Shadow Training for riders and coaches – an affordable way to priceless education…

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Many riders and instructors struggle with costs of training and Continued Professional Development (CPD) so today I would like to chat about a possibly most underused and undervalued training option that is available to all those who are on a budget but are wiling to put some effort in.

You can call whatever you like – auditing, watching, spending-the-day-with… etc etc – I like the name Shadow Training as it somehow defines to me the role you play when undertaking this training.

You do everything the trainer does and everything the riders do – the difference is, rather than physically going through the motions, everything happens in your mind. I suppose shadow training might even be treated as a version of sports/mental imagery when visualising certain outcomes, behaviours, emotions and actions, one can improve real life performance.

How to make it work

1. Find coaches who genuinely love to part with their knowledge.

This is probably the most important part.

You want someone who will make you feel excited about trying the exercises yourself or with your riders. Someone who genuinely wants you to get better and who is self-assured enough in their own skills to share the ins and outs. Someone who isn’t going to make their training foggy/mystical just to impress you.

There is nothing more disheartening and demotivating than shadowing a professional who simply can’t be bothered. Personally I would also avoid anyone who is overly sarcastic and/or bitches about their pupils with you (discussing strengths and weaknesses is very useful for your education and assessment of the rider and the horse but talking the rider or the horse down is a no-no in my book)

2. Find coaches whose training methods, values and work ethics appeal to you. 

Not everything you watch might agree with you and that is fine. Although you are watching to learn, you are also going to form your own opinions, teaching style and riding style. When looking for coaches to shadow train with, don’t look for a “perfect match” but rather “perfect complimentary knowledge mix” 😉 There is no one system, one horsemanship school, one rigid training scale that will suit every single horse and rider. You never know who you will teach in the future and what horses you will ride.

3. Make yourself useful and grow five pair of ears 😉 

In my shadow training experiences I made teas, coffees, brought biscuits, dog sat, mucked out stables for impromptu arrivals, dragged poles in pouring rain, held microphones, cameras, translated languages, altered tack etc etc Sometimes I just sat and listened during dressage lessons, sometimes I walked miles and miles during XC schooling sessions or walked distances between repeatedly knocked over cavaletti exercises.

I personally learn best in half-half situation: listening and getting stuck in, so if you are similar, go for it. You won’t regret it 🙂

4. Ask.

I used to be compulsively shy as a child and a teenager so I do understand an apprehension many people feel when seeking help or guidance. Pick a method you feel least uncomfortable with (jus don’t txt!) – maybe email (but take your time to do it properly) – and be pro active no matter the stress it takes. It will be worth it.

If you are a sociable, brave individual, lucky you 😉 Get hold of the numbers of the coaches you would like to shadow train with and give them a ring!

5. Make notes & reflect

Jot notes during or after the day. Many concepts or thoughts can be explored and developed for your own horse(s) or pupils but if you forget them, you will miss out on an opportunity to extend your learning.

Reflect on all the lessons you watched, all the horses you saw ridden. What you liked, what you didn’t like and why. This will develop your analytical skills and help very much with planning of the training for yourself and others.

Below, I copied a couple of my old blog posts from 2010 – 2011 to give you an example of experiences that can be gained. Some details have now changed (Pre Novice is now BE100):

SHADOW TRAINING with Brynley Powell. organiser of Tweseldown Horse Trials – XC and Jumping

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“[…]Despite horrendous weather which brought rain, hail storm, more rain and more rain water everywhere I’ve had a super day. Since I decided that this year will be very much about watching higher level trainers/coaches and learning as much as I can I am trying to go by that aim.
It’s not always easy to swap a day of teaching (and earning) for a day of some unpaid training education but if I didn’t try to get better I wouldn’t see much point in doing my job.

Today I had a chance to zoom around Tweseldown racecourse and British Eventing XC venue (http://www.tweseldown.co.uk/) with its manager and an international three day event rider-trainer, Brynley Powell. Bryn took two riders XC schooling on their Novice/Intermediate level horses to sort out some xc technique issues and boost rider’s confidence.

We drove around in a car equipped with heated seats while the riders took the soaking 😉 Well, actually I took the soaking too as I tried to film as much as I could both for my own reference but also for riders to be able to have a look afterwards.
I’ve never been to Tweseldown before but I must say the ground is keeping well considering how many buckets of water per square meter had already gone into the soil!
I will be grooming there for a friend and her horse at a Pre-Novice event on the 18th of April so it was good to be able to have a look around. I hope the weather is better for her (and me!) on the day!
This morning on the course was all about confidence and technique that allows the rider to feel the horse, that doesn’t disturb or worries the horse and that allow riders to ride a flowing round. The objectives were certainly achieved!
The other thing worth noting was how the positive comments were mixed with constructive help. There was no negative coaching there at all. There are trainers out there who, although might be good riders themselves and have knowledge to offer, the way they pass it on can destroy a lot of trust and confidence in the rider…and the horse.
As one of the riders said today: ‘If you have a relatively good rider who wants to improve more you can’t just strip them off everything in one go. Even if what they do isn’t ideal, it might suit that horse, that combination. If you take their skill and confidence away there is not much left to run on…’.
As Bryn later added, if you want to teach a rider something new, something better, you must first make sure it doesn’t take their confidence away. This is because jumping and XC are 90% confidence.

