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First Batch of Coaches Participate in Inaugural Para Dressage Fast-Track Program

Eleven coaches left two-day USEF Para Dressage Coach Certificate Fast-Track Program with new skillsets, confidence, and knowledge

by Dana Riddlemoser | Mar 12, 2019, 3:00 PM

Participants in the first USEF Para Dressage Coach Certificate Fast-Track Program.
Photo: Jean Pierre Hourdebaigt

According to US Equestrian Para Dressage Technical Advisor and Head of Coach Development Michel Assouline, a coach has two students: one is themselves. This was obvious for the 11 coaches who participated in the first USEF Para Dressage Coach Certificate Fast-Track Program on March 3-4 at Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center in Loxahatchee, Fla. Vinceremos is a United States Equestrian Federation (USEF)/United States Para-Equestrian Association (USPEA) Para Dressage Center of Excellence.

Over the course of two days, Assouline took this group of trainees through an intense boot camp of coaching instruction. They sat across from an accomplished equestrian Aristotle as he enlightened his pupils with the niceties of effective coaching. From around the country they gathered with varied levels of experience, one an Olympic dressage judge, a couple of Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) instructors, some able-bodied dressage trainers, and others with no para dressage experience. However, it was clear from the beginning this inquisitive group shared a common goal: make themselves better in an effort to grow the para dressage discipline.

“I strongly believe when you have strong coaching standards and ethics, it grows the sport. It’s not about coaching the individual athlete; I believe it’s a growth promoter,” Assouline said after his first day of instruction. “The more qualified coaches we have, [the better] the networkers and talent spotters [they become]. Once [we] develop that base of qualified, expert coaches that are really educated, they are going to find the [para dressage] athletes and develop them. They are also going to improve the performance standards.”

In order to qualify for the Fast-Track Program, coaches applied to the USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage Coach Certificate Program, stating their case for fast-tracking. The Fast-Track Program, which includes an application, self-study, an online exam, and an intensive two-day format covering the curriculum’s four modules (coaching skills, sport-specific knowledge, technical riding skills, and equine management), as well as a coaching assessment. In addition, all fast-tracked candidates were required to have an accompanying Coach Development Plan.

The USEF Para Dressage Coach Certificate Program is the first program of its kind implemented in any U.S. high-performance equestrian discipline. Assouline considers it a package of coaching knowledge accumulated over the 13 years he worked with the British, Danish, and French equestrian governing bodies. However, he has adapted the program specifically designed to meet the needs of U.S. para dressage.

During the first day of classroom curriculum, Assouline guided the coaches through “the how-to versus the what” of coaching. He provided a playbook detailing effective communication skills for how best to coach the athlete, not necessarily the sport, as well as how to provide constructive, comprehensible, and meaningful feedback. He stressed the fact that each athlete is different and has a unique style of learning, so it is the responsibility of the coach to determine the proper method of instruction and delivery for retention and growth. In addition, he dug deep into coaching philosophy and took them through their own coaching philosophy exercise, showed examples of what to look for in quality para dressage horses, and how to take a student from a therapeutic rider to a para dressage competitor based on a “Long Term Athlete Model.”

“I made my own concoction of this program for the U.S., and I’m hoping I brought something quite unique,” Assouline said. “I think the biggest failure nowadays in coaching is when the message a coach is trying to get across doesn’t come through, and it’s not just coaching—you can see it any sector. Coaches aren’t just coaches nowadays, they are life coaches, team coaches; they are making people better. If we can work on [those skills], we’ll have better coaches all around. It’s pure communication. Before it was push, push, push, drill, drill, drill, and half the time it didn’t work. This is a very modern coaching system designed [to develop] quality [coaches].”

Fast-Track Program participant Alex Philpin has been involved with para dressage since 2004. She has spent the last several years working as a groom for Paralympian and FEI World Equestrian Games™ athlete Annie Peavy. However, she is an instructor by trade. When she learned of the USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage Coach Certificate Fast-Track Program, she jumped at the opportunity to add these knowledge tools, especially because she loves to teach. Her early learning derived from the England coaching qualifications curriculum, which focused a lot on the European autocratic coaching style at the time.

