Coaching is one of the most rewarding professions; being able to influence others with your expertise and see them grow.

But, it is also one of the most difficult; understanding how to connect with others and offer a customized solution for improvement.

A key element of your success as a coach is the ability to develop quality relationships with your clients and impact them in a positive, proactive way. The truth is that most equestrian coaches do not ever receive any formal training in human behavior, communication and how best to develop quality, sustainable relationships with clients. While equestrian coaches often excel in the area of training the horse and horsemanship, there can be a gap in the equally important area of training the rider.

So, allow me to offer suggestions on how you might be both the great horse trainer AND the trainer that fluidly connects with clients and helps them develop in and out of the ring.

Working with world-class coaches, athletes and executives, I see every day how emotional intelligence, or being smart about emotions, is the X factor in being more successful as a coach or leader. Many coaches are often smart (IQ), which takes them to one basic level. But they may have blinds spots related to their emotions that constantly frustrate others and limits their long-term potential in the coaching business. To truly maximize coaching potential, a coach must have emotional intelligence—a different type of being smart.

First, look inward

Emotional Intelligence is progressive, meaning that the skill building begins with the coach themselves and how smart they are about their emotions. Is the coach aware of their emotions and how those emotions impact riders and others in the barn?

Ultimately, the progression leads to the complex ability to connect with the rider and others around the barn, and then progresses to the opportunity to build quality relationships with them. The basic emotional intelligence steps include:

Self-awareness—the foundation and the critical piece in emotional intelligence. As a coach, are you aware of your emotions and how they impact both you and others?

Regulation—can you, as a coach, regulate your emotions, meaning when the fire gets hot can you appropriately express your emotion and move forward quickly? Or, do you allow your emotions to get in the way of being the best coach you can be?

Connecting with others—can you consistently demonstrate empathy, being able to put yourself in the shoes of the rider, relate to the feelings of the rider, and give the rider what they need? Empathy fuels connection between coach and rider.

Quality relationships—finally, can you develop quality, sustainable, trusting relationships with riders and others in the barn? Being able to build and maintain effective relationships is critical in the sport of equestrian, helping to create a level of trust and relatedness between coach, rider, and barn staff. Is the emotional climate in your barn positive, truthful and healthy for your riders and staff, promoting enjoyment and achievement?

To begin the process of improving yourself as a coach by developing your emotional intelligence, here are three fundamental ideas you can start with to begin the process.

1. Build self-awareness

Understand your own emotions and what drives you. Until you can lead yourself, it is almost impossible to lead and connect with others successfully. Self-awareness is the foundation and backbone of emotional intelligence. Work on it first and the other pieces will become more accessible to you. Consider asking yourself these questions (and writing your answers down) to begin a journey toward self-awareness:

  • What are my strengths as a coach?
  • What are my limitations?
  • Why am I really coaching?
  • What are my key, core values that guide my coaching behaviors every day?
  • What triggers negative emotion inside of me?
  • What can and can’t I control in my coaching environment?
  • How do my emotions impact my riders? Others around the barn?
  • What type of coach do I want to be?

Feedback is also important in development of self-awareness. Have you asked your riders and staff for feedback on how you are doing? How are you impacting them? Are you serving them well and meeting their needs? These are all questions that need to be regularly asked in order to hold up the mirror to your ongoing performance as a coach, to build trust, and to foster an open communication environment.

2. Communicate!

Communication is an uncompromising piece in building relationships and teams. Good communication promotes understanding. Poor communication promotes uncertainty and guesswork. I’d like you to consider the idea of “designing the relationship” with your clients. Are you aware of what your client needs? What is important to them? Here are some questions you might ask as a starting point to begin designing the coach/rider relationship for transparent communication and mutual understanding:

  • What do I want from the client in the coaching relationship?
  • What does the rider need from me in the coaching relationship?
  • What type of communication does the rider best relate to, so I can adapt how I communicate?
  • How would the rider like to be coached?
  • What do I expect of the rider?
  • What does the rider expect of me as the coach?
  • How would the rider like to receive feedback from me?
  • How can we insure both coach and rider are accountable for results?

