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Teaching cross-country jumping

From: Mary

Dear Jessica, I taught riding for many years before circumstances made it necessary for me to give up my barn and take up a "regular" job. Now that I have finally retired from my "regular" job, I am anxious to begin teaching riding again. I have missed it every day of those almost twenty years!

Just outside the town where I live now, there are several large riding stables with extensive facilities including cross-country courses. The owner of one of these stables has asked me whether I would be willing to take on the job of teaching cross-country riding and jumping to the students. Their cross-country instructor is leaving (she is married to a military man who has been transferred elsewhere), and since the owner knows me and knows that I have had experience in this area, she has asked me to "fill in" for a few months with the idea that if all goes well I will take over the position full-time.

I would love to do this, but I am hesitant just because it has been so long since I have taught riding or indeed done much riding myself. When I gave up my barn, I had to sell my horses, and I was so unhappy that I avoided riding for the next fifteen years. I began riding again, on horses belonging to friends, about five years ago, but my riding has been casual and done exclusively on weekends, and most of it has been trail riding. I have jumped the occasional log, but little else. Although in the past I had done extensive cross-country riding and taught and coached many students, I'm not certain that I am still truly qualified to do this. The owner of the stables is willing to give me time to make up my mind. Provided that I agree to teach simple basics of cross-country in the meantime, she will wait two months for me to decide before she begins looking for another instructor/coach.

This work is what I want to do, and teaching at this facility would be ideal, but I am not sure that I trust my experience or my judgement at this point, because it has been so long, and because this means so much to me! I want to do it but I want to be fair to the riders and to the owner of the stables. You are so good at providing thoughtful and balanced advice. Do you think that you could possibly give me an overview of what, in your opinion, I should be able to do and teach?

Thank you! Mary


Hi Mary!

I'll do my best to help out here, because based on your concerns and the thoroughness of your question, I feel that it would be a great loss to your potential students if you decided NOT to teach. ;-)

I think it will be easier for me to answer your question if I divide it into two different areas: your own riding skills, and your teaching skills. If you have been riding every weekend for the last five years, you should certainly be in good enough shape to begin a more ambitious and more focused riding program. Ask the owner of the stables to assign you a horse or horses to ride, and begin riding every other day for forty-five minutes or so.

There's some overlap between riding and teaching skills. Obviously, if you're going to teach something, it's essential that you understand it AND that you have done it yourself at some point, even if it was years ago. You don't necessarily have to be able to do it NOW - many excellent instructors go on teaching long after age, stiffness, arthritis, or other conditions have made it impossible for them to continue performing at a high level. Age and physical impairment don't wipe out your understanding, your memory, or your ability to teach and explain - in fact, some wonderful instructors teach from a golf cart - or a chair. Do your best (both on and off the horse) to become as fit and strong as possible, because it will make your teaching and your riding more enjoyable, but don't feel that age and lack of "eventing fitness" should disqualify you from teaching. They shouldn't. Do what you would do with a student who was older and/or unfit - create an exercise program that will enable the student to become as fit as possible, so that safety, progress, and enjoyment can all be maximized.

When you take on any new student, it's important to assess that student's riding skills and general knowledge of horses and riding. You can apply the same practice to yourself. Begin by evaluating your own skills and abilities as they are now, determine what you need to change and improve, and then design a riding program for yourself. If you don't feel that you can evaluate your own skills from the saddle, have someone videotape you, and then watch and analyze the rider on the videotape as though she were someone else. Now that you have time to devote to your riding and teaching, you may be surprised to see how much you remember and how quickly you improve. Keep a journal so that you can record your difficulties and your progress. This is just one of two journals you'll need to keep - the other will be a teaching journal in which you will record your teaching program: the general outline, the details, and the progress of each rider.

When it comes to teaching, start by creating a checklist for riding skill asssessment, then evaluate each rider and record your conclusions. If this is a good teaching facility, you'll be working with intermediate riders, not beginners. Your students should already have considerable experience on the flat and over show jumps and gymnastics - because until those things are in place, they won't be ready to learn to ride and jump cross-country. But even if you are absolutely certain that the previous instructor did a great job, be sure to evaluate each rider carefully. You need to know exactly what your riders know, and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and you'll need to find out how each one learns.

Teaching/coaching cross-country riding doesn't mean going out that first morning and leading a group over a cross-country course at a gallop! Start your riders' lessons on the flat - this will help you perform your evaluations. Talk to the riders, get to know them as individuals and as members of a group, and find out what THEY think their strengths and weaknesses are. Not everyone is clear-eyed when it comes to self-analysis.

For the sake of your riders' safety and progress, and for the sake of your teaching, evaluate their flatwork thoroughly before sending them down to their first jump - in the gymnastics arena.

Before your riders do any cross-country galloping or jumping, you'll need to be sure that they are competent to do basic dressage, and understand what they do and the reasons for doing what they do. Necessary skills would include position and balance, an understanding of the aids (natural and artificial), an understanding of the gaits, figures, and movements needed at their level, and the ability to increase and decrease speed AND to increase and decrease stride length (if they've been well-taught, they will know that these are two completely different things).

You'll also need to be sure that they understand the basics of horse anatomy and principles of conditioning, at least to the extent of knowing how and why a horse should be warmed up before work and cooled down (or, as I prefer to put it, "warmed down") after work.

