Here there be dragons...

"I'm telling you stories. Trust me." - Winterson

Climbing on the soap box...

So I got home last night and posted a message on my Facebook about the fact that I'm starting to believe coaches should have to be certified. Well it lead to a reasonably entertaining wall conversation so I thought I'd elaborate. (edited to add - be forewarned, this ended up being long!) Comments from everybody (coaches, non-coaches, parents, students, bystander X, etc :) all welcome. Does this matter? Do you seek out a certified coach? Why? Why not?

I'll start by saying I think all coaches at the provincial level or LOWER should be certified. I do not believe this for the upper level coaches for a couple reasons. First -- they have the competitive experience to show that, while they may or may not be able to teach, at least they definitely know how to ride. And second -- they are generally teaching upper level riders. These riders have the experience to judge if their coach is worth their money. hahaha I'm at a point now where I don't care if my coaches are certified (I know 1 of the 3 is and 1 is not. No idea about the 3rd. But I've never actually asked any of them :). What I do know is that what they tell me makes sense. When I question them they do not get defensive about it -- instead they explain whatever it is I'm missing. If I were ever to ask one of them to "get on and fix it" (which I never have) I have not the slightest doubt that they'd be able to. And what they tell me greatly improves my horse's way of going. So any coach that can do that does not require a piece of paper to say so. But if I were looking for a coach for my child? Absolutely they would have to be certified. My parents are complete non-horse-people; they had no way of judging the quality of the lessons I was getting. I got lucky and ended up w/ an excellent coach, but they wouldn't've known either way. Hence why I'm starting to believe that coaches teaching NOVICE riders should be certified. Because novice riders don't know what they don't know. They don't know they're in a bad situation until they get hurt. And it's happening all too often.

I absolutely agree that certification doesn't guarantee a really good coach, but I also think it does weed out the really bad ones.

What inspired this little post (well among others - this was the breaking point!) was a case of the underqualified coach teaching the novice who knows no better. So said coach, not knowing what she was doing, instead of correcting and improving her student's ride over fences just kept putting the fences higher. Student in question has no leg, no control over the canter (as horse plowed downhill on the forehand), and was consistently either jumping ahead or being left way behind and thumping on the horse's back. Now fortunately for her, her horse was a saint and athletic enough to do it anyways, but someday she may get on another horse, and then she's going to be in a lot of trouble. (to say nothing of the poor horse!) The coach wasn't doing anything malicious -- she just doesn't know enough to know what was wrong. As far as she's concerned, she's a great coach who's got a great student jumping 3'3". And student's thrilled cause obviously she's an excellent rider. Neither of them have the slightest clue how scary it really is. But the coach should. If she were qualified to actually *be* coaching.

Now there are actually two issues here; there's unqualified coaching, and there's letting students do more than they should. The second one can be a challenge - four times in the last month, I've had new students come to me saying they really know their stuff, can jump X height, yadedadeda. And I watch them and realize they have no two-point, and little to no balance. So we go back to basic position and poles on the ground with maybe a tiny X. And I explain why, and what's missing, and what I'd want to see before letting them *jump* and approximately how long I think it'll take them to get there (I've played that game a few times, I'm usually reasonably good at it). Now of the four, one was a previous student of mine who just hasn't ridden for a few years. Having been a student of mine she knew exactly what would happen and was entirely kewl with it. Especially as we both know she'll be jumping around again after a few weeks since it's a case of out-of-practice rather than actually doing it wrong. One of the others was thrilled. She had, somewhere along the way, ascertained that something was not-quite-right but didn't know what and wasn't about to question her coach. I'm not sure what led her to actually switch, but she seems pretty happy she did. The other two though both declared themselves far too good for that. They *know* how to jump and who was I to try and teach them any differently. They returned to their old coach who'll let them jump high and never actually teach them to ride. I just hope they don't get hurt toooooo badly when they find out the hard way.

Now there's the catch -- by being either incompetent or irresponsible (arguably both), the other coach keeps the business. And conversely, by insisting the basics be solid first, I lose business. To me this is acceptable for two reasons: first, I'd rather loose the cash now than the lawsuit later, and second I'm really not interested in wasting my time, effort, and skill teaching somebody who's not interested in learning. But honestly, when business is tight there's a lot of pressure to give in to this. I've spoken to a few other coaches I know who I deeply respect and they've all confirmed facing the same issue. All have said that in the long run, it's not worth it. Most have said they'll try and find some way around it -- give the ego-student a more challenging horse to make it seem like they're jumping 2' for a reason other than their own lack of skill; this can work but only if you have exactly the right type of horse handy (ie green enough to feed the ego, sane enough not to risk injuring the rider, and confident enough not to be upset when the rider does it wrong). An option I've used in eventing is to take them out and do hill-work. Will secure their position more quickly without making it really obvious that's what you're working on. So there are a *few* ways around it. But in general, the good ones all agreed that you insist on the basics and accept that you'll lose some income because of it.

