The Importance of Having a Coach

In this excerpt from her book Stride Control, internationally renowned hunter/jumper and eventing trainer Jen Marsden Hamilton explains why she feels every rider should have a coach at some point in the rider’s development, and the responsibilities both coach and rider bring to the ring.

Photo by Horses and People Magazine.

I think it is very important for all riders, regardless of how novice or elite their level, to have a coach. Coaches are a major ingredient in the equation that helps riders learn responsibility. In order to respond correctly, especially under pressure, the rider must have good habits to declutter the brain and narrow the focus when a problem rears up—whether in training, out hacking, or during competition. Coaches are the eyes on the ground; they can see the whole picture and help direct learning.

They can analyze the influence the rider has on the horse, and can teach and confirm positional corrections and technique, as well as be involved in decision-making. Coaches do so much more than just teach technical skills. They take you on a life-skills journey that can literally last a lifetime.

I am a believer in national coaching programs. Coaching programs really don’t teach specific sport skills. Instead, the programs help establish teaching and communication skills. Educated coaches produce educated riders. They promote correct riding technique until they become
ingrained habits. A coach who understands and can teach the skills required can develop a strong foundation in riders, from which further progress can be made.

Trained coaches identify the skills required and give exercises that teach each new skills. Good and responsible coaching and training develops a sound foundation of basics based on:
• Balance
• Rhythm
• Straightness
• Pace

Riding vs. Coaching

It is important to understand the difference between riding and coaching. The two skill areas require different talents for communication. The rider uses nonverbal and intuitive skills, whereas the coach uses verbal and analytical skills. The rider possesses a rapid, complex, nonverbal means of communication with the horse; it’s an instinctive or intuitive communication in the case of a truly talented rider. The rider has no need to intellectualize or verbalize her actions. However, a winning rider is not necessarily a winning coach. It is the exceptional individual who possesses the ability to excel at both riding and coaching.

Knowledge found through intuition or instinct can be difficult to communicate with depth or intelligence to a student. The coach’s communication with students is analytical and verbal. Coaches must understand the actions necessary for a performance and communicate them verbally to their students. Not only must the coach communicate, she must do so with clarity in order for the student to fully understand. I have a favorite story that illustrates how a lack of teaching clarity can lead to misunderstanding.

I was teaching a young boy on a beautiful pony in New Zealand. He was lazily trotting and cantering around, and I said he needed to use more leg to “brighten up” the pace. For the rest of the lesson, every time I told him to brighten up the pace he did.

But the next morning, the boy’s mother came to me and said, “He doesn’t understand.” So I repeated my words and even trotted and cantered around on my own two feet to show the difference between a lazy pace and the brightened-up pace when leg was added. During the
lesson, the pace was bright.

The third morning his mother came to me again. “He doesn’t understand,” she repeated. This time, I finally got smart and asked the boy, “What do you think I mean when I say brighten up the pace?”

With a big grin on his face he replied, “Smile more!”

That young boy was Jesse Campbell, who has now represented New Zealand in international eventing competition, including the Tokyo Olympics. I bet he has a very big smile on his face every time he puts on the saddle pad and his jacket with the “Silver Fern” (a symbol of New
Zealand’s national identity) insignia!

To be a winning rider and successful coach, a person must have the ability not only to ride, but also to be able to analyze actions and communicate these actions verbally.

Further, a successful teacher/coach must:
• Have high principles and ethics and demonstrate them.
• Care for the rider as a human being, not just as an athlete or competitor.
• Establish and maintain a legitimate level of trust.
• Be an excellent horseman.
• Have empathy for rider and horse.
• Be open-minded and willing to continually learn.
• Be observant.
• Have understanding of the discipline and progressive skill development.
• Have excellent communication skills—verbal and visual.
• Be creative.
• Establish discipline and responsibility.
• Keep training and competitive goals in perspective.
• Be a good listener of rider and horse.
• Inspire and encourage.
• Have strong belief in her teaching system
• Be humble

The role of the teacher/coach is extremely important … and it is a huge responsibility! The actions of the teacher/coach have a lifetime impact on riders, horses, and the sport.

Now, a successful student/rider must:
• Care about the horse—not just think of it as a motorbike to success!
• Be teachable—open-minded, with a desire to learn and improve.
• Be a good listener—not just a “Yep-er.”
• Have empathy for the horse and stable staff and a love of the sport.
• Have patience based on realistic goals related to personal talent, the horse being ridden, and
available finances.
• Have the required level of fitness.
• Have work ethic and determination.
• Have courage.
• Be humble while celebrating successes.

This excerpt from Stride Control by Jen Marsden Hamilton is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (