Often when I am working with a new client in the show jumping arena, I notice that they aren't paying enough attention to how they ride between their fences. From their perspective all that counts is whether the the fences are left up or not.
I need to help them to understand and know if their gut why it is important to ride a good line, and have good rhythm and balance. If I can't help them see the importance of it, then I will have little hope of having them consistently ride in rhythm or balanced. My job is to create a picture in their head so they want to improve the in between.
I like to use the analogy that for an approximate 400m show jumping track of 10 fences, there is 40m of jumping and 360m of everything in between. If all we focus on is the 40m, we are wasting what essentially is going to produce the quality jump.
It's the 360m that is truly important, the 40m is only feedback, it's the truth of how well we managed the 360.
There is no doubt that the bascule and quality of the jump can be influenced in the 40m but usually in a more negative way through the riders uneven distribution of weight, sharp sudden aids, or a blockage in the body.
We can influence the jump in a positive way by using placing poles, lead in rails, adding texture to the fence, adjusting the height of the front and back rails etc etc but in the end none of that is beneficial if we aren't paying attention to the 360.
Rhythm is everything!
Rhythm is feedback.
If a horse is having trouble keeping a good rhythm then there is something else going on, either the horse is not staying in front of the riders leg, the horse is bracing his ribcage to one side, the horse is drifting off the line, the horse is on the forehand, or there is tension in either the horse and/or the rider.
Often I have riders say that they have trouble seeing a good distance. It is not that they don't have good hand eye co-ordination, it's simply that the horse is not staying in a good rhythm all the way to the fence.
Think of it this way - in order to see a good distance/stride/take off spot we need to judge how long our horses stride is, in relation to the distance between where you they are currently and where the fence is. If the horse either starts increasing his speed or lengthening his stride as you approach the fence then your 'spot' is now going to get closer to the fence unless they miss a stride and take off from a long way away.
Alternatively if you have judged your 'spot' 5 strides out and your horse drifts out on the turn, then the distance from where you were to the fence is now considerably longer leading to your spot being further away unless you have been quick enough to increase the horses stride to acommodate for the longer distance, but that can then lead to a flatter bascule over the fence, and if it is a tall vertical then a rail will likely fall as a consequence.
The fact is, it wasn't the horse that jumped badly, we simply allowed the horse to drift off the line you had predetermined, so the jump you had wanted couldn't be produced.
In between the fences is where you have the opportunity to make small changes to the canter early, producing the canter necessary to create the best quality jump possible. This will vary in relation to the fence ie: the width, how narrow or spooky it is, the height, the distance and line to the following fence.
Riders who are able to make small, subtle adaptations early, while keeping a rhythm, and staying on their line will rarely have trouble 'seeing their stride'.
This is hugely important on cross country. Riders who tend to gallop flat out in between fences and then make last minute, sudden changes to the canter coming to the fence will often have trouble with their horses chipping in, and are more likely to run out, however those who are able to pick up a quality gallop, and keep a consistent rhythm all the way around the course will rarely have trouble making time, and the fences tend to come up easily and without much fuss.
Obviously, on course there are times where you need to shorten, and engage the canter for skinny, or combination fences but this is still done early, subtly and staying in rhythm.
I truly believe:
"We don't have the right to influence a horse until we are in rhythm with it"
Meaning, when we are schooling, first we need to know WHAT IS HAPPENING underneath us before we start making corrections.
Having a "global feel" means we are aware of the horses body from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, and everything in between... all at once!
Often, once we simply scan our own body for tension, or blockages while following the feel of our horses, and accepting whatever is for the minute without judgement, the horses relax and settle into their own rhythm. Then we can start to notice where their blockages in their body are and start to correct the horse without causing resentment.
I find once the riders know what is happening 'globally' in both themselves and their horses, they can then influence the horse by making small, subtle corrections early, stay in rhythm, and ride accurate approaches and turns, producing consistent good distances and athletic jumping efforts.
All they need to do then is stay present for the horse from the minute they enter the arena, to the minute they leave knowing that it's the 360m that will essentially produce a quality 40m jump!
Who do we serve?
When working with a new client, especially children, there are three parties I serve.
The Rider, the Horse and the Parent or Significant Other.
I need to know what are the needs of each part of the triad. The triangle is the strongest shape, so if I am looking to get the best result possible for my client(s) I want strength. Strength in knowing that I am serving the needs of everyone involved, and that we are working as a collaborative team towards the same goal.
The horse is important as without him, we are nothing. He is the real teacher!
