Topics in this article
- Polishing - the new concept
- At what level should you polish
- Polishing for competition
- Polishing at different standards
- Polishing the horse
- The process
Polishing - the production and presentation of equestrian skills
Polishing is the icing on your coaching cake
Polishing is an ECEi initiative, in answer to the need to distinguish between coaching and what happens next, once a rider’s technical equestrian skills are confirmed, and they want to enjoy using them in public. Polishing is putting a name to the important process that everyone goes through, which in the past has been informally known as gaining experience. But polishing goes a whole lot further than experience, which can often be a haphazard and unreliable way for many riders to venture into the public arena. Polishing is an effort to organise and formalise what some very talented riders do intuitively, so that more riders may share these skills.
Polishing is not directly associated with our technical equestrian skill acquisition. It goes beyond that to include such things as the development of concentration skills, tension control, attentional focus, pre-competition routines, cross-training, gym programs, and many other production skills. These skills have not been included in traditional equestrian coaching before, although most have been the staple fare of other high-quality sports for some time now.
Polishing is all about the production and presentation of our equestrian skills. It’s about being able to ride at our best in the public arena – and for our horse to perform at his peak too, under all kinds of pressures and distractions. Carl Hester absolutely nailed this as he described Valegro’s entry into the dressage arenas at the World Games in Normandy where he went from the peace of the warm-up arena, through a chute and out into the football stadium and the welcoming roar of 25,000 people. That was surely as huge an ask as it gets for both horse and rider, before they’d even begun their test – with a super-square, immobile halt! Of course, Valegro and Charlotte handled it impeccably, but that had less to do with their equestrian skills and everything to do with their production skills. As Carl later told us at Valegro’s final appearance at Olympia, what made Valegro such an extraordinary horse was that, aside from his precocious dressage talents, he took the absolute cream of what he learned at home into the competition arena. Clearly, in order to do that, he has precocious presentation skills too – how rare is that! Carl went on to acknowledge Valegro’s skills, as he spoke from the heart to the riders in the audience, who had been disappointed by the many wonderful horses who cannot do that, and who leave their best work at home. Performing to an astonishing level of excellence and polished to perfection, this extraordinary talent and his no-less brilliant rider, under the inspired guidance of Carl, gave us the Valegro phenomenon.
Most riders can be coached to do their best in their usual home training environment. However, it’s quite a different matter for them to be able to do this in new or challenging circumstances. To take their performance to this new level, all riders need polishing (no matter how they may choose to do it), because polishing is all about their skill production – on any horse, at home or away, anywhere, anytime... everywhere, every single time.
Unlike most other sports, we don’t have to wait for competition to find a challenging, ever-changing environment in which to use our skills. We’re challenged every time we get on a horse! Just by being a living creature, the horse creates a new environment for our skill production, every single day. And we’re more challenged than ever if we get on a new horse, or ride outside, or in the rain, or at competitions. It’s a moving feast, and while gaining our equestrian skills in the first place takes time and effort, what makes riding so difficult in comparison to other sports is the production of these equestrian skills in this multitude of different contexts.
A similar sport is sailing, where the weather and the water combine to present different challenges for the sailor, every single day. These are ‘open’ sports, compared with ‘closed’ sports like gymnastics where the environment is basically predictable, controllable and unchanging. People in open sports have a far higher need for production skills, than participants in closed sports do. This is why we need polishing, because polishing is all about the production of our equestrian skills.
At what level do you polish?
You can polish riders (or their horses) at any level. Even beginners can be polished, by being asked to perform their equestrian skills in new or more challenging circumstances. If they have been part of a group, this may be as simple as asking them to perform a task individually, or perhaps to give a small demonstration to their group. More advanced riders can be polished until their skills are so second nature that they can perform them anywhere, anytime, under lights, on any horse, in front of big audiences, and on the competition stage.
There’s only one problem with all this – while there’s much we can borrow and learn from other sports, if these ideas are to be of any use to us in our uniquely complex and difficult world of equestrian coaching, then they must be suitably adapted to our equestrian needs.
This is where ECEi is delighted to lead the way. However, that’s only half the story because to make the success real it will need you to put it into practice! Polishing is yours if you choose to welcome it into your world. Polishing will take the quality of your coaching up to elite level, and this will be reflected in your riders’ public performances, no matter what their present skill level may be.
Polishing for competition
Most polishing is for competition, though it need not necessarily always be so. The proportion of polishing in the rider’s training increases as their overall standard goes up. If a rider is an active competitor, then all their polishing needs to be geared to the competitions in which they are taking part. Replicating the competition pressures and conditions will then be the basis of all your polishing techniques.
