What Makes A Good Instructor?

Jan 10, 2016 - 11:07 AM

Our columnist considers the varied qualities shared by the best teachers.

Whether you’re a beginner looking for safe instruction, an amateur seeking to improve your riding, or a top-notch, experienced professional itching to get to the next level, the instructor, coach or ground person has a lot to do with your success!

There’s a fantastic synopsis of educating that I truly believe:

  • A bad teacher tells you what you’re doing wrong;
  • A good teacher tells you how to correct that mistake;
  • An excellent teacher inspires you to achieve goals you didn’t know you were capable of attaining;
  • A truly great teacher makes you feel good about yourself and drives you to work harder and become better at the same time.

There are many teaching styles, and different methods work better with certain personalities. Regardless of the teaching approach, however, there are qualities that exist, in my opinion, to educate, improve and inspire advancement in your equestrian goals.

First and foremost, an instructor should teach with a positive attitude and never verbally or physically abuse the student.

Negativity has no value in teaching. Taking away a person’s dignity and self-esteem is counter-productive and self-serving and often done by someone who is insecure and unhappy.

The above scenario is the reason Safe Sport Training is part of every Olympic sport. This Safe Sport Training Program is available to everyone on either usef.org or ushja.org and outlines the protocol for coaches in regards to interaction with students. Because the U.S. Equestrian Federation only licenses judges, technical delegates, stewards and course designers, at this time those officials are the only ones in our sport required to take and pass this program.

The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Trainer Certification Program will begin requiring their renewing trainers to pass this test as well in the near future.

Discipline And Structure

An instructor should lead by example. Proper dress is important and respectful to the sport, the students and, most importantly, the horse. Shorts, a halter-top and sandals are not considered professional attire in our sport. Nor is that acceptable attire to participate in a riding lesson or work around horses.

Instructors should have and enforce rules of attire at the barn or horse show, and such attention to detail instills discipline, which is crucial for any successful athlete.

Like discipline, structure is also an important quality of education. A coach should return phone calls, texts and emails promptly. Promptness of lessons beginning and finishing in a timely manner promotes respect by all. People have other places to be, and lessons starting or finishing late disrupts schedules and shows lack of respect for your student as well as yourself.

Consistency in how lessons are structured is also important and allows better understanding and comprehension of the exercises.

A good teacher begins a session by stating what the lesson will be about, and then the body of the lesson contains exercises and explanations of the subject. It’s a plus to have flatwork that will relate to the jumping exercises of the lesson. Finally, a review of the lesson at the conclusion reinforces what was taught and learned.

This summary of the lesson is also an opportunity for the instructor to ask what each student learned that day. This feedback is wonderful information for the coach and helps him understand how well his delivery and lesson was understood by the students.

Lessons should also be progressive, which means there’s a logical stepping stone from one idea or exercise to the next. By educating a student using basic tools, a competent teacher gives him the skill sets required to master the next challenges. Once a concept is mastered, it is tested with different exercises, courses, competitions or challenges to assess the grasp the student has on this newly learned skill.

A good instructor knows instinctively when to review and when to move on in order to inspire the student to learn more.

The worst thing an instructor can do is drill. Drilling has no place in positive learning for the horse or the rider. Once the rider understands and performs an exercise or a new concept well, stop. By drilling the same thing over and over, the horse and rider become sore, stale and resentful.

On a similar note, lessons should be educational and interesting for adults and educational and fun for kids. Most importantly, lessons should always promote safety and common horse sense, and instruction should always include learning about horses!

Instruction should be far more than just teaching a rider how to have a perfect position on a horse. A good teacher educates the rider about horses and horsemanship and teaches her basics: rein aids, natural aids, artificial aids, bits, walking courses, grooming, tack and equipment, etc. These are skills and tools that students can put in their toolboxes to use in the future to train, communicate and solve problems. Basics are what build the foundation.

Facing Fear

It’s also important to identify the two types of fear riders harbor: mental and physical.

Mental fear is basically a rider’s fear of making a mistake that she believes will make her look foolish in front of her peers. This is typically the type of fear younger children, teenagers and young adults have. This is also the fear perfectionists tend to worry about.

Physical fear is the fear of getting hurt. Typically, adults fall into this category. They have responsibilities and families and jobs, and as they get older they take longer to mend if they have a fall or injury.

