Susan works at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC, where she teaches classes on both introductory and developmental psychology. Before becoming a professor, she had intended on becoming a clinician, “someone who’s all wise, can sit behind a desk and tell you how to sort your life”, and then a researcher, “getting into the nitty gritty of things”. But Susan had nothing to fear from a late switch to the classroom. By the time she decided to make the change in her career, she already knew the tricks of the teaching trade from years spent standing in the middle of the arena.

Susan began coaching at the age of 15, first in hunter/jumper and then, later in life, in dressage. She achieved her first EC coaching certification in 1993 and now holds qualifications as an EC certified Competition Coach Specialist in Dressage, and as an NCCP Coach Evaluator and Learning Facilitator.

Certified Coach Spotlight: How Dr. Susan Thompson Merges Psychology and Dressage

Teaching is second nature to Dr. Susan Thompson of Delta, BC: she is a psychology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in addition to being an EC certified Competition Coach Specialist in Dressage, and NCCP Coach Evaluator and Learning Facilitator.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Susan Thompson

“As soon as I was old enough to understand, I had an interest in the methodological attractiveness of dressage; how it helps the horse, makes the horse move differently and how you can communicate clearly with your horse,” explained Susan, who trained under distinguished dressage coach Eleanor Stegman and Canadian Olympian Leslie Reid.

There are countless pages of scientific research exploring horse-and-rider communication, and to those Susan added concepts she learned in psychology to optimize her coaching. She commented, “Learning theory – classical conditioning and operant conditioning – along with Andrew McLean’s wonderful research on how horses learn, helps me explain to my students horse behaviour and learning theory, and then they feel more effective. Of course, I apply that learning theory to my students, as well. From a sports performance point of view, trying to figure out where learning blocks come from and how to overcome them is something where I also draw on my psychology skills.”

And because Susan’s psychology skills and knowledge encompass the entire human life span, she is a valuable resource to all of her clients at Crescent Stables, who range in age from five to their late 70s.

“In my psychology degree, I was focused on development – how children, adolescents and eventually adults change over time and aging,” explained Susan. “All of that is directly relevant to coaching, from things like growth changes during puberty, the peak of anxiety disorders happening in early adulthood and how that translates into riding, and the various life stage changes that people go through and what that means for their sport development. I think it does go hand-in-hand; having a pysch degree is quite good for running an equestrian centre – having a business degree might have been better, but I’m getting there!”

Certified Coach Spotlight: How Dr. Susan Thompson Merges Psychology and Dressage

Susan’s knowledge of psychology tends to trickle over into her dressage coaching, such as the application of learning theory.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Susan Thompson

Another added benefit is that when confronted with those life challenges, students know that they can come to Susan, who worked at Coastal Vancouver Health as an Eating Disorders Counsellor for several decades and maintains a private practice in sports performance counselling. Even though she does not operate in a clinical role at Crescent Stables, Susan is always on-hand to help steer students in the right direction or towards the necessary psychological services, if appropriate.

The relationship between psychology and coaching is symbiotic: in addition to psychological theory informing her coaching practices, Susan has also brought skills she developed in the equestrian world over to the academic. She credits long days coaching or at horse shows with building perseverance, which helped her overcome the challenges of establishing an academic career and thriving in a high-pressure professional environment.

Susan remarked, “If you’re an equestrian, you know that you have to persist and persist and persist in the face of erratic results, no results, or really good results that might not be there next time. I think that helps when you’re going through a program like graduate school where you have to be quite self-directed. And essentially, an academic career is one where you’re faced with constant critique of your work. That is the nature of science, that we look at each other’s work and go, ‘I don’t know about that’. You have to be willing to keep going, so I think persistence is the common denominator there.”

Whether teaching students who are sitting in a classroom or a saddle, for Susan, the end goal is always the same: “Something about teaching and making changes in peoples’ lives is really rewarding, helping people understand their own power to make changes in their lives. I think that’s a commonality between psychology and coaching – empowering people to make changes.”

Certified Coach Spotlight: How Dr. Susan Thompson Merges Psychology and Dressage

Susan (middle), pictured with students Anna Zachariassen (left) and Sarah Greer (right), has found that the common denominator between teaching dressage and psychology is the ability to empower her students to make positive change in their lives.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Susan Thompson

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