The rider is important as they are the facilitators of it all, and
The parents are important as they are the support structure that holds it all together. (Plus, they are usually the ones paying the bills - lets be honest here :) The parents are also the ones who spends most time with the rider. I might only see them once or twice a week. We need to be all on the same page, so there are no confusing messages.
To do this, It's imperative I know what does everyone need from me as a coach?
I need to know two things.
1. What are my clients highest values?
2. What is the outcome of this rider working with me?
This will greatly affect both what, and how I coach my rider.
To get a greater understanding of this we need to understand values. All three corners have values, including the horse!
An value can be an "emotional state we want to experience on a consistent basis" (Sharon Pearson) They are the things that drive us, make us who we are and affect our decisions. If we are wanting to facilitate change we need to make sure this change is congruent with our clients values.
Examples of values are:
Adventure, Courage, Calm, Excitement, Passion, Serenity, Structure, Organisation, Planning, Challenge, Compassion, Love, Comfort, Play, Security, Certainty, Trust, Confidence, Collaboration, Determination, Creativity, Respect, Connection
As you can imagine, the needs of someone who values Adventure, are going to greatly differ to someone who values Security.
Imagine being asked if you want to jump out of a plane? Someone who's values are Calm, Certainty, and Comfort are not likely to be the first one to jump up and down saying "Pick me, Pick me", however someone who values excitement highly likely will.
Where it gets interesting is, if a parents values are comfort and security, and the riders are adventure and courage then there may be some conflict. It even adds a new level if the horses highest values are trust, and confidence.
Here for an example is a rider who is wanting to change things up, challenge themselves at every opportunity but the horse is saying hang on, your moving too fast, I need to accept, and be OK with one thing before I can move onto another, then the parent is saying things are getting a bit crazy over here - I am not very comfortable where all this is going.
I often see this scenario. It usually ends in the horse loosing all confidence in his rider, the rider getting angry because the horse is now stopping at fences and stressing out. The parent is upset as she doesn't know how to comfort her child who is now totally frustrated and in tears.
This can easily be solved with a little imagination and creativity from the coach. A rider who values adventure and courage don't need to be doing crazy heights in order to get their needs met on a horse who can't handle having their thresholds constantly challenged without compassion and understanding.
I can facilitate this through making adventure out of being creative in ways to help build trust and confidence in the horse. You may do this through making smaller fences more challenging by asking the rider to see if they can jump between two cones placed on a pole, jumping angles, jumping water trays and walking over tarps. You can give them courage by showing how they can give their horse courage by giving him time to work out the puzzle, and waiting for the green light to proceed onto the next skill.
The parent who is needing comfort and security can see that there is progress being made in a safe and progressive manner.
This isn't saying that we should keep this combination jumping 45cms for the rest of eternity, it simply means that the combination can only go as fast as the horse is ready to accept new challenges. This in itself can be very difficult for the rider to do, especially when they just can't wait to move onto the next big thing, but once the rider understands to more they keep their horses needs first, the faster the horse will accept change and be braver.
Let's look at another scenario -
Here we have a horse who values play, is extroverted and confidant. The rider values connection and the parent values determination.
This usually plays out with a horse who can be clever and perhaps has a tendency to buck in exuberance. The rider doesn't want to be too strong with the horse as she see's that as being mean and the parents is angry at the daughter as she perceives the child as being scared and not getting on with it.
This often ends in tears as the rider becomes scared of the horse who is now completely running the show. The child is well aware that the parent is disappointed in her lack of determination and feels as though her mum doesn't think she is any good.
This is one of my greatest, but favourite challenges as I need to build the riders confidence in herself first, to allow her to play more of a leadership role for her horse. The main thing is to help the rider understand that to have a good connection with her horse, there needs to be a partnership, it's a little like dancing.
No one likes to dance with someone who completely takes over without his or her partner knowing the dance, and then repremanding them for not keeping up.
Neither do we like to dance with someone who is afraid to even step onto the floor or holds our hand like a wet fish.
We want to dance with someone who can lead as well as they can follow.
I help the rider to understand in order be interesting enough for our horse to pay attention and want to dance, we need to make it worth him joining in, otherwise he will want to make his own games up. These horses like challenges and love new things, so I tend to keep the sessions with these combinations moving quickly with lots of different exercises giving the rider plenty of opportunity to notice when she has taken on a leadership role. I keep explaining how to be connected and dance with our horses we need to reward when reward is due, and give ourselves credit for the ability to take small steps towards being worthy, and see the worth in stepping up onto the floor. This also helps the parent see the child making progress in extending her comfort zone and lifting her courage and determination.
