "I don't know"
- Communicating on the client’s terms
- Including the horse
Beast Practice - fundamentals
1. Protecting your professional image
I’m sure that barring calamities and natural disasters, that when you go to see your accountant or your solicitor, you expect them to be running reasonably on time, and even if they are running late you don’t expect to see them in their beach shorts or their pyjamas. By the same token, riders can reasonably expect that we, as their coaches, will be punctual and appropriately dressed. That of course means clean boots, riding trousers or breeches (not stable jeans and sneakers in a million years!). If you’re likely to ride their horse, a helmet will be mandatory.
We sometimes forget that riders actually have ‘other lives’ so it’s important not only to start on time but to finish on time too. It’s easier to carry late starts through to an extra lesson than it is to survive the domino effect of a late finish on the rest of your day. Consider the rest of your riders’ days too by preserving their finish times. (And keep the stable's jeans where they belong.)
2. Getting a positive result for your client – every session
Yes, strengths-based coaching is the way to go. There’s no future in negative, nit-picking or endlessly finding fault in someone’s performance. That just demoralises them and demeans you. That’s not to say that staying positive is necessarily easy. There are many times in every coaching life, when it would be so easier to say something sharp or for your body language to register boredom or impatience. But hold you fire. Coaching is not just about the performance outcomes – it’s about the rider’s self-esteem, their confidence, their motivation, even their riding future on occasion, so it’s up to us to curb that impatient comment and re-word that unkind thought before it ever hits the airways.
Even if it’s been tricky session, perhaps coping with a silly horse or a distracted rider, still try to end on a positive note. Ask something simple which both can achieve. Only then will you encourage a positive attitude in your client and let’s face it, you do want them to turn up for the next session.
3. Remembering your duty of care and abiding by it at all times
This may be a heavy legal topic, which may or may not be to your liking.
Be that as it may, you’d better sit up and take notice because every coach on the planet has a legal duty of care to their clients.
This means we have an obligation to do everything in our power (which is quite considerable) to ensure the client’s safety and wellbeing while they are under our coaching eye. This can be tricky as often they do not present with the horse of our choice or with ambitions that comfortably relate to their equestrian skill set.
Nonetheless it falls to us to do our very best to keep them in one piece.
4. Knowing the difference between coaching and teaching
It’s one of my missions in life to spread the word on this. Somehow in the recent evolution of our equestrian language, coaching and teaching have become synonymous with each other. The distinction between the two has grown blurred and while teaching has receded into the shadows, coaching has run off into the spotlight to capture the glamour and the headlines.
Well let’s get our priorities straight. Without good teaching, there would be no coaching at all!
Teaching is the bedrock of riding. Teaching assumes no skill set, no previous understanding of equitation or even of the most elementary aspects of riding. Coaching on the other hand, hones and develops existing skills. So you can see immediately that if you coach a rider who in fact needs teaching (because they do not have a skill set in place), they will not be able to improve and will in fact just continue to make the same mistakes. Conversely, if you teach a rider something they have already well-practised, when in fact they need coaching to refine that skill, you will bore the pants off them. Again they will not progress, neither will they return for further ‘coaching’.
So it’s clear to see that bring unable to distinguish between teaching and coaching, with their attendant and very different techniques is not only detrimental to the progress of horse and rider, it actually pegs their progress and physically stops them improving. Now that’s food for thought, because there’s not a teacher, or a coach, on the planet who wants that to happen!
5. Respecting your limitations
This is important. It’s part of your duty of care to your client, because if you don’t know the boundaries of your skill set and experience, then how can you possible safeguard your rider?
There’s no disgrace in acknowledging that a particular activity or level of expertise is beyond where you are at, for now. It may not always be so, but just as you encourage your riders to be in the now, so must you be.
As we gather experience over the years, we amass huge amounts of knowledge and expectations grow that we can handle all manner of situations. Not necessarily so. Experience accrues in a haphazard and inconsequential way so there may be many gaps and holes in our expertise. For sure we will gradually fill these over time, but there’s no good reason why we should be able to handle every scenario that the riding world throws in our direction.
