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The Coaching Sweet Spot Part 1: Balancing Tradition and Science

A series for any rider who has ever had a coach – and for coaches who coach well, and want to coach better.

It’s usually only coaches who talk about coaching, but that’s an old-fashioned approach, because coaching is just as important to riders, so let’s discuss it together! Then we can make changes – big and small – that are meaningful to all of us and which make our equestrian lives easier, better, and heaps more fun.

Some changes happen in the blink of an eye. Others take a little longer. Often, different ways of doing things may even make us feel a bit uncomfortable. 

Remember, when you found how that nice new saddle felt ‘different’, and, for a while, the hole in your bank account felt quite ‘uncomfortable’? Nonetheless you didn’t send the saddle back to the shop! Different is ok. Uncomfortable is temporary. 

A new way of coaching is different – and ok. It’s only uncomfortable until the exciting moment that you get much better results. Now, let’s begin with what we know. 

Learn about the coaching support initiatives of the Australian National Equestrian Coaches Association (ANECA)

The big picture 

Our sport is a $1.1 billion part of the $83 billion sport and physical recreation industry (Sport 2030, Sport AUS). However, participation in equestrian sports is dropping, worldwide (Changing Times, Goldsmith, 2021). In Australia, it has been almost stagnant for some time (Sports Business Partners Study, 2017), and this is the most important reason why our sport needs to change. But what does this have to do with coaching? 

No-one needs to tell us that it is expensive and time-hungry to ride. Not many of us are brave enough to add up the individual cost of buying, maintaining, training, transporting and enjoying our horses. Then, of course, there’s all the gear, the training facilities, and the competition expenses….  Collectively, this adds up to $314 million each year! (Sports Business Partners Study, 2017).  

In return for all this, we want fun! But when it comes to keeping riders happy, equestrian is in direct competition with many other sports that are cheaper, easier-to-learn and generally fit more conveniently into today’s busy lifestyles. This is quite a challenge! 

In the meantime, we expect to stay safe, learn a big bunch of new skills and have a good time. Aside from having a good horse, and somewhere appropriate to learning to ride him, all this relies on being able to access well-trained teaching and communication skills, equestrian expertise and a great deal of experience. In short, the quality of our riding experiences comes down to our coach. 

Our coaching history

Traditional riding instruction was designed to meet the needs of war. Its goal was to give cavalry conscripts basic control of uncomplicated horses – in approximately six weeks. 

The riders were fit, strong, young men, equipped with spurs (to ensure action) and double bridles (to supply brakes). Recruits were not required to have any previous equestrian experience. Lessons were delivered daily, and in groups, to maximise control. This is the origin of our riding school lessons, today. 

Traditional riding instruction was designed to meet the needs of war. Its goal was to give cavalry conscripts basic control of uncomplicated horses – in approximately six weeks. It is astonishing that we are still teaching the same way despite the fact that horses and riders today need very different skills, for very different purposes. Photo sourced from www.shutterstock.com.

Historically, individual instruction was only given to the gentleman sons of the nobility as part of their social and leadership training. They rode highly-trained schoolmasters and were taught by highly-sophisticated horsemen. They also learned the equestrian skills of war, which are believed to be the foundation movements of dressage. The forward seat had not yet been discovered and show jumping had not been invented. 

Learn about the coaching support initiatives of the Australian National Equestrian Coaches Association (ANECA)

From the coaches’ point of view…

It is somewhat astonishing that we are still using the same content, and are teaching it the same way as has been done for hundreds of years, despite the fact that horses and riders now need very different skills, for very different purposes.

Our role as coaches has changed, too. (Callary & Gearity, 2021). It is no longer appropriate for coaches to give ‘orders’, or to ignore the rider’s need to ask questions or the horse’s need for a rest. While there is much we should save from traditional instruction, it’s time for us to change not only some of what we teach, but also how we teach it (Australian Coaching Council, 2020). But before we explore how to do this…

From the rider’s point of view…

Most of us know that riding offers benefits which no other sport can do. The pleasures of the horse-human relationship are legendary. Riding lets us develop a unique combination of physical, emotional and intellectual skills for communication with our horses. 

Riding helps many of us to develop self-confidence far beyond our first expectations, while our horses can also teach us patience, tolerance, and management of our emotions. And, of course, there’s all the fun of competitions. But before all this, comes the lengthy process of learning the skills we will need to enjoy our chosen activity. 

About 90% of riders, ride for recreation. We want to have fun with our horses, improve our fitness, and find friends with whom to ride and socialise. The remaining 10% of us are closely involved with more serious competition and just a few have a professional equestrian career.

All of us need coaching to reach our goals, but if it’s to be fun, our coaching must be relevant to our riding interests. We come to enjoy riding on our terms, not those our coach and far less those of another era. We also want to enjoy the learning process – and we do pay quite handsomely for it!  

Today, anyone can ride, from the five year-old child on a 12.2hh pony at Pony Club, to their grandmother on a 16hh ex-racehorse trail riding through the High Country. We’ve invented games and competitions at every level. But repetitive, cavalry-style drills are not relevant to why we ride today – and they really are not anybody’s idea of fun!

Learn about the coaching support initiatives of the Australian National Equestrian Coaches Association (ANECA)

Ethics in the spotlight

Far from being cross-bred, cavalry remounts, our horses have also changed over the centuries. They are now bigger, smaller, more (or sometimes less) educated for what we want them to do, and while some are performance-bred, others may have been re-purposed many times. Their temperaments range from feisty Thoroughbreds to naughty ponies with all the challenges this presents for both rider and coach. All need our care, education, and sometimes re-education. 