Knowing what drives our clients is imperative, otherwise we are simply teaching what drive us as coaches. That will work for those clients who hold similar values to our own, but limits our ability to help those who's needs are very different to ours, unless we are willing to respect our clients values and coach in a way that is moving them all towards the same goal staying congruent to what is important to them.
Wish takes us to number 2 - What is their outcome?
I like to bring this one up early, as it can be tricky. It is important that everyone is honest and willing discuss their fears and desires.
Outcomes will, and do change as learning progresses, but I need to know are we all here to compete and succeed at the highest level possible, are we here to build the child's confidence and teach them skills in communication and trust, or do they simply love riding and want to be safe and have fun on their horses? All of the above are true to some degree in most cases, but I need this to be openly discussed so there is transparency and open dialogue.
Often times, the parents simply want the kids to be happy, whether they are jumping 80cm or 4* and it is important that the kids know that if that is the case. (see button Thanks Mum" below or http://www.rangaterasporthorses.com/blog/may-30th-2017
Other times, there is a great push from both parent and child to compete at the highest level possible, and that is great too. We discuss what will be required in order to make that happen so that everyone is aware of the dedication and responsibilities that decision holds.
This can often be an interesting conversation and there times where I have felt like a family councillor, but if we are going to be a team, then we all need to make sure we are doing our part.
I have had amazing results simply by having this conversation with the families, especially when I speak for the horse and make sure that both the rider and the parents see what is required from the horses perspective to allow him to be willing to join the dance.
Once the child understands what his or her responsibilities are, knows that we are all on this journey with them, and is willing to accept his/her part in the process everything works so much fluidly.
So who do I serve? Who is my client?
All three in equal doses!
Having worked as a coach in a private girls boarding school for many years with an Equestrian Centre attached, I have worked with many many coaches coming through the centre.
We have had Olympic medalists, World Cup Riders, Australian representatives in all Olympic Disciplines, Cutting trainers, Natural Horsemanship Clinicians, those just starting out on their coaching journey and everything in between.
I have ridden and coached in several different countries, learning from as many coaches as I could along the way.
One thing that stood out was the difference between those who were professional riders, who coached for a living and those who were professional coaches who rode for self improvement. Of course there are those in the middle also, but the contrast between these two groups of coaches was huge.
I wanted to know what worked, what didn't. Being a good coach isn't necessarily about how much you know. It's about how you can share the information in a way that your student understands so they are able to make changes not because you said so, but because you have helped them know in themselves that this or that approach is the best way to go.
A rider will only make a change for the better long term, if they truly believe that the change is right for them, and they can see how making the change will improve their results in the future. They have to feel that it is right in their body, they have to know it before they will do it consistently.
It doesn't matter if you are coaching pony club kids, polocrosse riders, dressage mums, barrel racers, eventers or someone to jump rabbits. I'm not here to tell you what you should teach, everyone has slightly different views on whats important.
I just here to help you with some tips that I have learned over the years, in my pursuit of excellence in coaching. I have been passionately curious about learning and teaching since I was 15. That is what drives me.
I also work in schools with gifted children and those that are on the Autism spectrim. Often it is a fine line between the two of them. I know that as a coach, I do things very differently. Some say it's a fine line between genius and insanity, I would say I spent more time in the latter but strive towards the first.
Working with Autistic Children is similar to working with horses. You need to be very grounded in yourself, willing to compromise and adapt whilst maintaining clear boundries and a great imagination.
I can honestly say I have watched and immersed myself the coaching style of well over 50 coaches both in Australia and overseas.
Most of these were Equestrian Coaches but I also made the effort to study under coaches from other sports, and within the education system, simply to see how they related with their athletes and what strategies did they use to get the best performance possible.
Here are a few things that I observed from the coaches who were able to get long lasting results. Those who had students competing at a high level successfully, whilst maintaining their integrity and keeping the horse as the number 1 priority.
I have also included some great quotes from some of my mentors
They have imagination and are willing to adapt their coaching style to suit the riders needs.
They are able to keep the riders values as a high priority.
They explains the why's of the exercise, not just the do's
"They are able to make corrections without causing resentment" John Wooden
They continually grow and improve their skills.
"A dares teach must never cease to learn" John Cotton
They are aware of and respect horse and rider thresholds, and respond to them accordingly.
They respect and work collaboratively with other coaches
They start a lesson with an end in mind, but are willing to adapt where necessary.
They are understand fully the mechanics of both horse and rider.
They don't let a rider make the horses problem, their problem
They don't make a riders problem theirs either.