So I would suggest a prudent (rather than cautious) approach to new situations in your coaching life and a keen eye for risk management. If Johnnie fronts up on a new horse that is clearly too much for him you have a number of excellent (and safer) alternatives to him setting sail around the [planned] cross country course.
6. Continuing to be tactful – even if you don’t feel tactful
We’re told patience is a virtue, but make no mistake, it can be learned. We have to be the most excellent students of patience. We have to have patience in spades! We have to have patience to burn!
So the best way to learn patience is to love not only what you do, but to love the people you do it with. Most of us coach thinking we’ll be spending a large chunk of our lives with our own – or at least other people’s horses. Only later do we discover that we spend most of our time with people.
So it’s not enough to love the horses. We need to love their riders, their owners, their supporters and all the other people who are part of their story. Big call.
No one doubts that you love the horses, but to be patient with them you also have to love what you’re asking of them too. This can often be complex tasks that take years of training to teach them. Their riders take a similar time to develop their skills and in the process may teach their horses a whole lot of gobbledygook that has to be unlearned before the skills can be re-taught. Difficult. Frustrating. Exasperating! But this is just the gap between what you want to achieve and what you’re able to achieve. No big deal really, except that the next emotion on the agenda if this situation persists, is anger. And in our coaching world that is a very big deal indeed.
Loving all these horses, loving their people, loving the work itself and loving the coaching is hard work. So love a little at a time and take small parcels of positive reinforcement home for yourself at the end of every day.
Another good strategy is to learn something yourself – something that is quite difficult and of which you have no previous experience. Like skiing or chess. There’s nothing quite like the feelings of incompetence that accompany new learning. And beginners’ mistakes are, quite normally, gross. For those of us who have become accustomed to doing all things equestrian with a much-practised degree of competence, learning an entirely new skill can be a refreshing experience. It keeps us humble.
7. Never compromising your principles
This is easy to say, but sometimes so hard to do. It’s especially hard if you’re coaching someone who is in a different discipline from your own.
If, for instance, you have a trail-rider aboard a strung-out old sinner, who has taken all the major decisions in his life for the last decade. This rider expresses a new and abiding interest in dressage. You know that forward movement is the guiding mantra for all dressage work, but this horse is never, but never, going to go genuinely forward – far less ever come near to being on the bit. It’s hard to suggest they do anything more than enjoy some theoretical principals of school riding, or perhaps trot experimentally over a few poles or cavalletti to learn to ride a line.
What you are not going to do is to press on teaching them all about suppleness and straightness and tempo and being on the bit…. That is not a reasonable future for either of them.
So draw breath and instead of compromising your principals modify your goals (downwards!) and adjust your delivery accordingly.
Failing that, you could take your courage in both hands and suggest your client buys a new horse!
8. Ensuring that you encourage, praise, adjust or correct – but never flatter
Yes, flattery may get you everywhere – except in coaching! Then it becomes a dangerous practice which any reputable coach will shy away from. By all means commend the rider for effort fairly offered, but never get drawn into giving him an exaggerated picture of its true worth. To do so is to give the rider a false impression of his skills and this may lead to all sorts of drama when he mistakenly tries to apply them to later scenarios. There’s also the potential to seriously frustrate the rider who is misled into thinking he has a quality of work that does not exist – and then has to apparently go back to simpler stuff in order to repair the holes in his horse’s performance. This is not what good coaching is made of. Flattery is for the birds!
So the bottom line is - say it as it is, or don’t say it at all. This is a measure of your integrity. Be sure not to mix up honesty with integrity here. Honesty is the truth as you know it. Integrity is your ability to live that truth, which in this case is to share it in kind, appropriate words with your client. Nothing less will do. It’s the world as you see it in your capacity as their coach.
9. Trusting your gut feeling
Sometimes there’s little more between you and a decision except a gut feeling. Should you put that extra rail on the fence, or ask for just one more half-pass…..?
