How to Become a Riding Instructor or Coach

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By Melanie Huggett

"To teach is to learn twice." - Joseph Joubert

Do you enjoy learning and sharing your knowledge with others? Do you like working with both people and horses? Then perhaps you have considered becoming a riding instructor or coach.

Coaches are a vital part of the horse industry, introducing new riders to equestrian sport, and continuing to build skills and confidence as individuals increase in competence. Most importantly, they give riders the keys to safety, enjoyment, and success, regardless of the rider’s focus. Whether instructing beginners or coaching riders at the top of their sport, these equestrian teachers play an important role in the life of a student.

“Coaching is more than just teaching riding lessons,” says Wendy Sewell, Coaching Manager at Horse Council BC. Unsurprisingly, being a proficient rider is an important first step to becoming a coach. Sewell believes prospective coaches should ensure they have the life and riding experience required to be successful. “Being able to quote books is not enough,” she says.

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Coaching is more than just riding lessons. Coaches help riders with competition, goal setting, sports psychology, and many other areas in addition to teaching them how to ride better. Photo: Pam MacKenzie

Coaches must be able to recognize rider faults and offer real instruction in their correction, and do this without yelling or making demeaning comments. This means patience, good communication skills, and the ability to remain calm under pressure are important qualities for an instructor to possess.

It’s important to realize that not everyone is suited to a career in coaching. “It is a fallacy to believe that all good riders are good teachers,” says Deanna Phelan, a coach and trainer at Geary Hill Stables in Geary, New Brunswick. She believes a person who likes people and enjoys sharing their education is well suited to a career in coaching.

“I think the most important thing people should consider before deciding to become a coach is: do they have patience?” says Ruth Fowler, Master Course Conductor for BC and Alberta and a coach of 30 years. “Patience is so very necessary to work with people and animals.”

Coaches must be comfortable teaching a wide variety of students, who will vary in age, skill level, and characteristics. Coaches must have strong morals and ethics, and be able to work in the best interests of both their students and horses at all times. Safety is extremely important and must be put ahead of all else; liability is a large part of coaching, and should not be ignored.

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If you enjoy working with horses and people, and sharing your knowledge, then perhaps coaching could be a career for you. Coaches must be comfortable teaching a wide variety of students, who will vary in age, skill level, and characteristics. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

It’s also important to realize that coaching is a business, and coaches are self-employed (more on the business side of coaching in part two, January/February 2009 issue). For this reason, coaches should be organized, energetic, and self-motivated.

Most coaches do not work regular hours. Lesson times can be throughout the day, and are often irregular. Evening lessons are quite common during much of the year, as that is when students are finished work or school. Often coaches will also have to accompany students to competitions, which means long days. At the higher levels this can also mean traveling.

Coaching work is often seasonal as well. “Sometimes the interest in lessons varies with the weather or holiday season, not to mention cancellations due to sickness of a student, or lameness of a horse,” says Fowler, a resident of Cochrane, Alberta.

Therefore, prospective coaches must be willing and able to adapt to variable schedules and subsequent variations in income. Coaches should also be comfortable working outside and in inclement weather, as not all locations will have access to an indoor arena.

The Importance of Mentorship

“Mentors are some of the most important people in a coach candidate’s learning process and throughout their coaching career,” says Sewell. Mentors provide the opportunity to see a coach in action and get knowledge from someone with years of experience. A mentor can also provide developing coaches with feedback, critiques, and suggestions for improvement.

For those unsure of whether they would enjoy or be suited to a career of coaching, “mentoring with a mentor will give them a concept of what they will be getting themselves into,” says Jessica Paul, Coaching Administrator at the Alberta Equestrian Federation. For those already on their way to a career in coaching, or those already teaching, mentors can help one continue to develop. “A prospective coach… should try to mentor under an experienced coach to obtain as much knowledge as possible,” says Fowler. “In addition to this, it is always good to attend clinics by different successful coaches to obtain different ideas and techniques, therefore allowing you to broaden your knowledge base. It’s just a matter of putting more tools in your toolbox.” Mentoring is a huge opportunity to gain valuable experience and information, and to learn how to deal with different students and different horses, something which Phelan believes is important to every coach. “Try to get a perspective and become more worldly,” she advises.

The Question of Certification

The next step for many prospective coaches is certification. However, certification should only be sought after one is fully committed to coaching. “Many coaches go through the certification process and stop coaching shortly after due to a variety of reasons including finding out they cannot be successful at coaching for a living,” says Sewell. Fully exploring the career by gathering information and mentoring with a coach will help you decide whether or not coaching is something you really want to do for a living, and save wasted time and money if you don’t. Much like doctors, dentists, and other professionals, coaches pay for the process of becoming certified, and keeping certification updated.

Once sure, move on to researching the different certification programs: their requirements, costs, and benefits and disadvantages. Choose a certification based on what is best for instructing the type of students you are interested in coaching.

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Instructors play an extremely important role in the horse industry, as they introduce new riders to horses and teach the basic foundations of riding. Safety must be put ahead of all else. Photo: Pam MacKenzie

Sewell differentiates between instructors and coaches in terms of certification: “There is a basic difference between instructors and coaches in the expected outcome of what they produce. Theoretically, an instructor teaches basic riding skills. A coach expands on those basic skills and with that also starts to affect the rider as a whole using sports psychology, goal setting, feedback, directed learning, and competition help.” While it is true that some instructors take riders in the show ring and some coaches teach beginners how to ride, for certification programs Sewell’s definitions generally hold true.

