Training Tip Tuesday - Our Responsibility To Dressage Students


How does a student who knows nothing about dressage find an instructor? These days, it is the internet most likely. They will search online for a dressage instructor in their area whose rates are right for them, or who has a school horse, or is conveniently located. Perhaps they know someone who rides and might ask their recommendation. Or perhaps this person goes above and beyond and researches the sport before researching the local training community. Generally though, students coming into a dressage barn will be completely ignorant of the sport with the expectation of learning from the instructor. That is not unreasonable. But what do we, the dressage professionals of the world, owe to our students ethically and professionally? This is worth exploring.

Step one to teaching dressage is LEARNING HOW TO TEACH. You know, teaching? The ability to parcel information apart and package it in such a way that optimizes learning? The thing that people do in hundreds of thousands of subjects all around the world? Dressage is not exempt from this, in either horse or rider. As a horse trainer you must learn how to teach your horse a skill, from the basics of accepting seat and contact to advanced skills such as the one-tempis. That is indisputable, it is a chain of knowledge that builds to the pinnacle of Grand Prix. So why are some instructors proud to say, “They teach only FEI students?” As a dressage-horse trainer you would not be allowed to utter such a phrase because you cannot train a horse to FEI levels without a good foundation. As a dressage-student trainer the same is true. You must know how to teach a new student just as you must know how to teach a young horse. If you cannot then you must admit that your skill set has holes and you must increase your dressage instructor ability. You must be prepared to answer questions accurately. You must be able to explain concepts multiple ways, explaining, showing through yourself, manipulating the rider physically (With their permission of course – assault charges are a real bummer.).

As we all know there are dressage riders all over the country who just hopped into the saddle as a fetus and perfection was born. They ride by feel and by instinct, without a cognitive idea of how to break down what they are doing and why. Their riding skill is an “attribute” not an “ability”. This might be fine for them as young riders, but when they move into the world of the professional then they must make the adjustment of learning the “ability”. If anyone wishes to teach they must develop the ability to teach. And this is not said to be just a necessity (though it is necessary), teaching is wonderful, fulfilling. I get tremendous satisfaction out of riding a young horse and feeling it develop as it begins to understand the parameters and gain strength. That same satisfaction is felt when I am teaching a student and over a period of days or weeks watch them implement a concept with more and more skill. Click here to read about some tips on how to teach.

There have been many times that I have worked with beside an instructor for some reason or another and heard them talking about their own abilities and accomplishments, only to find later that many of these claims were exaggerated or completely untrue. It baffles me that anyone would do this, not only from a moral stance but from a practical one. In the age of the internet, where show records, reputations and accomplishments are increasingly available online, why would you lie about yourself? None the less it does happen and it is moves across a sliding scale of ‘big fish stories’ to outright lies. There are many types of dressage instructor in the world and there is room for all of us. Have confidence in the type that you are, for example working with children, and embrace it. Click here to read more about this. But the thing that no one should ever do or condone is lying about what you have done. If you have never made an FEI horse then do not claim that you have. Riding an FEI horse is not training an FEI horse. If you have never started a horse under saddle then do not say that you have. If you have cliniced once with a ‘big name’ trainer that does not mean that you have necessarily ‘worked with them’. This list could go on and on. Earn the feathers in your hat and then display them proudly, but not before. USDF has great resources on looking up your trainer’s show records, ongoing educational programs they have attended and certifications they have earned.

Finally you must be a professional and embody that ideal. I know that everybody slips, has bad days, gets sick or goes through traumatic life events. That being said, those days should be few and far between. Those should be the outlier days. You must show up on time for your lessons. You must dress professionally and neatly, be ready to ride. Even if you are an instructor who does not get on the horse anymore, there is no reason to not dress appropriately. If you are arriving in torn up jeans and a bath robe then something is seriously amiss. Believe me I am not doing laps in a Scrooge McDuck style money-filled swimming pool and I know that finances are tight. When I am saying dress professionally I am not meaning you must go out and buy the latest Pikeur outfit. No matter your financial situation you should arrive in clean, well fit clothing. In the lesson, you must teach. My mother-in-law told me a story about a piano teacher she had who would just chat the entire time away and then still expect payment. That is ridiculous. This is your job; teach when you are paid to teach. If you need to use the phone or restroom, do that between your lessons. NEVER get angry at your student (Outwardly, I mean we all have our limits). Notice I did not say never raise your voice. I know that some instructors will disagree, but I feel raising my voice is a tool that I can employ occasionally to convey a point to a student who for whatever reason is tuning me out. For me, I think of raising my voice as the equivalent to using the whip or spur on a horse. It should be done sparingly, quickly and put away as soon as possible, never in anger. I think my students would have a hard time thinking of the last time I raised my voice at them and I consider it a success if that particular tool collects dust in the toolbox. That does not mean you insult, berate, trivialize or torment your student. There is no excuse for that behavior.

Below is text from the USDF Instructor’s Code of Ethics – I believe it encapsulates what we as dressage professionals owe to the horses, the sport and ourselves.

  • As a USDF Certified Instructor or Instructor Candidate Applicant, and member in good standing of the United States Dressage Federation, I acknowledge my obligation to uphold the highest standards of horsemanship both at home and when in the public eye.
  • As a horseman, I place my student’s safety and horse’s welfare above all else.  
  • At competitions, whether participating as a trainer or as a competitor, I will know and comply with all rules of the USEF, and when applicable, the FEI, and will ensure that my students know and comply with these rules as well.
  • As an instructor, I acknowledge the importance of continuing my own education in order that I may pass this knowledge to my students.  
  • I also understand that as a USDF member and Certified Instructor, I serve as a representative of my sport, the USDF, and the USDF Instructor/Trainer Program. I will endeavor to reflect credit on them through my conduct, dress and behavior by maintaining a professional demeanor at all times.
  • I further understand that individuals who are suspended, put under probation or expelled by either the USEF or the USDF will lose their USDF Instructor Certification.
  • I acknowledge my membership in this professional community and my responsibility to demonstrate respect for my fellow professionals at all times.

These are points that all instructors would do well to live by. Think of it like this, at the grounds of any dressage show, there are judges, technical delegates and show managers running around preparing, enforcing and creating the show for the dressage rider. Almost every single one of these people has had to earn their credentials, down to the EMT. Currently one of the only professionals at the show that need no formal accreditation are the dressage instructors themselves. That means it is up to us to police ourselves, educate ourselves and set the standard for dressage in the United States.

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