When you've established that their flatwork is adequate, evaluate their jumping skills. Again, safety will be your first concern. You'll want to evaluate their position, balance, and aids before, over, and after jumps. Test them over ground rails and small single jumps. Send them over grids. Send them over combinations and related fences, and again, TALK to them - you'll want to be sure that they aren't just on "auto-pilot", and that they understand the difference between a series of individual jumps, a combination, and a series of related fences. You'll want to be sure that they understand the difference between verticals and spread fences, and that they understand when to urge a horse on, when to support it, and when to leave it alone. You'll also want to be sure that they understand how to jump a course, as opposed to a series of individual fences.

This will, of necessity, involve quite a few sessions in the jumping arena (and around the jumping lane if you're lucky enough to have one of those). Obviously you won't be looking for perfection - these are intermediate riders, after all, and when it comes to cross-country, they will be BEGINNER riders. But you'll be looking for sound, solid basics that will allow riders and horses to be safe and learn whilst enjoying themselves. Take your time, for safety's sake. If and when you discover gaps in the understanding or performance of riders or horses, you'll be able to make the necessary corrections and fill those gaps BEFORE you add the additional challenge of working and jumping over terrain.

When you think your riders are ready to leave the arena, go out into a field or onto the cross-country course itself, and teach them how to ride over terrain. Repeat the flatwork lessons - you, and your riders, will be amazed to discover just how much more difficult it is to achieve round circles, prompt transitions, and an even stride and speed when the ground underfoot is no longer flat. Many of today's young riders have spent most of their time riding in arenas, and aren't prepared to deal with the great outdoors. Many riders who are quite competent in a flat arena become unbalanced and insecure when asked to trot or canter over undulating ground, and have no idea how to cope with actual hills. Even if the horses are very experienced and can help you teach the riders, be slow and thorough in these early stages. Teaching the riders about terrain, and enabling them to achieve the same kind of control over their horses that they have in the arena, is an essential part of your job - and will be the basis for their success and enjoyment when they begin cross-country jumping.

Once they're feeling secure and balanced on the flat, and are able to adjust their horses' stride length and speed uphill and downhill, teach them an effective position for cross-country jumping, and explain to them why the best cross-country riders invariably stay very slightly behind the horse's motion.

With all that established, it will be time to introduce them to cross-country jumping. Begin with the same jumps they already know from the arena - cross-rails, small verticals, and small oxers. When they're jumping those well and comfortably, you can begin introducing the new jumps that they'll find on cross-country courses.

There are other specialized skills associated with cross-country, and you can teach them all. For example, you can teach them how to go from canter to gallop and back again (many "arena riders" have never galloped). You can also set up markers and teach your riders how to evaluate their speed, and how to gallop at different speeds. It's never too early to acquire an understanding of these things.

Walking a cross-country course is a skill in itself, and one that all cross-country riders should master. Teach your riders how to walk a course! Take them to other facilities and walk those courses with them.

Meanwhile, of course, you'll naturally want to keep them up to the mark on various other topics, from grooming to horse management to the choice, fitting, and adjustment of saddlery and tack. Eventing is the ultimate test of horse and rider, and eventers MUST know as much as possible about every aspect of horses and horsemanship, for safety's sake AND for the sake of their performance and their enjoyment.

I'm sure that you will think of some other areas to cover, but this should help you start planning your program. Remember, your time spent on careful evaluation, and your students' time spent mastering the basics, is NEVER wasted. The more thorough the early work, the more quickly the riders will make progress later.

Over the last twenty years, there have been changes in eventing's governing bodies, and in competition rules and regulations, and you'll want to be sure to familiarize yourself with all of the current standards and requirements including performance, jump heights, distances, required (and forbidden) tack and equipment, etc. Visit the website of the United States Eventing Association (USEA) at www.eventingusa.com to find out about becoming a member, something you will want to do if you're in the USA (if you're located elsewhere, become a member of YOUR country's national eventing association). There have been other changes, as well. Certain types of saddles, bits, and rider clothing have become popular, and helmets are now an essential requirement (as you have probably already discovered, today's equestrian helmets are very different to the "riding hats" that were available twenty years ago). A few hours with a stack of current catalogues and horse magazines should be enough to make you familiar with today's eventing fashions, fads, and trends. Today's teaching techniques make much more use of videotapes - and of visualization and other forms of mental training. Good horsemanship, however, is still good horsemanship, and means putting the horse FIRST. That hasn't changed at all.

One thing I will suggest is that if you're located in the USA, for the sake of your own appreciation of your abilities, you join the American Riding Instructors Association (ARIA) and consider taking the exams for certification as an instructor of eventing. The program is designed to recognize the abilities of "the serious, above-average instructor who teaches safely and in a professional, competent manner, with high standards of honesty and integrity" - this would be ideal for you. Here are the general requirements at the various levels of certification:

Eventing

Level I & Level II - Knowledge of concepts & exercises of Dressage, Cross Country & Stadium Jumping through USEA novice level. Videotape for Level II must show ability to coach cross country work and relate flat work to jumping.

Level III - Same as above, through USEA training and preliminary level Horse Trials (one day events). Video tape must show cross country, and must address conditioning and preparation for this level.

You have expressed concern about your teaching qualifications. Taking and passing the certification exams should reassure you regarding your general knowlege of horses and horsemanship and your specific knowledge about eventing, and having your teaching video evaluated by a panel of expert horsemen including eventing specialists such as Denny Emerson should give you even more confidence in yourself. For more information about the ARIA and its certification program, visit the website at www.riding-instructor.com.

Have fun, and welcome back to the wonderful world of teaching. ;-)

Jessica

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