Ending a relationship is never easy. There are loads of self-help advice guides and podcasts out there to help us navigate the demise of a romantic relationship or longtime friendship. But what about a coach or riding instructor?
Whether you’re at a riding school, bought your first horse or compete on the A-circuit, if you’re not happy with your progress maybe it’s time to consider a change. But how do you know when it’s time to move on? And if it is time, then how do you do it with grace?
As in many sports, a great coach is a unicorn. This person understands what your riding goals are, they can assess your problem areas as a rider and also the challenges your horse may have in achieving your goals. This coach can clearly and empathetically explain to you not only what needs to change in your riding to improve yourself and your equine partner, but also how to implement these changes.
Speaking to amateur riders for this article three clear factors emerged in how to evaluate if your current coach is right for you ‒ and how to move on if he or she is not.
Some equestrian professionals are gifted riders and horse trainers, but not all are great coaches. As we mentioned in our introduction, a great coach is able to communicate clearly to his or her clients. This sounds simple enough, yet it’s one of the main complaints that amateur riders have about coaching relationships that have soured.
A question to ask yourself: Is my coach able to explain what I need to change in my riding during our lesson to achieve the results I want? If I’m not understanding what my coach is asking of me and my horse, am I able to express this and is my coach able to change it up so I do get it?
Take Corrine (name is changed for privacy), an experienced amateur-owner dressage competitor, who is very happy with her current coach and one reason is because the trainer can read the situation. “My trainer kept telling me to keep my right shoulder back and for some reason I wasn’t getting it,” she explains. “After the third time she told me instead to turn my belly button to the inside and that instantly made sense to me. Sure enough, my right shoulder went where it was supposed to go to be effective.”
This is a very personal issue to assess. Only you can determine if you and/or your horse is making the progress you feel you should be making, or if you and your horse have plateaued.
If you have decided that the current situation isn’t working and you’ve been with one coach for a long period, it might be time to discuss it maturely. Does your coach seem frustrated with your progress too? Here’s where our first point ‒ communication ‒ makes a return from your side. Sit down with your coach and have a heart-to-heart about what he or she thinks about your riding. Are you where they think you should be? Have they hit a wall with how to get the most out of you and your horse and don’t know how to advance you beyond where you are? This doesn’t need to be, or shouldn’t be, a blame game.
But if it’s a matter of the quality of your riding then a straightforward, honest discussion is the best plan. Even if you’re not ready to move on completely, you can suggest attending a clinic to get another pro’s opinion. Most coaches support this; if yours doesn’t, that might be a hint you’re at the wrong barn. No one can know everything about horses and riding, and we are all learning, including your coach! Pushback against you wanting to expand your knowledge is a red flag.
It may also be beneficial to audit another trainer’s lessons so you can see how his or her coaching style might be a better fit for you. If this is difficult to do, attending horse shows (not always possible during the pandemic) and hanging out around the warm-up ring is a great way to see how a pro reacts under pressure and deals with nervous students.
If you’re at a barn where the owner/coach will not allow outside trainers, you can ask about clinicians coming instead – perhaps someone the coach admires or has trained with – or that you will want to ship out for a weekend to train with another person on occasion. Again, if this doesn’t go over well, then it’s a red flag.
This is an important factor in every aspect of your relationship with your coach. Does he or she respect you enough to communicate professionally, set boundaries, be honest with billing and of course treat you with respect when teaching your lesson? Too often we hear or witness coaches screaming at their students, demeaning them in front of others and blaming them for what went wrong in the ring. Every rider is different and what might work for one, won’t work for another. This is especially true in terms of “tough love” coaches. This school of thought is outdated, and we’ve seen the negatives of this brought to light recently in professional sports like hockey.
For Corrine, a bad experience with an earlier coach in her career was the final straw. The horse she owned at the time was a difficult gelding, but Corrine still managed to get 70% in the Prix St. George ring. Her coach at the time, however, wasn’t a good fit for the horse or Corrine. “My horse would start to rear as soon as my coach got off of him,” Corrine said. “It was so bad that I had to ask her not to ride him. I should have left then, but she had convinced me that the horse was a problem horse.”
However, the toxic coaching relationship took a dark turn when Corrine learned through barn staff that the coach was drugging her horse behind her back with a sedative. “That was the final straw, obviously. But when I confronted my coach, she told me I was a demanding client who bought a horse I couldn’t ride,” explains Corrine. “I felt very trapped. And her words were belittling, she was never bringing me up, and always wanted to keep me feeling like I needed her.”
Corrine found another coach who she clicked with after one ride and is happily training with now. “We think alike, we are aligned in management and training. They speak to me with respect. They break things down if I don’t understand it.”
As far as leaving the other coach, in hindsight Corrine knew it was never going to end well. “I saw the bad behavior with other clients prior to me, then with other clients after me. It was just who this person is.”
“My biggest piece of advice is to pay attention to the flags no matter how much you are swept away,” says Pamela (not her real name), an Ontario-based amateur who remained with the same coach for nearly eight years before moving on. “You need to listen to what your gut is telling you.”
Things changed for Pamela when she bought her own horse and saw her instructor’s true colours emerge. “She wasn’t compassionate and didn’t give positive feedback. And ultimately, she didn’t have what it took to train my horse and didn’t treat her well. She handled her harshly and yelled at her,” admits Pamela. “Which created a negative spiral of bad health for my horse and I saw it happening right before my eyes. That’s when I knew I needed to make a choice.”
Pamela moved her mare to another trainer and has been happy ever since. The difference in her riding and her and her mare’s mental and physical well-being is palpable. “The right coach can also change you as a person and should be part of your own personal journey, including that of the relationship with your horse.”
While telling your coach you are moving on is never a comfortable situation, you can at least do it gracefully. Here are some tips for cutting ties:
- Give them reasonable notice – don’t storm out in a huff, which is extremely unprofessional.
- State why you are leaving using non-accusatory language – do not be disrespectful, sarcastic, or mean-spirited, regardless of what has occurred (unless it is something illegal, in which case the appropriate authorities should be notified).
- Be honest without being brutal: For example: “I need to find a situation where I can get more one-on-one interaction” or “I find it difficult to deal with harsh treatment even if you say it is for my own good.” You can always just say you feel it is time to move on without any specific explanation at all.
- Mention what you liked about being coached by them, and any valuable skills you learned.
- If you feel strongly about it, you may ask that any photos of you on the coach’s social media pages be taken down, especially from any marketing materials.
- Thank your coach and wish them well, leaving things on the best possible terms, as you never know when your paths may cross again in the future.