Most equestrians today are undoubtedly well aware of, and concerned for, the wellbeing of their horses. Yet our competition culture, which we have inherited from centuries of commandeering the horse for our own, often grim, purposes, raises some uncomfortable, ethical questions. 

Far from being cross-bred, cavalry remounts, our horses have also changed over the centuries. They are now bigger, smaller, more (or sometimes less) educated for what we want them to do, and while some are performance-bred, others may have been re-purposed many times. Photo sourced from www.shutterstock.com.

Are we yet meeting our ethical responsibilities? How well-fitted is traditional instruction to meeting the welfare expectations of 21st century equestrians while maintaining high levels of competitive achievements? And how well are we preparing our horses for competition? These are all questions for coaches and riders to share, but first let’s look a little more closely at how coaching actually works.

Learn about the coaching support initiatives of the Australian National Equestrian Coaches Association (ANECA)

Photo sourced from www.shutterstock.com.

Our coaching pedagogy

Yes, pedagogy. It’s the way we teach. (Strictly speaking, pedagogy is how we teach children, but it’s generally used for teaching all ages.) (Armour, 2011). We have inherited our present-day pedagogy from the military model of instruction but there is much more we can add from new educational advances and teaching techniques, which promote better skill development and deliver much more fun. 

These methods are now being widely used in many other sports, such as athletics, the football codes, and (very notably), cricket. This has also been done with great success in the performing arts, particularly ballet, theatre and music, where we have seen these disciplines morph from the purely classical to the popular genres we know today, with no loss of their integrity.

Our traditional pedagogy was successful for what it was designed to do, but now we need to add some present-day science to our age-old art.  

Our new pedagogy

Without doubt, a new pedagogy is the key to the future of our sport! In the last few years, many new techniques have been developed in sports coaching, and we can easily add them to our coach education programs.

In future articles we’ll explore how we can improve coach education. Equestrian coaches don’t just need to update  – we need to upskill. 

We’ll investigate ways we can do this, starting with sorting out the difference between teaching and coaching, and unpacking some new learning regimes to benefit both horse and rider. 

We’ll look at how the sports sciences can help us get better training results. We’ll find out how sports psychology techniques can be useful, and why a knowledge of biomechanics is important. We’ll also see how we might use a little knowledge of exercise and physiology to improve a rider’s progress, and we’ll find ways to make equitation science more central to our coaching, to help the horse improve, too5. 

Coach education ‘mysteries’

Each article will highlight a mystery word or phrase from the world of coach education! We’ll “translate” it into equi-friendly language and I’ll explain how coaches can use each new technique to get better results, and increase their riders’ enjoyment of their lessons. 

These ‘mysteries’ will include: learning detriment, inter-lesson learning, flipped lessons, blended learning, simulation, mental rehearsal, learner-centred/topic-centred, positive and negative reinforcement, and social licence to operate. 

At the end of the day, research tells us that sports people actually only want three things; 

  • Fun; for riders this means that our participation lives up to our hopes, dreams and goals and that we feel safe and secure in the company of our horses
  • Fitness; riding gives us all an opportunity to enjoy fresh air and exercise, both in the saddle and more generally around our horses 
  • Friendships; we all like interacting and learning with other people of similar interests, so it’s no surprise that most of us want some social connection as part of our equestrian experience. 

Coaches are at the interface of our sport, and its participants. Many coaches are highly trained communicators, presenters and facilitators, but traditional instruction has been about ‘how coaches coach equestrian technique’. Today’s coaching can be so much more – it’s about how horses and riders learn, progress, and perform. For that to happen, coaches need to change their ways, because coaching is taking on a very different hue. 

Long gone is the outdated focus on technique, technique, technique… Now we have the ‘flipped classroom’ elements which prepare riders ahead of their next session. We have a galaxy of online resources and guided home-practice regimes to reduce learning detriment(4).

We have structured courses and blended learning models and fantastic IT resources, we have video on every iphone, and realtime coaching from anywhere on the planet. Add these to the sports sciences and you will have the bread and butter of everyday coaching beyond 2021.

By improving our own knowledge of how to coach and be coached, we’ll take the first, and biggest step, towards putting the fun back into the whole process of learning to ride! This will ensure that our ancient sport survives far into the future. 

In the next article, I will discuss the difference between teaching and coaching.

This article was published in the July-August 2021 issue of Horses and People magazine. 

References

  1. Changing Times – Shaping the future of sport through creativity, innovation and inspired leadership, Wayne Goldsmith, 2021.  www.wgcoaching.com/courses
  2. Coach Education and Development in Sport, Callary & Gearity, Routledge, 2020
  3. Coaching in the 2020s, Australian Coaching Council, 2020
  4. E-Coaching, Ribbers & Waringa, Routledge, 2015
  5. Equitation Science, McGreevy & McLean, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
  6. Sport Pedagogy, Kathleen Armour, Routledge, 2011
  7. Sport 2030, National Sports Plan, (2018), Department of Health,  Australian Government Publications Number 12186   https://www.sportsaus.gov.au

Learn about the coaching support initiatives of the Australian National Equestrian Coaches Association (ANECA)

 

Sue Halden-Brown, a former Olympic coach, and career coach educator
Sue Halden-Brown

Sue is a former Olympic coach, and career coach educator, presently working as Coach Developer and Guest Lecturer with a Swedish University, on a major international project to develop a new equestrian pedagogy.

Sue is also a keynote conference speaker, author of many coach education resources, and Founding President of Australian National Equestrian Coaches Association. At home, in southern NSW, Sue is a wild-life carer and in her spare time loves digital art.  

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