The other issue is unqualified coaching -- most of whom don't have a clue how scarily incompetent they are. When asked why they don't get certified they'll make up a whole variety of excuses: "it's too expensive" and "it's not fair" being the two I hear the most. Honestly, I understand the "it's too expensive" -- I figure it cost me a little over $1000 to get certified and that was *with* a whole bunch of people donating their time and services to me to get me there (ie, the level 2 coach I was working for at the time helped me get my mentoring hours w/o charging me, several different students lent me their horses at various times to get through the exams (I was horseless at the time), I did some of the rider exams for free, and a bunch of other such things that seriously helped offset the costs). But then, within a couple years the discount on my insurance paid for that. So really if you're serious about the job, it's worth the cost -- in the same way you pay for your undergrad degree to theoretically help you get a future job. You pay a lot to make sure you know what you need to know to be employable. And to make sure others know that you know :)

"It's not fair" almost always comes from somebody who can't pass the riding portion -- and so would never even *get* to the coaching portion! And quite frankly, I'm glad for this. The riding requirements are not excessive -- I passed mine riding a decent school horse of average talent. All you need is a basic level dressage test and to jump around a 3' course. This is PT level eventing people. Put your horse on the bit and keep them there :) My 6yo OTTB spaz who isn't ready to event seriously, could still pass the coaching exam. And be able to jump around with reasonable form. If you can't do this, you shouldn't be teaching. End of story. And the "Instructor" exam (below the coaching, for beginner coaches) requires far less (which, btw, I think is a great addition for those who teach the occasional lesson or summer camp). But again, there are those who don't ride well enough to pass, who complain the requirements are unfair. To me, that's the entire point of the requirements. When I have a student who gets to the point where I can't get on and make their horse go better than they can, I send them to another coach (yes it's happened -- I figure I've done my job well at that point *g*). That's the way it works. And I've had coaches tell me it was time to move on too. The good ones know their limits and acknowledge when a student reaches them. But if you can't pass the instructor level exam (which I can take a teenage non-rider who's brave, athletic and dedicated and get them there in a couple years) who's left that you should be teaching? What do you have to teach them? The *sole* exception to this that I can think of is the senior rider who competed at the very top who has been injured or for some reason is unable to ride -- however, anybody at that level will have the show records etc to prove their abilities.

For the horsemanship portion to be "unfair" means the person simply couldn't be bothered to study. It's broad but reasonably general -- certainly there was nothing particularly challenging in it and while they asked some unexpected questions in the stable-management they could be answered with some quick-thinking and some logic. hahaha or so I found anyways.

Teaching of course is the big issue. Their emphasis is first on safety and second on coaching ability. None of these seem unrealistic or unfair to me. But of the 8 of us who took the exam together, 2 of us passed (and by a huge amount). The rest (one of whom was on her 3rd try!) weren't even close. And shouldn't've been. No crowd control, no ability to identify the student's issues (much less fix them!), confusing or conflicting instructions, etc.

Now in both the horsemanship and the teaching sections there are things that they (as in Pony Club, BHS, and every other system) want done "their way" -- this can be seen as slightly unfair, but any organization that runs exams and require "their" answer. Are there other ways of doing things that are equally safe, equally effective, equally good? Yes of course. Is some of what they require excessive and not particularly practical in "real life" - yes to that too. But an exam scenario isn't real life either. There are no tricks; they are very clear about what they expect. So learn the rules and abide by them. And I have to say, in my exam I did something differently from what they were expecting and they asked me about it but they accepted my explanation as to why and gave me a great score, so they're not just sticking mindlessly to the official guide. There are also THREE examiners. So odds that all three are "unfair" or "picking on" somebody are, imho, fairly unlikely. One, yes you could have somebody having an off day or who just didn't like you, but when there's three examiners that seems less likely.

Everybody who's told me they're not doing (or didn't pass!) the exam because it's unfair imo should not have passed anyways. I'm sure there's an exception (possibly several) out there somewhere -- I just haven't met them yet! And yes you can have a bad day where your horse is not cooperating and fail because of that, that's a huge pita (happened to me in my evaluation -- they told me to find a different horse for the exam!). But they do let you retake just the section you failed... Not sure how much more they can do than that?

And then of course we're back to the comment of "well I've known really bad certified coaches". This one always makes me laugh, because if there are really bad certified coaches, and somebody STILL can't pass, they *definitely* shouldn't be coaching. Don't you think? And yes, it's true. Being certified doesn't necessarily mean you're good (I too know a few who are certified and I always wonder how), or that you're going to apply what you demonstrated in the exam, but it does mean that on at least one day, you weren't horrifically bad and have *some* basic idea of safety.

Alright I'll get off my soap-box now. And don the flame suit on. Comments?


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