Letter from Tasha
Danny was so wonderful — forward and smooth. Intermediate Combined Test 1 was dressage and a cones course… and he had the best dressage score and only 2 balls down in the cones. Not bad for not doing a cones course since last September! I think his work in jumping with you helped us with straight approaches like we had done them yesterday.
Intermediate Combined Test 2 was a cones course and a marathon course. We were 4th in that, amongst seasoned marathon horses. Our times were only 5 to 9 secs from the 1st place competitor in the obstacles. Our routes were smooth and seemed effortless for him. In time he will be faster then them all! :-) People that watched us, and knew he was doing work under saddle, said he looked more mature and working better from behind. He was happy and of course willing to do everything — just so much fun for me.
It was funny because when we were done, there were some event riders jumping in the distance and he was watching them. I wondered if he was thinking to himself, I can do that too! He has even more self confidence now. We all agreed that having him work with you over the months at TFE was a great idea. Deb took pictures so as soon as I get them, I’ll send you some.
Tell Danny’s friends at TFE that his first competition of the season was super!
Hope all is going well with you,
Photo Credit (below) Deb Hilberg
Shadowing Erika Cooper
On a balmy Saturday morning in March, Erika Cooper confidently walked into the covered arena at Templeton Farms in California, preparing to teach a pair of advanced adult riders with a lesson plan that would soon prove the riders’ ability. Unbeknownst to her students, Erika Cooper had a few tricks up her sleeve that day and was ready to flex her riding instructor muscle to the max. The New Jersey native has been riding horses since a very young age, and has an impressive list of accomplishments in the hunter, jumper, and equitation world. Erika learned hard work early on as she mucked out stalls until she could afford her first horse, an off the track thoroughbred named Auslander. Together Erika and Auslander competed on the East coast in the hunter and equitation arenas, earning multiple local and national titles. After graduating from college with a degree in business management, the future Grand Prix rider, set her sights on a promising equestrian career. With her current horse Nelson T, Erika has competed on the National Show Circuit at the grand prix level. Erika runs a successful training program in Templeton, Ca, where she tailors programs for the horse and rider to further their success in the show ring and as loyal partners to one another. I was fortunate enough to watch three lessons that were taught by Erika Cooper, each were diverse in the lesson plans and the objective for the riders to learn that day.
The first lesson I shadowed was for two advanced adult riders with many years of riding experience under their belts. These riders seemed to have been competing successfully in the past and were taking lessons from Erika to improve their accomplishments in the show ring. Due to the rainstorm that had passed through the days prior, the lesson was moved to the covered dressage court because of the slick outdoor jumping ring. Although the original lesson in the outdoor arena would have been very interesting to watch, this flat lesson in the covered arena was great to see. Both of the riders arrived to the arena ten minutes early and warmed up on their own, allowing the horses to stretch at each gait and explore the arena since it is upon a rare occasion these horses work in that environment. When Erika came into the arena, she checked in with each of the riders and discussed the condition of the horses that day. This gave Erika the opportunity to address any issues with both horse and rider that had become present during the warm up. Instead of teaching a traditional flat lesson, Erika did something that shocked not only myself, but the riders seemed surprised as well. Erika asked them to put their reins over their horses’ heads and hold them only on one side of the horses’ necks. She explained this technique helps riders learn to ride more from their legs and less from their hands, since their hands are impaired the riders must use their other aids to accomplish movements.
With their reins on one side of their horses’ necks, the riders were asked to track on a circle together keeping each other on the opposite side of the circle to increase the rider’s awareness of their surroundings. Throughout the rider’s time on the circle they were asked to transition to different gaits, drop and pick up one or both stirrups, and produce a smaller circle within the main circle all the while mirroring the other rider’s position in the ring. During a portion of the lesson when the riders had dropped one stirrup, Erika asked them why they practice riding with one stirrup and the riders answered that it helps stabilize your seat, teaching you to balance using the aids you have available. Erika then gave an example of losing one or both stirrups in the show ring could be a minor mishap for the rider who had practiced to balance with the loss of aids at home. By this time there were four other dressage riders in the ring, causing Erika’s students to divert off their original path and work around the other riders. Erika saw this as a great opportunity to explain to her riders that working around other horses in the ring at home will only help them know how to work around a crowded warm up ring at a horse show, and that they should take advantage of this opportunity to perfect their maneuverability around an arena.
