Vince Lombardi, the famous coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said, “Dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price. “ Vince Lombardi knew a lot about human nature and success. He drilled his team in the basics daily and ignored the fads, and his teams succeeded. Vince Lombardi didn’t waste his or his player’s time with short cuts.
In the 60s and 70s US horsemen were formidable, admired and envied throughout the world. The U.S. system developed from the U.S. Cavalry and was combined with the influence of several good horsemen from the 30s, 40s and 50s. U.S. horsemen were formidable because they were grounded in the basics.
Then changes occurred in U.S. Horsemanship. Around the early ‘80s we became a big “Industry” and U.S. Horsemanship began a downward spiral. Where have our good horsemen gone? Why are horses and riders dying in competition? And why can’t our riders take care of their own animals? What happened to the attitude that said that the horse’s welfare and needs were taken care of before those of his owner or rider?
I believe the fault lies in the education of the upcoming generation of horse lovers. There are 3 major reasons why the current education of horse lovers is inadequate.
1. Too many Instructors are not learning and teaching foundations and basics
Instructors can only teach what they have learned, whether it be from their instructors, clinics, books or experience. If a system of basics isn’t taught to the first generation , the second generation will be weaker and so on down the line. This is a reason that so many of our current instructors lack depth. They may have miles and miles of show ring experience, but they lack the fundamental foundation and do not understand how one principal depends on another to form a strong base of knowledge.
Students are not usually encouraged to read the classics and when they are, the classics are out of print and unavailable. A horseman can’t go into a tack or book store and purchase books by authors such as, Harry Chamberlin, Gordon Wright, Vladimir Littauer, Piero Santini, or Margaret Cabell Self. In the January 11, 2002 Chronicle of the Horse article “Observations I’ve Made While Teaching” George Morris wrote “Unless teachers review the classics of riding and jumping literature on a regular basis, they will become stale and fall prey to fashions and fads.”
Instructors can only teach what they know or what they see. We have a generation of copy cat instructors who see something but have no idea about the principles behind what they see. They teach it to students, some who become instructors themselves, and their knowledge is more shallow than their predecessors. This has created a spiraling down cycle and a dilution of the quality of instruction in the U.S.
2. Too many riding instructors in America are in the wrong profession.
A person is not automatically a teacher because he knows how to do something himself. There are many extremely talented, even Olympic level, riders who are naturally gifted. They ride like they really know riding, but as spectacular as they and their horses are, they can’t explain why they do what they do. The most important quality of a good instructor is that he or she is able to get you, the student, to understand the principle of what he or she is teaching.
A trainer of horses does not automatically have the tools to be a good teacher, either. A trainer communicates without words. Many who are patient with their horses have no patience for human students and they lack good communication skills. She or he may be the best trainer, able to get their horses to do amazing things, but it is no indication that they will be a good teacher.
A coach is a motivator who is also a teacher in many ways, but a coach is concerned with competition. Frequently, equestrian coaches deal more with the psychology of winning than they do the art of horsemanship. In a the July 7, 2006 Chronicle of the Horse article “Where Did We Come from? Where are We Going?” George Morris quotes former USET 3 day Coach, Jack LeGoff. Morris says, “When talking to Jack the other day about his new book, I asked him what was wrong. He hit the nail on the head, as usual: The young trainers are teaching their students to compete. They are not, necessarily, teaching them to ride.”
The ability to teach is a gift and a talent. Instructors who lack the gift of teaching also lack the passion and ability to understand their subject and are unable to give their students a thorough riding foundation. They are usurpers masquerading as instructors.
3. Too Many Riding Instructors Teach for the Wrong Reasons
In an October 10, 1997 Chronicle of the Horse article “Values- And Boys- Are Hard To Find On Our Horse Show Scene” George Morris wrote “Money and greed are the worst problems that have crept in to what I used to think of as my sport. I’m afraid unless our society has a big shock, that money will be the eventual ruination of this sport as we once knew it.”
It takes lots of money to run a good barn and keep up the right appearance. Money is a driving force in today’s horse industry, even more than it was in 1997. A trainer’s lifestyle depends on clients and commissions. Many instructors and trainers strive to keep their students dependent on them so they can keep clients, and they teach “over their heads” in order not to lose their client to another barn.
The goal is wrong. Horse Shows used to be a “progress test” for riders, a way to see how you compared to other riders in order to improve yourself as a horseman. More often than not, today horse shows ARE the goal for riding. The horse professional, be it trainer, instructor or coach, makes much of his money at and because of, horse shows. This causes trainers to find the fast track, the easy way, the short cut for their students, in order to get their student on the show circuit faster. Students don’t learn how to work through problems. They learn how to replace problems with a better horse. They don’t develop an eye for distances. They count strides. They don’t develop a base of support. They lay on their horses over fences.
Judges reward bad training techniques and short cuts because they are obligated to place classes. And competitors do what it takes to win. If a slow canter placed this week, next week the horses will be cantering even slower. If the winner’s horse had its face on the vertical this week, next week the horses will be slightly behind the vertical. Trainers copy to win without knowing what they copied and they teach these short cuts to their students. Instead of giving students the tools that are required to train a horse and to ride well, our riders are becoming gimmick professionals. The crutches become the way to ride and copy cat riders and trainers turn them into fads. Fads, crutches, gimmicks, and short cuts lead to cruel training practices, over use of artificial training aids, quick fixes and disposable horses.
The result of not educating our future riders in classical principals, of turning our sport into an industry that is motivated by money, and providing quick fixes and fast tracks, is that we have diluted U.S. Horsemanship. U.S. Horsemanship is no longer the envy of other countries. And our equestrian venues have become increasingly dangerous to the point that we are killing horses and their riders. Teachers and instructors are the people who have the most powerful influence over the upcoming generation of horsemen and women. Unless instructors choose to develop depth in their own education and unless instructors are willing to slow down and teach the foundation to their students, U.S. Horsemanship will continue on it’s downward spiral.
“Life is cause and effect. In other words, sooner or later, you do sit down to a banquet of consequences.” Quoted from “What it Takes to be Number One” by Vince Lombardi and Vince Lombardi, Jr, Simple Truths, Illinois 2006, Pg 114
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!
Barbara Ellin Fox
Copyright 2009 -reprint