I have been teaching riding for 25 years, including six years of teaching as an adjunct professor for the physical education department of a university. A few things I've learned along the way about being a good instructor:
1. The safety of the student and the horse come first. The worst thing an instructor can do is to overface the student and/or the horse. You must always start with where they are and build from there. Asking for too much too soon destroys confidence.
2. It is very important to respect your student and to teach with respect. No one is born knowing how to ride, and all of us started as beginners. It's helpful to remember how you struggled to grasp certain concepts and skills in your own riding so that you can understand the feelings and struggles of your students.
3. Good teaching comes from being able to break down the skills or concepts you're trying to teach into their components, figuring out which component comes first, starting there and building layer upon layer.
3. When traditional methods don't work, you must get creative. The greatest and most satisfying successes for me have come from drawing on disciplines other than riding to be able to reach a student who's having problems.
4. A sense of humor goes a long way. Laughter relieves tension for everyone.
5. Patience, patience, patience. A good instructor must be able to say and teach the same things over and over again without losing his or her sense of humor.
6. Praise works; criticism doesn't. Always tell your students what they've done right, not just what improvements they need to make.
7. At the conclusion of the lesson, always thank your students for the work they've done and the effort they've put forth. Remember that you provided the guidance, but your students (and their horses) did the work.
8. Last but not least, remember that you are not just influencing your students' riding--you have an impact on their lives. Well-taught students will apply what they've learned in their riding lessons to other areas of their lives. It's most satisfying to receive a telephone call years later from someone you've taught who wants your advice or wants just to thank you for what they've learned.
As a Certified Horsemanship Association-certified instructor who is currently working on obtaining U.S. Eventing Association certification, I would say one very important issue is to make sure the instructor you choose is certified. Anyone can claim to be an instructor or trainer, but how qualified are they really?
Certifications are not just handed out: To become certified, one must have a particular amount of experience and training to pass certification tests. In addition, there are different levels within different disciplines: You want to find out what level within the instructor's claimed discipline he or she is certified. For example, there are four levels of eventing certification. Qualifications differ within levels.
Of course personality is also important when trying out potential instructors. The best way to choose is by seeking out a couple of instructors in your area and make appointments for a lesson with each. Then you can more objectively decide which one suits your style and personality. I believe that a qualified instructor should also have CPR credentials, insurance and a positive attitude. A good instructor will do an evaluation ride with you instead of instantly blabbing out instructions without evaluating you and your horse as a team. She should also ask you about your goals, problems you are having and your and your horse's health history. She should check that your tack is properly fitted, find out what knowledge you already have, give you homework and ask you if you have any questions both during and after your lesson.
I currently teach beginner to lower advanced riders in hunt seat, dressage and Western pleasure. For me, in addition to attention to detail and safety, I look for someone who continues to improve her riding and teaching skills. If my instructor has a thirst for and joy of learning, she is going to be able to pass that on to me. One of the worst things that you can do is think that you know or have learned everything there is to learn. My students teach me something new every day!
Practical Horseman readers share their tips for finding the right instructor in the June 2008 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Share your own tips in the Practical Horseman forum.
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