Tuesday, 13 November 2007

"Do they teach us what we need to know?" PART 1

A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on teaching of equestrian sports. I received interesting comments which, together with feedback I get from my riders, made me want to undertake a translation of a series of articles from a Polish Equestrian magazine - „Świat Koni” . The articles were written by a coach and an FEI International Judge, Malgorzata Hansen. Her sometimes bitter but often very true observations of the equestrian sports coaching system are worth a read.
Here we go then.



Meticulous, diligent and structured approach to anything seems to be rare nowadays. This modus vivendi past its sell by date. We lack patience, some would say - time; the truth is we are just strongly socialised into having everything handed on a plate, immediately and without effort. This even includes skills which used to require practise and experience. In this day and age, everybody can climb Mount Everest, hunt lions, conquer waterfalls. Emotions of the the extreme sports are now delivered all ready made alike a packed dinner. They come accompanied by self-satisfaction after mastering diving or skiing in just a weekend...

From such perspective it seems that we can somehow justify riding instructors and coaches' inclination to follow the trends. They simply listen to their instincts and self-perseverance (to keep the clients!). From the variety of teaching tools they use only a few instructions that will allow the pupil to stay in the saddle, to direct the animal around in, more or less, desired direction and speed. If, somehow, an instructor manages to get the rider to a point when he/she can make (bully) the horse into jumping a few fences and move from letter to letter in the dressage arena, everybody becomes ecstatic and convinced they are now dealing with "equestrian sport".

Such situation is very sad because those who loose are foremost the misunderstood horses as well as those people, who could ride very nicely should they were given a chance to learn proper basics. This in turn would give them much more pleasure from the sport as a greater understanding of what we do always gives more satisfaction. Torturing our bodies when trying to respond to orders given by an average ignoramus seems a little more than pointless.

It would seem that the times when only the fittest survived the riding clubs' drill were far gone [please note: riding clubs in Poland were/some still are, different organisations all together from the British Riding Clubs. They were connected with studs and stallions centres and their aim was to educate future champions of the sport!hmm]. It would also seem that those screaming, yelling instructors, who competed against each other in the game of using the least decent, colorful adjectives when referring to riders problems, were long gone too.
In modern world such practises should belong to the past. Unfortunately, judging by the results of instructors and trainers of current generation of riders, nothing has improved. This lack of progress seems to be exacerbated by the growing popularity of the sport, by the numbers of private horse owners, the accessibility of shows and competitions etc.
Instructions like 'push, PUSH, leg, LEG, Stronger!!', the tendency to kick the hell out of the horse and to pull its mouth in all possible directions are all going strong.
What is worse, it is very hard to find riders who will know - or better still, understand - what they want to achieve when working their horses. Questioning itself makes them uneasy and if pressed they say:...'uhm, I want to put it on the bit'. 'Sure, but what do you mean by that?'. '...so he works with his legs more underneath him?'. 'Ok, so how do you ask him to do so?' - there follow two versions: either the riders shrug their shoulders or confidently say '...more leg and more push from the seat'. However, when asked 'How much more and what this push mean?', they offer the shrug only. If you happen to ask a rider off the horse you may be shown what they mean by pushing with the seat but it is only comic when seen for the first time.
If the rider is on the horse, the conversation will go on whilst the rider will be pulling on one or the other rein. Left, right, left, right. Those movement seem as natural and automatic for the riders as breathing. I ask: 'What are you doing this for?'. Answer: 'So he collects; comes on the bit; supple'. Question: 'Supple what?'. Another shrug.