Throughout the lesson, Erika reiterated that riders should “practice perfect at home so show components do not bother you.” During a large majority of this lesson, Erika reminded the riders to give immediately to their horses once they had performed the action the rider was asking for to encourage the horse to continue to work hard for the rider. Even at the walk the students were asked to keep their horses in a frame and continue to make them work appropriately instead of turning into a trail horse.
Towards the end of the lesson, the riders were asked to put their reins back over their horses’ heads and use the entire ring to practice their counter canters. Erika told her riders to pick up the counter canter in a corner before a long side, and continue to ride the length of the long side at the counter canter. She then instructed them to trot before they came to the corner explaining that she wanted the horses to learn how to do it perfectly before giving them an opportunity to swap leads in the corner. She asked her riders to trot at any point where they felt like their horses were going to swap leads to encourage the horses to not learn to swap while in the counter canter. Once the riders had completed this exercise successfully multiple times, Erika asked them to hold the counter canter through the corners, but to trot if they felt their horses falling apart. These exercises proved to be difficult for both riders, but through hard work and persistence both were able to accomplish what was asked of them. Both riders felt they had learned how to properly balance on their horses and discovered they did not actually need their reins to get their horses into a frame. Overall, this lesson helped the riders improve their ability to balance on their horse with limited or altered aids, allowing the riders to improve their consistency at horse shows due to the practice at not allowing distractions to detour them from the task at hand.
The second lesson I watch Erika teach was with an intermediate adult on an older Standardbred gelding. This student was taking lessons from Erika to improve her riding ability for fun, rather than practicing for the show ring. For this lesson and the third lesson Erika was teaching while riding a horse. This gave Erika the chance to show the rider how to perform the movement she was asking for. When I joined the lesson, Erika seemed to be teaching the rider to turn on the haunches at the walk. Instead, Erika was teaching her to turn over the haunches, which focused more on the balance and maneuverability of the horse rather than teaching the horse to turn on a still hind end. Already Erika had changed the way she spoke to the student compared to the first lesson I watched. She explained the steps of the movement and provided expressive praise to encourage the rider to continue the exercise.
One thing I really enjoyed learning from Erika was her consistency to explain the expectations she had for this horse and rider throughout the lesson, making it easier for the rider to understand what Erika was asking her to do. Erika consistently asked the student if she was aware of a movement her horse was doing and then would explain why that movement should be encouraged or if a disciplinary action should be taken to discourage the horse from performing that movement any longer. A very interesting spontaneous objective of the progressing lesson was the accountability of the horse for his own feet. Both Erika and the student were on horses that tripped quite often, and instead of ignoring the clumsiness of the horse, Erika explained to the student that every time the horse tripped she must spur him slightly to discipline him for not being accountable with his feet. This student was asked to always make her horse walk forward and in a frame to encourage the proper muscle growth needed to move appropriately in all gaits. Erika regularly reminded the student to not rush into an exercise by saying “be the last one to do it correctly, rather than being the first one to do it wrong.” Overall, I thought this lesson was very productive and gave some good insight into how Erika teaches a student who is not striving to enter the show ring, rather a rider who enjoys being on a horse as a hobby and wants to improve.
