Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Graduates Have Graduated

YR Graduate Program participants with their certificates of completion. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

None of us started riding because we love paperwork. Or difficult clients (the two-legged kind, at least).

The fact is, however, operating a business -- any business -- requires a skill set that we didn't acquire in our riding lessons.

As the second and final day of the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program got under way, it became apparent that the young people in attendance are in need of some "real world" business and interpersonal skills. And that's exactly what this program was created to help provide.

Equine lawyer Yvonne Ocrant returned to continue her overview of equine law and the particular pitfalls that await the ignorant equine professional. Today's topic: contracts.

"A lot of deals are still done on a handshake, but people will sue. You need contracts," Ocrant said.

Ocrant revealed that many equine-related contracts, including a lot of bills of sale, are not legally enforceable. The reason: Many states' laws contain statutes pertaining to the sale of horses. An example Ocrant used is Florida, whose statute is explicit and therefore a recommended model. Florida's statute requires the inclusion of some specific language in equine bills of sale; without it, she said, the contract may not be enforceable.

Likewise, detailed liability releases -- ideally enriched with examples of potentially dangerous equine behaviors so as to help educate not only the signer but also any opposing counsel, judges, or juries that may someday scrutinize the document -- can be your best friend in the event of a lawsuit. 

"Not only will your liability release help protect you, but it could also be a deterrent against someone suing you," Ocrant said.

Roz Kinstler, a veteran FEI-level trainer and competitor and chair of the USDF Youth Programs Committee (and a driving force behind the YR Grad Program--she's a volunteer, folks!), spoke on the subject of customer service. She got lots of questions, many pertaining to client relations of the I-want-to-say-no-but-I-don't-know-how variety.

USDF youth programs coordinator Roz Kinstler, the driving force behind the YR Graduate Program. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Kinstler's advice to most: Be politely assertive. Establish boundaries (work hours, barn rules, and the like) and stick to them. If someone gets angry, wait until tempers have cooled and speak to the person in private. Realize that you can't please all the people all of the time. Don't engage in "triangling" -- talking about a third person behind her back, or allowing someone to talk to you about someone else. It takes courage, but if you have a beef with someone, speak to him directly.

Train, Train, Train

Lendon Gray discussed the embarrassment of riches that is dressage training opportunities in the US. For starters, thanks to the Internet, there's no such thing as geographic limitations any more. As Gray pointed out, there are online training videos and websites galore. 

Here's a great idea from Gray: Videotape yourself riding a movement; then find video of someone you admire performing that same movement. Compare and contrast.

"Do you look like that rider you admire? If not, why not?" Gray said.

Attend as many educational programs as you can. The USDF "L" and Instructor/Trainer Programs, the Young Horse Trainers Symposium at Hassler Dressage, the Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers' Conference (which starts tomorrow), even content-rich equine expos such as Equine Affaire -- all have much to offer. 

Don't overlook the value of watching and learning. Watch good trainers and riders. Sit with judges. It can be especially helpful to watch an experienced instructor teaching riders and horses of the type that are likely to make up your own clientele, Gray said.

A working-student position is a time-honored way of gaining experience. "It’s slightly slave labor, but you have to be getting something in exchange," said Gray, who advised contacting pros you want to work for -- and also contacting current or former working students, getting a work agreement in writing, and perhaps arranging a week-long trial run to make sure you're cut out for the work and that you and the trainer are a good fit.

Of course, there's always Mecca...that is to say, Europe, which is where American dressage students have been making training pilgrimages for decades. US high-performance rider Catherine Haddad Staller, who spent 20 years in Germany before moving back to the States a couple of years ago, divulged some contacts and offered some advice to consider before you call up the likes of Isabell Werth and offer your services.

Before she said a word about dressage training, however, Staller ordered the YR Grad participants to straighten their tables and chairs, clear the tables of electronic devices, and sit up straight. As the startled audience scurried to comply, she explained her motive: to show that, in Europe, you'll be told (not asked) to do things, and you won't be given a reason, nor should you ask for one. Order and obedience are expected, and praise is rarely given.

Similarly, don't expect hand-holding during riding lessons in Europe, Staller said. "Learning is your responsibility. The trainers will show you things or let you feel things. It’s your job to figure it out." Watch, watch, watch -- what Staller called "stealing with your eyes" -- and then try to apply what you've seen.

Staller is a fan of certification for riding instructors, although she says the German Bereiter system may well be too demanding and lengthy (3 years) for an American. Far more accessible in terms of both time and language is British Horse Society certification, said Staller, who herself is a BHSI (instructor), the British Bereiter equivalent.

Giving and Getting

Judges and instructors Janet Foy, Lilo Fore, and Annie Morris spoke on different topics, but their talks shared a common theme.

Foy explained the USDF "L" Program and why it's a must-do, even if you aren't planning to earn your USEF judge's license. 

"The A, B, and C sessions [which are open to auditors] are 100 percent necessary for anybody who wants to train a horse," said Foy, who is an FEI 4* judge and a member of the "L" program faculty.

Likewise, FEI 5* judge and USDF certification examiner Lilo Fore stressed the importance of earning instructor certification -- truly learning to teach dressage -- as a means of continuing professional development. 

"If you want to fulfill your dream of becoming the best rider you can be, it won’t happen by the seat of your pants. It happens through education," said Fore.

Fore's colleague Annie Morris, a member of the certification faculty, said that "the most important thing about doing this program was that it was so intellectually challenging. It really deepens your understanding of why you do what you do."

Another benefit, Morris said, is that by advancing in the program and becoming a faculty member, "Now I get to teach workshops. It helps my ability to give back to the sport."

Giving back -- by serving on committees, getting involved with USDF educational programs at a higher level, and otherwise donating one's time and expertise to advance the sport -- has many rewards, the experts said. Among them: a rich network of colleagues and friends who can be called on for help and advice. 

"We gain from our education, and at some point we have to give back. But then you receive 100 percent," Fore said.

Over the past two days, sixteen of the best and brightest in American dressage gave back to the sport by talking to the 2014 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program participants. We thank them for their generous contributions, and we hope the young adults in the program gained valuable insights that they in turn will give back to the sport someday.


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