20-20 Vision: Riding with An Instructor

A good horse instructor will help your horsemanship abilities soar by being your eyes on the ground. Here's how to get the most out of the relationship.
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A good horse instructor will help your horsemanship abilities soar by being your eyes on the ground. Here's how to get the most out of the relationship.
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We can all benefit from horseback riding lessons. Even the best horseback riders seek out "master" teachers and trainers who can help them broaden their base of knowledge and sharpen their skills. A horseback riding instructor can do the same thing for you, whatever your discipline or level of ability.

An extra pair of eyes can see things you may miss, teach you and your horse simultaneously, and help you reach your horsemanship goals. Whether you decide to take brush-up lessons or select a structured program of instruction, it's your money. Make the most of it by following some simple advice.

Do Your Homework Before the First Lesson
Many people find a riding instructor by referral or word of mouth. This method often works, because reputation is a key quality in the horse industry, and one that all professionals try to cultivate. But if you stop there-trusting what so-and-so said-then you haven't really done your homework.

The key to a successful instructor-student relationship is a good fit of goals, personalities, and logistics. You need to know more about Ms. Smith than her reputation. You need to know about her rates, policies, safety procedures, and insurance coverage. You also need to know if her teaching style will fit your learning goals.

The best way to learn more is by observing a lesson. Call ahead of time and make an appointment to meet the instructor, see her program, and watch her at work. Even freelance instructors who travel to their clients' farms should be able to accommodate this request. Ask if you can take a "trial" lesson, to see if the teacher is a good fit.

Instructor certification is one way to assess quality. Different organizations use different rating systems, so if an instructor shares her credentials with you, go home and look up the certifying organization on the Internet and read its testing process. What level or type of knowledge did the candidate have to demonstrate to get certified? Did certification involve a written quiz, a teaching demonstration, live riding tests, videotaped sessions?

Learning to Learn

  • Every rider can benefit from lessons, regardless of his or her riding level.
  • Ask around about good instructors since reputations are often built by word of mouth.
  • Check out credentials online, and ask to observe a lesson before choosing an instructor.
  • Be respectful of your instructor by arriving promptly, paying on time, and respecting the person's boundaries.
  • Expect and give open, straightforward communication about goals, learning styles, and teaching methods.
  • Recognize when it's time to move on and find a new instructor.

Also recognize that, because there is no single, national certification process for instructors in this country, some talented teachers do not go that route. Instead, they earn credentials through their specific discipline, such as winning a reining championship or United States Dressage Federation (USDF) silver medal. They may have professional status in their breed of choice or garner numerous training and showing titles. They may be a John Lyons Certified Trainer.

All these credentials are important, because they were earned in a peer-reviewed or competitive process. Yet some excellent instructors don't have any titles. What they have is dozens of years of firsthand experience teaching youngsters from scratch, starting colts under saddle, and running their own businesses. If you observe them work and see that they treat humans and animals with respect, conduct themselves professionally, keep good records, carry liability insurance, and do things to update their own knowledge, then you can feel comfortable riding with them.

Show Some Respect
When shopping for an instructor, you may feel like you're making the choice, but realize that the instructor is choosing you, too. Top-notch instructors are in demand and can afford to be selective about their clients. On the way up in business, most of them have been stood up, stiffed, or taken advantage of, and they prefer to avoid these situations. So even though you are the student (and the one writing the checks), do your best to be professional and to show respect.

When it comes to the student-instructor relationship, the little things really count. Have your horse saddled, warmed up, and ready to go at the appointed time; don't be pulling into the driveway at 1:55 for a 2:00 lesson. You'll throw off your teacher's schedule for the rest of the day and probably cut your own lesson short. Sign release forms or contracts if requested, and always pay on time. If you pay per lesson, hand your instructor the money before you get on your horse. If you need to cancel or reschedule, give your teacher plenty of lead time. This is how she makes her living; four days' notice from you might allow her to slot in another student, but 24 hours probably will not.

Ask your instructor how best to communicate with her. Is it email, cell phone, or home answering machine? Are there off-limits times (like Sunday evenings or after 9 pm when the kids are in bed)? When does she take her vacations or typically go out of town for horse shows?

Some students think that instructors teach for fun-and they sure do seem to love their jobs-but it's still a job. Riding lessons put food on the table, pay the mortgage, gas up the truck, and allow instructors to afford insurance, equipment, and ongoing training for themselves. If you no-show for a lesson because "it looked like rain," or skip a few weeks because money is tight, your instructor might politely decline to continue working with you. She has to be able to survive financially, or change her career. For her, having thoughtful, consistent customers is a necessity.

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Communicate with Your Instructor
Letting your instructor know in advance about changes to your schedule is good policy. So is talking openly and often about your goals, your horse's needs, and how best to meet them. Also be ready to hear your instructor's perspective. She may see a hitch in your horse's stride that you have missed, and suggest that a vet check his hocks. She may encourage a change in saddles if your horse's back seems sore, or think that another month of cavaletti work might be good for you before learning to jump. Once she hears your ideas, and you listen to her insights, you can plan your strategy together.

Many instructors begin each lesson by asking their students what they've been working on independently since the last lesson. If your teacher doesn't use this method, perhaps you can encourage it by offering this information as you enter the ring. If you practice between lessons, letting your instructor know what has been working well and what you're still struggling to figure out can help her plan the lesson and focus on trouble spots before you and your horse get too frustrated.

