Are You Willing To Be Your Own Coach?

Feb 16, 2015 - 10:51 AM

Make a formal contract with the only person who accompanies you on every ride: you.

Aristotle said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

This is how babies learn to walk and talk. They fumble along, with little initial proficiency and gradually, through time and practice, become more adept. They didn’t start out on the toddler track team. They gradually became more adroit by practicing and by being taught.

Most skills are learned skills, and the concept of “getting lessons” is familiar and assumed. We get piano lessons, tennis lessons, French lessons and riding lessons. If there is a skill or discipline, there will be those who teach it to those with an interest in learning it.

We’ve all heard that there are three types of learners: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. My former Dartmouth College (N.H.) roommate, who went on to gain advanced degrees from Cornell Law (N.Y.), Harvard (Mass.) and Cambridge (England), would add that there is a fourth even more common type: the non-learner. But as he’s a cynical old grouch, we’ll pretend we didn’t hear him say that.

So, unless you are one of Ken’s “non-learners,” and you ride horses, you have had riding lessons. The problem with riding lessons is that they are often expensive and inaccessible. Most of us ride alone, without coaching, far more often than we ever get help. I’d estimate that if a rider gets one actual riding lesson for every 10 times she gets on a horse, that rider is coached far more heavily than most. Many riders feel lucky if they get one lesson a month. Some never get any help.

Well, here’s a way to change all that. It’s something you already do. It’s coaching, teaching and training you already have. My idea, though, is that you make a more formalized contract with the one person who accompanies you on every ride, and who, more than any other single influence, can determine whether your riding will improve, stagnate or get worse. The person of whom I speak, obviously, is you.

“Yeah, big deal, I already know that,” you may respond. “Everybody teaches themselves. What’s unique about that?”

Well, I’d ask a couple of questions right back. How good a riding teacher are you? Do you have the skills and the methodology and the discernment and the attention to detail to be able to let “you” help “you,” or are you more of a detriment to yourself than a help?

I’m not suggesting that the “you” who teaches “you” on the horse should be a replacement for your regular riding teacher. Rather, you should utilize the lessons you get in the more formal teacher-student relationship to direct those lessons that you can give yourself.

What does your regular teacher emphasize with you in your normal lessons? That’s a starting point for determining what you need to teach you. Does she emphasize physical specifics, things like position over fences or posture in dressage? Is her emphasis more on teaching you how to perform certain movements, like shoulder-in, or how to jump a bounce or negotiate an angled approach? Has she taught you the dressage training scale, or how to walk an in-and-out? Does she try to have you become more subtle with your aids, perhaps more patient, less easily frustrated?

Because physical skills, emotional qualities or educational goals can all be improved and polished whether or not your riding teacher is actually standing there in the arena watching you ride. It comes down to this: Are you an “active” learner who seeks out education, or are you a “passive” learner who must be spoon fed? Do you read, watch videos, watch others ride, talk about riding and skills acquisitions after lessons with your fellow riders?

Imagine this scenario: Here is one “me,” sitting on my horse in a practice arena. Here is another “me” watching me ride.

So here I am riding alone, alone, with no coach in sight. I am looking down. My head is tilted forward. My shoulders are slouched. My elbows are out. My hands are rolled over, knuckles down, and my reins are too long. My feet are behind my center of balance, and my stirrups are too long.

Any decent riding teacher would say things like, “Eyes and chin up, Sally. Adjust your reins. Be tall and open. Stay soft and elastic, but be more precise with your rein aids…” And so forth. You know the drill.

But your real coach isn’t there. All that’s there is you, basically in two entities: one on the horse; one, as if sitting on a fence, watching the one on the horse. It’s much about increasing your awareness. Awareness about yourself, about your horse, and how what you are doing affects the horse, and how the horse affects you. As your own coach, you become both an observer and a participant in this relationship. Can one “you” tell the other “you” much of what your real coach would be saying?

Perhaps your actual riding teacher works with you on general training principles, like softness, patience, not getting frustrated or stiff or exasperated. Can the “you” riding alone use your new found “coach” to help you retain your cool when you begin to feel your frustration level creeping toward the red zone? Because if you can avoid those meltdowns that your “real” coach would catch before they got critical, you won’t have that terrible downward spiral with your horse.

You know the spiral whereof I speak. You are a bit tense. Your horse gets worried, a bit resistant. This makes you more frustrated. He gets more worried, and before you know it, World War III is about to erupt. But if you can be your own coach, you can say, “Watch it, Barb. We know where this is headed. Don’t go there.” But it can’t happen if the Barb on the horse won’t trust or heed the Barb in the role of riding instructor.

The essence of becoming your own coach and the essence of whether it can work for you is whether you trust yourself. Will you listen to you? Are you capable of being “controlled” by you, or are you so lacking in self control that only another human, actually standing on the dirt floor of the riding arena, can keep you in check?

I think that becoming one’s own coach can be a constant work in progress. As you become a more well-educated horse person, as you become more capable of visualizing yourself on the horse, as you become more able to contain your normal frustrations, as you develop a more methodical “checklist,” then you can be of ever increasing help to yourself.

Here are a couple of checklists that I try to use when I coach me: “Eyes and chin UP–Shoulders back and down–Elbows in, thumbs up–Sternum in front of my chin–Stay tall–Stay soft–Breathe–Be elastic–Soft, long legs–Stay cool–Stay open…” That list is for me, the rider.

Here’s a checklist for my horse: “Stay forward–Steady rhythm–Don’t roll under–Quiet–One-two-one-two-Jump UP in the canter…”

This is the 21st century. We have video. We have continuous shooting freeze frame cameras. We can tell exactly what we do and do not look like when we ride. Do I jump up the neck, look down, and let my lower leg swing back? Yes or no? The video reveals the truth!

Do I sit tall and supple and elegant, like Carl Hester, or do I look down, round my shoulders, and hunch like Lurch? Yes or no? The camera reveals all!

You may already be your own best coach when your real coach is far away, or this may be a foreign concept to you. I would guess that most of us who ride can be divided into three broad categories: those who are intensely self-aware about how we ride and practice, those who are somewhat aware, and those who are basically oblivious.

So if you want to become a better rider, and if you are like most of us who don’t have constant access to a “real” coach, try my new website, www.addacoach.com. The website, of course, is imaginary, except insofar as you make it real. The coach you will add is you. The “you” who can teach “you” has great potential and enormous power, but you must be willing to assume that role.


Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championships gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to the sport. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders, and he owns shares in stallions standing at other farms. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

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