The Consummate Coach: Petra Wilder of Spellbound Farms
Contrary to popular opinion, teaching is not easy. Something seemingly innocuous requires a lot of words and a lot of consideration when trying to describe it to someone else.
Just pause for a moment and consider how you would instruct someone to halter a horse.
Preassessment is involved.Has the horse ever worn a halter before? Is the horse stabled or in a field? Does the halter have hardware, or is it a rope halter? How tall is the horse? How tall is the human? How comfortable is the human around horses? How comfortable is the horse around humans?
Now think about teaching someone to ride, and the considerations are multiplied exponentially.In addition to being able to assess the horse and rider, the instructor must have a scope and sequence of skills in mind for instruction. In other words, there must be a long-term goal, and the specific tools required to reach each milestone must be systematically and methodically taught and mastered.
After the initial assessment of the horse and rider, the challenge becomes communication. How does one put into words something that requires such an enormous amount of feeling in so many receptors? Hands, seat, thighs, calves, shoulders, elbows, wrists, back, chin and neck?
To add another complication to the equation is the horse. How well do horse and rider communicate? How can the instructor enhance their mutual understanding of one another?
Enter Petra Wilder of Spellbound Farms.
Petra, who has trained many horses through the FEI levels to Grand Prix, began her riding career as a young girl in Germany. Through riding and learning from exceptional riding masters here and abroad, she has absorbed a variety or teaching and training philosophies that have helped to formulate her own distinct approach.
What makes a good instructor? According to Petra, knowledge, compassion, and the ability to translate information to any level of rider are essential components of teaching horse and rider.
And what is her pet peeve when it comes to instruction?
According to Wilder, many problems arise when students are encouraged to move away from the classical principles that have defined dressage for hundreds of years.
But what about the student new to dressage? How does that student know whether they have a good instructor or whether they are being sold a bill of goods?
“There are ways to find out,” says Wilder. “A good instructor must be a skilled rider, trainer, and coach. If no longer riding, they must have amassed a resume of accomplishments. It is impossible teach riding if you’ve only read about riding. Check the USDF website to see riding accomplishments and/or certifications. Check sources like Centerline Scores and Dressage Detective and ask around.”
“Take a few lessons and see if you and the instructor mesh. Can you relate to what the coach is saying? Maybe he/she is able to help you realize an epiphany and you say, ‘He or she is the one!’”
Petra has observed that most riders’ problems stem from lack of information, misinformation, or misunderstanding of information. That is why it is so critical to be able to accurately translate complicated, sometimes seemingly contradictory concepts (i.e. “The halt is always forward.”) into the current level of understanding of any learner.
Additionally, the instructor must be able to answer any question that the student puts forth (with the exception of this week’s Power Ball jackpot numbers.) The instructor should be able to rephrase and remodel the explanation in various ways until it is understood by the student, and it is important that the teacher and student be able to relate to each other.
Helping the rider feel comfortable is a key element of the instructional process for Petra. Only then is she able to assess the physical and psychological strengths and weaknesses of the rider, and it is in a relaxed state that the rider can best process information and communicate with the horse.
Petra enjoys motivating the rider as much as she does a horse in training. “I learn from every rider,” says Wilder. “I teach with an open mind, letting the situation be the instructor. With every horse and every student, I learn a better way of communicating. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.”
Just like horses, Petra has observed that some people need more leg while others respond better to a lighter approach. She has observed that men and women sometimes prefer a different instructional style. Men often relate to an explanation of mechanics; women may relate to metaphors and similes, the “feels like” statements.
Like a true teacher, Petra enjoys the moment most when a horse and rider finally “get it.” It’s that “light bulb moment” when they both seem to literally light up with the joy of success that keeps her going.
Petra feels that the horse and rider are equally important parts of a team.
What does she say to the rider who has a plain vanilla horse who wants to show dressage?
“ ‘Where’s the next show? Let’s get ready.’ It doesn’t matter, as long as they have the right attitude.”
And what is that attitude? Petra finds it easiest to work with a horse and rider team who are joyful, appreciative, and willing.
“The greatest professional moment I have ever had is the realization of knowing how absolutely lucky I am to have that moment on a horse when we both know that everything is alright. It is a privilege every day to experience that moment, and to know that everyday offers the opportunity to learn something new.”