May 22

20 comments

The First Three Riding Lessons

By TheRidingInstructor

May 22, 2014

beginners, first three lessons, foundation, instructors, patience, safety

I make no bones about being an advocate for instructors of beginning riders. It’s because I firmly believe that you can lay so good a foundation for your students, that they will not forget it, no matter what style or level of riding they become enamored with.  And investing the extra time to lay a good foundation will save lots of time in the future because your students will not have to go back and fill in holds that they missed in the beginning.

Here’s a saying to hang in your barn- Every Olympic rider began as a beginner.

#1. This Rider Began as a Beginner!
#1. This Rider Began as a Beginner!

Intro Level
Beginner lessons are an introduction into the world of horsemanship. I know this sounds trite but it’s true. The beginning level gives students glimpses into horse handling and riding; giving them a taste of what it feels like to be in control of a horse and the responsibility of handling one. All things at the beginner level are in the introduction stage and all things will have to be repeated on a regular basis, requiring you to have an abundance of patience.  Remember, not only are you teaching something totally unfamiliar to your student, they are learning it with an animal that has its own opinions and needs. If your beginner is taking one lesson a week, progress will seem to be slow. A week has 168 hours and you have your student for only one of those hours, yet students who are horse crazy can make amazing progress an hour at a time.

Encourage Continuity
Because we have limited time with our students, I work extras into my riding program. I have curriculum available in hard copy and on my web page. I recommend books, websites, videos, and exercises. I do everything I can to connect my student’s riding lessons together like a continual chain.For instance if I tell my student that riding her bicycle for a half hour 5 days a week will strengthen her legs and that stretching her heels on the steps at her house will help her get her heels down, chances are she will develop great legs more quickly than the student who doesn’t think about it until her next lesson.

And when beginners regularly see what riding and horse care is about, through magazines, videos or other riders, most students are motivated to progress more quickly than if their lessons are merely single weekly events. It’s about continuity.

#2. And This Rider Began as a Beginner!
#2. And This Rider Began as a Beginner!

Be Sensitive to Pace

There are many varying factors in riding lessons making it difficult to predict the number of lessons, if used in set order for a set amount of time, that it will take to develop every rider to a particular skill level. Fortunately each rider and situation is unique. As a riding instructor you must develop an eye for the time your students are ready to move on to more difficult tasks.Keep in mind that you want students to be successful in small achievements, while at the same time you want to seize opportunities that challenge at the appropriate time for their growth as a horseman.Bear in mind that it is much easier to move the confident student ahead  than it is to bring the frightened student back, make the repairs and then move forward. So be keenly aware of your pace and don’t let a parent, agenda, or another situation cause you to over face a rider. The consequences can be very hard to work with.

The First Three
The first two lessons are about structure. You’ll use them to demonstrate your teaching method and expectations for your student.

Lesson #1 is all about safety; the introduction to handling the horse and the first steps of riding.This is where you establish the attitude about the horse and learning that you wish to imbed in your student.The first  lesson is full of demonstration and explanation, a vast amount of which your nervous, new student may not remember. It’s OK.

The second lesson is about what your student remembers from lesson #1. It’s their opportunity to give things a try before you tell

#3. Even THIS Rider Began as a Beginner
#3. Even THIS Rider Began as a Beginner

them what to do at each step. Be sure to reward everything they remember with your positive reaction. When you reward what they remember, their confidence will rise and they will remember more. Patience is very important. Give your student a little time to work out how to put the halter on before you step in to help, but don’t leave your student hanging either. Always be ready to immediately redirect anything that looks unsafe. A beginner instructor must have a sharp eye, intuition and lots of experience in recognizing the signs of an impending hazardous situation.

By Lesson #3 your student should understand how you’ll proceed in lessons; e.g. that you explain and demonstrate but will expect them to try to relate back to you, the things you teach them. At this point you can begin the serious work of steering and control, balance and moving around on the horse.

