Empowerment is the buzz word for coaches at the moment; the ability to empower clients is the making or breaking of a coach. So much so, that in my ITT exam I have to do a presentation on the subject.

This is where you, my lovely readers, come in. It appears that I can either talk and delve into the murky depths of my brain, or I can write to access the knowledge that otherwise eludes me whilst trying to revise.

So let’s get to it.

Empowerment has several layers of meanings. It is the delegation of authority or power; the giving of an ability. In equitation terms, it is when a coach encourages riders to fulfil their ambitions by providing the education, desire and tools for them to achieve their goals. 

To me, empowering someone is giving them knowledge whilst supporting and allowing them to develop their own opinions and theories, and helping them apply this knowledge. When I’m successful I should feel, however uncomfortable and strange it is, that I am redundant as their coach.

A coach can empower their clients in a number of ways. I think the most important way is to respect your client and their opinions, regardless of how young or inexperienced they are, and to involve them in your plans for their riding.

A client will feel empowered if at the beginning of a lesson, or after a short warm up (if you’re in a quandary as to which lesson plan is best for today), you discuss what your plans for today and what you hope to achieve. Give them chance to feedback as to their thoughts on the lesson content and how achievable they think the aims are.

SMART targets are another hot topic amongst coaching, so it’s good to bear in mind that you want to make goals specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-specific.

Giving clients responsibility also helps make them feel empowered. This could be in the form of homework; practising the lesson content in their own time, or researching a new concept through books, video (such as YouTube), and observation of other riders. If they don’t do their homework they won’t be able to improve and will hinder their education as riders.

As a rider develops their knowledge and ability they can become empowered by a change in their lesson format. When you teach a beginner, lessons are very much coach-led, with the instructor giving definite instructions and being slightly dictatorial. As the rider learns, for example, how to warm a horse up then the coach steps back slightly. The lessons become less about following specific instructions around the arena and more about the theory or lesson content. Then once a rider is more experienced then lessons become rider-led, by when the rider has a clear idea of what they want from a lesson – perhaps focusing on the weak areas in their last dressage test – and the coach then gives feedback on today’s performance and suggests exercises to improve them.

I find that some people take the opportunity to think for themselves willingly and confidently, so it becomes very easy for a coach to delegate some power. I think this depends on the rider’s cognitive ability (which applies more to children) and their confidence level. I like to test the waters by saying “let’s change the rein” instead of “Change the rein FXH”; or “when you’re ready, forwards to working trot … start adding in some circles when you need to” instead of “at C ride a trot transition … ride a 20m circle at E”. Very quickly you begin to see which clients are beginning to apply their knowledge to their riding, and who is unsure in taking control. Of course if they don’t take the initiative and choose a change of rein or ride a circle then I start prompting and maybe give a couple of sentences to enhance their knowledge. For example, “once you’ve settled the trot into an active, steady rhythm you can begin to put in some 20m circles to start suppling the horse. Once you’ve done a few large circles you can decrease the size of the circle to further warm up their muscles…”

After all, you don’t want to knock any confidences because a lack of confidence means you think you will fail, so you lose motivation and don’t try to take control or their riding. This can stress the coach-rider-horse relationship triangle. So it’s important to offer the opportunity for a rider to take the chance to become empowered in a safe environment.

Asking clients for feedback helps them feel that their opinion is valid and valued, and the subsequent conversation lets them develop their thoughts. Earlier this week I taught a young boy, only ten, through a grid on his new pony. It was all about getting to know the pony, find his buttons and learn to correct him. After each try through the grid, I asked him for his thoughts. Once he said, quite rightly, that they got too close to the first fence then got two small strides in before the second element. So we talked about the need to establish the jumping canter earlier. He then went away and got some more impulsion into the canter before coming again to the grid. Another time he told me before I asked that he’d leant forwards before the second fence. He’s starting to develop into an intelligent rider, knowing when they do an exercise well, when it feels right, and is making constructive criticisms of his own riding so he will actually be productive when he’s riding on his own. Yes, he needs more knowledge to be completely unsupervised, but he’s only ten and I think he’s pretty well empowered for his age.

When a rider becomes empowered, they become more independent, which means they can ride safely on their own without hindering their educational development; are less likely to cause an accident or injury to themselves, horse or others; are usually happier riders because they feel more in control of their horse and their goals; and are more likely to stay focused and interested in their hobby; and finally, are more likely to succeed in their ambitions and further their expectations. 

Right, now I just need to make a ten minute presentation all about empowering clients … 

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