International event rider and coach Ashley Johnson explains that to be a good teacher is to be teachable yourself and why coaching is her calling.
I taught my first riding lesson when I was fourteen at a Pony Club clinic. To be able to move up to my next rating in the Pony Club system, I needed to know how to teach. Richard Lamb, who is still active in the United States Pony Club (USPC) today, was the clinician. I was absolutely horrible. I don’t remember what I taught, but I do remember being nervous and having no idea what to say to the little girl I was supposed to help. I knew I was bad. In the weeks and months that followed my mom encouraged me, and the necessity of needing to learn to teach for the sake of my rating made me press on. By the time I was sixteen I was good enough that people began to pay me to teach beginner riding lessons. By the time I was seventeen, I had passed my “A” rating through Pony Club and was a certified instructor.
It is clearly one of my callings.
This has always stood out as an irony to me because now I teach almost every day and I love it. It is clearly one of my callings. At the same time though this actually makes sense. To be able to train and develop the understanding of a 1,200 lb animal, you are acting as a teacher. For horses it is understood that the rider is the Alpha; the leader. To be a successful leader you must in fact have some teaching skills. A good leader and a good teacher both can look at an individual in a situation and understand where the weaknesses lie and develop a plan to fill in those gaps.
Happiness to me is when a horse understands how to move and work in a direction of harmony with the rider.
In my day-to-day life I spend the mornings riding and the afternoons teaching lessons. One very famous, now retired, Olympian told me once that he loved the sport because of the people – the riders he has trained along the way to also be very successful. I do love the people, but there is not a doubt in my mind that what I love most about the sport is the relationship with my horses. I love going out every morning and sitting on the horses I am working with and having a conversation with each horse through my body, and asking them to grow in the direction of the best athlete that they can become.
Happiness to me is when a horse understands how to move and work in a direction of harmony with the rider. This is probably one of the reasons I started to breed and bring horses along from the very beginning. In the barn right now we have a two-year-old Oldenburg colt we are just starting to lightly back. The lesson is simple. We get on, we go forward, we turn. He understands. His lesson is done for the day and he is praised.
At the other end of the spectrum is my four-star horse Gucci. Gucci gets to be a horse in the summers and doesn’t have a big competition agenda, but he does get ridden and trained. This improves his kinesthetic knowledge as well as his muscle development. The ride each day is different but sometimes the agenda is very simple. We go out and we do six flying changes. If they are clean and calm, his lesson is done for the day and he is praised. This is teaching at its best.
After my riding is done, I sit on my golf cart and teach. Over the years I have held many teaching positions. I was the club instructor for Amwell Valley Hounds Pony Club. When I was younger I taught at camps from Vermont to Florida. I have successfully prepared many riders for national level Pony Club ratings as well as taking riders into international (FEI) levels of competing. Currently, I travel nationally to teach clinics. My continued involvement with the USPC led me to be chosen as the Professional Riders Organization’s (PRO) Junior Coordinator, and this year I was chosen to coach the University of Florida’s (UF) inaugural Eventing Team.
Along the way I also became an Instructors’ Certification Program (ICP) Level III instructor through the U.S. Eventing Association (USEA). With this certification you have to teach in front of your peers every few years in order to stay current with your certification.
Last winter my friend; Canadian event rider and coach Peter Gray, (pictured center) organized a co-teaching clinic on the tail end of a national symposium here in Ocala, FL. The timing of it encouraged auditing by those who had traveled to town for the symposium, so I taught with five peers and we had an audience. Interestingly, all of my co-instructors were men and four of the five were Olympic riders.
Empathy is a word I think about a lot as a coach and a trainer
We each had to teach a segment of cross country riding. I loved being able to teach in this format both because of watching how the other instructors presented the material and because it challenged me to present my material in the best possible way. Everyone who knows me knows I have a very ready smile. When my turn came I walked over to the rider I was selected to teach and smiled and asked her how she was. She later commented that I was the only instructor who was welcoming. This really warmed my heart. Not all students need a welcoming instructor, but I do think that every student needs an instructor that they trust and have confidence in. This moment was what made her confident in me, and we had a successful lesson.
Empathy is a word I think about a lot as a coach and a trainer – standing in someone else’s shoes and seeing their perspective. Some people and horses need tough love. Some need boundaries. Some need a greater level of trust. Some need motivation. Some need better explanations. Some need a little compassion.
One of my longtime students who is currently learning to teach recently asked me about a situation with a student of hers where the rider was very abrasive and un-teachable. Ironically, this is how she used to be herself. She told me that her student just didn’t want to listen to her advice and she asked me what she should do. I told her that I have taught many difficult and un-teachable students over the years. I said, “When they don’t want to listen to you, you listen to them and guide an exercise, and you listen to them and guide an exercise and you listen to them and guide an exercise. Don’t tell them what to do, let them tell you what they want you to hear. Then one day they will realize that they trust you and believe in you. Then they are ready for you to start teaching them.”
“We do not stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
To be a good teacher is to be teachable yourself. One of the reasons it is shown that children learn skills faster than adults is that children do not yet have concrete physical or mental patterns so they are more willing to step outside of their comfort zone to try something new. They don’t even think of a comfort zone as a comfort zone. They just try something. As an adult, we get set in our ways and in our bodies and we create invisible limitations. When I ask an adult to draw their right shoulder back to sit more evenly, they struggle to do it because they spend their entire day with their right shoulder forward. It feels natural to them. Maybe they have an old injury or they just haven’t created even muscling.
The hours and hours I have spent teaching riders of all ages and all levels has really shown me the differences between people who are teachable and people who struggle with learning. I appreciate this reminder in my life every day. There is a saying that goes, “We do not stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” This is one of my favorite quotes, because it reminds me that when we become rigid in our thoughts and physical patterns, we close the door to the world. To continue to grow and learn and play and change, we must stay able to step outside of our comfort zones and not even think of them as comfort zones. We must learn like children… and just do.