Some coaching techniques are really mind boggling to me and I wonder whether some trainers just try to cover up for own inadequacies by bringing their riders down.

Then off to watch Bryn teaching two show-jumping lessons to two very different combinations with different problems to solve. I liked the way he chose jumping exercises to help with particular issues rather than throwing plenty of tasks at both horse and rider.
I volunteered to drag the poles and jump wings around so I could get the feel for what he was setting up and what distances he was using.[…]”

SHADOW TRAINING with International Dressage rider and trainer Anna Ross

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Watching James Burtwell’s clinic at Bury Farm while waiting for Anna to get back from the gym!

Over the years I spent many days at different yards with Anna including Patchetts EC, Bury Farm, her own bases in Banbury and now at Cholderton in Wiltshire as well as at private yards of her many clients’. All this thanks to her fabulous, ongoing enthusiasm for training. Below are a couple of my old blog posts, one with notes I made to give you an example.

April 2010

If it was financially possible I would happily just go and spend few days a week just watching the training sessions and anything involved with top horses and riders. It’s a fabulous opportunity and I love my days there.
This time Anna wasn’t teaching any clients but was focusing on preparing herself and horses for Saumur CDIO where she is selected to ride for the Team GBR.
After 4.30am start to the day I got picked up by Ali who also teaches and rides some horses for Anna. I groomed quickly the two horses that were to be worked at 9 and went to watch Ali riding lovely black mare. A couple of months ago she was a hairy, fluffy, unfit broodmare look-a-like, she is rather sleek now! And moves! Well, I thought it was quite good until Anna came, said a few things and the canter went from bum high to sitting on the hocks.
Then the rest of early morning was all about piaffing in hand with MK and watching very elegant Merrie learning half-steps. I’ve never seen a horse being taught half-steps in – hand before, fascinating. Simon, who does the in-hand work is quite a magician with the whip!

I was then left with Benji the dog with permission to eavesdrop on James Burtwell’s clinic (he is a Coach & List 3 Judge as well as Team Selector for Home Internationals and BD Regional Camp coach) while Anna dashed to the gym. Benji and I leisured in the sun while observing the training sessions. I must say James Burtwell knows how to be positive! He also seemed to have found that happy medium that allows him to praise riders a lot without sounding overly complementary and correct the problems without sounding too harsh. The skill I don’t think I have much of…yet…I’m trying 😉
The riders ranged from prelim to medium/adv medium level and yet again there was a lot of emphasis on correct basics but also a lot of freedom to play with more advanced movements despite a gap here and there.
What I really like about Anna’s teaching is that the basics come first. I don’t think I’ve seen many lessons when the gaps in rider’s position and the correctness in horse’s training wouldn’t be addressed first and foremost.
Having said that, all the horses on James’ clinic improved their way of going and finished on a very good note. He used a serpentine exercise a lot to work on horses’ balance, rhythm, bend and flexion and it was interesting to see how many riders/horses started rather badly and rode much better and more balance aware after several goes.
The afternoon started with Anna teaching Eppi who rides for her at home. Then MK, Borris and Anna’s riding were scrutinised by Jon Pitts who helps Team GBR with rider’s fitness & performance. Jon came to help with improving the canter zig-zag and one tempi changes. There is so many minute details in the training of a GP horse and a GP rider it is mind blowing, in a good way! To semi – quote Anna here, all the weakness that you have as a rider, all the gaps in the basic education might not show at Advanced Medium or PSG level but will hinder you at Grand Prix. Therefore she teaches riders at prelim as if they were going to make the GP level. It seems that once you’re there you better have your basics well in place or you can forget about improving your horse at that level.[…]
The day finished with setting up the dressage boards on grass for Anna’s lessons for eventers in preparation for Badminton. Wish I could see those. Maybe next time.

March 2011

As always when I do those days I feel like my understanding of the training increases and this in turn gives me a lot of refreshed enthusiasm for teaching. Being able to watch different riders on variety of horses and seeing how  issues are worked on has given me a lot of food for thought ever since I had the opportunity to shadow train with Anna. In fact, I feel it’s been so good I decided to try to incorporate shadow training with Altogether Equestrian into some of the Academy’s programmes so other riders and future instructors who train with the Academy can benefit from such experience too (programmes involved: Development, BHS and Performance). I am delighted to say Anna has agreed.

