Confessions of a Coaching Intern: The Buck Stops Here … Part II

The third instalment of  Confessions of a Coaching Intern. A series in which I re-visit my experiences as an equestrian coach-in-training, 1995-1997.

 Enjoy the ride!


Finding Clarity with a Pitch Fork and a Song (Freshly Pressed)

The Buck Stops Here … Part I




After granny’s passing I had the sense that her death meant a resurrection for me. Honouring her memory by doing something meaningful with my life, by doing something that would have made her proud, became really important.

I believed that she would have been pleased for me to start taking my life back. And I believed she would have been doubly-pleased for me to involve horses somehow. She’d loved horses.

My original intent was to apply to the agricultural college in Olds, Alberta.

However, as I was going through the motions toward this goal a conversation with a riding instructor at a barn where I found myself back in the saddle brought me to a different conclusion.

She advised that the infamous farm of my most recent riding past was under new management as a hunter/jumper show barn and riding school. She suggested I check with the new people to see if they were offering a coaching internship program.

This sounded interesting, so I soon made a phone call and set up an appointment. Within a week I was returned to the place of my former doom and telling the nice new people, with some emotion, my big plans.

They were, in fact, looking for interns and, after some discussion we reached an agreement. I would start my equestrian adventure in the fall after I’d wound up a few things, including my career in public relations.

Now, they may have looked at me sideways a bit as I was in my 30s and, perhaps, a little “old” for this kind of thing, but I was so excited I didn’t care what anyone thought. I’d always dreamed of working with horses and my dream was about to come true.

Doubtless my husband at the time questioned my sanity. Why did I want to quit a perfectly well-paying desk job to hang out in a barn all day?

It may sound awful, but what he thought became of no consequence to me. His was a short memory. He’d quit his job several years earlier, with my support, to get a Masters degree in Sports Administration (his dream) in the States. I was there for him 100 per cent, with a low Canadian dollar to boot. I’d also returned to live with my mother to make it all work.

In this instance, my schooling was 10 minutes from home and was going to cost us nothing (except the loss of a pay check, as I was often reminded). We were still living at my mother’s.  So, darn it, I was going to live my dream. It was my time.

While waiting for the internship to begin I returned to the barn of my former doom to get a feel for how it had changed under the new regime

The riding school was certainly more sophisticated. My new coach, J, was great and I really liked the horses I was riding, some of whom were still there from before.

As it got closer and closer to my internship start date, however, my husband began to throw obstacles in my path. He was desperate for me to change my mind.

To appease him I pushed the fall start back until after Christmas.

A Christmas start was then pushed back to February. With each delay I became more and more restless until finally, at the end of February and with my husband’s protests ever ringing in my ears, I made my stand, quit corporate life and, after a one-week break, launched full throttle into the internship and my journey to self-discovery.

I describe in some detail in Finding Clarity with a Pitchfork and a Song the slog and turmoil of the experience.

The fun part was riding twice a day ~ flatwork in the morning and jumping in the afternoon.

Over time each intern (there were four of us) paired off with an appropriately experienced school horse. What was considered appropriate? The horse had to be able to do a simple dressage test in frame and jump a course of 2’9″ fences. We were going for Canadian Coaching Level I here. It wasn’t complicated. By the end of my internship I’d be able to teach various levels in an equestrian centre setting. Achieving a higher coaching level to train athletes for competition was always going to be beyond my scope as I had no significant experience in the competition ring.

I staked my claim on a young, dark bay thoroughbred mare, Feebie. She was a lovely mover with a terrible stubborn streak. When she was good she was really good, and when she was having a bad day you may as well forget about it. This left me plenty frustrated, but it was part of my challenge to work it through before exam time.

It was a tough and happy 18 months of training. Of course, spending so much time together Feebie and I bonded. She was like my own horse. We managed our good and bad days together. I was having marital woes and found consolation and release working through my challenges at the barn. Spending time with Feebs allowed me to forget my troubles at home and experience some joy.

I felt like a kid again, having fun improving my riding and general horsemanship skills while working toward a worthy goal. I was participating in exercises I would teach; understanding the different challenges riders would face with each exercise, and learning techniques to help riders work through these challenges while overcoming their fears.

And while I was learning I was growing, becoming more confident, understanding myself a little better and exploring my creativity.

While learning to nurture others through teaching (and we’ll get to that in a future instalment) I was learning what it meant to nurture myself. It was so win/win!

And, of course, an important part of nurturing is issuing suitable challenges to expand the comfort zone in ways that increase confidence.

One of the most fun ~ and challenging ~ exercises I encountered was the gymnastic grid

A gymnastic grid is a series of obstacles (see diagram) designed to focus on pace, straightness, balance and coordination, and test the connection between the rider and horse. The obstacles gradually increase in size and this is determined by the riding level being taught. In our case the final obstacle was usually set around 2′ 3″. They don’t have to be huge jumps. That’s not the point. The point is to be able to create the desired form and maintain it for the duration of the prescribed exercise.

The exercise is made all the more exciting when the coach injects the additional challenge of negotiating the grid with no stirrups, no reins and, if they’re feeling particularly testy, with eyes closed while singing Twinkle, twinkle little star.

Knowing I could do it gave me the confidence to teach it.


After 18 months it was time to take part in the preliminary coaching exams. This would determine whether or not I was properly prepared for the finals which were to follow a month later.

It didn’t go so well. I was nervous and Feebie wasn’t that cooperative. After talking with the examiner and my coach it was agreed I would wait another six months to do the finals. During that time I would continue to work with Feebie to see if we could sort this out.

Naturally I was disappointed by this turn of events but decided to make the most of it. Que sera sera. My new mantra, right?

Still, regardless of my new go-with-the-flow mentality I was not prepared for the shock that was to follow.

About six weeks before the final exam Feebie, now deemed unsuitable, was removed from the coaching program.

What was I going to do?

There was only one option open to me ~ an option I had strenuously avoided never mind considered.


If you haven’t read the last instalment of this story you won’t know that my previously harrowing experience with Buck some six years earlier was the reason I’d stopped riding in the first place. And now he was going to be my exam partner?

What cruel twist of fate was this?

Even as this terrible news was being delivered I could feel the colour draining from my face; a knot forming in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t understand what was happening.

Surely there was another suitable horse?

No. All were spoken for. Buck was next on the list. Buck with his knobbly knees, weak caboose and bad attitude. Buck my nemesis. I could hardly believe it. How was this horrible challenge, at this late stage, going to increase my chances of passing that exam?

Next post: Heaven help me, I think I’m going to die …


Bear Smiles

Nurture what you love …

Dorothy 🙂
Horse Mom


©Dorothy Chiotti, Aimwell CreativeWorks 2013


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