Monday, July 30, 2012

Certified Instruction

I was looking for something on my computer, and ran across this article I wrote 13 years ago, when I first became an ARIA certified instructor. I am pleasantly surprised to see my attitude towards rider education hasn't changed, despite the years and arena miles. Unfortunately, my stage fright in front of a video camera hasn't improved either...but regardless, I thought I'd share it with you guys.


            I was working at Garland Farms in Georgia, when I decided the prestigious title of  “Resident Instructor” enough.  I sent Charlotte Kneeland my money and received a 10-pound tome entitled Horses, Second Edition to prepare for the up coming ARIA certification.  To add to the intimidation, the certification also required me to write twenty essays and submit a video of my teaching.  The paperwork reminded me over and over again that the video should be “an example of my best work.”
            Armed with this information, I began to prepare.

The Studying: Back to the books

I bravely began to study.  Horses, Second Edition by J. Warren Evans of Texas A & M is a very comprehensive, detailed textbook.  In short, it is dull.  I placed it next to my alarm clock determined to read some each night. Within a week I was referring to it as The Cure for Insomnia.  Although I was sleeping better than I had in months, I almost suffocated twice. A word of advice – never read in bed with a 10-pound sleeping pill on your chest.
In spite of nighttime setbacks I was learning from Evans.  And so were my students.  My Illinois students have long been familiar with my “do you know and do you care facts.”  Now Georgians were getting their share.
            I’d greet a student with “How was your day? Did you know a horse sleeps flat on his side for approximately 2 hours a day, broken into 7 1/2 minute increments?”  Or while grooming I’d say to another, “Those hard spots on either side of the tail are the ishial tuberosities.” 
            At first they would smile.  I think they thought it was cute.  After a few weeks they’d gently steer the conversation to other topics.  When I got to the chapter on internal parasites they would slowly slink into the tack room when I appeared. 

The Essays:  What makes me tick as a teacher?

            In between my late nights with Mr. Evan’s writings, I tackled the essays.
            The essay questions were very straightforward.  Actually, it was their directness that made them so difficult.  They required me to look at not just what I was doing, but why I was doing it.
For example, one question regarded the role of competition in my lesson program.  I have encouraged my students to compete, but never pushed them to do so.  What did that say about my teaching program?  What role does competition play in my student’s education?  Is that the role I want it to play?  Do my actions support my ideals?  All this introspection was making me dizzy.
Another question asked me to explain my philosophy of teaching.  At my ripe old age of 28 I had actually given it a lot of thought (actually, every time Dad asks why I’m not using my college degree), but forming those thoughts into coherent sentences, that was another thing.  I came up with the following:

I firmly believe that riding instruction is not really about teaching riding, it’s about teaching confidence.  Confident riders feel secure both physically and in their abilities.  To help this I require safe attire and try to put the rider on a suitable mount.   To make the student feel confident about her abilities I try to break each movement and/or exercise into smaller pieces and work each piece before putting them together as a whole unit. 

I try to teach the rider to listen to her horse.  I strive to teach them to use the aids to communicate with their horse, and to use the horse’s reactions to those aids to further refine the communication. 

I believe good riding gives the horse no reason to resist doing the correct work.  I utilize the training tree to help students evaluate where they are in their training and to give them a framework to further their progress.

After I finished I quizzed one of my long-time students as to what she thought my philosophy of teaching is.  I was delighted to find our answers matched.
After several drafts of each answer I was finally satisfied.

The Video: A Star is Not Born

            Now came the bigger challenge, making an example of my best teaching.
I assembled my brave student Katie Patton, Gina and John Krueger’s stallion Pik Winland, and our faithful farm videographer Dot Brock.  The weather was beautiful, the outdoor arena was groomed and ready, my lesson plan was planned and planned and planned again. 
            Dot started rolling tape.  My palms began to sweat.  My stomach started fluttering.  I suddenly developed a stutter.  I couldn’t tell my right from my left. Not good.
            I took the video into my cabin, locked the door, and pulled the curtains.  Then I made myself watch the video.  I tried to be objective and stick to what I can improve.  I came out with my ego in a bag and two pages of improvements.  First on the list was “teach, don’t just direct traffic.”
            Now I understood why the testers recommended making practice tapes.
            I tried again. 
            And again.
            By the 4th time Dot commented that my stage fright was becoming chronic.  
            I watched all four videos back-to-back.  The one with the best teaching was the one we did as an “experiment.”  Dot was figuring out her new camera and the video came out in black and white.  I wasn’t dressed properly (I had on one of my long college sweatshirts and a ball cap – I looked about 12). Halfway through taping the skies opened up and rain poured.  But the teaching was solid. 
            Not having the heart to put my friends through another session, I decided to submit it.

