In Which Katy Gives Creative Riding Advice

Feb 18, 2015 - 5:06 AM
A foray into iceskating has given Katy Groesbeck a new insight into teaching.

Not for the first time, I’m hunched over a computer screen in the back seat of the truck on the way to an event, trying to take advantage of every spare hour to do my “homework.” When I graduated college, I was relieved at the thought that I would never again have to turn in an assignment, cram for a due date, or write an essay for a cantankerous old professor. 

Of course I knew that “real life” is full of responsibilities, deadlines, and answering to “the man,” but I didn’t foresee that just a few years later my life would be full of new homework: returning emails, scheduling lessons, following up with sponsors, updating websites, and shooting off a monthly blog to my wonderful Chronicle editor (who kindly forgives me when I hand in my assignment late EVERY month!).

I will admit that doing my homework has a much more satisfying result now than it used to because every late night on the computer is a night spent working on a career that I am passionate about, gives me the opportunity to do what I love every single day… and occasionally make money doing it, too.

As you might have noticed, 2015 is already off to a running start. I haven’t even had a chance yet to wish you all a Happy New Year, and now you’re probably all already well on your way to ditching your resolutions to eat healthier, not text and drive, never pull on the inside rein, and so on. New Year’s came and went so fast for me that I didn’t really stop to think about any specific resolutions. I was too busy trying to learn how to work outside at -10 degrees and negotiate roads through frozen rain (OMG!) to really think about meaningful life goals.

My meaningful goal was pretty much to make it to my next hot meal and accept the fact that I wasn’t going to feel my feet again until March. (Actually, I can tell you that you DO get used to having completely numb, unbending extremities. Numb is a welcome alternative to the throbbing pain you experience upon thawing, at which point you suddenly feel the ache of the day’s activities and the bruise on your butt from where you fell off the tractor on the ice. And worse than all of that is the sensation of the instantaneous formation of icicles along your nose hairs when you walk outside. Don’t even get me started.)

But this year has already brought a lot of other new experiences for me. A couple weeks ago, my boyfriend took me iceskating on the outdoor rink they set up in downtown Columbus as part of the NHL Allstar Week. It was great fun, incredibly challenging, and a pretty good workout too.

As I kept flailing and floundering around the rink, Brett would give me gentle reminders: “don’t lean back, bend your knees,” and so on. Between bouts of laughter, I finally fessed up that although I mentally grasped the concept of “not leaning back,” repeating the phrase was not going to help my body grasp the concept.

And as the words left my mouth, I suddenly found a COMPLETELY new respect for my students! A coach can yell “thumbs up, heels down!” etc., etc., all day long but it doesn’t necessarily help a new rider (or even an old rider) accomplish the task. It’s hard to control body parts when they start moving without your knowledge or permission. And don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a critique of Brett’s coaching; in fact he got major brownie points for skating with my purse over his shoulder for an hour and a half while holding me up and not laughing outright in my face as I made a mess of things.

So, as a coach, how do you help someone find bodily awareness and then bodily control so that they may then be aware of and in control of yet another living, moving, thinking being? I don’t presume to think there is just one answer, and I think a lot of it comes down to teaching style and the concept of “teaching what you know.” I know that I myself tend to teach in a way that I would find palatable if I were taking the lesson; I don’t do this purposely, it’s just my default method. Sometimes I become aware that it isn’t “clicking” for my student, so I will change my approach to find something more effective. 

I also “teach what I know” in the sense that my teaching style has been handed down to me from the influential instructors I’ve had in my life. Most notably: my mom. Not only did she teach me to ride before I could walk and coached me until I left for college, but she was also the first person who ever taught me to teach.

Of course she didn’t sit me down one day and say, “Now THIS is how you teach a lesson,” but I HAVE spent over half of my life listening to her teach, and taking lessons from her. Despite my best intentions, a few of the things my mother taught me stuck!

For instance, when I was a kid I used to marvel at the extravagant and creative analogies my mom would use in her instructions. While I’m pretty sure her knowledge of dancing ballet and playing football was about as concrete as her knowledge of living on Mars (in other words, a “theoretical” knowledge, shall we say), she would compare riding to both of those things—and many other things—and by God, it ALWAYS made sense. It seemed that her experience and expertise was endless and it all could be related to riding. Of course, when I was a bratty teenager I tried to call her bluff from time to time and challenge her know-how. I can tell you how far THAT got me…

And now, I find myself using analogies in my own teaching that would do my mom proud. I’m a concert pianist, an Olympic gymnast, a professional butterfly herder, and many other obscure things on any given day. I try, at least, to be aware of my audience. When I teach the girls from the local Pony Club, I remind them to use their leg in front of the fences: “Kick your pony as hard as your little brother.” They giggle and gallop on.

Poor Anna has put up with a few of my more colorful analogies. One memorable day, when trying to help her find the connection with her seat and keep the engagement and impulsion in the collected canter, I told her to move her seat “like you’re twisting on a bottle cap with your buttcheeks.” And then I may or may not have told her it would be a great party trick at her first frat party. And now her mother might or might not ever let her take another lesson. I’ll keep you posted.

The only thing I hate more than TAKING a boring lesson is GIVING a boring lesson. Anyone can tell you that I can be plenty focused and plenty intense, but for the most part I’m very lighthearted about my work and like to keep things fun and interesting. A client who has become a dear friend once confessed to me that upon our first meeting she likened me to a hyperactive Disney character. I’m not really sure it was a compliment but it was meant with love so the point is moot.

If nothing else, at least I’m honest. From time to time I confess: “I just made that up, but it sounds pretty good, so we’ll try it.” My students laugh like they think I’m kidding.

After uprooting her life on the West Coast for a chance to work with Buck Davidson and BDJ Equestrian, blogger Katy Groesbeck is now stepping out on her own and setting up shop in Ohio. Follow her adventures along with her trusty steeds, Wort and Ruler, as she gets KG Eventing off the ground and makes her way into the world as a self-employed professional horsewoman in 2015!

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