Teaching beginner riders seems like it should be easy, right? After all, what do you teach? A few safety rules, how to lead a horse, how to mount/dismount, stopping, starting, how to steer – there’s nothing to it, right? I wish it was that easy, but it’s not the way I see it.
Unless you live in the land of Tra La La; skating along and teaching on auto pilot, you’ll have grueling lessons that leave you wondering where your teaching ability disappeared to, whether you might be taking money under false pretenses, and why these people are riding anyway! Ever felt like that?
The largest share of today’s beginner students, especially children, don’t have any experience with horses when they arrive at your farm.They don’t come from horsey families, or farm life. They come from suburbs and cities; homes that have cats and small dogs.They go to school, do homework, watch TV, play with electronics and participate in activities. Sometimes riding lessons get a thumbs up and become one of the activities.
Riding is not like other activities
I’m all for healthy activities that get kids moving around, building wind and muscles. Soccer, cheer leading, football, gymnastics, rock climbing – even bike riding fits in that category. So does riding.The difference is that most of the other activities are not a once a week occurrence.
Take soccer as an example. Kids go to soccer practice 1 to 3 times a week for recreational soccer, 5 days a week for competitive soccer. In between, kids practice kicking the soccer ball around by themselves or with friends. Soccer is a continuing activity with lots of opportunity for practice.
The other activities follow the same pattern: organized lessons, lots of time for practice, and the ability to practice while playing with friends.Cheer leaders and gymnasts practice moves, football enthusiasts play with their friends, kids with bicycles ride around the neighborhood. These are activities that can be practiced almost anytime in some form, for parts of the day or even all day with friends or alone.They’re continual activities.
Riding lessons are different, usually occurring 1 time a week for 1 hour.
Most of the other activities are team activities.That means there is cooperation and conflict resolution. Everyone speaks the same language, and usually has the same goal.Team members are normally in the same age group, sharing a relative size and development.
Learning to ride is different. While we hope the rider and horse become a team, they don’t start out speaking the same language, they aren’t in the same size or development category and each could very easily have different goals than the other. And while teams sports teach the desirable qualities of how to get along with one another and work towards a common goal while instilling conformity; riding teaches people how to successfully relay their plans and directions to someone who is bigger (5 or 6 times bigger), has a different goal, and can barely communicate with you.
Duration of Sport
It amazes me that more people do not connect the dots on this.Team sports (soccer, dance, football, gymnastics) have a short life span. I mean how many actively participating 45 year old gymnasts, cheer leaders, football or soccer players, do you know? Dance and biking have participants who are older but what about riding? Riders continue into their 60s and 70s. Riding is a sport for a lifetime.
Pick it Up Again
Have you ever watched a person who played football in High School or college try to return to playing, even recreationally, later in life? It almost always ends in injury and pain, adding to midlife crisis! But people who rode as children and stopped to have families or careers, usually succeed when they return to riding. In fact, more baby boomers are returning to pursue their riding dreams in middle age, than ever before.
It’s the Basics
Basics are the foundation, much like the beams and supports under the house or apartment that you live in, or the bridges that you drive your car over. You want all of those foundational pieces in place because foundation is what give strength to the structure.This applies to riding as well as buildings and bridges.
Take a good look at your beginning riders. Are they learning the basics? What ARE the basics? A good seat? A stellar position? Those are both important but I challenge you to look at a more elementary level. Is your student comfortable catching, haltering and leading a horse? Can they make the horse back up through cones or stop on command from the ground? Handling the horse from the ground has a direct relationship to how a person will handle a horse while they ride it. What about mounting? Do your beginners bounce off of their right foot and clear the horse’s hindquarters with agility or do they drag themselves into the saddle with their arms, barely missing the horse with their right leg? How about their heels? Are they down? Really down or are are you moving on to more fun activities, thinking the heels will come with time? What about simple heel/hip alignment? Hands down and not bouncing? Gentle treatment of the horse’s mouth? These are all beginner basics that your current 10 year old student will reuse when he is 40 years old.
Put yourself in 11 year old Ben’s place. He comes for his lessons one time a week. He’s more of the studious type rather than a physical kid. He likes to do things correctly. Once a week he is in charge of a pony that weighs 600 pounds. He weighs 75 pounds. His family pet is a cat. He’s not assertive but he keeps trying. He’s got the rhythm of the trot and he’s gentle with the horse but there is a quiet tension about what he does. I can see that he’s still nervous around the biggest animal he’s ever had to deal with. He needs more time on the ground with the pony so that he can become confident to move him around and direct his feet. Ben caused me to become creative with his lessons, incorporating more ground work.
Don’t to be afraid to take a step back and go over simple basics in your lessons. Remember students don’t have the opportunity to practice leading ponies or mounting up in between lessons, like other kids practice with bicycles or soccer balls.Your students will have to practice during their lessons. You may feel that progress is painfully slow. If that’s the case it could be time for a fresh look at goals. Who wants your student to progress towards faster gaits and more exciting lessons? Sometimes it’s the students who has unrealistic expectations, other times frustration comes because I want to see progress too quickly.To be honest, it’s easier to teach the rider that progresses quickly than it is to teach one for whom you must develop many creative lesson plans to give them time for the practice they need.
Teaching beginner basics is not for everyone but everyone needs to learn them. Often, you’ll have better success with your beginner students when you break the basics into smaller pieces and use every corner of your creative mind to keep lessons interesting. Dare to be brave enough to go back to strengthen a weakness. When you cement the basics into a foundation for your riders you have given them value. They may choose to continue and build on the foundation. They may leave and return to it. Or they may decide to move on to another activity. Anyway you look at it, your teaching skills will be strengthened.
When it comes to activities, riding instructors are pleased when lessons get the nod and make the list, but remember…when comparing activities, riding horses is different.
Keep up the good work! And thanks for reading The Riding Instructor.