The Test: Fear’s moment to shine

            Test day arrived, and in my nervousness I arrived 45 minutes early.  Those 45 minutes stretched into years.  I worried.  I fretted.  I peered at each of the three other testers.  I was convinced they were big-name trainers with walls and walls of ribbons.  I was sure their student roster read like a who’s who of NAYRC medallists. 
            And I was just a lowly working student turned resident instructor.
            Then one of them said “Are you as nervous as I am?” and I realized they were 3 other professionals just like me.  We were all interested in providing safe, fun educations for our students. We worried about liability laws, correct turning aids, and finding time to get the laundry washed.  We put our riding pants on one leg at a time -- even the gal with a world champion saddle seat equitation title-holder for a student. 
            The test itself was straightforward and to the point.  You either knew the answers or you didn’t.  I thought I did.

The Wait : The Demon Doubt

            Then I went home to wait for my results.  I waited and waited and waited some more.  At the end of week one I wondered if my essay answers were complete enough.  Week two I dug out my text and looked up migration patterns of strongyls, convinced I had made a muck of them.  By week 4 I was sure I couldn’t saddle a horse correctly.  
            My students suffered with me. They tried in vain to console my doubting heart.
            Then the day arrived.
            I opened the envelope with trembling hands.  When I saw the words “Level III Dressage” on my certificate I squealed with delight.  Then I saw my scores – 99% in dressage, 99% in general horsemanship and the words “a very fine lesson” on my video critique sheet. The only negative comment was my “lack of professional attire,” and I could live with that.  I was sure it was Christmas.

The Aftermath :What had really been tested

            In the days that followed I did some soul-searching.  I asked myself why had I felt the need to tackle this test.  I am the same person now as I was before I had climbed to the top of my mountain and discovered it was really a molehill in disguise. I was pretty sure I was a good teacher before I took the test.  Pretty sure, but not completely sure. 
            Passing the test with flying colors gave me the confidence to believe what my students and their mounts had been telling me.  I do know my stuff.  I do communicate it clearly.  I do get results not only because of the depth of my knowledge, but also because of my love of that knowledge.  My definition of excellence is high enough.  All of these things were in place before I became certified.
The certificate just affirms it.   
Preparing for and taking the test didn’t change my teaching, or even my outlook on teaching.  It did change my outlook on me.  I had been a working student for two years at test time, and had beforehand spent a few years as a “working amateur.” I still saw myself as the gal who taught at the local hunter-mill on Saturdays, or the assistant to the “real” instructor.  I did not see the dressage professional my years as a working student had molded me into.  Taking the test not only affirmed me as a teacher, it affirmed me as a professional in my own right in my own eyes. 
I know that is the most valuable thing the test could have given me. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Summer Camp

Some of my best childhood memories happened at summer camp. So when Lion Country Pony Club asked me to teach at their camp, I looked at my already-over-booked July, and said “Sure, why not?”

I do not have much history with pony club. I have some students who are involved, regularly teach dressage clinics for the local pony clubs, and am vaguely familiar with the rating system, but Pony Club wasn’t such a big thing in the Midwest. I was in for a year, but the area covered by our club was so large, and I was on the furthest edge of it, so I wasn’t able to participate in enough of the events to really get a feel for it. Not surprising, as Illinois is so agricultural, 4-H played a much more significant role in my early horsemanship training.  Having never been immersed in Pony Club, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into.

Let me tell you, it was a great experience. The campers and my fellow instructors truly it special.

First, the campers. I told everyone I planned to corrupt future eventers with the mysteries of dressage, and that is exactly what I did. 

I, as a dyed-in-the-wool dressage educator, started by teaching the kids the first three steps of the German training scale. I taught each and every camper, even the D-1s, about tempo, suppleness, and contact.  I had them all singing the ABC song as they trotted around to steady their mount’s tempos.  With the aid of cones, I had them ride deep into corners in both directions to feel the differences in their horse’s left-to-right (or lateral, in DQ-terms) suppleness. I asked them questions while they rode, to help them learn to evaluate their horses as they rode, instead of just steering around the arena.  The kids soaked it all up like sponges.

