COACH OF THE MONTH is a regular Education series on our website. It is a way of highlighting the EA coaches and educators who work with dedication and passion all over Australia.
Dee and her heart-horse Zorro
Dee McVicker is an EA Level 1 General Coach and G-Level Dressage Judge, based in Terry Hills, NSW
"I was born in the UK in Yorkshire, to a totally non-horsey family and have been horse mad for as long as I can remember.
I was a challenge for my parents, as it would’ve been much easier if I’d joined them and my three siblings on camping trips and adventures.
Eventually, they bought me weekly riding lessons where I learnt to stop, go, steer and stay on a variety of ponies. I wasn’t taught about canter leads, diagonals or any of that posh stuff.
By the time I was nine, I had harassed my parents into buying me a pony. He was 5 years old, 12.1 hh and came at the bargain price of sixty quid, including his tack – the saddle had a broken tree that never occurred to me to fix!
He was a monster to catch and barely educated. At the time I thought him naughty and named him Mischief, but I know now that he was an absolute saint and I was a gung-ho and unskilled rider. My parents thought that now I had a pony, I surely didn’t need any lessons.
Lord knows how Mischief survived what I put him through. I can hardly bear to tell you.
A highlight was “breaking him to harness” by squeezing him between the shafts of a donkey cart; another was riding him over a suspension bridge with 30 metal slatted stairs ...my agile, pragmatic and unshod pony made it.
Growing up, I had many falls, which evidence suggests does NOT make a rider.
I remember racing a friend on his motorbike along his driveway and neglected to notice that the field I was in came to an abrupt end with a pretty substantial fence, which Mischief jumped! Obviously, I didn’t stay on. I was lucky enough to get away with a concussion and a broken arm.
Mischief went on to be a hero in many lease homes and lived until he was 27.
I didn’t go to Pony Club, I simply didn’t know how. I didn’t have another lesson until I was an adult. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and this fuels my current passion for coaching and supporting riders.
As an adult, I muddled along buying horses and gradually acquiring a modicum of skills and knowledge.
I was still not “in” with the horsey crowd, who no doubt recognised me as an amateur. I was, and often made a fool of myself attempting things that I knew nothing about.
I remember once asking why I’d been unable to get my horse over a cross country jump. The sharp reply was that it looked like I didn’t have him between leg and hand. I had no idea what she meant.
I didn’t know how to fix what I didn’t know, and this too fuels my passion for coaching and supporting riders now.
Fast forward 25 years through marriage, two kids and a move to Australia.
I got back to horses again when my daughter Sarah went to school, her incessant pestering reinforced my own obsession.
Due to my inexperience at the time, I bought an unsuitable horse and again, this fuels my passion to help first-time horse owners avoid these pitfalls.
We moved to Terrey Hills and got involved with Northside Riding Club. At last, a supportive and friendly horsey community.
Finally, after a lifetime of nearly there, we went Eventing! As I was the only mum who had the faintest idea, I ended up as an occasional competition coach to a few kids, although I use that term very loosely. But I think that that was where it started.
I did my coach training whilst Sarah was doing her HSC, hoping to mitigate the cost of our horses.
I absolutely love coaching. Working with horses and guiding students from the first ride, to competent horse riders and owners. An opportunity to save people and their horses from the many mistakes that I have made and witnessed.
Somehow, from a few freelance lessons, what can only be described as a good-sized riding school has magically appeared.
The past three years have been a whirlwind of taking some incredible opportunities (a couple of super horses given to me to start the herd, premises to start the school in when a large local riding school closed, and then the amazing purpose-built premises we moved to 18 months ago – four arenas, including a massive indoor, to name but a few!) that presented themselves and then running as fast as I could with amazing support from countless people to get there.
I have never worked so hard in my life and, although I would like some time off at some time in the future, I wake up every morning excited and keen to get the next thing done.
Without having really planned anything, I find myself surrounded by a fantastic team and the best clients at the school and having a blast. I am not coaching as much as I would like right now, maybe 20 lessons a week, whilst I get on top of the administration – soon I hope.
I am excited now that competitions are back on. I love taking our team and students who half lease the school horses or own their own horses out on a Sunday. It’s so rewarding to watch them grow in confidence and skills and for them to learn the ropes without too many stumbles.
We have quite a few coaches who did their coach training whilst working with and being supported by us. It’s something I am proud to do for them, with a bonus of great additions to the team! There is a large demand for beginner and intermediate lessons in our area and I have found that some of our best coaches are not always the best riders or competitors, but the ones with a passion for horses, a professional and client-focused approach and the ability to engage with children and help them learn. Maybe one day I will do my training to become a Coach Educator, although it looks a little daunting right now.
Another passion of mine is perfecting student’s positions on a horse. I rode for 35 years hating photographs of myself riding and asked a friend and coach to lunge me until I looked good on a horse. Really, it took very little time and I was stunned (Duh!) to find that my effectiveness and stability as a rider improved dramatically.
So, all my students hear endlessly about developing a correct seat and an elastic contact. Certainly, before we do any jumping, they have to get the basics right.
I am also loving the increasing number of adults returning to riding with us, yet another of my personal journies. So many parents schedule everything for their kids and nothing for themselves. I hear ‘I used to ride, but not properly’ and I enthusiastically encourage them to get back onto the horse.
Running a business has its challenges. I saw pretty early on the myriad of pressures that cause some riding schools to take shortcuts. It’s really hard and really expensive to find good school horses and keep them they healthy, happy, well-trained and pain-free. Also, keeping staff content, reasonably paid, motivated and with a modicum of work/life balance.
I resolved that I would invest the time and money (by which I mean lesson income – there was no capital) needed to achieve this. I priced the lessons to cover all these costs. If the market wasn’t there at these prices, then it would be time to go stack shelves.
So far, so good, although it’s still a work in progress to this day.
I am really proud of the professional school we have become and the safe, effective lessons, a great atmosphere and supportive, kind team vibe that we are able to offer.
We now have 16 school horses at MC Equestrian and they are mine I suppose, although I feel like they belong to the school and the school belongs to us all.
We have many students agisting their first horses here, or half leasing school horses and learning all about it more effectively than I did.
My own horse, Zorro, is incredibly talented with a divine temperament and is the best horse I have ever owned, the heart horse of a lifetime. I fell in love with him as a youngster in a paddock and pestered his owners until they sold him to me.
He has now been in my life for four years. He can already do far more than I can, due to my fantastic coach training him when I no-show for lessons. I worry that I lack the skills or focus to fulfill his potential, but he doesn’t care. I am overjoyed every day to have him in my life.
In my work at MC Equestrian Riding School, I want to: inspire and support people to be better riders, coaches and horse owners; help people to a fulfilling horsey life, without the avoidable pain brought about by ignorance; for the school to be an example of best practise in the industry; perhaps to take what we are learning and offer support to coaches overwhelmed by the challenges of running a riding school; pay forward the support I have been given here in Australia, (I cannot name names or it will read like an Oscars speech, but you all know who you are); learn more, know more, do more- I know that I’m not alone when I say that feel like an imposter – perhaps, at last, I do know what I don’t know.
My personal horsey ambition is to get the school and my life to a place where I can spend that time and focus to become a better rider, and maybe get up the grades in my dotage.
Whichever, I fantasise about taking regular time off driving Zorro, my dog and myself around the country in a fancy truck doing elite clinics and big comps whilst the school runs like a well-oiled machine. Who knows...I’ll keep dreaming!"
Press Release from Equestrian Australia www.equestrian.org.au