While waiting outside the ring for the course walk of the combined Children’s/Adult Jumper Classic at a recent horse show, I couldn’t help but notice the antics of one of the coaches. 

The trainer arrived at the ring with three junior students, all of whom had already warmed up and were watching each other jump their respective Classic rounds. The first rider had a rail down, but seemed to execute most of the plan she and her trainer had established. The third put in a nice round and made it to the jump-off. The second rider didn’t fare as well and it was then this particular trainer made her true colors known.

When her high school-aged student made a sizeable mistake in the striding of one of the first lines on course, the trainer became apoplectic.

“What are you doing?!” she began yelling within earshot of the many people at the in-gate. “Are you counting at all?” 

She interlaced her tirade with derogatory comments about the rider to her groom and others within earshot, sputtering the whole time. 

When the girl rode past the in-gate, it was clear from her wide eyes and colorless face that she was, at best, embarrassed; at worst, terrified. In either case, she was clearly not responding well to the “coaching” coming from her trainer on the sidelines, and things continued to deteriorate from there.

Whether thrown by the continued torrent from the in-gate, nerves, or both, the rider ultimately went off course, circled, and became so lost and frazzled that her team had to yell the final two fences to her from across the ring. Her trainer continued to berate her the whole time. As she exited the ring she appeared defeated. 

My immediate thought: She may have finished her round, but I doubt the poor kid is long for this sport.

As parents and fellow athletes, it can be difficult to know where the line is between tough but constructive coaching and abuse. It’s not always crystal clear, but in many cases, like this one, the old truism “you know it when you see it” holds firm.

Was the scenario I witnessed a snapshot in time in an otherwise caring and supportive coach/athlete relationship? Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, maybe this interaction followed a repeated lack of appropriate action on the rider’s part, which, in the trainer’s eyes, was going to result in a dangerous situation for her or her horse. Hence, the over-the-top reaction. 

And yet, even if this was the case—and not, as I suspect, just the latest in a long pattern of coaching that leans heavily on degradation and shame—is there any excuse for that behavior, with humiliation as the primary motivator? (No. The answer is no.) 

It goes without saying that the relationship between coach and athlete is a notoriously complex and dynamic one, a theme covered in a recent #WeRideTogether presentation for participants in the 2023 Emerging Athletes Program (EAP) at the Colorado Horse Park (June 26–30). The presentation explained how the inherent power imbalance between coaches and athletes can lead to relationships based on power and control instead of care and support. 

The goal? Helping EAP riders and their parents to discern between healthy coaching bonds and those that can be both psychologically and physically damaging.

To clearly differentiate the two, #WeRideTogether created two Coach Athlete Relationship Dynamics (C.A.R.D.) Diagrams. One features a healthy dynamic based on respect, trust, fairness, honesty, responsibility, boundaries, communication, and the best interest of athletes. The second features an unhealthy dynamic, where a coach might use coercion and threats, intimidation and domination, emotional abuse, isolation and possessiveness, minimizing, denying, and blaming, manipulation, and even sexual and/or physical abuse to achieve their ends. 

Healthy Relationship Dynamics Between Coaches & Athletes:

Unhealthy Relationship Dynamics Between Coaches & Athletes

These diagrams can be used as a gut check: allowing all of us to reflect on the conduct we experience and observe in our sporting communities—that Jumper Classic round included—to identify if what is occurring aligns with a healthy and supportive coach/athlete relationship, or not.

How do you think the interaction I described falls on the C.A.R.D. Diagrams? 

To my mind, there was, at the very least, a clear lack of ‘balanced and constructive feedback’ in the Honesty category. There was also a failure of Communication, which, in its demeaning nature, leaned far more heavily toward Intimidation & Domination rather than a ‘kind & strengths-based’ perspective. At the same time, the coaching didn’t appear to be in the rider’s Best Interest—for someone hired to help improve the rider’s skillset, the trainer’s approach had the opposite effect. Finally, there was also a clear lack of Fairness in the scenario I witnessed, with the middle rider receiving the brunt of the trainer’s ire despite at least one of the other two making comparable mistakes.

Now ask yourself: how does your own coaching relationship stack up—or those you’ve experienced in the past?

Awareness is the first step toward solving any problem. The next step is implementing safeguards between coaches and athletes—and enforcing them—to ensure that future generations of athletes have safe and positive experiences.

Learn more about the C.A.R.D. Diagrams at weridetogether.today and take the Coach Athlete Pledge, a summary of ten best practices that helps ensure everyone—riders, parents and coaches—are on the same page when it comes to expected standards of behavior. #WeRideTogether also offers free Code of Conduct signs outlining these best practices that can be posted in the barn. Order one for your facility by emailing info@weridetogether.today.