Labels
How long it takes for my students to move from the beginner to the advanced beginner label strictly depends on how they progress. You never help a student by rushing them out of the beginning stages.  A sharp instructor will know when the time is right to move ahead and will be able to keep the beginner interested moving them forward before they become bored.

#4. Oh yeah, let's get serious...began as a beginner
#4. Oh yeah, let’s get serious…began as a beginner

Let’s Get Serious
Teaching riding is not something to be taken lightly. Americans don’t have the advantage of a national program that trains instructors, such as the British Horse Society. And while there are some certifications available in the U.S., all you have to do to be considered an instructor in America is ride better than the next guy.  While good riding shows that a person has ability to ride a horse, it does not speak to their ability to instruct. A good riding instructor is the ultimate ground person.  He or she is the one who can see what is happening before it occurs and can educate the student for a positive outcome. A good riding instructor has skills that reach beyond the knowledge of theory, training methods, learning styles, riding talent and rules. Good riding instructors have a natural intuition for timing, cause and effect; and for setting students up to succeed. With or without a national program for riding instructors, all instructors, particularly those who are just starting out, would do well to invest the time apprenticing under an older established riding instructor, particularly if you plan to begin the foundation of someone else’s riding career.

So do you know them? Those fabulous riders in the 4 pictures? They began as beginners! Be encouraged, you never know who you’re helping on to that school horse or pony the very first time!

Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor

Barbara Ellin Fox

  • I think this is a great article. I do this a little differently, but with similar intent.

    My zero day is sitting and talking about “why do you want to do this and what do you expect from it?” Most of everything after day 3 is driven by what I learn from that.

    My first day (sometimes combined with the zero day) is “these are horses”, We go into the paddock together and sit with them – we interact with the horses and watch the horses interact with each other, and I talk with the student about their physiology, cognition, emotionality, social nature, the conversations they are having with each other using ears, eyes, neck, body positioning and movement. I show them how each horse expresses its personality in the paddock with the others and how they defer to each other (or not) and try to give a sense of what happens in the daily equine soap opera.

    I tell them about each horse’s history – this one is a former ranch horse and here’s what he knew when he came to us; this one is a reining horse who lived his whole life with the family that foaled him – and how all this affects handling and riding them – for instance the ranch horse still prefers to do horseshoe shapes and needs tiny corrections to keep to the circle, all because he used to chase cows for a living and that meant a lot of rollbacks and sharp turns. I talk about their physical differences and how that changes how well they are inclined to perform certain maneuvers. This one is wide, and finds it harder to spin and do crossover lateral work; he picks his feet up more, which makes his trot require more focus to sit; this one is small and light and is focused on stop so don’t just take your legs off him; his narrow carriage makes it easier for him to cross his legs over and he picks up his feet a tiny amount and has one of the smoothest trots around as a result.

    It’s critical for me that the student right from the beginning sees horses as individuals and thus cannot fall into the horse = car analogy that keeps so many riders from being horsemen.

    I show how to get the horses to come (not hard as they love their work) and then I work with the student to manage the horse on lead line (forward, stop, stand, back, turn, disengage hindquarters), help them learn discipline at the gate, and we practice it all outside and in before we give the horses a groom. Then we put them back, again focusing on discipline before they are allowed to rejoin their herd. We watch them for a while, and day one is over.

    Day two is about balance and feeling, but we start by hanging out with the horses again. Once we halter them and bring them in, I explain and demonstrate tacking up and how to keep the horse comfortable with cinching and bridling. I let the student redo the cinching and bridling after demonstrating. I remind them how to reinforce that the horse needs to stand still while we do all this.

    Then I bring them into the arena and help them on the horse. I walk them around and get them used to the feeling of moving, stopping, turning and backing, sometimes very rapidly. Then I have them do the same things with their eyes closed and I ask them to tell me what we’re doing without looking. I help them put their bodies into a frame that they don’t sway as we do this. Then back to eyes open, and finally out to the paddock to release the horses, watch them a bit, discuss visualization and day 2 is done.