You always have the opportunity to design the relationship with riding clients or staff. Take advantage of it! It will put you on a path to transparency and an open, trusting rider/coach environment.

3. Practice empathy

This can be a game changer for you in your coaching relationships. Without empathy others remain unknown and unclear to us. With empathy, coaches can establish the understanding and connections that makes great coaching possible.

First, can you listen? The very basic level of empathy is having the ability to listen. Good listening is rare. Common characteristics of a good listener include:

  • allowing a person to finish speaking before formulating and sharing thoughts to continue the conversation (most people begin thinking about their next point long before the speaker finishes, muting the speaker’s point)
  • re-stating the key points of the speaker to clarify understanding
  • asking questions to gain understanding of the speaker’s context

Next, can you consistently put yourself in the shoes of your riders and staff, acknowledge their emotions, and understand what they are feeling and going through?

In the coach/rider relationship, empathizing with the challenges and difficulties of a rider is a key step in helping them build resilience and learn from their setbacks. When riders feel like they need help, there is often some form of embarrassment felt by the rider. After a coach has acknowledged a rider’s struggles and feelings, the rider is more likely to look for creative solutions and respond to the coach’s requests for improved performance.

In order for your clients and staff to do their best and discover their own answers, you do need to be able to connect with them on an emotional level.

Emotions are contagious

As a coach and influencer, please be aware that research highlights that emotions are contagious and these feelings can spread quickly. The emotions of the coach set the tone for everyone around the barn—riders, grooms, and others. Therefore, this brings us back to the fundamental piece of self-awareness. A coach must be aware of emotions and understand how they are impacting others. As an example, if a coach is unaware of negative emotion, the emotional climate of the entire barn can take on the emotional climate of the coach and this can be detrimental to performance, enjoyment and the overall barn environment. On the flip side, a coach’s positive emotions can bring a positive and enjoyable environment to the climate of the barn.

Riders: look for an emotionally intelligent coach

As a rider, you want a coach who is smart about their emotions. Yes, your coach should have a keen eye and be skilled in the technical, physical and horsemanship aspects of the sport. But, having emotional intelligence is the next level of coaching and is the difference maker in your relationship with a coach. A coach with this skillset will not only help you achieve more in the sport, but exponentially enhance your enjoyment—the reason you ride in the first place!

Look for the following behaviors in a coach. If a coach demonstrates these behaviors, chances are they have the ability to be aware of their emotions, regulate them, connect with you, and build a healthy relationship. You want a coach who:

  • can calmly manage difficult situations
  • keeps cool under pressure
  • has the ability to recognize their emotional reactions to people and situations
  • clearly communicates and doesn’t leave you guessing
  • listens to you and acknowledges and hears what you are saying
  • asks for your input and feedback on ideas related to your development
  • encourages you and doesn’t judge you
  • focuses on the positive actions first and then focuses on correction
  • has a sense of humor about themselves
  • knows how to say the “right” thing to get the right result
  • knows how to be proactive and positive, even during difficult situations
  • puts themselves in your shoes and understands what you are feeling
  • asks for feedback about how they are doing in the coach/rider relationship
  • cares about you
  • believes in you

Being smart about emotions really is the X factor in the coach/rider relationship. For a coach it is the critical piece in elevating to the next level in the business. For the rider, having a coach that is smart about their emotions will often determine how much you enjoy your riding and how quickly you progress in the sport. Emotions run the show in performance so a skill like emotional intelligence becomes a key skill in the equestrian landscape—for all involved.

About the Author

John Haime is President of New Edge Performance. A world-class Human Performance Coach, former professional athlete and current bestselling author of You are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscles to Perform Better and Achieve More, John understands how athletes think and feel. He’s been there—under the most intense pressures of amateur and professional sports. John coaches leading professional equestrians and up-and-comers with a proven system and is trusted by some of the world’s leading athletes—professional and elite amateur. See to learn more.