University of Vermont AAHS

The Equestrian as an Athlete

by Johanna Harris

presented at the 1997 AMEA Annual Meeting

A young boy's love for the horse prompts his parents to buy a large pony and get him started with the local United States Pony Club. Unbeknownst to mom and dad, their son is headed for a lifetime of helmet purchases, veterinary bills, riding lessons, cavalletti work, and someday, if all goes well, overseas flights to represent the United States in international competition. He could have chosen Little League baseball and a lucrative career with the Boston Red Sox, but he didn't. And now this little boy's decision to pick up a saddle instead of a baseball bat has become a matter of economics, public health, and national pride to a $25.3 billion industry.

How the equestrian sports industry accommodates equestrian athletes has a lot to do not only with their future, but also the future of an entire industry. We have a lot riding on whether or not people continue to be attracted to and involved with horses. Equestrians keep the doors open and employees paid at Markel Insurance Company, Dover Saddlery, Sundowner Trailers, Half Halt Press, American Quarter Horse Association, and the boarding stable next door. That is, as long as they stay hooked on equestrian sports.

In order to attract and keep people involved with equestrian sports, our industry has to meet their needs as athletes. We have to give them what they want. It doesn't matter if they are baseball players, gymnasts, or equestrians - athletes want to have fun, feel good about themselves, do something they're good at, learn new skills, improve old skills, enjoy the thrill of competition, and not get hurt in the process. And the equestrian sports industry has indeed made tremendous progress in the past few years. Helmet manufacturers make lighter, snazzier, cooler helmets. Saddle manufacturers ergonomically engineer saddles with human comfort and performance in mind. United States Pony Clubs reach out to youth nationwide to help them learn new skills and meet new friends. The American Medical Equestrian Association tracks statistics, publishes research, encourages the development of safety committees, and pushes for rule changes to help keep our athletes safe. And now the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) uses a rigorous certification program to test riding instructors' knowledge of the technical aspects of dressage. But are we doing enough to keep our athletes safe and happy? And will mom and dad ever get a chance to travel abroad to watch their son compete? Well, if the USDF has anything to do with it, they may see him in the Olympic games someday.

Apparently the USDF understands the role riding instructors play in their athletes' skill development. Perhaps the USDF grew weary of watching horses and instructors being imported and riders being exported to train overseas. Or perhaps the federation came to realize that riding instructors are indeed powerful people. Riding instructors decide what skills are practiced and for how long. They dole out rewards and punishment in an instant. They have the power to develop or squash self-esteem. They cause skills to improve or stagnate. They pick and choose activities they think are safe. And ultimately, they determine if practice is fun and productive, or miserable and painful. Riding instructors perform a job that shouldn't be taken lightly.

The USDF is not alone when it holds instructors and coaches in high regard. Oh, I said that word - coach. Although we traditionally call riding instructors riding instructors, most riding instructors are also coaches. They help athletes master the techniques and strategies they need for competition. Anyway, both the US Olympic Committee (USOC) and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) have taken steps to ensure quality coaching and instruction in all sports.

The USOC Coaching Division was established in 1991 to increase the quality of athletic coaching in the United States by creating standards in three areas: ethics, safety, and knowledge/competency. At the time, they planned to implement the standards in 1996, working with the National Governing Bodies (NGB's) that represent each sport at the Olympics to develop sport-specific standards and coach education programs that meet these standards. Our NGB is the American Horse Show Association (AHSA). It took me several phone calls before I got a definitive answer on this one. I contacted the USOC and AHSA in 1995 about the proposed standards. I was told that the association does not receive funding from the Olympic Committee and therefore does not have to comply with their request for standards. If you're in tight with the USOC or AHSA, you probably know more about this than I both organizations repeatedly asked, "Who are you again? And why do you want to know about this?"

Following on the heels of the action taken by the USOC (or lack thereof), the NASPE recognized the importance of standards in coach education programming and decided to take steps to keep everyone moving in the right direction. It wasn't long before they published the National Standards for Athletic Coaches, a book of 37 standards and 320 specific competencies. The association developed the standards with the intention of accrediting college coach education programs and venturing into the world of national sporting organizations. They state that:

The national standards are designed to meet the needs of five levels of coaching competency. The standards are grouped according to eight domains, and each domain is represented at each level of coaching competency. The domains are:
  Many national sporting organizations have already implemented formal coach education programs that are closely aligned with the NASPE standards. These organizations do this with help from the American Sport Education Program (ASEP). Since 1981, ASEP has become the most widely respected athletic coach education program in the United States. The program educates coaches for over 40 National Governing Bodies and sport associations, 200 universities and colleges, and 1200 youth sport organizations (such as USA Volleyball, US Tennis Association, University of California at Davis, National Federation of State High School Associations, and YMCA of the USA). ASEP has many courses for all levels of coaches that include instruction on various topics in the areas of sport science, sports medicine, sport management, and sport techniques and tactics.

Both the USOC and NASPE recognize the role coaches play in the quality of organized sports in this country. And the equestrian sports industry, like every other sports industry, is in a prime position to take advantage of their efforts. We can help meet the needs of our athletes and keep them involved by questioning what the AHSA is doing about developing sport-specific standards and coach education programs that meet these standards, and by reviewing our current coach education programs to see if they meet the NASPE standards. If some of these programs do not meet these standards, we should encourage them to make changes so that they do.

So what will happen to the little boy who loved horses enough to buy a pony and join the local pony club? Well, he'll be taken care of one way or another. If the equestrian sports industry has a hard time meeting his needs as an athlete, there are many other youth sport programs with well-prepared coaches that can meet his needs. Increasingly, other sport organizations are coming to understand how important physical and psychological well-being, enjoyment, and skill development are to him. And they know that his continued safe, successful participation as an athlete is a matter of economics, public health, and national pride to more than just a few. The USOC and NASPE are setting standards, and sport organizations are responding to them, improving sport programs across the board. Today, this little boy has a lot of options. It's our job to make sure he stays with horses.

 Return to Top of This Page
 Return to AMEA Page