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Choosing an Instructor

18 August 2011 No Comment

Choosing an Instructor
By: Jane Savoie

You’ve just come back from watching the Regional Dressage Finals and you’re psyched. What elegance ! What harmony! What precision! You’d love to learn more about the whole training process and you’re wondering how to find the right person to guide you. Make no mistake. Finding the right person can make learning fun and challenging. Choosing the wrong mentor not only can be frustrating and demoralizing but also can convince you to make golf your sport instead.

Ideally you’d like to avoid the time, expense, and frustration of trial and error. So how do you make an intelligent decision about choosing your instructor?

The Search
Do some preliminary leg work. Ask others about their personal experiences. Check out both the training and competitive records of a possible teacher. And probably the best way to gather information is first-hand observation . Try to observe instructors at competitions, clinics and at home. Understand, however, that there are pros and cons to some of these scenarios.

If competing is on your agenda, it’s important to watch your potential instructor at shows. This is a good time to gather information, but it won’t tell you the whole story. At a competition, the versatile instructor usually changes hats and becomes a coach. You’ll still be able to determine how he interacts with his horses and students, but you might not be able to get all the information you need about his communication skills. In other words by the time you get to a competition, you and your horse have probably “learned” all you’re going to know at that point in time. The day of the show is not the time for a riding lesson. Your teacher’s job at that moment is to be a mirror for you and to get you and your mount to the arena in a confident and relaxed state of mind. So a good coach is not necessarily a great teacher and vice versa.

There are pros and cons to observing at clinics. In a clinic setting you’re able to watch an instructor deal with a variety of animals and students. You can answer questions about his ability to quickly assess what needs to be done as well as his interest in working with average (or less!) horses and novice riders. Most importantly you should be able to get a good feeling for his integrity and sincerity. Does he maintain his focus on you or is he only partially involved in the session and more interested in socializing with the auditors? Does he offer constructive criticism yet leave you feeling encouraged about your abilities? Does he use the lesson as an excuse to vent his emotions and work out his own ego problems or does he conduct himself professionally. Does he really teach or have you only been directed in the session? In other words, the instructor should leave you with a plan you can take home and carry out independently. You might think you’ve had a great ride because you’ve been told at the right moment, “right leg now, or more bend, or close your left hand” and your horse began to dance. But to really be of value, you need to understand the why, how, and when of those things so you can recreate the dance on your own.

The major con to observing a clinic is that it can give you a negative slant on the instructor’s abilities. Some fantastic teachers are not necessarily adept at dealing with new situations. They need a certain amount of time to determine the best approach to a particular horse and rider. These teachers may seem to fall short at a clinic yet they might be just what the doctor ordered for working with riders over a longer period of time.

At Home
The best way to observe your potential teacher is at his own farm. If possible, spend a whole day there and observe him in a real life situation. Watch the way he interacts both with the animals and with other people.

Are the horses treated firmly and kindly? Is their health and well-being a priority? What are the approaches towards warm-up? Is there a systematic approach within each schooling session? How is the horse worked throughout the week? Is play time in the schedule?

One of the most important things to evaluate is how this person deals with people. As a professional he should be courteous and sensitive to the needs of others. There’s no excuse for rudeness. Mutual respect between instructor and student fosters a healthy atmosphere for learning. And one of your major concerns should be whether or not this person intentionally creates dependency or if he proudly looks forward to the day when the student surpasses the teacher.

Ask yourself about his communication skills. Is he articulate or does he make training sound confusing and mysterious? Can he organize a lesson in a logical way? Are the standards honest and high? Does he set daily as well as long term goals that are just out of reach but not out of sight?

Take note of the atmosphere during a lesson. Ideally it should be relaxed yet professional. And no one should ever have to endure verbal abuse. Verbal abuse can take a variety of forms none of which are conducive to learning. Avoid the screamer who feels that sheer volume is the pathway to understanding. This person sounds impressive (maybe) but either lacks the skill and knowledge to explain things or is too lazy to do so. On the other hand, don’t be fooled by the abuser who is soft spoken and gentle but cleverly manipulates you into thinking you’re physically or mentally inept. Then again you have the insecure type who strokes his own ego at your expense by publicly embarrassing you. You don’t need to put up with any of this, and you certainly shouldn’t be shelling out hard-earned cash for it.

Be honest with yourself. Find someone who suits your personality, learning style, and emotional needs. Some riders learn better with a left-brained verbal technique while others do better with a right-brained visual approach. Decide if you blossom in a nurturing, supportive atmosphere or whether you need to be externally motivated. A casual and relaxed style that is perfect for your best friend Sally might not be challenging enough for you. And what seems militant and intense to Bob might be the sort of discipline and focus you’d thrive on. You know your needs better than anyone so don’t succumb to peer pressure.

One major mistake that people make when choosing an instructor is to automatically assume that if someone is an accomplished competitor or trainer that they will automatically be a good teacher. These things do not necessarily follow and it’s unreasonable to expect one individual to excel in all areas. As a matter of fact, some of the most brilliant trainers make the worst teachers. This is because they ride so much by instinct and feel that they have a hard time articulating what they do.

I remember being at Herbert Rehbein’s in Germany. He rode my horse for a little while and when I got back on, I was able to do unbelievable canter pirouettes. I asked him what he had done and he looked at me totally perplexed, shrugged his shoulders, and simply said, “It’s just riding.” (Easy for him to say!) You can learn the feeling of what you’re striving for from great trainers like Rehbein, and that can be quite a lure for someone looking for an instructor. But for those just starting out, it’s often more beneficial to work with someone less gifted who can break things down into basics and explain them step by step.

Another pitfall for the novice is thinking that because someone doesn’t have a huge competitive record at the highest levels, they have nothing of value to offer. Unless you’re going to the next Olympics, you probably don’t need a Grand Prix instructor. What you need is someone with a knowledge of classical principles who can communicate that information in an understandable way. So don’t be a snob, but don’t sell yourself short either. You certainly shouldn’t ride with the unqualified instructor next door just because you feel you’re not worthy of anything better. Beware the “teacher” who has hung out a shingle without valid credentials to back it up. Just because these people have worked with qualified instructors doesn’t mean they themselves are competent.

The 80/20 Rule

Of course learning should be fun and stimulating, but I’m not naive enough to pretend it’s going to be a blast 100% of the time. But consider the 80/20 rule. If you’re enjoying working with an individual and happy with your lessons 80% of the time, you’re doing great. If 80% of the time you leave your sessions in tears ready to beat your head against the arena wall in frustration, it might be time to look for a different instructor with a more compatible philosophy and approach to training.

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