The third lesson I watched Erika teach was with an intermediate junior rider on Erika’s lesson horse, Charlie. Erika taught this lesson from the back of her Grand Prix horse, Nelson T. Just like the second lesson, being on a horse during the lesson allowed Erika to show the student how an exercise should be executed. This student seemed to be taking lessons from Erika with the expectation to be entering the show ring in the near future. The student arrived to the ring before Erika and walked on the rail, allowing the horse to become comfortable with his surroundings. Once she got to the ring, Erika checked in with the student and was informed there was a corner the horse was not too fond of. Erika took advantage of this situation to teach the rider how to overcome a challenging area of the environment and create a horse and rider team that is mutually confident in each other. Through this first exercise, the student learned that although the rider and horse are a team, the rider needs to be the team leader and take charge for the actions of the team. To help the student become the leader, Erika had her work on keeping the horse’s ears focused on the student while riding through the scary part of the ring. This helped the rider have a tangible reaction from the horse when she asked for his attention. This student was still learning to change her diagonal when she changed her direction, which can be very frustrating to an instructor, but Erika was very patient and gently reminded the student of what needed to happen when a change of direction occurred.
This junior student was also learning how to balance the horse between her leg and hand, allowing the horse to move forward, but not run away with her. Erika noticed the student had rigid arms and was not giving the way she needed. To remedy this, Erika explained to the student that her arms needed to have “breathing elbows” to allow an appropriate give to the horse but not throw away the shape of the horse. Once the horse and rider were warmed up, Erika asked the student to canter over a pole counting the last five strides coming up to it. Although the rider rarely achieved counting the last five strides, Erika was very patient and encouraged the rider there was not a right or wrong during this exercise to allow the rider to learn from the mistakes that were made. Counting up to a pole or jump helps develop the rider’s eye, and allowing the rider to make mistakes now when it is a simple pole on the ground will only encourage the rider to keep trying, eventually developing an eye for the correct distance. When the student became frustrated or flustered during an exercise Erika would show the proper technique while on Nelson T to show the student what she was asking for and how to execute it the way she wanted.
When it came time to jump, Erika had a very productive strategy for helping novice riders accomplish the course. Erika would talk through the course with the student, allowing them to listen to the expectations Erika had for the course. Then the student was requested to explain their plan for riding the course, giving Erika the opportunity to correct the student on their execution of the course before they attempted it. At this point Erika allowed the student to go through their “mental video” of how they should ride the course, giving them the chance to imagine riding the course flawlessly. Once on course, Erika would assist the student with minor changes and give them small directional notes to better their ride. Overall, this lesson had some great components in it that encourages the young rider to continue to grow and develop into a successful rider someday.
In a self-evaluation of her qualities as a riding instructor Erika spoke about what makes her the successful trainer she is today and the areas in which she believes she needs to improve. Erika is a passionate trainer who strives to encourage riders to become the best they can possibly be through her commitment to the horse and rider as a team. She is patient, taking her time to allow the horses and riders to maintain and build complete confidence in each other and her during training sessions. Through years of experience, Erika has gained insight into how a horse will respond to a given stimulus and assists the rider in perfecting communication with the horse to accomplish the task at hand. She is able to explain her expectations in a way to allow her students to not over-think while in the ring, essentially avoiding problems that do not need to arise. On the contrary, Erika believes she needs to step away from the structured lesson plans she was taught where there is only a certain amount of time given for each exercise that day. Erika would rather have more meaningful unstructured training sessions that allow the young horses especially, to grow and develop at their own pace. Although her competitive nature has earned her a prestigious spot in the Grand Prix ring, she has a difficult time remembering that not all of her students want to be the best of the best, and are rather content with never going towards a jump, but just want to have fun with their horse. In the end, Erika has a significant bond with each of her riders because they all share one thing, the love of horses.
This experience has definitely been one for the books. I cannot imagine shadowing a more passionate and encouraging trainer. Everything that was said by Erika in the ring was positive and constructive, giving each one her riders the best opportunity to improve that day. She never belittled her students, and gave them her full attention the entire time they were in the ring with her. She knew each one of the horses very well, and she knew the riders even better. I have never seen the trust and commitment Erika’s students have for a trainer in all of my years in the hunter/jumper world. I have complete admiration for Erika and hope I can use what I have learned just by shadowing her with students of my own in the future.