Sharon Edwards is held in affection and respect by both the professional and amateur riders that she teaches and by judges when she competes, but she is a bit of a “back room girl”. She is quietly kept very busy with her coaching diary and because she is also essentially modest, even self-deprecating, she can lie in the shadow of the more flamboyant characters on the dressage scene. So rather than ask her to talk about herself, Out and About Dressage asked her to talk about ‘communication’

HANDS IN POCKETS and a wide grin spread across her face Sharon Edwards explains that this posture would make her UKCC coaches and recent examiners frown. But if you’re about to have your first lesson with the lady, you might well feel that this is someone who will not condemn you for your non-classical shortcomings. Behind the smile is someone who is passionate about getting it right, but approaches the right way in progressive steps and takes the rider along with her, always making the student rider feel that improvements are within their capabilities.

Sharon states simply: “If you’re my pupil, you’re in my fold and I’ll go the extra mile. I get a great deal of satisfaction from teaching and I love enabling the ‘light bulb’ moments, whether it means working through a psychological or physical barrier, or involves teaching a new movement.

“Training has moved on a long way from the days when you were simply told what to do and shouted at loudly until you happened upon whatever it was you were trying to learn. It’s the same with the horse — just kicking harder isn’t going to inspire your partner to try harder to understand what you want.”

“Within three years, with Sharon’s support and encouragement,” says amateur rider Julie Hodgkinson, above: “I have ridden at two Regional Finals and been selected to represent the BD Southern Team at two Inter-Regionals (gaining individual 8th in 2016 and then 6th in 2017) and at the 2016 Home International — all at Novice level.
“In the summer of 2017 we up moved to Elementary, gained our place at the Area Festival semi-final and introduced the double bridle which was a massive learning curve for both Woody and me. Within a short space of time we have found ourselves getting winning scores at Elementary and we’re beginning to contemplate Medium — something I never thought possible or even dreamed of.
“Sharon, of course, has plans for us to go further!”

Establishing a dialogue
“From the beginning I want the rider to feel that he/she can ask me any question, without feeling that they should already know the answer — however basic the question may seem. Sometimes the more novice riders don’t like asking questions because they don’t like getting it ‘wrong’. There may not be a ‘right’ answer and anyway it’s not an exam they have to pass.

“Whenever I start working with a new combination I like to chat and watch as it helps me understand what teaching approach will be most effective and how to motivate the rider and their horse. It also helps the rider to relax so that they’re receptive to information and ideas. It’s important that communication is a dialogue and trainers as well as riders need to listen. I listen to what the rider says, how they say it and what they leave out. That often leads me to more questions: if they have problems, what have they tried and what haven’t they? Often, in such an exchange, riders will arrive at the answer for themselves and that’s a far better learning process than being told what to do.

“In a learning situation communication should be circular: coach to rider, rider to horse, horse to rider, rider to coach. The three of you should work as a team. I encourage the rider to feed back to me what they are feeling and doing. It helps me to understand what is going on and, actually, it often helps the rider to understand the progress of training — and valuably, to recognise and acknowledge mistakes so that they understand what’s not working and why.

“Experiencing and focusing on when something is right and when something is wrong helps to develop that all-important ‘feel’. You can’t teach feel; all you can do is set people up and guide them towards it. It’s why I’m always challenging people to describe what they feel, how they got that feel, what’s good and bad about the feeling.

Kent-based professional rider and trainer Joe Bright recently made his own grand prix debut riding ‘tricky’ Wodan who was also making his own at the level.
Sharon said: “Joe has been training with me for six months. He’s a very gifted and empathetic young rider who has broken new ground with the move up to Big Tour.
“We have been going through a process of consolidating the foundations of his knowledge and the method by which he can build on them”

“I also encourage my riders to experiment. I believe that riding is individual both to the rider and to the horse. Yes, there are certain ground rules, but as long as your horse understands what is expected of him then the conversation is open, you are bringing the horse with you by discussion, and hopefully keeping them a willing participant in working harder!

“A fascinating thing about riding is that your aids will change — evolve and refine — as you progress, so what was appropriate at the beginning of your riding career will become obsolete within a few years. That means riders should be able to revisit even basic aids with their trainer in order to expand their knowledge and refine its application. That’s not going to happen if the rider doesn’t trust their trainer. It is interesting how similar that bond of trust is to the one you need to develop when training a horse. Which horse will go the extra mile for you: the horse that trusts its rider — or the one that is scared and confused?”

