Seven things which have actually made me a better coach

I don't think I've ever met a perfect RDA coach, but most of us seem pretty keen on improving our skills.

There are plenty of ways you can become a better coach which are all to do with reflecting, processing, and careful consideration. Deep stuff - nice, if you have the time for it. There are other ways which aren't very helpful in the here and now - sticking at it for a number of years and building experience, for instance, although that's not guaranteed to make you a better coach on its own. The inexperienced, stuck-in-a-rut, and straightforwardly realistic coaches among us need practical steps to doing what we do better: here are seven which have worked for me. I won't pass judgement on whether they've made me seven times as good...

A clinic with dressage coach Anna Miller

1. Expanding the comfort zone

How big is your comfort zone?  Can you do something small to step outside it?  For some coaches this will be a couple of riders of a specific age - for others a wider-scoping three classes' worth. Usually there is a difference in experience between two examples like this, and it doesn't take years of waiting to go and seek out new experiences. Is there another class at your group where you can shadow or swap with the coach? Does another coach need cover? Even the volunteers in your classes with no coaching aspirations can benefit from this same advice by working with different riders where possible. I've seen newer coaches at my group really grow not with their regular classes, but when they've picked up something different that they felt was a stretch or not really their thing.

I've had my comfort zone expanded both by similar and slightly more throw-in-deep-end means, and I'm very comfortable with most coaching nowadays as a result. With the exception of very small children, which I have accepted will always terrify me (surely self awareness is a good thing too?).

2. Working with the right horses

We give plenty of credit to schoolmaster horses for the benefits they offer riders, and many RDA horses could be considered true "schoolmasters". What about schoolmasters for coaches? RDA coaches have a more diverse range of equestrian experience than mainstream instructors (with e.g. BHS qualifications), so being able to learn from the right horses, and even what "the right horse" looks like can be a huge learning experience. As someone who came to RDA with reasonable equestrian experience but no industry qualifications, the things I learnt directly from our best horses in my formative years as a coach were some of my most important lessons. Most RDA coaches are somewhere on the spectrum of "get what you're given" when it comes to the horses they use in their lessons, so it's not as simple as "make sure you've got amazing horses in your lessons". It's still incredibly helpful to continue the conversation about what makes a good RDA horse, and what groups need to access these horses, on every possible level.

3. Coaching newer (or just other) coaches

"Teach it to someone else to make you understand it better" is a learning strategy that's seen me right since my GCSEs - I have a cynically low tolerance for platitudes and rubbish advice, so this one must be decent. You don't have to be involved in the formal training of a new coach to share skills and advice talk through plans and problems, and generally make space for mutual learning. This doesn't even have to be limited to coaches less experienced than you, or those in your own group - we are all each other's peers, and I think it's a good skill to be able to explain things to any audience.

4. Working with the wrong horses

It would be much better if we could all access the exact right horses and ponies for each of our riders and sessions, but if you work with horses you are going to get bad days, curveballs and mismatches. It's part of the fun, apparently. Even my group's very best ponies had riders who didn't get on with them especially well, and if you stick with RDA long enough you will meet horses who don't pass their trial or who do not enjoy the work long term. Just in the first quarter of 2023, I've had the same horses go totally differently for different riders with very similar profiles, meaning lots of different coaching strategies and a healthy dose of on-the-hoof problem solving.

Working out why things don't work, then working out how they can be worked through or what you need to change, are all going to contribute to your skills as a coach. There is always a balance between when it's better to give up on an idea or when it's worth pursuing with changes, and nobody is ever going to learn that if everything is straightforward all the time. Making sure that you keep records of your sessions and give yourself time for a personal debrief after coaching is a really good way to get time and space to think about anything that didn't quite work. Sometimes it's helpful to bounce ideas off other coaches, or ask those involved in the horses' training and care for advice or further info - speaking to riders or their parents can also be really helpful too. The more we know and all that...

A lesson taking place in the indoor arena

5. Watching... and asking

Perhaps you've taken point number 3 and mentored, advised, or generally made yourself approachable to a less experienced coach. How about you tapping into a more experienced coach's powers? Even just watching them schooling or coaching someone else can be incredibly valuable - that's why demos exist - but asking your own questions at an appropriate moment is even better. We've been lucky enough to have hosted two para dressage training days at our group over the last six months, both coached by Anna Miller who has been incredibly accommodating of all our questions, as well as giving our very fledgling para dressage team a really encouraging experience. Don't underestimate how useful it can be just to watch an expert coach at work. I've watched Clive Milkins teaching day-long clinics at my group and come away having learnt more than I ever realised I was taking in, even from lessons with riders I don't coach myself.

If you're able to ask any questions, even better - all the best coaches, I find, are very happy to answer them. If you coach riders with different needs to the one you're watching, it's a good start to ask about how you could adapt an exercise or concept to them. RDA and para coaches are particularly good at adapting things - it's in our DNA. Don't forget: nobody starts coaching knowing everything.

6. Magpie moves

"Be a magpie, not a parrot", my past self says, and I'm still inclined to agree with her. There are lots of resources out there - Instagram accounts, YouTube channels, old fashioned magazines, and for the really young coaches among us, TikTok - full of ideas for lesson plans and exercises. There's even a blog or two that might be useful. (I've been really enjoying Instagram accounts for trotting pole layouts this year, try @equinepolework and @equi_pole_app_official.) The beauty of there being so much out there is that you can pick and mix to your heart's content, and that includes any nuggets you might have mined from watching a demonstration or hopping into another's coach's lesson. My best advice is to find one thing that you like the look of and spend a bit of time - it can genuinely be five minutes if that's what you've got - mind mapping all of the different things you could do with it. I had more material based around trotting poles in the shape of a carrot than I had time to teach the weekend before Easter. It's a bit like music: you can only be so original, so don't waste time stressing about reinventing the wheel when you can take little bits of inspiration from so many places.

7. Down time

"I don't understand these people who feel guilty about using all of their annual leave" - actual words spoken by me at the stables, where even my tweenage riders expressed shock last year at the news that I was taking a holiday and would be off RDA duties for a couple of weeks. My group operates year-round, bar a two week closure at Christmas. Special events and other circumstances - like extreme weather or lack of volunteers - mean no class would manage a full 50 week stretch uninterrupted, and volunteer coaches do ultimately have the power to choose to cancel (or find cover) beyond this. All very reasonable.

I am the first to admit that I am quite hard headed about not cancelling Saturdays, ever. We take a lot of hits in terms of special events taking place at the weekend, it's the busiest day of the week, and for a stretch I was the only regular coach coordinating it. Maybe I take that responsibility seriously; maybe it's a hangover from the effects of lockdown; maybe I'm just stubborn. I wouldn't be able to do my day job well (or willingly) without some time off - turns out it's not massively different for being a volunteer RDA coach. That holiday last year? It did me so much good. Sometimes the best thing you can do to improve yourself as a coach is to have a bit of a break from it - if you need to work on this one, I'm right there with you...

Charlie looking really pleased to be riding Duke!