Miscellaneous

Erynn Ballard on the State of Equestrian Coaching in Canada

Canadian equestrian Erynn Ballard shares her take on the state of coaching in Canada, and offers suggestions for how to improve the industry.

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By: Erynn Ballard |

The biggest issue facing our industry is permitting unregulated coaching. I find it very troubling that anybody can be a trainer; all you need is the proverbial business card with no certification or proof that you’ve had any kind of training to teach lessons or coach at horse shows. This is a flawed system that lowers the standards of the sport, the horses, the riders, and the entire industry.

There is a reason that most of the top-performing countries require people to complete courses and pass specific training in order to teach. These countries recognize the importance of the fundamentals that develop future athletes. In Germany there are professional and amateur-level instructors, while the British Riding Society has a six-stage pathway. The US federation itself doesn’t have a coaching system, but last year they launched a para-dressage coach certification program and there is the American Riding Instructors Association (ARIA) which is an independent organization offering instructor levels. This type of standardized education encourages more people to be involved while giving riders the right basics to create good riders and future team members.

Equestrian Trainer vs . Coach

Any certification system in our sport needs to take into account the difference between a coach and a trainer. I define a coach as somebody that trains the person, while a trainer is somebody that trains the horse – not everybody can do both. Just because somebody knows how to ride a horse does not mean that they know how to teach somebody else how to, or even be able to prepare a horse for another rider. These are all very different skill sets that need to be evaluated separately.

Riders are generally not educated as teachers, although Jill Henselwood is a notable exception! Coaches are like teachers and are aware of different teaching strategies to use with different students. Derogatory comments can be hurtful and screaming doesn’t contribute to a positive learning curve. Similarly, coaches need to be able to communicate with parents to explain what is happening in a rider’s development or issues that need to be addressed.

Meanwhile, trainers are capable of preparing a horse for a rider. These days, many clients aren’t able to ride their horses as often as they need to, so it’s particularly important that the horses are carefully prepared. Trainers work with these horses to make sure they can adjust to a rider’s skill level and are able to safely do their job.

Most importantly, coaches and trainers should be able to demonstrate results. Can a coach effectively help somebody reach their goals? Can the trainer point to horses that they’ve developed? These are the skills that need to be evaluated. If you want to be good, somebody with some authority on the matter needs to tell you that you are good enough, and that you belong.

Equestrian Coaches Affect Riders

Setting a standard for trainers will have the added benefit of setting standards for our athletes. I’m incredibly concerned about the future of Canada’s horse industry; I know that Ontario has become an exclusive camp that is failing to motivate or develop real riders. Our unstructured approach has created a generation of people that don’t really want to learn to be riders, much less be true horse people who know how to bandage, pack feet, or tack up. Proper coaches know how to give riders the right targets to strive for that will keep them interested and learning.

Our local circuit is partly to blame, with limited showing options that have made participation boring. That is starting to change as other circuits are developed that inspire people to want to achieve new goals. I’ve got kids that want to show in New York and in Florida, at the Maclays and Young Riders. The Under-25 series is a great example of a program that has helped to motivate many to be more competitive. Students see the success of kids like Sam Walker and they become determined to do more.

Riding is like anything else in life – you get out of it what you put in. The more time you spend at the barn learning and watching from a qualified professional, the better rider you are going to be. I know that if somebody gives me the time, I can make them into a proper horseperson. We need to follow the lead set by more established countries in how we develop our athletes if we hope to train the next generation of team members for the future.

Developing Professional Horse People

Equestrian Canada’s current system isn’t developing the right kind of professionals. I believe the answer lies in a combination of practical experience combined with standardized testing.

Experience on its own doesn’t guarantee everyone has access to the same knowledge, but hands-on work under the right guidance is invaluable. I’ve seen coaches that have been certified under EC’s current system that are useless. Similarly, I’ve had students that have earned a horsemanship certificate from a university that couldn’t put a polo on.

There is so little education about our sport that people believe that if they see something flashy, it must be good. Well-meaning parents might see a fabulous facility on a gorgeous farm and assume that the level of coaching and care is commensurate with the surroundings – not so! They don’t know to look for the basics like clean stalls or fresh water, much less safe or effective training techniques. As a result, many have had bad experiences with under-educated professionals in our industry and we lose participants.

We all pay dues to the governing body that is supposed to protect riders, but so far they’ve failed. People trust us with their kids and we have a responsibility to make sure that they are in the right hands. Our coaches should be required to perform at a certain standard or the sport will decline and be thought of as unprofessional, or worse. You can’t be a lawyer or a vet without passing exams; even other sports don’t allow people to teach without certification. Horse sport should be no different, and arguably maybe more vigilant.

Although I’m not currently a certified coach, I would welcome these changes for the industry and would gladly attend a seminar with a suitably knowledgeable clinician.