The power of the mind
We are all prey to doubts about our understanding and our physical abilities. Sharon continues: “How many times do you hear people say, ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘it’s too hard for me’ or ‘too hard for my horse’? The phrase ‘the power of the mind’ is integral to my coaching philosophy. You will not be able to do something if your brain is telling you that you can’t. I see my job as trying to remove that negativity and getting the rider to believe that they can. This may involve breaking things down into smaller, simpler achievable goals that are stepping-stones along the way to the big goal. Achieving the small steps proves that the rider can. It’s also important to build the horse’s confidence and self-belief. Whether you are improving your own riding skills or training your horse, it’s okay when you or your horse makes mistakes. It’s part of the learning curve.

Influences in Sharon’s career
Sharon Edwards, who is based at her parents Bombers Farm yard near Edenbridge, recently passed her UKCC3 coaching examination.
Although she has been around horses since her childhood, her riding was initially learnt the hard way. She explained: “My parents came to riding late and their ambition was to event. Their lack of experience led them to buy horses just because they liked the look of them, some of which had only just been backed, so I don’t know how they survived. They bought a pony for me to share with my brother, but he wasn’t interested and I seemed to progress quite quickly to riding my parents’ horses and shared their love of eventing”
That changed when Sharon decided to enter herself for the British Dressage Talent Spotting award (now Young Professionals Award). She explained: “I thought that I ought to learn ‘the movements’ before the finals and booked a lesson the day before with Sarah Whitmore on one of her schoolmasters. Sarah was less than encouraging but I really enjoyed it. What really sealed my interest in dressage was when I was 17 I went to spend the summer working for Hasse Hoffmann in Denmark. He had around 50 horses in for sale from youngsters up to grand prix. Sadly, my pleas to my parents to bring one home fell on deaf ears”
In her mid-20s a major inspiration and spur to the development of Sharon’s riding skills was the arrival in her life of Pipsqueak, a 16hh, short-backed Danish warmblood bought from Peder Damgaard, the well-known Kent-based dealer. She once described Pipsqueak as a pony on long legs. His conformation and hot quirky temperament (due to being a ‘rig’) gave a focus to lessons on subjects like ‘suppleness’ and ‘throughness’ that stand any rider, training any horse, in good stead. With the help of trainer Emile Faure, Sharon and Pipsqueak were able to make their joint Grand Prix debut.
Sharon commented: “Emile has been very influential in both my development as a rider, trainer of horses and as a teacher. He gave me a fantastic grounding in technique. More recently I have trained a good deal with Conrad Schumacher and also with Mark Ruddock.
“Conrad has made me more reflective and philosophical about my training and more thoughtful about the clarity of my communications with a horse. He says if the rider is not clear in their instructions and the horse doesn’t understand, it’s down to the rider to be clearer. You don’t ever punish the horse. It’s our responsibility to ride better — and as best we can. He probably also gave me what I try to instil in other people, self-belief. He has been inspirational.
“Mark is my local go-to man and he has been brilliant helping me to polish the way I present Rivaal (see above) in my tests in the way the judges want to see. That could be about the positioning of the movements or the height of the horse’s poll, or length of the neck — whatever — and about keeping the performance as tidy as possible”

“Fear is another barrier to communication and progress in training. We should always accept that sometimes a horse and rider are just not a good match and that can become dangerous. However, often the rider is capable of handling the horse but just freezes. When horses start to dominate they find themselves in the worrying and uncomfortable role of being ‘lead mare’, so they become more difficult. Again this is about the coach building a relationship of trust with the rider, so that they can gently push at those self-imposed boundaries to unfreeze the rider and get them back in the steering seat mentally. Just small steps can prove to the rider that they can do it — it’s all back to the power of the mind.

“Everyone fundamentally wants to improve and ride better and my challenge is to enhance the rider’s capabilities, understanding and most importantly ‘feel’. Teaching people to feel for themselves allows them to be able to improve themselves and ride for themselves rather than be dependent on their trainer.

“We were all beginners once upon a time: that’s easy to forget. A novice rider can’t help it that they’re learning. You don’t want to have people guilt-tripped but riders should take responsibility for how they ride. They have to take the time and accept the responsibility for opening up lines of communication with their horse. The rider has to understand that they can only ask their horse to do what their own capabilities allow them to communicate clearly to the horse and they should set realistic goals for their partnership.

“I sometimes feel apologetic that I haven’t competed a great deal in recent years — circumstances with horses! I am a Rider and love competing. My husband Glynn tells me to stop saying ‘I’m not just a Coach’, the job of coach is important. We are all so passionate about our horses that as a coach you become important to people’s happiness. It’s an honour to be so influential in people’s careers or their leisure time occupation.

 

 

© Celia Cadwallader, December 2017

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