If you're the kind of trainer I was five years ago, you're already pretty good at training a horse to work for a rider and teaching a rider to ride her horse. You've hung out your shingle, your business is doing well, you're having competitive success, and you even have a long-term goal to make the US Equestrian Team. Things are going just fine, so you probably wonder-as I did five years ago, if I stopped to think about it at all-why you should go to the trouble, travel, and expense of testing for an instructor's certificate from the US Dressage Federation (USDF).
Then a remarkable woman, Fern Feldman, Director of USDF Region 8, bought a horse from me-and even though I don't live in her region, she liked what I'd done with him so much that she started pushing me to get certified. In the process, she made me see that thinking I was pretty darned good at what I did wasn't enough. I needed to prove it by putting myself to the test. Furthermore, rehabilitating rearing, sucked-back, unhappy horses with bad attitudes that had "been to a dressage trainer" had, of necessity, become one of my specialties. I was starting to think dressage had too many people out there putting up shingles who didn't have the right to do it, giving our business a bad name. If getting certified would give me and the career I'd chosen some credibility, I was going to go for it.
USDF tests candidates' ability through Second Level or through Fourth Level. I decided to go for Fourth.
I read about theory and the training pyramid or scale, and I took one precertification test. USDF recommends you take a bunch, so you really understand the test format and what they're looking for; but after fifteen years in the business, I felt pretty confident in my skills. That could have been a big mistake: When you're in your own teaching environment, you're comfortable; when out there in front of forty "peers" trying to teach a horse and rider you don't know, it's easy to switch from thinking "I don't care what these people think-I know I can make this horse better" to "Uh-oh, did that come out right? Am I making sense? Do they agree with me?"
One "precert" exercise I found very difficult was a particular group lesson. My subjects were a total beginner, a Second Level rider, and a rider in between the two on a goofy young horse. I looked at this group, turned to the examiner, and said, "I'm not really sure where to go with this." She took over-and I saw how she focused on basics for the horses and uniformity for the riders. She gave them bending and stretching exercises in a drill-team format so they all worked together. I realized "Wow, there is a whole new way to go here that is very creative."
For the test itself, I had to train a lower-level horse in a snaffle and an upper-level horse in a snaffle and a double bridle. I had to longe a horse, longe a rider on a horse, and teach a lower-level rider, an upper-level rider, and a group lesson. And then, of course, I had written and verbal tests on horse management and theory . . . lots of theory.
It was grueling, and I came out of the testing exhausted and stressed. I had gone from not caring at all about certification, to taking it seriously, to wanting it really, really badly, to saying "I don't care if they certify me or not"-which I didn't really mean. You're tested in this business every single day., and you'd always better be at your best.
Bottom line? I passed. And these days my teaching is deeper and more creative than it used to be. I focus more on theory, and on trying to be more thorough with my students about why we do what we do.
I also feel that doors have opened. As a result of certification, I was the first recipient of a United States Dressage Foundation scholarship to train in Germany with the incomparable Dr. Reiner Klimke (now deceased). For four months, I watched the Doctor ride every day, took lessons from him, went to shows every weekend, and got to ride really good horses.
I came home with a lasting legacy. I'd always been able to move horses along really quickly in their training, but I came back with a newfound sympathy for them, and with the feeling that we are so lucky to have them. That all came from the incredible love this man had for his horses!
He never got impatient or lost his temper. If it didn't work, he'd do it again. I don't mean he didn't get the job done-he did. It was just so cool to realize that he wasn't worried in the least if the horse's head carriage wasn't right. He'd play with it, and all of a sudden the horse would start dancing for him. It was all in his attitude.
Now, if I have a bad day, I put my horses away and think of what the Doctor would say: "You may not get it today, but you will get it. Have patience!"
My priorities haven't changed--I still want to make the Team-but I will never do it at the expense of an animal. Nor will I expose a horse to a situation where his spirit is broken or he loses his desire. That's why horses in my barn fight over who's going to get worked first. I never want them to lose that eagerness.
Today, even though I'm fairly isolated geographically, I stay connected by attending the USDF annual conventions and serving as Vice Chair for the Certified Instructors group. Every time I ride into the competitive arena, the first thing the announcer says is that I'm a certified instructor. I hope that when people see me and my students do well, they start to get the message that certification is a valuable process and an important credential.
If you've gotten that message, take my advice. You're not ready to do the testing until you have the confidence to climb on a strange horse or walk into a strange schooling ring and make something positive happen. Ride all types of horses. Teach as many kind of students as you can. Go to a stable-and not your best friend's stable, but a place where you're a little uncomfortable--and say, "Can I teach one of your lessons for free, just to get the mileage?"
Do as many "precerts" as you. There are so many people involved in the program, and they give it so many dimensions, that your eyes will open up to things you've never considered. (A hint: Safety-in fact, safety in all matters-comes first; results come second.)
And then . . . go for it. USDF Instructor Certification will be a terrific shot in the arm for you, believe me-and it's good for our profession.
Becky Langwost teaches at her 68-acre Preston Horse Farm in Preston, Maryland. This column first appeared in the August 2000 issue of Practical Horseman.
For a look at how the USDF Instructor Certification Program has expanded since Becky's experiences, read the "Horse Biz" column in the magazine's July 2003 issue.
Late update from USDF: The criteria and process for testing to become a USDF Associate Teacher put forth in the July 2003 issue of Practical Horseman are still in development at USDF. The final official criteria and process will be available from the USDF office by the end of this year. Testing for the new levels of Certification will begin in 2004.