The students who take riding lessons at most barns around the country are almost always either adult amateur or junior riders. And those two large groups of people can be subdivided into several categories (sometimes even more than one category), including the category every trainer likes to work with: athletic, brave, hard-working, with the resources to have good horses, and committed to your program.
But for most of us trainers, riders who fit into that category are pretty rare birds, kind of like California Condors. So, the most common categories for the adult-amateur rider riders in your barn are: I’m Really Serious—But Time And Money Crunched; I Want To Learn But I Don’t Want To Compete; I’m Only Here For Fun; Re-Riders (aka former child stars now returning to the saddle, but often not accepting that they aren’t as brave or as able as they were 20-plus years ago); Terrified But Determined; and Terrified But Not Really So Determined.
For junior riders, the most common categories include: I Want To Make A U.S. Team by the Time I’m 25; Horse-Obsessed Barn Rat; More Talent and Drive Than Dollars; I’m Here Because My Friends Are Doing This; and Horsies Are Purty. We’ve also often seen the sudden onset of teenage hormones: “I really want to ride; I really want to ride—Oh my god, did you see that guy!?” Then it’s, “Mom and Dad, you can sell my horse.”
Since riding students have such a varied set of personalities, goals and dreams, it’s a good thing that trainers’ personalities and styles are almost as varied as their students. Most good trainers already tailor their approach to the student who’s in front of them, but any trainer with the experience necessary to properly develop horses and riders has a theory and a program or methodology that overarches what and how they teach.
The truth is that some riders and trainers fit together better than others. Sometimes they fit is like a hand in a glove, but it can also be as bad as oil and water. Sometimes you sense that right away, and sometimes you don’t discover it until somewhere down the road. Usually, though, the fit is somewhere between those two extremes.
We trainers are human, and that means that we’re necessarily products of the environment in which we grew up. From horse and non-horse experiences, we all have priorities in our lives and in our businesses, and we do some things better than we do others. One trainer might be especially good at solving horses (or riders) with problems; one might work best with beginning or novice riders, while another might work only with high-goal riders already competing at a certain level. One trainer’s life might allow them to teach at dawn or until late at night, while another’s life or priorities require students to take lessons only between 10:00 and 6:00.
Riders have to decide how their goals, lifestyle priorities and finances mesh with those of any trainer they’re considering. Rarely is there a perfect answer, and the right answer this month can certainly change, for a variety of reasons in a few months or years.
My wife, Heather, was the product of a pretty strict European training model. The emphasis was on doing things correctly and pushing yourself. It wasn’t really a spot for the weak of heart or for those in the “I’m Only Here For Fun” category. They did develop in Heather her tremendous natural feel and a gift for the dressage work, but one of the trainers was naturally gifted over fences and unable to explain his technique to Heather, who’s always struggled over fences.
As a trainer now, Heather is known for her ability to break down and carefully communicate all the minutia involved in every aspect of riding. She can explain concepts in a variety of ways to help each student understand. She also works extremely well with people who have confidence issues, because she’s dealt with confidence issues herself. So she has an innate feel for when to push and when to give someone space.
She is unfailingly kind and forgiving to her students, but some people would say that she’s “too nice.” Some riders need a trainer who’s aggressive and pushes hard and “doesn’t sugarcoat it.” The world has plenty of trainers who will do that. But the type of student who thrives with a trainer like Heather would curl up and fall apart with a more “drill sergeant-type” trainer.
I trained for several years with a former Calvary officer (I don’t know that I ever knew his first name—he was “Col. Johnson” to everyone), and thanks to him and to my German parents, I’d say that I had that tough mentality regarding riding (and life) installed early. The Nike slogan “Just Do It” would describe most of my upbringing, or “Lead, Follow or Get the Hell Out of the Way.”
I’ll admit that I struggle sometimes with my own approach when teaching, but we find that, for some students, I make a good counterpoint to Heather’s style. She builds them up, and I tell them to just go and do it. “Can’t” isn’t a word I recognize. I often tell my son that.
The key is finding the style that works best for you and your horse, finding a trainer whose philosophy and program works best for you and who is able to adapt it to suit you and your horse. Compatibility is the goal, and not every trainer is right for every students, or vice-versa.