Getting the Most Out of Instruction
Any training session includes walking breaks for the horse to rest and relax between bouts of learning, and for the rider to process the new method, idea, or skill. Use this time to think through the right cues and memorize the feeling of the horse responding correctly. Verbalize this information to your instructor and get her feedback. Ask questions, ask for clarification. Ask: what is the next step?

At the end of each lesson, request homework. What are two or three key exercises you could work on before the next session? What skill, feel, or goal are you targeting in each exercise? Review the cues and movements step by step if needed. Keep a notebook or audio recorder in your tack box. As soon as you've cared for your horse, take notes on your lesson and record your homework exercises.

Many students journal after each lesson, even after every riding session with their horse, noting what worked well and what didn't. When they hit snags in their training, these notes help them to dig back a month or even a year and uncover a helpful exercise, cue sequence, or metaphor their instructor used to explain a concept. Academic research has shown that writing is a mode of learning-it's a cognitive process. In other words, as we write down our ideas, we figure out what we know and what we don't know yet. Students who keep riding journals get their money's worth because they archive everything they learn and can always go back to their notes. They're still learning, even when they're not on the horse.

When You Need a Change
In the idyllic student-instructor relationship, everyone's goals are in sync, so the rider and the trainer (and the horse!) leave each lesson equally satisfied. When a rider is lucky enough to find such a teacher, she will probably drive untold miles-pulling a trailer-to work with that person. In reality, most of us go through three to five instructors before we meet the "perfect" one for us. In the meantime, however, we have learned some valuable lessons.

The student-teacher relationship is just like any other kind of relationship: it requires open communication and occasional compromise. The good news is that all that work at communicating and cooperating results in personal growth on both sides.

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If you hit a road-bump (or a wall), first discuss the issue with your instructor-calmly. Choose a time when neither of you feel pressured or rushed. Try to do it in person rather than over the phone. Explain what you're thinking and feeling, then give your instructor a chance to respond. Maybe you just need to clear up a miscommunication or clarify one detail, and you can get back to work-together.

There is an instructor for each type of student, and for each level. It is possible to outgrow an instructor. Good teachers realize this; when you've learned all they have to teach you, they will send you on your way, with their blessing, knowing that your success is their best advertising. Their goal is not to keep you dependent on them, but to make you a more independent rider. Good teachers will also suggest who you should contact to go to the next level in your training.

When you outgrow an instructor, or the relationship sours, or you realize that your goals or teaching-learning styles don't match, approach the change logically and plan a graceful exit. Do everything within reason to leave the relationship on a positive note. Do not bad-mouth the instructor or talk with other clients behind her back. Do not lose your temper, create a scene in the barn aisle, or otherwise make yourself look silly.

Thank the instructor for everything she has done for you and your horse. Give her a parting gift and note. Let her know that you will be happy to serve as a reference in the future. If you're leaving on less than stellar terms, she may not call you for that recommendation, but at least you were magnanimous enough to offer it. If you worry about her response to your news, consider doing it in a public place. And, if you are under contract with her for lessons or training, give her sufficient notice that you can be released from your contract without losing money.

If you must part ways, think of it as a transition phase. You may be without lessons for a few weeks, but use this time to research your options. Who else in your area offers lessons? Go watch them teach, ask about their programs, and speak with their clients. If you take a trial lesson, discuss your horsemanship goals with the new instructor and ask for that person's opinion. Ask: if you took lessons, what would that instructor focus on during the first few weeks?

Group Lessons and Iffy Horses
If you're new to riding instruction, consider group lessons. They are usually cheaper. They also give you and your horse valuable experience riding in groups, and you can learn a lot by watching other riders and listening to the feedback they receive.

Group lessons should involve riders and horses of similar levels, and be geared to the median or average rider in the group. The teacher must be able to adjust exercises and activities so that no horse or rider is bored, but no one is pushed beyond his or her abilities either. It's a challenge, but most instructors teach group lessons and do it well. If you feel like your needs are being met in a group setting and you enjoy the social aspect and the camaraderie of learning with others, then you may not need private lessons.

An instructor may tell you that the horse you own is perfect for your stage of riding and your goals. Or the instructor may tell you the opposite. If your teacher thinks you need a "better" horse, ask why. Sometimes riders and horses are genuinely mismatched. A professional can soon see that, and usually has the connections to help you find a replacement.

Before you leap to a new mount, review your goals. What do you want to achieve with this particular horse? Is he physically and mentally capable of reaching those goals with you? How long will it take…and are you willing to put in that time commitment?

Ask your instructor why she feels a change of horse is preferable to using the horse you own. Listen with the logical side of your brain; don't get emotional. Part of her job is to be honest with you, provide assessment, and try to help you reach your goals efficiently. Horses have strengths and weaknesses; they also grow old, get injured, and develop bad habits. They can be retrained, but it is a time-consuming process.

If you want to keep working with your horse, tell your instructor why. Ask if she is willing to keep helping you as a horse-rider unit. Unless your horse is dangerous, mentally unstable, or unsound, your instructor should be willing to teach you.

Conclusion
Remember that you ride because you enjoy it. You want to spend time with your equine partner, and you want to be the best horseman you can be, for the sake of your horse. If you feel like you're making progress, your horse is happy and willing, and you leave each lesson hungry for more, then you're on the right track