And not only did their horses get better, they really enjoyed it.  They were alight with smiles when they could feel their horses changing underneath them.   

I took along the Unisit, one of my favorite tools for helping riders feel how deep their seats can be (yes, like any tool, it has advantages and limitations, but please, I don’t want to debate the Unisit in the comments--that is for bulletin boards).  The kids embraced their new feel, and all made dramatic changes to their positions. I used trigger-word techniques to help them incorporate their new feel into their new seat-based half-halt. 

With the older kids, I took it a step further, asking them training-scale based questions to help them create training plans for their mounts.  Then I played coach while they applied those plans, and watched their confidence grow as they felt the improvements in their horses.

The best part, for me, was Saturday’s 3:30 theory session. That weekend was HOT, and 3:30 is nap-time on a good day, but the kids stayed awake, and asked great questions while I described how to get the most points out of your dressage test.  I had all of them yelling out the training scale. How neat is that???

Then there were the other instructors. My schedule prior to attending camp was so crazy that I had skimmed over the credentials of my fellow instructors, which is probably best.  They were pretty impressive.  Gus and Ally are A-rated Pony Clubbers, Hannah has her B rating, and Erin is a World Cup polocross rider. Then there was me.  The information letter listed me as “Ange Bean, Dressage Champion,” which sounds great on paper, and probably was a good call by the organizer, as my “real” credentials of ARIA certification, L graduate, YDHTS alumni, multiple USEF, AMHA, AHA, and USDF metals and awards, etc., really didn’t mean much in this setting. 

I know how close-knit horse communities can be, and Pony Club is no exception, but my lack of Pony Club experience really didn’t matter to the other instructors. Very quickly, the “instructor’s cabana” (a stall decorated with tropical fringe and filled with snacks and sunscreen) became a comfortable place to hang out between lessons.  In no time, we were exchanging ideas, showing each other photos of our horses, and doing the normal horse-crazy networking.  Seeing the quality of instruction and professional demeanor of these young professionals renewed my enthusiasm for our next generation of horse people.

On Saturday, LCPH has a traditional “instructors vs. campers” polocross game. In my defense, I have never even seen this game played, so I didn’t understand the rules, so I was definitely a liablity to my team.  But dashing across a field, chasing a ball with a lacrosse stick was still fun.  Our team lost miserably, but everyone had a good time. 

I guess my summer camp memories aren’t bound to childhood anymore.   

Thursday, July 5, 2012

SFD's New Arrival

I took a quick look back at my blogs from this time of year last year, and I see a trend.  Yes, life gets crazy this time of year, but that’s to be expected. The additional element both this year and last year is Silly.

Silly is my big, wonderful black mare who was retired to broodmare status last year.  She is a wonderful, athletic horse, with one of the best work ethics I have ever ridden. So when we discovered an old injury that had formed a cyst in her coffin joint, breeding her was a no-brainer.  My thoughts on breeding are to breed the best to the best, so I put her Bugotti. I sent her out to Trevalyn farm, Leslie Feakins’ place, to manage her breeding. Silly, as is her nature, took on the first insemination, and once she settled, I  brought her home. Leslie figured her due date as June 8, so I took her back to Leslie in early May to foal out.

I looked at the show calendar, and made it a point of staying local in the early part of June. This time of year, it is impossible to keep the show calendar under control for long. So around the 20th, I knew it was going to get crazy around here, but her due date was the 8th, so by the 20th, I should be able to go tail-on-fire without my mind being crowded by birthing worries, or 5-legged baby nightmares, right?


We started a baby pool on our Facebook page, winner got a free lesson. The due date came and went, and all the guesses pretty much past, so I let folks guess again. And again.

Will this baby ever show up?

Apparently, not before the calendar gets out of control…
June 20, Pee Wee (one of SFD’s super sales horses, anyone looking for a steady, uncomplicated good guy? Here he is) competed at USDF/USEF show at Dunmovin. His first recognized show, and he took it in stride. He earned high 60’s for pretty red and yellow ribbons.

But still no baby.

