Choosing the Right Instructor for Your Child

Choosing an instructor to teach your child to ride is not a decision to be taken lightly. Here are some guidelines to simplify the process.
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Choosing an instructor to teach your child to ride is not a decision to be taken lightly. Here are some guidelines to simplify the process.

The relationship between your child and riding instructor is one of the most important bonds he or she will develop outside the family. As with a child's early school teachers, the relationship will shape the child's whole attitude toward riding and the confidence he or she brings to the stable each day. Because of this, it is important that parents develop realistic criteria for evaluating their children and prospective instructors to result in suitable matches.

Making the right choices for your child can result in a well-adjusted, confident young rider. And whether or not a child ultimately chooses a career in horses, the skills learned during the formative years can be carried into other life endeavors.

The development of riding skills is both a physical and intellectual process. At first children are limited by their muscle development and level of confidence. As they grow older and stronger, they can adopt concepts that will help them influence the performance of the horse. A suitable instructor can help a child develop both of these important aspects of successful riding.

The first step is discovering what your child wants to accomplish with horses. Is the child an outgoing, adventurous lover of the outdoors? If so, trail riding, mounted games, or contest riding may be interests worth pursuing. Is the child a competitive high achiever? If so, showing may be a satisfactory outlet for these energies. If the child simply loves to care for animals, pleasure riding may be his or her ultimate goal.

With a basic framework in mind, parents will be able to keep the child's best and most enduring interests in mind as they build an instruction program. Trying to make a child do something he or she is not fundamentally suited for is futile and possibly harmful. There are equestrian activities suitable for nearly any personality type. Tailoring an instruction program to accommodate the child's basic preferences is not only possible--it's a good idea.

Because there are many different styles and approaches to riding, parents must educate themselves about those various disciplines and narrow the choices to those that fit the child's personality and what is available in the area.

Organizations that support youth riding programs, such as the National 4-H Council and the United States Pony Club, are valid sources of this information. They provide publications and sponsor riding programs through local clubs throughout the United States, stressing basic horse management skills, safety, team participation, and leadership. 4-H maintains a multi-disciplinary approach to horsemanship, accommodating a variety of English and Western styles of riding. The United States Pony Club promotes traditional English styles of riding, including dressage, combined training, tetrathlon and mounted games, with events at local, regional and national levels.

Membership in these organizations provides the child and family with a holistic approach to horsemanship and instruction that becomes a secure foundation for taking future directions in equestrian sports. They also introduce parents to a network of instructor candidates to begin their selection process. Information about these organizations is provided at the conclusion of this article.

After determining a suitable direction for the child, parents need to evaluate individual instructors with a set of criteria that will ensure the best results. Questions to ask when selecting a suitable instructor include:

  • Does the instructor specialize in working with children? For best results, find an instructor who specializes in and enjoys working with children. Some instructors do; many more do not. It is a key attribute of a successful instruction program that is refined by education and experience. To find out, ask the instructor about his or her background, education, and experience in working with children. A long list of horse show victories is no substitute for a caring, respectful attitude with which the instructor communicates information to the child.
  • Does the instructor have a good safety record? Appropriate dress should be used for all mounted activities. Regardless of the age groups they work with, instructors must systematically require proper safety equipment, including protective head gear, proper riding boots, gloves and chest protection (when appropriate). An instructor who does not stress this important issue should not be considered as a candidate. The instructor should also wear this equipment every time he or she rides, supporting the example being set.
  • Does the instructor carry liability insurance? If yes, this indicates that the instructor takes business matters seriously, is aware of the potential risks associated with horses and ponies, and knows how to manage them properly. If not, it indicates a lack of critical awareness of equine risk management. Parents should have an understanding of the fundamentals of equine insurance by researching the topic themselves and preparing to address this important topic.
  • Is the instructor normally on time, on schedule and able to keep commitments? These reveal the instructor's respect for your child's needs as well as others. Respect or lack of it will be communicated to your child and will greatly influence the child-instructor relationship.
  • Is the instructor fair in sharing time evenly with all students in group or semi-private lessons? This is another indication of the instructor's management skills that should be considered before agreeing to any arrangements. Preferential or disproportionate sharing of time is a non-professional approach.
  • Does the instructor communicate clearly so that my child understands what is being asked? This is a strong indication of the instructor's ability to interact effectively with your child.
  • Are the instructor's goals consistent with my family's goals? All instruction programs, regardless of level, should emphasize horsemanship, safety, and sportsmanship as the basic building blocks of education Competitiveness should relegated to a secondary goal until these are solidly established. If the instructor's emphasis is at odds with the family's goals, the relationship will not, and should not, last.
  • Is the instructor the kind of role model I want my child to emulate? Children are highly impressionable. Most learn and adjust their own behavior according to what they see their authority figures and role models doing. It is well to remember that the personality and behavior of the instructor, both on and off the horse, will influence how the child turns out.

To answer these questions, parents must devote some time to a structured screening process, which takes patience and time. Selecting an instructor essentially means entrusting someone else with the safety and wellbeing of your child. This is a big responsibility. Parents need to trust their own instincts and common sense to tell them what is safe activity and what is not.

You can begin by collecting referrals from families who share similar goals for their children, then audit some lessons to get an impression of how the instructor teaches. Referrals can point you in the right direction, but first-hand observation of the instructor's approach to riding is even more revealing. Visit stables and attend horse events. If you see an adult with a bunch of happy, well-adjusted kids in tow, find out who it is and inquire about auditing a lesson.

Once a preference is found, ask the instructor for a resume and inquire about insurance and other concerns you may have. Following this, a pre-determined trial period can be set up. An organized approach will show the instructor that you are serious about the child's education and well-being, which will help get the relationship off to a good start.

It is important to give the child-instructor relationship time to develop, which is where the value of patience comes in. While it is critical that you be your child's advocate, it is also important for the child to know that you are in charge of the overall program and the instructor is in charge of what happens during the lessons. A clear definition of responsibility can help build the confidence that every child needs when facing the challenges horses and ponies present.

Liz Siders of Burton, Ohio, received her instructor certification from Morven Park Equestrian Institute (Leesburgh, Va.) in 1983. Since then she has taught lessons at stables in Indiana, Georgia, Michigan and Ohio.

She says, "An instructor who is working with young, or beginning riders of any age must have the patience to take whatever time is needed to thoroughly develop the basic skills common to all types of riding. My job is to build my students' confidence. By rushing them into situations they are not fully prepared for, I risk destroying the confidence they have attained, as well as destroying their desire to ride altogether. It is very hard to rebuild confidence once it has been lost. My students know that I would never ask them to do anything they aren't ready for. Having fun is what riding should be, and if a student is afraid it is no longer any fun."

Finally, it is important to be prepared for changes as children progresses in education. Their goals and needs inevitably change. A parent must be prepared to re-assess the value the child is receiving from the instructional program and consider additional instructors when need for a change becomes necessary.

David J. Wyatt and his wife, dressage trainer/competitor Connie LaSalle Wyatt, own and operate a horse farm in Hinckley, Ohio. Their two children are members of the Bath Pony Club and compete regularly in horse shows.

Brooke Garratt owns a horse farm in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and has been active with horses for over 20 years. She is currently District Commissioner of the Bath Pony Club, Bath, Ohio.