"They have a clean ego. Nothing to defend and nothing to prove" Joe Pane
They talk straight and tell the truth, but always with compassion.
They develop and maintain trust
They show loyalty
They acknowledge the unsaid. They hear what is being said in the silence.
They listen as much as they speak
They have clear expectations and boundries
They are willing to hold themselves accountable, as they also do their students.
They own their mistakes, and know the lessons within them.
They have respect, not through intimidation, but through the ability to have the riders know they have the integrity, competancy and compassion to help them grow
They keep judgement out of the coaching session.
They are 100% present for their students at all times during a coaching session
I am not saying I can do all of the above consistently myself, but it is certainly something I strive towards. For me personally, I'm not out to coach the next Olympic team.
If we look at statistics in eventing for example, in last year there were around 98 riders who have competed 3* and above, 236 2*, 535 1* and 4,737 who competed Prelim or below. That's not even considering the tens of thousands of riders who are competing in other disciplines, pony club or simply ride for the enjoyment.
Nope, I never ridden 4*.
Nope, I have never ridden World Cup and
Nope, I have not ridden a FEI Grand Prix test
but, I have spent tens of thousands of hours studying my craft, as so have many of other wonderful coaches I have had the pleasure to work alongside. We're out there to help the masses, and happy to pass on a student to a coach who has the knowledge, and the experience who understands the art of quality coaching to take my students to the next level.
Yes, there is no doubt, experience and riding ability is hugely important, but not at the expense of those which I have mentioned above!
So, what makes a good coach?
The ability to know your strengths and weaknesses, be proud of them, acknowledge them, and be willing to develop both.
Most importantly, be passionately curious about your craft!
I had been fortunate enough to have worked as a coach in a private school for 13 years that had an equestrian programme attached to it. During a regular term we could have over 100 horses on the property with all of those riders have regular weekly lessons.
This meant that on any given day I could be coaching 10 riders or more per day, 6 days a week. During competitions is was not unusual to have 20 riders under my guidance, and often up to 40 at a big Interschools event. This has given me huge amount of experience in what is required of me, to best prepare my students for a successful weekend.
My belief is that my role as a coach in the warm up is to simply ensure the horse and rider were in the best frame of mind, to produce a result to which we had been working towards, in the lead up to the event. This result is not determined by a ribbon received, but by whether both the horse and rider gave 100% towards the outcome, and achieved a particular predetermined goal. Any ribbon gained, or accolades given are purely a bonus. They are things that help keep us keen, and motivated and are great when telling family and friends "how we went" on the weekend, but whether we win or lose in regards to placings, only the horse and rider will truly know whether they really won.
These goals may be as simple as producing a calm test where the horse is willing in his work and allowing the rider to help him stretch into the contact in the free walk, it may be being able to keep a consistant rhythm through out an entire show jumping track, or having the horse stay honest and straight over skinny combinations during cross country.
Unless I am warming up a student whom I have not worked with prior (I will discuss this in more detail later), my students have a process in which we can produce a particular way of going on a consistent basis.
During our sessions in the months leading up to and during the event season, we are making many associations, both between myself and the rider, as well as the rider to the horse. When a rider is warming up for an event, I don't want them have too much on their mind. I really feel for the riders who as they are walking towards the ring they are bombarded with comments like, "make sure you ride strong into the planks, keep you legs on, remember to sit up, don't let him stop at the water tray and so on and so on".
I need to ensure that we have schooled as many of these scenarios at home as possible, and not only once. We school then over and over again until the is the rider is able to know what sort of canter is needed, how he need to prepare the horse in relations to it shape before and after the fence, know what sort of line best suits his horse and how quickly or slowly he need to use his aids if a response in required. We may not school these exercise over big fences, as the height is irrelevant (to a degree) in this stage of the training, it's more about producing the same positive result over and over again until it become instinctive.
Riding horses as we all know is unpredictable sport, but if I can lower the number of unpredictibilities before hand by schooling as many outcomes, and schooling them well enough that appropriate responses are unconscious then we are already a step ahead.
One of my roles as a coach is to link a large amount of information to simple words or phrases. Often in big events we may only get 5 riders ahead of us in the warm up to prepare our horse, yes, some of that is done pre entering the warm up, but often we only have 10 mins access to fences prior to jumping on course.
Having a "code word or phrase" is a way of reminding a rider of all we have been working on before hand and does several things.
1. They have confidence knowing they are able to produce a specific result on a consistent basis. Using Neuro Associative Conditioning (NAC) techniques help to link a particular emotion or feeling to the warm up.