If you have to think twice about the answer then the answer is almost always “No”.
Only experience will allow you to follow your gut feeling with confidence but it is an invaluable Little Voice to listen to in times of doubt.
10. Never being afraid to say “I don’t know’.
Nobody knows all the answers.
Anyone who says they do should be carefully avoided. Surprisingly, if you have the courage to say you don’t know, others will respect you for it. Anyway, you probably have enough contacts in the equestrian world to find the answer inside three days.
There will be times when you’ll need to re-interpret the question. ‘I don’t know’ doesn’t mean “I don’t care”. Neither does it mean “I can’t find out”.
Sometimes, however, it does mean “I don’t think I should know.” if for instance, you are asked a veterinary or a medical question which is a specialist area of expertise into which you, as a coach, should not stray.
Generally speaking, however, given a coaching question to which you don’t know the answer it’s by far the best policy to state openly that you don’t know the answer.
11. Communicating on the client’s terms – not yours
It gets to be such a habit to just say what we think or tell others what we know in ways that we simply expect the world to understand. While it’s fine to express ourselves in our own terms and, of course, we have our own individual styles, but as coaches we need to moderate this depending on who we are talking to. Better still, on who we are listening to. Because all good communication begins with good listening. This is an art form. Listening to a person’s words is just the beginning. It’s also important to listen to their body language, their style of delivery, their vocabulary and the pitch, tone and pace of their voice. And while certainly listening to what they do say, it’s even more important to listen to what they don’t say.
Then there’s the horse, and we all know that the best way to listen to him is to learn to see the world through a bridle. Easy if you say it quickly but it takes many years’ to even come close to appreciating how he views the world. At best, we must guess along the way.
This said, we will no doubt do our best to accommodate our client’s every wish and their horse’s whim of the moment, within reason. But in the first instance, we must take care to use vocabulary that each understands. We must begin on solid ground where each can at least hear us and has a broad understanding of what we are saying – no matter whether that is from the ground or from the saddle. Otherwise we may as well talk to the nearest wall. Once we have established a connection – no matter how rudimentary - we can clarify it, expand it, refine it, and begin to fill in the gaps in their alphabet, their vocabulary or their understanding, in that order. This process will take place at all and every level of training.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you like that process. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s where you planned to be in their lesson. It’s what you’ve got on the day that counts. Got a fresh horse who’s pulling the rider’s arms out? – no time to practise flying changes! Got a sticky customer who won’t go forward without a spur? – no time to consider working on his bascule!
It’s a given. Always start wherever the horse and rider are at. From there, you can create a masterpiece of communication knowing it has solid foundations and will therefore happily stand all manner of mistakes.
12. Including the horse in all you do
How can we possibly end without bringing the horse into your story. This means that throughout every coaching session that you ever run, you keep an eye on his levels of interest, understanding, capability, fatigue and soundness.
- His attention-span may be much shorter than his rider’s. And the rider’s may be considerably shorter than yours. Be ready to steady your pace
- He’s the one putting in the big share of the physical effort. Yes, I know your rider is doing heaps, and you are the one who’s been on their feet all day, but working in sand arenas or galloping around cross country fences is hard yakka
- Your instructions may well get lost in the rider’s ‘translation’. Watch for the horse’s response and compare it with that which you would expect were you in the saddle. If need be get in the saddle
- You can only read his mind by reading his body. However, he’s pretty truthful and horse’s always have a reason for what they do. It’s just up to us to figure out what that is
- His readiness for your task must be proved (not assumed) before you ask him, every single day. This means checking that all the buttons that you’ll need are in working order
- His obedience is a product of his understanding – not his mood or temper. If his obedience is not immediate and unconditional, go back to sorting out his understanding
- He will tell you if he is getting sore, uncomfortable, tired or bored witless. All you have to do is to listen, with your ears, your eyes, your intellect and your horse sense.
It’s up to us to keep a very sharp eye out for any of these scenarios in progress. They may well pass the rider by. They may well cause trouble if they pass you by.