The riding I get is another gem of those days and as this year is pretty much sacrificed to development of the Academy business I only really ride Kingsley (which means walking with tiny bit of trotting at times) and some riding school horses and ponies in desperate need of schooling. Riding something that moves like a real horse feels amazing and I love every minute even though I feel all-over-the-place. In many ways though, in the same way as my patience with horses increased immensely, my frustration with my own issues has proportionally decreased. I feel like I have much more constructive approach to what I do on a horse and this allows me to enjoy finding a better feel, better way of doing something rather then simply be annoyed at my own lack of self-satisfaction. It’s so much better this way even though I am more demanding on myself than ever before. 

 Some Thoughts from today: 

– be clear with every aid, always know what I want to ask for

– suppleness, suppleness, suppleness

– less is more, especially with mares

– if horse isn’t supple in the back in canter, go back to trot and ride deeper for a moment, then return to canter

– bend always starts with outside aids, no short cuts. Loads of circles with frequent changes of rein. 

– on big “long” moving horse keep hind leg active and a little quicker to improve the quality of the paces 

– 1000 half-halts on a horse that leans on the hands

– deeper frame with neck out makes room for the hind leg and improves the work of the back; use to improve  engagement

–  10m circles before and after medium trots avoid unnecessarily strong hand, help rebalance the horse by itself

– there is always a moment in training when the horse will find an exercise hard, perhaps he/she might even argue/resist but to get to that next level we need to push for that little bit more. It might spoil a nice picture for a few days but then the horse should realise it wasn’t as impossible as it seemed. Without pushing those boundaries there is no improvement. 

– shoulder fore for straightness when working on changes 

– check canter quality and canter-walk/walk-canter transitions when figuring out problems with changes

– ride a change early enough [before the wall] so the horse remains straight

– if neck feels lose and easy to bend but there is a contact issue and inconsistent bend/flexion then the problem is at the poll/top of the neck; work on that slowly

– [on young /green horse] slight outside bend on straight lines can improve thoroughness in transitions

– [walk-canter transitions] canter must be immediate, no trot step(s) or it’s not good enough for changes

– {green/young horse] keep the canter forwards. Keep everything clear and the same as you would do at home. The horse will find reassurance in the routine. Same contact, same aids. 

– frequent rests on long rein and periods of long-low trot stretch in between exercises

– ride front legs to the markers [for straightness]

– [crooked horse] ride on inner track as much as possible and keep mowing the shoulders in front of the hind legs

– [crooked, yield-y horse] don’t ride too much leg-yield, aim for straightness and push both legs to both reins

– bend and flexion always together for correct bend

– when leg-yielding and losing throughness always “interrupt” the bad quality movement – ride a circle to push from inside leg to outside rein, then continue the leg-yield. “Interrupt” again if horse goes hollow or evades in other ways. 

– if soft, round and through in leg-yield aim for more expression and forward movement; same trot as when going straight, don’t compromise the quality of the gait

– [horse that lacks attention, set in the mouth/neck] move the neck, don’t let the horse chose the position or amount of bend, push the neck down and out, keep walk lose and free and forward

– keep everything positive but quietly challenging

– transitions within trot to improve contact and thoroughness in medium trot

– trot:canter and canter:trot transitions with a lower neck/supple back to improve thoroughness in transitions and acceptance of the aids before going poll up again

There is more but it’s almost midnight and I have a 5.30am start again…loved the whole day and the weather was so beautiful, just perfect 🙂

February 2012

“On Saturday, I took seven riders with me to one of Academy’s unique Shadow Training Days with Anna. Few years ago Anna gave me a chance to learn from her and I realised there and then what a wonderful training – by – watching opportunity that was. It’s not just sitting and starring, Anna always gave me a running commentary on what was happening, the why’s, what’s and what for’s. As well as many other riders, I learn by active observation and wanted the Academy riders to experience the educational and inspirational element of such days.

Short video from the day below 🙂 “

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5 thoughts on “Shadow Training for riders and coaches – an affordable way to priceless education…

      • That got me thinking – perhaps I should try someone new… I’ve worked with and for several trainers, and planned to go back to one of them for some quality time. But perhaps I should brave it and approach someone I’ve never had experience with before. Great idea, and I think more could be learned that way…

  1. what a good idea, as i have just taken early retirement, i am finding money very tight, also as i dont have transport for my horses anymore i can no longer go for coaching myself. As i did teach – and am going to start doing so again , this is a good idea for continued learning opportunities, as we never stop learning.
    another good idea, is to offer to be a guinea pig rider on a lecture demo, i have done this in the past, and ended up having a hour with one of our top 3 day event trainers during the day session and then again the next day at the evening demo.
    i would also like to do courses in NLP, and possibly REIKI, but again its cost prohibative

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