By Rob Jacobs
Equestrian sport is unique in that the athletes are both the horse and the rider. Having an animal as an athletic partner adds challenges that may differ compared to other sports with only human partners. As a trainer of both horses and riders, I have found it beneficial to incorporate empathy into my training methods. I have a direct yet calm style when I’m working with horses and riders. Through the years, I’ve found it beneficial to understand and share the feelings of the horses and riders. This is a skill not everyone has naturally, but may be strengthened once more aware and practiced.
As I work in the industry, I recognize there will be days when either athlete may not perform to the best of their ability for a variety of reasons, whether mental, physical or emotional. I take time to read body language and I listen to the types of questions asked. We should acknowledge that questions are both verbal and non-verbal. An example of a non-verbal question would be a horse slowing down cautiously to the first jump on course as the wind blows the flowers around. The horse is asking if it’s OK to jump given the way the flowers are blowing at the base of it. This is a question a rider with feel is able to promptly and accurately answer.
Having the capacity to understand and share the feelings of horses and riders I believe serves professionals well. I believe it fosters trust in the trainer-to-client partnership, as well as the trainer-to-horse partnership. Trust and confidence play a significant role in our industry. As human beings, we want to feel heard and understood, as do our equine athletes. There is short-term and long-term value in taking the time to hear and understand those whom we train. It may dictate the rate of progression an athlete will experience. Although as an equine professional we know each athlete will progress at their own speed, we do want consistency and growth.
A component of being empathic is being flexible. During training sessions, it’s possible that either horse or rider may perform less than expected. An empathic professional is able to pick up on this and also potentially understand why. Altering the original plan to suit the particular day is wise in those situations. Over the years, I’ve learned when and how hard to challenge an athlete. With this said, professionals still get it wrong and learn from each training session. I believe the continued learning is one of the main reasons many people become interested in horses for the duration of their lives.
Rob gives his horse a pat as they enter the warm up ring.
Photo by Sara Shier Photography
The main concern I have with unempathic equine professionals is the increased risk of improper training and safety methods. In my opinion, this may lead to loss of confidence or even injury. Professionals may either lack the skills needed to be empathetic, or their experiences may have led them to lose empathy for the equine and human athletes. Lack of fulfillment in their role is another possible reason a professional may become less empathic. This is something I have seen throughout my journey in the industry, and something I want to be aware of and work to protect myself from. We all have areas we can grow in, and I work at being aware of how I can make progress and serve the industry better each year.