“I found out after moving to America that I wouldn’t have any students if that was the way I taught,” said Philpin. “This is a very in-depth program, so to break it down and go more into the psychology of coaching is very interesting and new to me to a degree. There’s a lot involved that I never thought of, and I am appreciative of the opportunity and thankful [for the feedback].”

Coaching Assessments

Following classroom instruction, the program moved into coaching assessments on the final day. This was an opportunity for the coaches to put their newly refined skills to the test in front of Assouline, as well as U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor and Olympic team bronze medalist Debbie McDonald and U.S. Dressage Development Coach Charlotte Bredhal. Each Fast-Track Program coach had to prepare and instruct a 30-minute lesson for a horse-and-para rider combination in which the panel observed and constructively critiqued.

“The feedback was excellent,” said Queca Franco, who works with para rider David Botana. “They [pinpointed] the corrections and gave me very positive feedback, too. It’s like coaching how I’ve always coached, but I have to break it down more because para athletes have different abilities. It was very interesting and opened my eyes to new ways of coaching.”

Many of the coaches were not familiar with their horse-and-rider combination, which is no different from a new horse and rider showing up at their training facilities. However, for some, this was the first time that they had had someone observing their coaching. The panel looked for quality of the instruction and the lesson plan, the ability to connect with the horse and rider, and whether the combination retained the focus of the lesson.

“Their feedback was spot-on and encouraging,” said Jennifer Beyer, who instructs at USEF/USPEA Para Dressage COE Therapeutic Riding, Inc. “Not coming from the ‘big d’ dressage world, you can get a little intimidated by your level of knowledge and doubt your skills or eye, but they were so encouraging and empowering to use what I know. However, we can filter this information down to the work we’re doing with emerging riders.”

Moving Forward

The Fast-Track Program coaches will return to their facilities with a stockpile of coaching techniques to foster the growth of para dressage. In addition, they expanded their networks, knowing whom to call when it is time for one of their athletes to transition past therapeutic riding into para dressage training.

“As an instructor of a COE, it is my job to find and help emerging athletes and get people with disabilities on a more sports-thinking track,” said Beyer. “That’s one of the biggest gaps we have at our center and at many therapeutic riding centers. You may be in it for a therapeutic benefit, but you could transition into sport, so being able to understand where the higher levels are helps me bridge that gap from those very first riding lessons, to where they can go with this, and how to get them there.”

According to Assouline, the success of this program will partly be based on an increase in competition attendance and improved competition results, growth in the base and depth of para athletes and horses, and an increase in coaches who want to complete the program. This program is dependent on the number of para athletes expressing interest and trainers guiding them along the competition track. The more para athletes evolve, the more coaches will become interested in the program. It is all in proportion.

“It’s a really exciting time [for U.S. para dressage],” said Assouline. “I’m very proud of what we are doing here. I’m working with the FEI Solidarity Coach Education Program Working Group, and it is an honor to have their support. We ended up with a waiting list for [the first Fast-Track Program], so it’s really exciting to see so much interest, especially in para dressage.”

Even U.S. dressage is in the process of developing their coaching initiative, as they just announced the launch of the U.S. Dressage Coaches Support Network pilot program. The dressage rider membership is larger; they have a huge assortment of coaches already established. Assouline is confident this will be successful and other disciplines will start developing their own programs.

“It’s very inspirational to watch this entire group and what’s happening [with this program]. [This program] can spot holes in someone’s education. After this, I am even more convinced it needs to be implemented in [able-bodied dressage],” said McDonald. “This can definitely cross over, and I think we can make our sport better [implementing a program] like this. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Michel and Charlotte. The whole crew at Vinceremos was amazing.”

The next Fast-Track Program clinic will be May 13-14 at Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) in Mill Spring, N.C. First Practicum will be held on May 15-16 at TIEC. For those interested in learning more about the USEF Para-Equestrian Dressage Coach Certificate Program, the application process, and certification levels, view the information booklet or contact Laureen Johnson at [email protected].

Stay up to date with U.S. para dressage by following USA Para Dressage on Facebook and US Equestrian on Twitter and Instagram.

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