Anyone who knows me also knows my opinions on how important it is to support a system of certification for dressage instructors in the United States. In order to raise the base standard of knowledge amongst all dressage instructors as well as encourage further growth, this system must be in place. Accordingly, I headed down this road earlier in the year and attended a series of workshops and pre-certifications that USDF offered in preparation for my Instructor Certification Testing. I would be lying if I said that is was an exclusively pleasant experience, with magically vanishing luggage, getting lost in the middle of the night in the bowels of North Carolina, driving a rental car the size of my cat and meeting with weather that rushed right past the definition “unseasonably cold” and into the realm of “desperately stealing coolers out of the tack room and wearing them like you are a pile of horse laundry”. Despite these character building occurrences, I met some wonderful people with whom I still keep in contact. I also had my ego knocked about like a dime store pinata.
You see, there is a tremendous amount of information that you must not just know, but know so well that you can spit it out even amongst a panel of instructors, fellow professionals and auditors. For me there is not only pressure to succeed in general, there is also pressure to not look like an idiot in front of your peers (which is a sure-fire way bumble around looking like a boob). Needless to say, I left the workshops and pre-certs feeling a bit fleeced.
When I got home I buckled down and got to work. Though there is a massive list of recommended reading offered by the Instructor Certification committee, I found it to be too large to study in a focused manner. So I pared down my study materials to the USDF Teaching Manual, the USDF Training Manual, the USDF Lunging Manual and two books: “The Principles of Riding” and “Advanced Techniques of Dressage”, both by the German National Equestrian Federation. Along with using USDF's E-Trak to take quizzes and to online study, these texts gave me the materials necessary to prepare.
I also practiced. I teach constantly and used the lessons with my students to rid myself of superfluous language, challenge myself to see whether I could explain the same concept in multiple ways and pushed myself to ensure that I did not get lazy in my instruction style. The same positive self criticism took place when I was riding and lunging the horses. Now to be clear, these elements occurred before the Instruction Certification Program, but what the program gave me was a much better focus to my efforts.
Finally the testing weekend arrived and I traveled again out to North Carolina. Gerhard Politz and Lilo Fore were the Examiners. No big deal, just Gerhard Politz and Lilo Fore, two of the founding members of the Certification Program and huge names in the dressage world. No pressure. We began with a written and verbal, moved into lunging of the horse, lunging the rider, two lessons and the riding phase. At the beginning I was incredibly nervous but as the testing weekend moved along my confidence grew. My explanations were met with positively, my riding style was approved, my knowledge base was complimented. At the end of the weekend I discovered I had not only received my certification, but I had been recommended strongly by both examiners to proceed onto the next level of testing. Now I do not say this just to fluff my feathers, but to show you how far I had come from the the wretched creature that staggered out of the pre-certification series.
Rather than going into the workshop series with the worry of failure, use it to discover holes in your knowledge base and find ways you may improve your presentation. Believe me, I understand that when it is your passion and livelihood it is difficult to accept that you might not be as good as you could be. So change that mentality and think of it as ways you could become better. Watch others who are better teachers than you. What are they doing? How are they presenting the material to their students? If one of the instructors asks you a question you cannot answer immediately and clearly, really ask yourself, why not? The USDF Instructor Certification Program allowed me to focus my studying, hone my skills and practice, practice, practice. Because of this, I am now a better dressage professional, which is the point of the program and the reason I entered it at the beginning.