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On coaches, training and the development of equine talent

February 14, 2007
DRESSAGE CORNER
with BILL NOBLE

Article © 2007
This article may not be reproduced in
any form without prior permission.
picture: Cindi Bell

The sports media has evoked some fascinating discussions relating to our perceived lack of success at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

The very strong consensus is that the sports which achieved or exceeded expectations (such as swimming) were those which were well coached; to improve the standard of coaching is a high priority for SPARC (Sport And Recreation NZ). But let's go beyond "we want better coaches." - what is a "good coach" in equestrian sports?

Before discussing this further, I'd like to narrow the topic down by distinguishing between performance coaching and participation coaching. The former (which is what I'll be considering here) is usually, but not necessarily, at a higher level than the latter, but always has a long-term component: pupils are not only taught on what they are presenting today, but as part of a long-term path to elite level. The performance coach has therefore to have experience in more than simply improving today's performance; he/she has to have a strong desire for the student to reach the highest levels, and a strong vision of the path to get there. Participation coaching requires such coaching qualities as being an enthusiastic motivator, and an ability to communicate well; it seems to me that the prime quality for a performance coach is to know the sport inside out and top to bottom.

Consider the people who have had the greatest impact on dressage over the last couple of decades: Wahl, Rehbein, Hinneman, Bemmelman, Balkenhohl ... they have all had huge influence as coaches, but the one thing they have in common is that they were all very experienced trainers before and during their coaching careers. They had deep understanding of and feeling for the complexities of training horses to grand prix. (The only world-ranked coaches who have not been top trainers have been intelligent people who have worked with individual riders on a daily basis, and so have been able to continuously monitor the impact of the work ... eg, Dr. Schulten-Baumer.)

We need to improve our performance coaching skill: to do that we need to become better trainers. How do we do that? By training horses to advanced levels, of course. We can read the books, we can ride zillions of advanced horses, but nothing can replace the experience of bringing horse after horse through to top level.

I spent a few months with the late Herbert Rehbein some 20 years ago; at that time he was widely regarded as the greatest trainer in the world, and I certainly found the experience staggering. Of relevance to this discussion is the way he trained his riding staff - the young people who have progressed to be today's coaches.

Whilst I was there he had five riders working for him; they were given the old, the infirm, and the useless to ride when they first arrived, and those who did a good job were given better horses, and received more help, whereas those who could not were basically left to rot riding rubbish. Of those five riders one rode exquisitely, rode all the good horses, had frequent help from Rehbein, and had already taken three horses to grand prix; two rode efficiently (one of these rode for Finland in the Seoul Olympics), received some help, and were on reasonable horses; the other two hardly ever rode, and I never saw them receive help of any kind. This kind of Darwinistic approach may seem harsh, but has real advantages: it encourages riders to try much harder than they perhaps would in a more egalitarian environment, and it produces the ethos of trying to maximise the talent of every horse they ride.

This development and maximisation of the talent of every horse is the crucial point if we want to make it onto the world stage. To produce a world-class performer we need a top-class horse, a talented rider, and we need that talent to be maximised by brilliant training. The quality of the horses available now is such that competition success can be achieved by mediocre training on a class horse - I suggest that we see this at every competition in the country.

I can't see a way around or away from this (I'm not even sure that I want to), but it becomes a problem when the riders are the young professional trainers.

If these trainers only ever ride quality horses, they may never learn the care, tact and respect needed to train a more ordinary horse, and then they may never learn this process of maximisation of talent: training becomes one of talent exploitation, rather than talent development.

My advice to wannabe performance coaches is to learn the game by becoming a trainer of as many grand prix horses as possible. Some are trying to do this, and I salute you.

A couple of years ago I had a fascinating and scary discussion with a top NZ tennis coach, who stated that NZ had coaches of sufficient knowledge to create world ranked players, but was lacking players of sufficient talent. My view of dressage is diametrically opposite. It will be interesting to see which sport gets to world class first ...

 

 

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