By identifying these two fears, a good coach can use sport psychology to help students work through these anxieties.

A good instructor, coach or ground person always knows when to quit for the benefit of rider and horse.

This trait applies to lessons as well as the warm-up ring at shows. Schooling for a class should never be a clinic that encompasses so much time and effort that the student or horse goes into the competition exhausted, having left all their good jumps in the warm-up ring.

A good instructor, coach or ground person also knows the horse and rider well enough to have them ready and confident. Sending a rider into the ring with 10 instructions only clutters, confuses and flusters a rider when she needs to be focusing on one or two key points.

As the rider exits the ring, regardless of the performance, there should be positive comments first, followed by any constructive criticism.

People learn and absorb instruction differently, and a good instructor is quick to pick up on each individual’s needs. Some students learn through stronger, firmer words; others need kinder, softer explanations. A good instructor picks up on each individual and doesn’t teach everyone the same way.

Similarly, some students learn by hearing something explained to them, feeling it or seeing someone else do it. Interestingly enough, research shows that roughly 80 percent learn by seeing. Therefore, I believe there’s a lot of value in group lessons, where students can watch each other, and/or if the instructor is able to demonstrate on a horse. Because of the importance of learning through observation, watching videos and other competitors as well as the top riders in the warm-up ring is invaluable.

Set For Success

A good teacher never blames the horse, the judge, the manager, steward, starter, groom, parents, dog or any other ridiculous thing. A good teacher never does self-serving things, such as over-facing the student and horse by putting them in a competition above their level to show off, or entering them in classes below their level in order to win blue ribbons.

I’m always astounded to hear a coach yelling and screaming at a student. This is a telltale sign of frustration on the part of the instructor due to lack of results, which is directly related to the inability of the instructor or coach to successfully communicate with the student. Very sad and absolutely inexcusable!

In a similar vein, a student’s poor sportsmanship, rudeness toward parents or other competitors, and, especially, losing one’s temper with the horse should never be tolerated by the instructor. Respect is important from the student toward the teacher, parents, fellow competitors, staff and the horse.

A good instructor sets a student up for success. Confidence is everything, and a good coach knows how to push the limit without breaking that ceiling. A good instructor knows when to push a rider to the next level, a higher or more difficult competition, and when to back off.

I’ve also found that some instructors are better suited to the beginner level, while others are experts with the more advanced levels. It’s important as an instructor to know your level of expertise and embrace it.

If you’re a fabulous beginning rider instructor, don’t be afraid to send your students on if you feel they’re ready to leave the nest. If you’re an expert at the higher level and don’t think you can do a great job of putting a super foundation on a rider, then send him to the right place.

Rarely can an instructor be great at every level and discipline. This is where I hope the USHJA Trainer Certification Program will be invaluable in helping to identify those levels, not only to recognize the excellent instructors at each level, but also to help riders find the right instructor for them.

I really think the most important qualities of good instructors or coaches are that they’re open-minded, enthusiastic and willing to continue to learn themselves.


Julie Winkel has been a licensed hunter, equitation, hunter breeding and jumper judge since 1984. She has officiated at prestigious events such as Devon (Pa.), the Pennsylvania National, Washington International (D.C.), Capital Challenge (Md.), the Hampton Classic (N.Y.) and Upperville (Va.). She has designed the courses and judged the equitation finals.

She has trained and shown hunters and jumpers to the top level and was a winner of multiple grand prix competitions and many hunter championships.

Winkel serves as co-chair of the USEF Licensed Officials Committee and chairman of the USEF Continuing Education Committee, chairman of the USHJA Judges Task Force and the USHJA Officials Education Committee. She serves on the USHJA Emerging Athlete Program committee, Trainer Certification and Zone 10 Jumper Committee. She also sits on the Young Jumper Championship board of directors.

Winkel owns and operates Maplewood, Inc., a 150-acre training, sales and breeding facility, standing grand prix jumpers Osilvis and Cartouche Z in Reno, Nev. Maplewood Inc. also offers a year-round internship program for aspiring horse industry professionals.

She writes a monthly column for Practical Horseman’s “Conformation Clinic” and is a contributing columnist to Warmbloods Today magazine as well as an EquestrianCoach blogger.

 

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