Education Visionaries in Edmonton is a series of articles highlighting educators whose passion for their work, dedication to their students, and desire for innovation are invaluable to the growth of Edmontonians and our city as a whole. By conveying multiple perspectives from leaders in a diverse array of educational fields, The Wanderer hopes to illustrate the intrinsically valuable nature of learning, and celebrate the admirable art of teaching.
As a seven-year-old girl growing up in England, Lois Girard dreamed of riding horses. Naturally, she was thrilled to begin taking lessons at the local riding stables. Upon moving to Canada, her parents bought her a horse and she began working in the stable environment while training, eventually working her way up to being a barn manager. “I was one of those kids who never had the money to do it; I had to work for it,” Ms. Girard explains. “That gave me drive, a different outlook, and an appreciation.”
Years later, Ms. Girard is still horseback riding, sharing her passion for the sport as a dressage coach running Girard Equestrian. Her experiences as a student continue to shape the way she teaches today. “I try to make my students realize that they’re lucky to have what they have, and I try to give them the opportunities I never had.” As a young rider, Ms. Girard recalls not always immediately understanding the lessons that were being conveyed to her, but that patience was crucial. “I’ve had lessons where I sat there and thought, ‘What are they talking about? I don’t get it; I really don’t understand.’ And then two years down the road, I’ll do something and it really triggers that lesson that I had two years ago. Sometimes when we’re learning, especially with animals, the lessons don’t come right at that moment and you can’t really apply it at the time. Sometimes they come later on with more experience; key things happen and then all of a sudden you get that lesson.”
Collectively, Ms. Girard’s years of experience working with horses and learning with coaches have taught her the importance of self-discipline. “It’s more than just a job; it’s a lifestyle. You need the self-discipline to systematically get through your day, to keep your work good, and to make sure it gets done.” Reflecting on important qualities in a good coach, Ms. Girard stresses the importance of versatility. “Horses are like people; they’re all different. They all need different approaches, whether it’s a tougher approach, or a softer approach. I think you have to have average horses – less than average horses – to gain experience. If you’ve only ever had really good, nice, fancy horses with good movement, how do you teach the average child how to ride the average horse? It’s the same with people who have different types of mental thinking – teaching someone who’s an artist and teaching someone who’s an engineer.”
Ms. Girard notes that horseback riding provides a unique learning opportunity to students. “It’s such a different thing because you’re not just dealing with yourself and your own learning – you’re also dealing with an animal’s learning. When I coach my students, the horses learn as well as the student. A lot of the horses start at a certain level like the students do, and my job is to teach both.” One of the most valuable skills Ms. Girard cultivates in her students is the ability to pass on their knowledge. “I think the biggest thing for me is to convey the lesson to the student really clearly so that that student can then convey that lesson to the horse. The student is the teacher, and that’s what I always tell a student when they’re sitting on the horse. Every time they sit on the horse they are the trainer. Every time they do something, they’re either training the horse or they’re untraining the horse. My job is to make sure that the student is always training, not untraining.”
It is evident in Ms. Girard’s approach to horseback riding and to life itself that she understands the significance of practicing gratitude. “I think you would have to have a horse and be a rider to understand this – if you have a great horse that works with you at the time, stick with it. Don’t give it up. If it has something to offer you, use it, because they’re animals and they don’t last forever. One minute you have them, and the next minute they’re gone. While they’re working for you and while you’re enjoying them, really enjoy them – don’t take them for granted. It’s like life, right? They’re precious. They’re animals and it doesn’t take much to take them away. Enjoy them while you have them.”
Ms. Girard was nominated for the Education Visionaries Series by Caitlin Hemphill, one of her students. Caitlin’s nomination speaks greatly to the impact Ms. Girard has on her students as an educator, and why we celebrate her as an Education Visionary.
Lois has been my dressage instructor for eleven years now and continues to be a fantastic role model and huge inspiration to myself and all of her students. Lois is practically selfless and is always ready to lend a piece of equipment even when she knows she might never see it again, or a horse to someone needing a lesson. She cares for all of her students’ horses basically for free and makes sure they get nothing but the best care. She is the first one to arrive at the barn and the last to leave, six days a week, even though she has a young family of her own.
On top of her generous nature, Lois is also an excellent coach. It’s not easy to find an affordable instructor in this sport, and Lois keeps her rates reasonable while providing superior instruction. She’s in high demand as her students are so successful and never leave her services if they can help it. At this year’s Alberta Dressage Provincials, Lois’s students performed a hat trick, winning the championships at Second, Third, and Fourth Level. Though Lois is an extremely knowledgeable dressage coach, she is largely self-taught and has worked her way into the horse industry. She never had the fancy horses or Olympic instruction that others have had, and yet she is one of the best coaches in the province, perhaps even in Western Canada.
I started with Lois when I was sixteen, and I’m twenty-seven now. I can’t think of anyone else other than my mother who has had such a large impact on my life and whose opinion I value the most. As a teenager, I had no interest in the exacting discipline of dressage and wanted only to jump my horse. Flying through the air was the only thing I wanted to do. Well, after years of poor instruction, flying through the air was the only thing I did do, although I was flying into the dirt off the horse rather than flying on the horse and over the fence. The year I turned sixteen, my mother agreed to stable mine and my sister’s horses at a local stable for the winter so we could continue to hone our skills all year round. Lois was an instructor there. My mother suggested that maybe some dressage lessons might help my jumping, and the rest is history. I haven’t jumped a fence since I was sixteen.
I was hooked on the meticulousness and skill needed for dressage and I loved the results I began to see. My horse was obedient and strong and I was getting better with every lesson. Lois’s special way of phrasing and patience helped me begin to understand concepts that had been glossed over with less adequate instructors. For years, I had thought dressage was boring because it had never been taught correctly. Lois opened my eyes to a new passion, one that remains with me now. I learned that with hard work and dedication, I too could do well in the world of dressage with my little small-moving Thoroughbred mare. After a few years of Lois’s teaching, I earned a Reserve Provincial Championship with my first horse.
Lois’s dedication to her students’ success goes beyond good quality instruction. Lois knows that I, just like a younger version of her, am not wealthy and participation in dressage comes dear. Seven years ago, it was time to retire my old Thoroughbred mare and Lois knew I didn’t have money for another horse. Lois still owned a horse that she never used for sport, and so she gave that horse to me. I still ride and compete on my beautiful Hanoverian mare, Wantara; she is the love of my life. How many students can say their instructor gave them a horse? And not just any horse – an expensive, well-bred sporthorse?
It’s been more than a decade and I appreciate Lois more every year. I know that she is such a talented and special coach that I will never outgrow her teaching ability. She is a friend now as well, and is always willing to listen to any issues I may be having, horse-related or not.
Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Photography Editor Antony Ta; banner design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.