June 22, we left for Ride for Life with 7 horses. Prince George’s Equestrian Center has done some major upgrading to their footing. Everyone had a great time, with many, many personal best scores and BLM or GAIG qualifications, and best of all, NO DRAMA. Everyone supported each other like the team we are supposed to be.  That’s when showing gets really fun.

I spent most of the weekend in warm-up, and Amy took stellar care of Venus so she’d be ready for her class on Sunday. Venus warmed up like a rock star, but got scared in their indoor. Prince George’s has a VERY hard indoor, coliseum-style set up but small, so the stadium seating is just a few feet from the indoor.  She started super, but as she got scared she took over a bit. Oh well, it’s her second show back, she just needs more time.

On the 24th, right after we hit the road home, Leslie texted. “She is in labor.”  

Of course she was, I was 3 hours from getting home.  Plus I had a clinic with Catherine Haddad the next day, and two horses going to a schooling show on Tuesday. But better than when I was on my way to the show.

So, of course, we unloaded, and Cherlye offered to go with me to meet the long-awaited baby. 

Ok, I admit, I have a defective gene. That ‘all babies are cute’ gene just doesn’t exist in me.  Puppies, kittens, foals, whatever, are cute once they get to 4 or 5 weeks. As newborns they kind of look like fragile aliens to me.  So Cheryle went with to see the baby, I went to see that Silly was fine with my own eyes. She is, after all, my sentimental-purchase horse (yep, I broke the business-horse-buying rules with her).

She was as happy to see me as I was to see her, and once I was sure she was ok, I met Jr.  He was busy trying to nurse, and yep, he looked like an alien to me -- all legs, skinny rib cage, and curly, damp hair.  Then he turned toward me, and he has Silly’s enormous ears, which immediately warmed my heart to the little alien. 

And on his forehead, I kid you not, was a very clear lightning bolt.

I guess the name debate has ended, at least in the barn.

Harry it is.

Cheryle drove me home, which was the best thing anyone could have done for me at the time, because once the adrenalin wore off, I was exhausted.

But there’s no rest for the wicked (or is that the weary? I never really know which is correct…), so I was up-and-at-it on Monday, with lessons and training, then loaded Eclipse up for a clinic with Catherine Haddad Staller.  When I got the clinic dates, I knew the timing was less than ideal since he had the weekend off, even before Harry’s arrival. But I get so much out of the clinics with her, so I had decided to sign up.

Eclipse is the perfect horse.  It’s that simple.

I was pooped. I really rode quite mediocre.  I kinda hung on my right rein and kept reminding myself to keep my butt in the saddle.  I abandoned him in about half of the changes, and climbed up his neck in the pirouettes. And he covered for me like the awesome, beautiful  boy that he is.  She kept complimenting how he looked, and his improved cadence and suppleness since last time she saw him.  Ellie Rawl, of Watermark farm, did an awesome job organizing, complete with a photographer. When I looked at the proofs later in the week, boy that horse can do a great job, even when I’m just sitting there hoping to look competent in from of auditors.

Tuesday we took Pee Wee and Mandy (SFD’s other sales horse, she’s one of the Ensign’s Farm Morgans, and she is amazing. She is so athletic and tuned in to her rider, training her is a dream. Love those bloodlines) to a schooling show, and both were very good in the wind. I had gotten a good night’s sleep, so I was able to actually help them in the ring – what a concept.

Wednesday my schedule finally had a break, so I took Doug out to meet Harry.  Doug took several photos and a short video, and of course his photo-shop skills couldn’t resist the lightning bolt.

Thursday and Friday were quite hot, which meant we could start early and I got to spend Friday afternoon playing with Silly and Harry again.  By Friday his body was more unfolded, and he was getting control of those long legs.  I got a good look at his gaits, and wow, Silly outdid herself. He is really nice.

Saturday was normal Saturday-at-home chaos, and Sunday I had a free day.  I resisted the urge to drive out and play with Harry again in lieu of doing SFD’s beginning-of-the-month paperwork (see, my job isn’t all fun and games...), then Doug and I went flower shopping and I spent the day doing essential things, like paint my toenails, and do a rough-draft of this blog. 

This week is crazy again -- Eclipse and Pee Wee showed Wednesday and I am currently away until Saturday teaching at the Lion County Pony Club summer camp.  I will do my best to bring the next generation of eventers to the beauties of dressage. 

As soon as I am back, I gotta make time to go play with the alien.  The awkward, and, dare I say it, cute alien.