    Day 3 is the first riding lesson. As on day 2, I am continuing to reinforce awareness (“what are his ears saying?” “who’s in charge of that one?”), ground work, obedience and straightness on the ground. This time, in the arena, though, after a refresher in the feelings of riding, the student gets to independently mount, wait, send the horse forward, stop the horse, wait, go forward again and turn the horse using seat and legs. I don’t teach direct direct rein use except as an emergency response (about to crash into the wall), because I want them thinking seat and legs all the time, and they are riding horses who think direct rein use is yelling. I reinforce pressure, release and return to neutral. I stay out of the way, let them feel the ride, and just stop them once in a while to ask them what they are feeling and learning, sometimes with pointed questions, and I offer gentle suggestions. Usually by the end of this lesson they can do a reasonable line, can stop and can make some reasonable turns. I don’t expect them to do circles yet. But at this point, they have started to become horsemen and horsewomen.

    If there’s anything more important than starting new riders in the essence of horsemanship, I don’t know what it is.

    By the way, just as the beginner’s instructor needs to be highly experienced, knowledgeable and articulate, the horse the beginner rides needs to be light, focused, relaxed, and highly capable. Anything less teaches the new student bad habits that are costly or impossible to remove later. Yes, this means putting students on well-trained, very disciplined horses worth a lot of money – and they need to be schoolmasters whose training is frequently refreshed by a compassionate trainer.

    What I want in every student is first, foremost and always love and appreciation for the complexity and sensitivity of the horse, empathy for the horse in the alien world of domesticated equine society, and of paddock, aisle and arena. I want them to have constant awareness of the supreme importance of the lightness and release of every pressure applied. If I don’t have these things, nothing else matters. I believe it takes an expert instructor to create this, because this is where experience with horses and deep knowledge of them as creatures is critical. Done properly at the beginning, this produces outstanding riders who put the welfare of the horse before their success or their own needs.

    Which is really why we should all be doing this – for the love of the horse.

    • Mindreadinghorses
      Thank you so much for sharing the description of your first three lessons. You are very thorough and I like how you direct the attention to the horse as an individual. I agree that it is most important that we direct students to become good horseman right from the start. Every instructor, especially those of beginning riders, needs to be able to work with their basic 3 lessons to suit the age and interest of their students. I love the relaxed tone of your description and can picture you adjusting this for small children and also working with the avid youngster and adult. Often a new rider really doesn’t know what they want to do with horses and always we have to do our best to guide them in a good direction. Thanks you of sharing this
      Barbara Ellin Fox

  • Barbara,

    You wrote, “The Balanced Seat does not in any way preclude the possibility of sitting in a “forward seat.” Nor does it mean one can’t sit in a dressage seat, a Western seat or even like a jockey. What it means is that the rider is always able to sit beautifully, without grip or tension in all gaits…”

    Very well said. Thank you.

    And you wrote, “Robert Dover is a Pony Club graduate. Pony Club says it teaches Balanced Seat.”

    Pony Club did, but I saw back in the 80’s as it made a transition from the British Horse Society PC to the US Pony Club a drift into the Morris method. Even Susan Harris, who was trained by Col. Kitts, has some Morris “things” in her modern US Pony Club Manuals. Morris has infected everything connected to jumping.

    Hollie wrote, “I think people put to much thought into riding a horse. They want to Analyze every hoof beat.”

    The line between “feel” and specific understanding is very fine. We need both. Sometimes we feel something odd in the horse we are riding. An example might be a 4 beat canter when the second beat, the diagonal has a bit of a split beat to it. In these kinds of circumstances we feel something different. It is then very useful to understand exactly what is happening if we hope to improve it. We might use trial and error to find a fix through “feel”, but in many cases we truly need to know through disciplined analysis what is actually happening.

