Return to:
Windy Meadow Farm
    Horses and Riding
  Farm Life
Horse Jokes
List of other articles on by:


How to Pick a Coach

Michael Hillman

Actually, the title of this piece is misleading, for in reality good coaches select their students, not vice versa. So, the real question is how to increase your odds at obtaining coaching from an experienced event rider. One who also has the aptitude to teach. Now, my coach insists that I'm not the run of the mill adult amateur. Of course, I'm flattered with that perception; if only it was true. Instead, I think it's probably just her way of softening the blows that regularly rain down on my ego as she attempts to hold me to the high standard of her expectations. She cuts me no slack and any murmured plea for mercy falls on deaf ears. What she requires of me is simply to always try my hardest (which is always about ten steps beyond my perception of "my hardest"), ask when I don't understand, and above all else, have fun.

When I first started eventing, I got this harebrained idea that I should have a coach for each of the disciplines involved in eventing. While logic dictated that this path would enhance my performance in each discipline, in reality, my scores were never lower. While upper level riders can and do effectively train from experts in discipline, this is often counterproductive at the amateur levels. So, if you're going to event, my advice is to get an instructor who not only teaches eventing, but one who also loves to compete. Knowing your overall strengths and weakness, they'll be in a better position to work on improving your riding and correcting any weaknesses.

Your chances of getting an experienced event rider to take you on as a student will be greatly enhanced if you acknowledge one critical point, namely that coaches are riders and competitors first, instructors second. You need to be willing to work your schedule around their schedules. Respecting their time is respecting them. This includes going to their farms or facilities for lessons, getting instruction on weekdays as opposed to weekends, and showing up ahead of schedule. Much to my discredit and my trainer's chagrin, the latter of which, in spite of my best effort, I often fail at miserably, and as a result have earned the nickname 'Mr. Better Late Than Early'.

A coach-student relationship has to be firmly based on trust if it is to work. The student must believe that the coach is looking out for the horse and rider's best interests, and the coach must believe that the student is constantly striving to do well. When you decide to take the big step to engage a coach, a good first step is to contact the USCTA and ask for their Coaches and Instructors Directory.

Observing coaches in action with their students at events is another great way to identify a good coach. While not always true, the higher-level riders who are currently competing often turn out to be the best instructors. These individuals are thoroughly motivated and fully engaged with the sport on a daily basis, which is to say that eventing is their life. I say its not always true because as in all walks of life, those that can do often cannot teach. To find out who can teach, it can be helpful to look at the performance of their students; of course, remember to take into account the material in terms of horse and rider that the coach has on hand. Going by the final standings in only one or two events can be deceiving, but by and large those students who have good coaches will do well over the long run, and even with mediocre horses you'll see their names always close to the top.

Another indicator of a good coach is the turnout of their students. While we've had it drilled into our "working-world-professional heads," that looks can be deceptive, the turnout of a student and their horse really does reflect pride in themselves, their coach, and their reputation. Well turned out horses and riders usually have coaches who have correctly reinforced to their students the unwritten rule that appearance and riding etiquette go hand in hand within the sport of eventing.

Now, assuming that you wish to be successful in identifying a topnotch coach, there are some key attributes which makes the difference between the run of the mill coach and a good coach for adult amateurs. These include:

  1. A good coach for an adult amateur will recognize that we are amateurs, that we are adults, and that we are in the sport for the sheer joy of it. Recognizing that, you should get the clear impression from the start that coaches are looking out for both your well being and your horse's safety. A good coach will not browbeat you for not knowing something; conversely, thye'll take you under her wing and look out for you, clearing the deck so to speak, so that you always have safe, memorable rides.

  2. A good coach, even under the worst of circumstances, can communicate what you need to do in a clear, articulate fashion. Like most adult riders, I had the misfortune of having taken lessons from people who thought coaching meant either screaming or passively talking about how nice I looked on a horse. While some people may respond to being taunted and harassed, or coddled and buttered-up, I don't. Most adult riders don't respond to this type of treatment in the business world. Why then should we take it in the world to which we have escaped for pleasure? Look for a coach who treats her students with civility and concern.

  3. A good coach never limits the scope or duration of a lesson. Instead, the length of the lesson is driven by what has to be accomplished. Sometimes, it takes an hour; sometimes, only a half hour; but, sometimes, it will take two and you'll be asked to leave your horse for a few days. A good coach works the problem, not the clock. More importantly, they'll recognizes that we are looking to them to help us find our way through this maze called eventing; ideally, they'll answer the challenge with delight.

  4. A good coach will and should want to get on your horse, recognizing that they are coaching you and the horse, not just you. I'm often awed at the number of riders who confide in me that their coaches rarely, if ever, get on their horse. A good coach will consider the three of you--coach, rider and horse--a team. There the team leader and will do whatever it takes for the team to succeed. It's not unusual for my coach to get on my horse every other lesson, even if only for a few minutes, and what she feels often sets the course for what is typically an effective, fruitful, fun-filled lesson.

  5. A good coach is one who will recognize your weaknesses as a rider and the realities of your professional career without being asked. A good coach will always offer to help. They'll hear the panic in your voice when you relate that you have read Wash Bishop's article in US Event Horse on legging up for the spring season. They'll understand that it will be impossible for you to stick to the prescribed program, especially with the number of business trips your office has planned for you over the next few months. A good coach will patiently listen, sigh, and then suggest that you bring your horse to their farm so they can fill in for you when you're out of town.

  6. A good coach will work with you to identify both short-term tactical as well as long-term strategic goals for you and your horse. Then they'll build a detailed competition and training schedule to accomplish them. (And then periodically call your spouse to make sure you're following it!) A good coach will not only tell you when you're ready to run, but, more importantly, when you're not ready. A good coach will accompany you to your event, or at a minimum, arrange for someone to help you.

  7. A good coach will make the time to support you at events. Having your coach at an event often means the difference between being in the ribbons or at the bottom of the pack. They'll keep an eye on you during your dressage warm-up, often pausing in their own warm-up to give you some pointers. They'll walk every option of the cross-country course, tell you the best way to ride it, and insure that you thoroughly understand all the options if things do not go according to plan. They'll be with you in the jumping warm-up to insure you and your horse are properly tuned for cross-country and stadium, and they'll be at the finish line to watch you cross, to insure all is well with horse and rider, hopefully to cheer, and, if necessary, to console.

  8. A good coach will in the same breath congratulate you after your first win and remind you that it won't count next week. Conversely, They'll be the first to console you after a fall, reminding you of last week's win. A great coach will be more excited about your first win at Training level, refusing to talk about their wining of the Kentucky three star until they've first heard all the details on your victory.

  9. A good coach will become you mentor, your ally, your friend. And, once you find her, there's no better friend in the world, excepting of course, your horse.

There you have it, a nine-step guide to finding a good coach. If you have any points you would like to add, please let us know.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman