Cross Country with Jim Wofford: Some Tips for Trainers

My column is usually written for riders. I have been teaching for half a century, have learned some lessons along the way and thought that this month it might be useful to talk about those lessons with readers who are also professionals.

If you are a professional, then (according to Webster’s Dictionary) you are engaged in an activity that you consider your “principal calling, vocation or employment.” It is understandable that the employment part of Webster’sdefinition looms large in your thoughts. After all, this is the way you make your living. However, you should not overlook another characteristic of professionals that Webster provides; you are employed in “a type of job that requires special education, training or skill.” These are the attributes I’m going to explore.

Education Through Mistakes

That old adage that you learn more from your failures than from your successes is especially true when applied to horses. We are all going to make mistakes. It’s what happens after the mistake that matters. Do we learn from it or not? Mistakes are part of your life as a coach, and you have to accept that. Most of the mistakes that you deal with, either as a rider or as a coach, are mistakes that I—or others just like me—have already made. And while we made those mistakes, our horses suffered the effects. I got over-caffeinated while teaching a group lesson the other day and went down in the weeds about some arcane point of riding theory. One young lady who had never considered things in that sort of detail remarked to me that by now I “must have a master’s or a doctorate or something.” I was flattered and thanked her, but said, “That might be true, but my horses paid my tuition.”

We professionals have good solutions for many mistakes. Why? Because we learned from people who had made those same errors. They kept us from duplicating their blunders or quickly corrected us if we were on the wrong path.

Education Through Books

In addition to learning from their own and others’ mistakes, all professionals have a responsibility to continue their formal education. This means you should consider modern periodicals to be required reading and you should also read at least one or two serious books a year. Think about it. Books about riding and training are really compilations of your fellow professionals’ mistakes and solutions. Like the guidance of your own trainer when you were getting started, books are a continuing opportunity to avoid a mistake in the first place, rather than needing to repair it later.

Studying books on riding theory will make you a better trainer in many ways. For instance, next to creating an awareness of your students’ responsibility for their horses, probably the most important thing you can do for them is to teach them a good position. To teach it, you first have to know it, and that means study and reflection. Any good book on riding theory will have excellent advice on the correct mechanics for the dressage or jumping position. The vast majority of mistakes that your students make will be due to a faulty position. If you fix the position, you will oftentimes fix the mistake.

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