2. I helps the riders to get "out of their head" and "into their body" so they can ride using all of their senses, increasing their feel and ability to choose to respond rather than react if a change in the situation arises.
3. It helps to slow the breathing, and encourage deeper breath coming from the abdomen allowing the rider to think clearer and also helps the horse to stay calm and centered.
For an example, I might start with using the word "Chocolate Cake". Anyone outside might think I am crazy if all I say is chocolate cake at the warm up fence, but there are months of associations linked to that word. At home I might discuss a riders position over a fence, as I have noticed that my rider has a tendency of leaning to whatever direction she is turning after the fence and dropping her shoulder, I also have noticed she grips with her knee, dropping her hips back in the initial take off stride. So I use the analogy, that to produce a good chocolate cake we need sugar, eggs, cocoa etc. If we left out the cocoa we have a vanilla cake. To produce a good jump we need a recipe too. Every horse and riders combination is completely different relative to their needs at the time. But sticking with the rider above I use several exercises, to help her bring awareness to her body, and how she can make changes in which muscles she chooses to turn on and what ones she needs to relax, where her focus needs to be and how the language she uses affects the outcome.
Over several sessions, and many creative exercises later (many of which I will include in coming months) I am able to help that rider produce a more balanced, secure and grounded position. All the time, reminding my rider about the chocolate cake concept.
When we get to the event, knowing I have created about 10 different code words, all meaning something different, so I am prepared for as many scenarios that could come up. If I see my rider slipping back into old habits, all I need to do is say Chocolate Cake, and due to predetermined changes in the riders subconscious through consistent and clear conditioning, I am able to bring the rider immediately back to her grounded position.
I might have the catch phrase, "stay strong on your turns, and straight to your fences" or "ride your approach like you want you departure" All of these mean a whole lot more that what it sounds like as I have placed so much information in those simple phrases during the work at home, that the rider is able to subconsciously be reminded of the many things that are needed to produce the result of - Ride you approach, like you want your departure"
I have many many different strategies that I can use to centre a horse and rider combination that are letting the pressure get to them and are riding too much in their head. Many of these I will include in further blogs. However another of my favourites is a deck of cards!
I need to as a coach make sure my rider as going to the event with "A bag full of cash" not the tangible kind, but the metaphorical kind see http://www.rangaterasporthorses.com/blog/four-legged-investment-strategy and a deck of cards up their sleeve. The deck of cards represents the fact the the rider has a whole lot of predetermined responses using NAC that she can use to help her horse get back into a mindset that is going to produce the best result.
For example, for a dressage test, during our sessions at home, over time we develop a warm up programme that creates the result we need in competition, and then we keep linking that result and response with particular exercises. First we become aware of what exercise may either relax our horse, bring their life up, or build their confidence. We look for things he does well, and easily. We can then strengthen those connections. For example, we notice that for one horse, trot-walk-trot transitions, and leg yield, loop, leg yield exercise slow this horses breathing, and lets his body loose. Se we use then regularly near the end of a good session, to let our horse know he has done well and can relax. He gets rewarded, and the opportunity to rest.
This is linking a positive association to those specific exercises, where the horse is willing to go there, is confidant on the outcome, causing him to put more effort in as he has some certainty to what that exercise means. We then start to use them during the session, when he has tried really hard, or offered us more that we have asked for as a reward. We then start to use them occasionally in the warm-up to help the horse get into a confidant, willing and calm frame of mind early.
This is now a card we have up our sleeve, at a competition if the horse is getting anxious. We can go to those exercises for a few minutes to help the horse build his confidence, in his work and give him something he know he can do well. When he settles we can then move on.
I tell my students, the warm-up for dressage is not a time to school exercises the horse finds difficuilt, nor is it the time to school a new movement. You can only produce the best result up to what your horse is currently capable of.
You have worked hard at home, and your horse knows his work. You know how to ride the movements, and you know your test.
Simply, give your horse your full attention, be present, be there for him, whatever he needs, and then simply let him offer you what he has to the best of his ability. Get out of your head, and feel your body. Be for your horse what you need from him. The rest will flow like warm chocolate :)
So, in closing. Ideally, I give my students as many words, phrases, tools, playing cards and a wad of cash to use at an event. If I'm not there, they have their warm-up strategy already set out for them, and they know their outcomes and their focus.
I also think it is imperative that parents, or those who spend a lot of time with the riders in the lead up to the competition are all on the same page. They are aware of our goals and outcomes, and I have given them too, the words and phrases we have been using so they become just as an important part of the whole picture as the horse, rider and myself are.
If I am there to remind them of some of these, great, if I'm not, I know they will be OK too.