Instructors, Trainers, Coaches: Is There a Difference?

Kim Keppick is a BHS II Certified Instructor and Pony Club A graduate who represented Ireland in international competitions all before age 19 when she came to America to work for Karen O’Connor. She was long listed for the Irish Olympic Team in 1988 with Morning Glo, and Biko was among the many horses Kim trained and competed for Karen. Kim has since built a career teaching “riders how to train their own horses,” with her students competing to the highest levels in eventing, dressage and show jumping. She is also the founder of Rein-Aid.

Kim Keppick has built a career teaching “riders how to train their own horses,” with her students competing to the highest levels in eventing, dressage and show jumping. Photo by Nick Snider.

Instructors, trainers, coaches. Is there a difference? Yes, although there is overlap, too.

Riding instructors typically teach people to ride on safe, school-type horses, even if they are privately owned. They provide an important introduction to our wonderful horse world for many people. The ability to keep the school horses ready and obedient for lessons is important. Knowledge of teaching the basics is essential.

There are also riding instructors who teach to a very high level, and most instructors work for stables with a string of school horses. Often riding instructors are employed by others and not self-employed.

Trainers usually teach people on their own horses. Their job is to improve the skills of both horse and rider. My personal feeling is that trainers have an obligation to teach riders how to train their own horses and not be reliant on every word they say. The rider should be able to school effectively and safely on their own.

The trainer or their experienced staff may be required to ride the horse at times to improve the horse, and they also can be involved in the stable management routine, tack choices and so on.

Coaches take the current skills of the horse and rider and polish it to maximize the performance for an upcoming competition. If the rider has a different trainer and coach, they need to be in agreement so a competition schedule can be organized and become a building block for the ultimate goal of the rider.

Riders should always discuss what the coach or trainer says with the other if they are not in direct contact. A coach and trainer must always be willing to talk if an issue crops up. The coach will be the person at the competition to help with warm up, walking courses, etc.

Many instructors, trainers and coaches do it all. It will be up to your desired lifestyle which path you choose.

It is a lot easier to train if you are not polishing for competition. You can allow the horse and rider to make mistakes as you teach them something new. Allowing time for this with kindness and compassion will move the bar forward. However, succeeding in competition gives confidence to both horse and rider, and also moves the bar forward by cementing their knowledge and ability to perform at competitions.

Some riders do not want to compete, and that is fine. They want to learn and improve, and the trainer is there to help them achieve it. Some riders simply love to compete, and I view competition as a measure of how well your training program is going. When your students do well, it means your training is solid.

A trainer needs to speak up if they are working with a student who owns a horse that puts the owner or rider at risk for injury. Accidents happen all the time for riders and their horses, but you can minimize the risk by making sure horses and riders are well matched for their temperament and skill level.

Can you teach more than one discipline? I hope so. It is fine to be an expert in your chosen sport and base your business in that field, but the more knowledge you have of other disciplines will help you have a broader perspective.

How aware are you of what others do with horses? In the Olympics we have dressage, show jumpin,g eventing and para-equestriam. At the World Equestrian Games we have the same, plus combined driving, reining, endurance and vaulting.

Do you know anything about show hunters, horse racing on the flat and over jumps, equitation, foxhunting, cutting, polo, sidesaddle and so many other tasks humans ask of their horses.

There are many different breeds, and they do not excel at all the same horse sports. Learn about those breeds. What if a client shows up with one you have never worked with and wants to train with you? All horses need to be trained well for the job the human chooses for them, but not all are suited for what the human wants. Many horses would be happier doing a different job. This is why it is so important for trainers to become educated in more than just one discipline.

Being diverse in your ability to train will also help your bottom line; you will keep clients because you can adapt to their needs. Round pen training, which originated in the the western world, is now widely accepted for training youngsters and dealing with unruly horses in many disciplines.

John Lyons influenced me on how to encourage horses to load on a trailer, stand quietly for mounting and so on. Buck Brannaman taught me about the one-rein stop, which is a lifesaver on a naughty horse. These are just examples of how reaching out to other training methods have helped my business. I have been very lucky to have broad experience riding many different types of horses and in many different disciplines, along with great teaching from Olympians and others.

For the young instructors, trainers and coaches out there, you can achieve a successful business with hard work and compassion for both the human and the horse. Always remember that while you may ride and understand horses better than your student, they have other skills you do not. Always respect them for that, and be grateful that they trust your knowledge to guide them in their quest for becoming better riders and horsemen themselves.

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