There is no such thing as good riding without understanding for actions, how to perform them and why. Everything a rider does on a horse relies on their understanding of the psychology, physiology, character of the horse as well as the riders' role in the saddle. It is not even that hard to understand as long as it is explained in a friendly manner. The rider must understand that it is absolutely necessary to learn to know their horses; that the animals don't just wake up one day deciding to be uncooperative, aggressive and awkward.
What doesn't cease to amaze me is that intelligent people, mature adults, just stop thinking logically when moved into an arena. Sometimes, they even stop thinking all together! Otherwise, how would they willingly agree to expose themselves to months or years of physical pain, language and nomenclature they don't understand, jargon which is not explained yet expected to be adhered to...
Some are even convinced, that despite all the above, they are actually learning something and those Olympic games are within their reach!...the rest looses confidence and think they must be useless since they just can't get it right. They keep trying though.
I really don't know whether to admire those people or to pity them. What keeps them around horses? Love for them? Adrenaline? I think that the latter is a substantial magnet. And that is good. But it would be better if those riders are shown that the source of the 'kick' doesn't have to come from wild jumping-about the fences, that the adrenaline can hit much stronger when the horse starts cooperating, to willingly listen to us and when all this happens without the fear, pain and tension; when the horse stops moving and starts dancing with the rider.

Fear from boring the client makes instructors conduct their lessons in a very specific manner. They close their eyes on the fact that most riders lack basic skills. In this way, the horses get spoiled and those riders who really want to learn end up confused and ignored.
There is a way to include both good education and spark but it requires a lot of honesty towards riders.

Both teaching and learning the basics of equestrianism needn't be boring. In contrary, for the rider, learning about their own body, about control over it, about getting to know the horse underneath, can all be a fascinating challenge. However, it is the trainer who needs to help the pupil to awake the drive for improvement and work on oneself.
For the good trainer every rider should be like a game of puzzle; putting all elements together should be the reward and satisfaction in itself.
Sure, there are times when it is hard to come up with new challenges but there is always a possibility to vary the sessions by finding new ways to send messages across. The instructor should never give up on training their eyes. They should be like an X-ray machine.
It's not difficult to see that a rider sits badly but it's an art to know why it is happening and what to do to remedy the situation. If the teacher doesn't know why something happens then there is no good training involved. This is because the training of the rider consists of working on various faults within their bodies and mastering of the body language.

The good, correct seat is an investment for a whole riding life and is therefore worth getting right. It is extremely important to make riders aware of the significance of those basics, to explain and give examples, to engage in the whole learning process.
An individual approach is critical. From my experience, every rider can be corrected as long as their 'head' is OK. Unfortunately, the latter is not always straightforward. The most difficult to teach are those the most determined who think that wanting something very badly will mean achieving it. They don't understand that all they need is time and that they cannot just skip on it. Other difficult riders are those who have a very sharp brain, they think in an instant but...they lack the feel. Such riders have great difficulty to come to terms with their lack of improvement. Unfortunately, in equestrian sports feeling is of utmost importance.
Difficult are the riders who are overly self-critical, who don't believe in themselves. If they don't, should the horse believe in them?
The worst of all must be the group of riders who think they know it all but the horse doesn't want to this and that (i.e. it's horse's fault). They defend their rights aggressively refusing to take responsibility for their mounts' problems and such riders never stay with one trainer for long. They just can't/don't accept the truth and will search for an instructor who agrees with them and helps them 'correct' the horse. Attempts at correcting the rider often cause strong, negative emotions directed against the instructor. The irony is, that often the latter group consists of so called 'top' riders whose faults might be minor and workable.

I think that emotional aspect of teaching riding is substantial and often trainers find themselves sighing: 'Please, just let me teach you'. One hour with negative pupil can suck more energy out of an instructor than a full day of trainings with dedicated riders. For this reason I think psychology should be an intrinsic part of any instructor's courses. Many good, intelligent trainers learn plenty using common sense and via experience but life is too short to get to know everything single handed. It would be much easier to have quality psychology training included in standard courses for instructors.

The process of learning is another subject often left alone. Instructors need to understand the differences in how the information is absorbed by children, teenagers and adults.
Why do they need to know all that? Quite simply, so they can optimise the process of learning, to understand the specific problems of the learners and to find ways of overcoming them using the best possible methods.

Further parts to follow shortly.

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