Whether finding a mentor, attending a clinic or reading a book, continuing education is the cornerstone of being the best horseman you can be.
Historically, the road to becoming a professional horseman has been based on the apprenticeship model. Learning to train horses or to teach and shape riders so that they reach their full potential are skills that develop over a lifetime and are best learned from watching and working with those with greater mastery of the craft.
This emphasis on learning by working with a mentor is the cornerstone of education in our sport. The top horsemen have spent time in the trenches, and they never hesitated to expand their educations and to seek evaluation and feedback.
Finding the right mentor for your educational journey is tremendously important and will change over the course of your professional life. The mentor who guides you in the beginning of your career may not be the person you later ask to share their insights about managing the demands of a growing business.
However, all of these individuals should share a strong sense of ethics that guides their relationships with clients and the treatment of their horses. They should also have a multi-level system of teaching and training that serves the needs of horses and riders at different points in their development.
Always be on the lookout for inspiration, because it will help keep you excited about your craft.
I remember attending the Three Masters Clinic at the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center (N.Y.) about a decade ago. I was seeking just such inspiration.
I certainly expected motivation from show jumping legends George Morris and Rodney Jenkins, and since I knew a little bit about the natural horsemanship movement, the opportunity to watch Buck Brannaman intrigued me. Observing his horsemanship was a real moment for me. I was so excited by the possibilities that I saw in the natural horsemanship approach that I decided I needed to know more.
I wanted to explore these possibilities within a structure that was progressive and integrated well with the American system of forward riding that I was already teaching.
I migrated toward Pat Parelli’s approach because his system of levels made sense to me. So, for three summers I journeyed to Colorado with my horse to listen, experiment, question and merge the best of his system with my own approach to teaching and training. My exploration of Parelli’s methods brought renewed creativity and enthusiasm to my teaching, and every horse and rider that I’ve worked with since has benefitted from my experiences in these techniques.
Becoming the trainer, teacher and rider you aspire to be requires an investment in education. Education isn’t inexpensive—it will cost you time and energy that you might prefer to expend on making a living. But it is essential.
Certainly, taking two weeks each summer to trek to Colorado is expensive in terms of actual cost and income lost, but my students and horses have shown me the importance of that investment. It also costs in ego, because to learn and grow you have to be willing to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses. You must also be willing to be uncomfortable and have moments of awkwardness because it’s just part of the learning process.
Investing In Others
While you should always be looking for ways to enhance your own education, it’s equally important for those of us who run a business to recognize how important it is to make this type of investment in our staff’s development as well.
Investment in the education of your team will create dividends that will more than pay you back in your business operation. So many employers don’t think about how much less costly it is to invest in staff members who have demonstrated their loyalty and competence, rather than having to try to hire and train new people who may or may not work out.
If your team members share your philosophy and approach to horsemanship and your values and ethics in business, then they deserve your investment. Putting time and resources into the development and education of your employees will make them realize they are valued members of your team, give them the confidence needed to excel and keep them happy and excited to be a part of your operation. It just makes good business sense.
It’s such a pleasure to find young professionals who are open to learning and who are willing to listen to those of us who’ve been there and done that. Demonstrating through example that you value learning and are willing to put yourself in the role of learner will create an environment in which asking questions, seeking help and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone are viewed as a normal part of growing on the job.
It takes a degree of self-confidence and humility for young professionals to risk being seen in the role of student. They’re going to be more comfortable taking this risk if they see those they admire open to new ideas and perspectives.
The opportunity to have a conversation about training methods—such as approaches to particular training or teaching problems—with a respected professional is inspiring and exciting. When I’ve listened to my younger staff talk about U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Trainers Symposium exercises they found intriguing and plan to put into practice with their horses and students, I see enthusiasm at its best.
I know renewed passion will help them keep their students excited about riding and learning. It’s so easy for instructors to just teach by rote. Reenergizing through opportunities such as clinics, reading the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Trainers Certification Manual in preparation for taking the TCP test, or any other type of educational activity is an essential component of remaining at the top of your game as a teacher or a trainer.
One of the most stimulating aspects of our sport is that the horses always have something new to teach us, and being a horseman means being a life-long learner.
When you ride in a clinic, attend a show as a learner judge, go to a trainers symposium, participate in a Zone Forum, watch the USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals, attend a licensed officials clinic, take a student to an Emerging Athletes event, find a mentor through the USHJA Mentor Program or just read a book written by a professional you respect, you’re empowering yourself.
These educational experiences often require a huge commitment of time and resources. Sometimes the organization that’s hosting an educational event will underwrite a portion of the cost, and some opportunities are free because volunteers are giving their time and resources. Other times you’ll have to bear the full expense yourself. Whatever the situation, always remember that an investment in yourself is money well spent.
Shelby French, the newly appointed CEO of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, has been the director of riding at Sweet Briar College (Va.) for 10 years. Previously, she served in the same position at St. Andrews College (N.C.) for 16 years. She’s a USEF R-rated judge and has coached and trained hunters, jumpers and equitation riders on the A-rated circuit throughout the Southeast. She serves on the Board of the American National Riding Commission and USHJA.