The Difference Between ‘Trainer’ and ‘Coach’

An event rider's team gathers before he heads into the dressage ring at the 2014 World Equestrian Games. Photo by Leslie Wylie. An event rider's team gathers before he heads into the dressage ring at the 2014 World Equestrian Games. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

From having been in this riding-horses business for a very long time, I’ve got a few ideas about who I should listen to when it comes to training myself and my horses. I have learned that there is a difference between a “trainer” and a “coach.” I have learned that no matter how well you ride, at some point in your life, you’ll need one or the other. And knowing when to move from one to the other is all about timing, your gut, experience and, many times, your horse. Notice I said nothing about competition or results!

In equestrian sport, the role of a trainer has become very important. Trainers in specific equine competition areas, eventing included, are the ones who basically introduce riders to their chosen sport. They teach the skills necessary for safety and success. They guide, based on their own experience. They provide knowledge and help a rider progress by challenging their skill set and giving directions. A trainer brings a rider focus, purpose, a blueprint, a path. Good trainers teach and then step back, becoming coaches, when a rider excels.

Trainers who continue to train a rider even after the rider has become accomplished are the biggest problem, I feel, behind that criticism related to “hand-holding.” Many times, because riders have limited leisure time, they come to rely upon trainer’s decisions to short-cut their way to success and accomplishment. Many think there is something wrong with this, and there may be, but it’s not a simple answer, either. Today’s busy world and the fact that most must work to afford their hobby requires time be spent productively, and sometimes it’s better for the horse and rider to work under the direction of a trainer for quite a while in order to be safe and enjoy the sport.

So what is the next step beyond trainer? Moving forward into a role as a coach. Coaches bring guidance and advice just like a trainer, but they are going to assume that you’ve already spent the proper amount of time on development of skills. Rather, a coach is there to challenge and allow, rather than teach and direct. A coach’s responsibility is to help you once you get there. Coaches walk courses with riders, assist with warmups, watch other competitors, and look out for all aspects of the competition so that they can help riders with decision-making.

A coach may be an instructor that you take a lesson from once a month, then take that feedback, incorporate it into your program, and then check your progress with the coach the next time he or she is in town. The coach may meet you at an event and help to walk courses. They may assist in the warmup, or watch as you warm up, and may observe your rounds or tests and provide feedback afterward. And a coach might go over the competition afterwards with you and discuss what needs to be changed or improved.

It sounds tricky — and it’s hard sometimes to know the difference. Add to this the fact that many really good instructors are both trainers and coaches and drift in and out of that role depending upon who is riding at the time and how skilled they are. And as a rider, you may need a trainer AND a coach at the same competition, riding the same horse.