“You can spit in their ear to get them to canter,” a former coach of mine, Robert Hall, used to say, when emphasising how easy it is to train a horse if you use any aid consistently. In a demonstration I will often demonstrate this point by doing something silly, like pulling the hairs behind the saddle as I give the normal aids for canter. I do this about ten times, then take the leg away completely and just pull the hairs and most horses will still canter.


However this is the root cause of a fundamental weakness with equestrian coaching that is not the case in other sports. We work consistently with our horses, get a result and EUREKA we have an answer that we use again and teach others. “I’m a practical horseman,” we often hear from the coach, “if it works I'm happy.” However these are some of the most dangerous words in equestrian coaching. It is not enough to just find techniques that work….we have to ask if there is a better way, a way that will allow more efficient progress, and a way that will work for all levels and disciplines. To provide answers to these questions coaches need to really study their subject and ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ who have already gone down this pathway.

Nuno Oliveira, shown in the picture above, was often considered somewhat of a maverick in the dressage world, but unlike so many trainers who are on the ego trip of their ‘unique’ method, he truly studied dressage training and was as familiar with Steinbrecht, Lorke, and the German School as he was with French master trainers.

I would suggest that a Dressage trainer today also needs to have studied jumping, and that any trainer of young riders needs to study all the major disciplines.


A coach has a huge responsibility to deliver sound and sensible advice that works for all the disciplines, and works not only at a lower level but also at a higher level. They have to do this if there is any possibility of their lower level student one day aiming for Olympic heights…and who can say in equestrian sports who is NOT going to possibly reach the highest level, and in what discipline. Every Olympic champion was once a very novice rider with very limited skills and ability and who are we to steal our rider's dreams by sending them down the dead end road of a coach who has failed to study their subject.

There is an important added reason for this in equestrian sports. In most sports the road to elite performance is tightly controlled by age and maximal development from a young age – by your thirties you become a veteran - but in equestrian sports extraordinary heights are possible even in your sixties. This is not only true of Dressage. In show jumping, for example, Canada’s Ian Millar, Brazil’s Nelson Pessoa and Ireland’s Eddie Macken have all competed successfully at the highest level at this age in recent times, and in horse trials Bruce Davidson from the USA, and New Zealanders Mark Todd and Andrew Nicholson all continue to defy the aging process at the highest level.


New legs for old is a prime benefit of equestrian sports, applicable not just at elite level but also to all the tens of thousands of older riders who ride happily at lower levels, and who fulfil their potential and gain huge satisfaction because of good coaching…and a few of these riders will (not may) ride at International level if they have the right horse. Sadly there are probably even more riders who never do this because of initial training that that was inappropriate for higher level riding or a different discipline.

Three of the most common horrors are (1) Doing sitting trot before a rider is ready and/or using an unbalanced riding trot position, which both stop a horse coming between the aids and prevent an easy progression to jumping, (2) complicated aid systems which do not work for the higher levels or for efficient communication, and (3) and a mechanical approach which may lead to quicker initial progress but also quickly leads to a dead end in terms of partnership, and at worst may put the rider's life at risk.

As Steinbrecht said "...all [training exercises] follow one another in such a way that the preceding exercise always constitutes a secure basis for the next one. Violations of this rule will always exert payment later on; not only by a triple loss of time but very frequently by resistances, which for a long time if not forever interfere with the relationship between horse and rider."


So beware those bearing gifts of gold when their education and experience is limited to one discipline and does not include exposure to high level work and exposure to greatness, otherwise their gold may prove to be sand. This is why Master trainers and coaches with both depth and breath of training are so important, why mentoring schemes are so fruitful, and why a good idea must give way to a better idea.

Now I am well aware this is all ‘a big ask’ and a huge challenge for coaches, but it is also a huge opportunity that is just waiting to be grasped and turned into contented riders and horses. Happy days. William


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Comment by Mandy on February 2, 2010 at 7:46pm
Agreed! Well said.
Comment by Jackie Cochran on February 1, 2010 at 3:13pm
Every time I page through the blogs I look at this picture and go WOW!
Comment by William Micklem on February 1, 2010 at 2:43am
Hi Lynn...your support and comment about 'enjoying the journey' are both greatly appreciated...I always say to the coaches as well that they need to enjoy the journey not just the rozettes...William
Comment by Lynn Beglan on January 31, 2010 at 7:11pm
Good coaching makes ALL the difference! I'm 50, and have been fortunate to have great coaching and mentors who care about their students, and their horses. I am making progress! I think you are right - there are no short cuts in the long run. Most of all, I am having fun, enjoying the journey, and loving my horses. PS: Ian and Eddie are two of my heros!!
Comment by William Micklem on January 29, 2010 at 4:30pm
Your story shows determination and a sense of humour Jackie...vital attributes for special humans...William
Comment by Jackie Cochran on January 29, 2010 at 4:00pm
Yes, beginners need good coaches. When I got my first horse I had 3 months of instruction from pretty good BHSI full instructors. They taught me a good bit, some of which I still use. Then I had one week (7 days) from a most wonderful and effective lady coach. Her influence completely changed the way I rode for the rest of my life (yes, Forward Seat.) I now have a wonderful coach who took me (withing the limits of my MS) from being a decent rider to being a good rider in the FS even though she does not ride FS herself (she has an extremely effective balanced seat she teaches.)
I have had only 2 really effective coaches, 2 decent coaches (the BHSI), and most of the rest I took lessons from were good general teachers of riding but who could not adapt their system to my undiagnosed handicaps. I even had one coach I tried who told me she could not teach me anything on the flat when I really could have used some help. I stopped taking lessons from her.
Comment by William Micklem on January 29, 2010 at 3:49pm
You are so right Geoffrey and you are a real coach for enjoying the beginner riders...cheers..William
Comment by Geoffrey Pannell on January 29, 2010 at 3:27pm
.I am enjoying re-reading these blogs William, some very pertinent observations. I've always thought it silly that at most pony clubs (in this country at least) the youngest riders or beginner group are taught by the beginner coaches!! I know I've always enjoyed those classes the most, and have insisted on having a beginner class each time I go to a new club. The other day one of my pupils parents told me that at their club , she asked the president if the Level 2 Coach that comes as a volunteer could teach the little kids once in a while. The reply just about floored me, " Oh no, she is much to important to teach the beginners" . Cheers Geoffrey
Comment by William Micklem on January 29, 2010 at 12:07pm
Helyn you do me good...thank you...William

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