There are many types of certification available for individuals wishing to be riding instructors and coaches (see below). Some might wonder why it is necessary to gain certification if they believe they already possess the skills necessary to coach.

It’s true that many well known international rider-coaches do not have certification; however, these individuals have proven themselves competent in other ways, including being successful at the highest level of competition.

While certification is not required by law in Canada, it has many benefits. Firstly, certification shows that your skills have been evaluated. “Certification sets a standard,” says Paul. This can give confidence to prospective students and the parents of prospective students, as it proves without a doubt that you have the skills required of the certification.

Not only does certification prove that the coach is able to ride, but certified coaches have also been taught how to teach, in addition to demonstrating their knowledge and technical competence. Stable management is another topic covered by equestrian certification. Essentially, certified coaches have proven that they are all-around horse people and able teachers. “In my opinion certification is necessary because it qualifies not only the standard or level of knowledge of the coach, but it shows a standard of safety,” says Fowler.

“I believe in certification and wish it was mandatory at some levels,” says Phelan. “It might help the sport get some consistency at the introductory level where it is so important.”

Certification also shows a commitment to teaching, as it requires significant time and financial obligations. Another benefit is that “certified coaches receive support from their Provincial Sports Organization as well as recognition,” says Sewell.

Insurance costs for certified coaches are also significantly lower than for those without certification.

Certificates Available in Canada

Certification is in transition in Canada. Recently a new development model was adopted by the Coaching Association of Canada. Called the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP), the model identifies three streams: the Community Sport stream for those who wish to teach students playing their sport for personal enjoyment; the Competition stream for those who wish to develop competitive abilities in their students; and the Instruction stream for coaches working with students whose focus is on learning and quality instruction.

Equestrian Canada

Equestrian Canada (EC) offers nationally and internationally recognized coaching certification programs in English, Western, Saddle Seat, and Driving. Designed to provide coaches and instructors with the tools to improve athlete development, EC certification programs were developed to incorporate the NCCP.

EC Instructor and Coaching certificates have strict guidelines, including completing EC Rider Levels and NCCP theory courses, mentorship requirements, and others. Once an individual has completed all the necessary prerequisite requirements, he must complete an evaluation course and examination clinic. These include exams on “the theoretical, technical, and practical aspects of their discipline,” says Danielle Boily, Manager of Coaching at Equestrian Canada.

Related: The Value of Coach Licensing

Despite the lengthy requirements, EC programs have many benefits once completed, says Sewell:

  • The EC program meets NCCP standards, which can be used in court as proof of competency.
  • Additional knowledge and opportunities give EC Coaches an edge through the use of the Long Term Athlete Development model, which is supported by Sport Canada.
  • EC certification gives students and parents confidence, as EC certified coaches are required to update their knowledge, hold first aid certificates, and do criminal record searches.
  • Only EC Coaches can administer rider preparation programs and exams, which benefit students by goal setting, high school credits, and preparation of future coaches.

EC Instructor and Coaching Level I and II certification programs are run by provincial equestrian organizations. Levels III and up are managed directly by the national office. For more information contact your provincial equestrian association.

Other Certifications

First Aid — It’s important to carry a valid first aid certificate. Accidents can and do happen and coaches must be able to deal with the resulting situation. An up to date first aid certificate is also required by many coaching certifications. In Canada, St. John’s Ambulance and the Canadian Red Cross offer Standard Level first aid.

Certified Horsemanship Association — The Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA) is an American based association that offers instructor certification, as well as certification to work as a trail guide, seasonal equestrian staff, and others. Eight levels of instructor certification may be earned in both English and Western disciplines. Certification occurs during a weeklong clinic in Canada, the US, or England. It’s important to note that CHA Instructor levels are neither comparable nor equivalent to EC Instructor or Coaching Levels, and CHA is not recognized by all provincial associations. 

International Group for Equestrian Qualifications — The International Group for Equestrian Qualifications (IGEQ) is an independent, voluntary group of National Equestrian Federations which strives to harmonize equestrian instructor qualifications to agreed standards. They do not have a certification program, but rather recognize qualifications from member countries whose certification programs conform to set standards. Currently there are 31 member countries. Canadians holding an EC coaching certificate may be eligible for IGEQ Equestrian Passports, which enable their qualifications to be recognized in any IGEQ member country. 

Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association — The Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA) offers programs for individuals who would like to become certified to teach people with disabilities. There are four levels in this internationally recognized certification program: Assistant Instructor (CTRAI), Intermediate Instructor (CTRII), Instructor (CTRI), and Coach (CTRC). On average it takes two years to complete each CTR Level; however, EC Rider and Coaching Levels are completed at the same time (up to EC Coach Level 1 for a CTRC) as prerequisites for CanTRA certification. 
 
Vault CanadaVault Canada offers a certification course for potential vaulting coaches. Following an evaluation clinic, candidates must complete a practical and theoretical examination. The NCCP Level One course, a Vault Canada lunging course, and a First Aid course are also required. 

For those with the energy, determination, and drive to become a qualified coach, it can be a very rewarding career. “I have a lot of great memories that my students have given me,” says Fowler. What does she like best about coaching? “That’s easy—seeing the smile on the face of a student when they have accomplished something that they have worked so hard for. It could be as simple as when they first learn to lope, or something more advanced like winning a trophy at a competition.”

Main Photo: Robin Duncan Photography - Certification is available for many disciplines, including driving.

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