As we know, a carefully-orchestrated competition schedule will certainly contribute to their away-from-home skills for both horse and rider. By contrast, combinations which have unstructured and haphazard outings will not benefit from being polished in the same way.
I recall a lady who bought a very nice young show hack. Neither of them had done much showing, but she was terribly keen and loved her new horse to bits. Three months into this relationship she announced that she was taking it to the Royal Show – the biggest agricultural show in the state, with something over two thousand horse entries.
It’s not often that I’m lost for words, but that one certainly floored me. She couldn’t be dissuaded. She couldn’t be tempted to set a less glamorous goal. No one could talk her out of it, least of all me. Only her horse finally got his message through to her, when he bucked her off in the excitement of the Grand Parade, right in front of the VIP box in the Main Ring, giving her all the local TV and press coverage that she could ever have wished for. No one could have engineered a more devastating experience than that.
Far from being a polishing experience, this was highly stressful and it proved to be enduringly negative for both of them. Their confidence in each other never recovered from being so over-faced. What a pity! All so unnecessary when some careful review of their goals or at the very least some careful polishing, could have made for a very different outcome.
One of the biggest distractions for both horse and rider, which increases exponentially with the importance of a competition, is the size of the crowd. This can be quite tricky to train for, but make full use of speakers around the arena and know that you can download as much crowd noise from the internet as is generated by a football crowd of 100,000 people. This may be something of an overkill for the local show, but it’s a mightily useful resource when the stakes get higher.
Simulation includes everything related to a competition that you can reasonably replicate. This could be the competition surface, performing in the rain, needing to wear studs (on wet, dry, icy, muddy, hard, soft or slippery surfaces), or maybe learning to tolerate the PA system – and doesn’t it always start up when you’re right under the loudspeakers!
Again, for both horse and rider, these need to include things which relate to competition, like using competition gear, loading into a float, eating and drinking away from home (don’t forget the molasses...or the apple juice, or the carrot juice or whatever is his tipple), or warming up amongst a crowd of strange horses. It’s comparatively easy to rehearse these things, slipping them into the home routines or utilising local equestrian communities and events as quasi-competitions.
For a horse to leave his mates and perform in strange company can be very stressful for him until he becomes a seasoned campaigner, so any rehearsal of him doing this is useful for his competition training. You will be looking for him to maintain his home standards at a variety of non-threatening venues, during which time you’ll see how much decrement there is in the standard of his performance. This will tell you to what level his training standards need to go, which will give you a timescale of when he is likely to be ready for competition. He will develop the technical skills without difficulty if his training is carefully done, but they’ll be no use at all to him in public without his competition skills.
So many times, particularly with novice riders who don’t fully understand this process, their horses are being seriously over-faced by the competitions to which their rider takes them. You can facilitate their happy entry into the competitive word by helping them address the competition skills and those of their horse before they go public. This will be an immeasurable positive contribution to their confidences and forestall a whole fist-full of negative experiences.
Polishing at different standards
Yes, you can polish a beginner’s skills. It’s not the beginner you are putting the shine on. It’s their production skills. So, you teach a rider as a beginner, coach some of their skills to a modest level, and polish the best of them – a little. Then the cycle starts again. You teach them more new skills – coach these to increasingly higher standards and, again, polish the best of them. This process continues until the rider reaches their riding goals. As their general standard improves, so do the demands of your coaching and the meticulousness of your polishing. What was ‘very good’ or even ‘good’ for a beginner becomes ‘quite good’ for a novice and ‘not good enough’ for an advanced rider. As the standard goes up, so do your requests for high-quality results. As the rider improves, you quietly, carefully, and not too quickly raise the bar. This applies equally to polishing.
Polishing young riders
You have a very talented young rider who has been working on their first flying changes. You’ve just started coaching these changes, but they are still a little clumsy and sometimes her timing is a little late. Then you learn that the family has a visiting Rellie who is keen to see the next lesson. You have not as yet begun to polish these changes, rightly so because the combination has not been ready for you to do so. Polishing them would have included perhaps asking for them in a different arena, or performing them in front of a gallery. But their new skills have needed coaching first to bring them up to the quality of the rest of their performance. Polishing comes later.
In the interests of a glamorous lesson for the attending Rellie, and preserving the confidence of your young rider, you won’t include the under-coached and un-polished changes in the agenda. You’ll stick to other thoroughly well-coached and well-polished skills. Even better if horse and rider can actually be the ones to choose what they would like to do for their VIP Audience – minus the changes!
Polishing the horse
Polishing applies as much to the horse as it does to his rider.
I remember, many years ago, being given three almost identical small grey ponies. They were about the last thing that I needed in my life at that time. Rescue jobs always are.
Heaving a long sigh, I set about finding out who they all were. Well, what a joy was in store. They were three of the absolute best children’s ponies known to human kind! However, I was not about to put an unsuspecting child in the saddle before I had made absolutely sure of their manners and mindsets. I set about a program of polishing their brakes and steering, in all manner of circumstances, and ensuring their unflappability held good when balloons were popped behind bushes and car doors were slammed as they passed within inches of them.... Only when I had completed this bomb-proofing program were the ponies re-homed. They went with a guarantee that when the children outgrew them I would buy them back. This I did – several times – but there was never any problem placing them as I had ongoing calls, literally for years afterwards, from 500kms away, asking for more ponies just like these, please! It was a lesson well-learned by me - polishing is always worth that extra effort.
Polishing as a joint effort
Polishing is very much a joint effort between you and the rider. It relies on their riding skills having been well- learned (which means they must have been well-taught) and subsequently well-practised (which means they must have been well-coached). These skills must be on the brink of the third stage of learning – they must be almost automatic – before you begin the polishing process, otherwise you’ll over-face the rider who won’t be able to produce them in any more challenging circumstances than his home environment. This is because the polishing process will challenge the rider’s concentration and their distractibility, so they need very secure equestrian skills, not ones they have to think their way through in detail.
We hear so many riders complain that their horses go so well at home, but it all falls apart when they take them out to competition. Well one of the main reasons for that is that while the combinations may be well-coached, they are under-polished. Polishing is a very different process from coaching. Among other things, it’s about socialisation, de-sensitization, self-management and emotional maturity. We’ve all watched talented riders who in the past have done this naturally, and we’ve called it learning from experience. This experience may be erratic and un-structured and take years to accrue. It may have significant gaps in it, or it may be no more than repeated opportunities for making the same mistakes many times over. To profit from experience also relies very heavily upon having a good performance temperament in the first place, which does not necessarily extend to all members of the riding community, or to their horses. It also involves a large slice of luck.
By contrast, polishing is for all horses and riders out there, regardless of temperament or luck.
Under the systematic guidance of a good coach, it is organised and progressive. It can easily be very individually tailored to the particular needs of the horse and rider. The polishing process can hugely accelerate the way any rider manages their outings and it will produce much better, more consistent results than just trusting it all to ‘experience’. These results will be reflected in higher competition scores, significantly more successful competitive outings, a good deal less disappointment and a great deal more fun.
The polishing process
Polishing is the process of encouraging the rider to become steadily more independent of their coach. Ideally, they will take the entire responsibility for their own performance with confidence and self-assurance. Not only will the rider learn the necessary production skills, they will have learned that they can count on being able to produce them whenever they need them, and that these skills will be elegant and effective. This is a gradual process. Over time, in the same manner as coaching took precedence over teaching, so polishing grows to take precedence over the technical coaching in the training regime.
Meanwhile, the coach’s role changes dramatically as the rider takes up this responsibility for their performance. Since they have progressively more skills to self-correct and self-direct their riding, the coaching can be directed towards refining the timing of their rider’s dialogue with the horse, and the feedback for the rider is all KQ (knowledge of quality). It also embraces strategic matters such as planning competition schedules, fine-tuning warm-ups for competition, or de-briefing after performances. This type of coaching integrates well with polishing.
Polishing too early
Trying to polish the rider’s skills when you should still be coaching them results in over-facing them. We’re all familiar with the idea of being over-faced. Although it’s usually applied to horses when they’re asked to jump a fence that is too big for them, it applies equally to their rider in all manner of ways.
Trying to polish a skill before the rider has been sufficiently coached to get a reliable result in their home training environment, is asking them to give a performance for which they are ill-prepared. It’s much like asking an actor to rehearse on stage before he’s had the chance to thoroughly learn his lines.
Polishing too late
Continuing to coach the rider when you should be polishing their skills is not helpful. It will not ensure that their skills are available to them in competition, or in any other circumstances where they can expect to need them. This over-coaching also has a particularly negative outcome. It sours the rider and will turn them off public performance and hasten their withdraw from the public stage at just the point in their development when they were expecting to be turned on and were looking forward to taking that stage by storm. This is a common but no less sad scenario, which doesn’t need to happen.
We’ve established that neither the best teaching in the world nor the top coaching on the planet will hold together under the glare of the spotlight, if the polishing skills are not there too. You’ll be cheered to know that polishing skills are relatively easy for you to learn to facilitate. Polishing doesn’t need the giftedness that goes with good teaching, nor the technical expertise of good coaching. It does, however, need some pretty smart stage management skills. It also requires that you keep your PD reasonably up to date because information in this field is moving forward fast.
Stick with us, and enjoy the ride!