    “Feel” alone can make for a limited experience with a less than perfect horse, and few are perfect. Analysis alone can make a rider slow to respond and awkwardly outside the true movement of a horse. I agree many riders think when they should be feeling. To them I quote the great baseball player Ted Williams who said, “If you don’t think too good, don’t think too much.”

  • Also, I tend to avoid people who analyze a horse down to every hair. It seems to me to be confusing. It makes something so fun and natural, to something,confusing, unnatural.

  • I want to get certified to be a riding instructor. I want to spark and feed that flame in people and children to ride and love horses also. I am 49, soon to be 50, and I have been riding since I was 3 or 4 yrs old, maybe earlier, I don’t remember much about learning to ride, I just remember riding everyday all over the mountains of my home in WV. Sometimes we had a saddle sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we had a bridle, some times we didn’t. Didn’t matter to me. I was riding anyways. I didn’t wait for someone to teach me to ride, although my Dad helped me when he wasn’t at work or doing farm chores. I was self driven to learn, to be free, to explore the mountains, to go see my friends who lived on the other side of the mountain. I taught my friends to ride horses so I would have someone to ride with. So. I would like to say. I think people put to much thought into riding a horse. They want to Analyze every hoof beat.
    I like to Feel the horse and I don’t fight the horse, I go with the horse I let the horse do all the work. I enjoy the ride.

  • I had the opportunity to talk to George Morris a few years back in Syracuse. He mentioned how disappointed he was that so many (most) of the Maclay contestants at the National Horse Show only used the crest release. He said “kids of this caliber should be secure enough in their seat to use an automatic release”. He also said that most of them jump ahead of their horse on every jump. Take a look at equine magazine advertisements…how many of those riders jump ahead with their lower leg swung back? By the way, I also saw Mr. Morris teach a clinic at Equine Affaire…he rode one horse who was giving his rider a lot of trouble. He is a very hard, tough rider. The horse was young and so obviously green (I felt so sorry for the horse). I would NEVER allow George Morris to ride one of my horses!!!!

    • Susan,
      I’m not really in to writing posts that inflame people but sometimes I do so I apologize ahead of time if this is one of those times. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that George Morris line of comment where he is disappointed that so many riders use the crest release. And I do agree with him that riders of that caliber should be using an automatic release or a following hand. The trouble is that before George Morris began to push the crest release in the 60’s- no self respecting rider would enter a Medal or Maclay if they couldn’t ride fences with an automatic release. If you couldn’t do it you stayed in lower level equitation until you could. That was before George Morris became the Pied Piper of Hunt Seat Equitation.

      Most of the time the crest release is what causes riders to jump ahead of their horses and it also undermines the base of support (another thing George Morris has redefined) which is why the lower leg swings back.

      Whenever I write a post about any of this (look at my UShorsemanship.com under issues- crest release if you’re curious) I have someone who comments about how George Morris says the crest release is over used or something along those lines. George Morris may have changed his tune and distanced himself from the crest release abusers but he is the one who blessed us with the crest release in the first place even though he isn’t the one who invented it. George Morris will leave a good legacy in some areas but he will not be able to shed responsibility for changing the jumping world in America

      And regarding him being tough on horses. Yup. Some of the people that have a system and a method (ranging from natural horsemanship to George Morris to some of the dressage elite) are also capable of covering force with finesse- it can be an illusion

      Thanks Susan

      Barbara

  • Barbara,

    You write, “When I looked to be certified in the 60s the choices were even more slim.”.

    I have a great story from the late 70’s on this. I was working at a barn when a young instructor said she was going to NJ for a 3 day weekend to get certified. When she returned, I asked her how it went and she said well. Then I asked about the horses. She said, “Oh, there were no horses. It was at the Newark Airport in a hotel with videos and written tests.” Turns out she had paid $200 for this riding instructor certification.

    The US commercial culture has ruined horsemanship here as much as Morris, but he lead the changes. Years ago he used to post on the Chronicle of the Horse forum. So, I posted on one thread where he was commenting the section of the US Cavalry Manual, which am sure Gordon Wright made him read, that said in no uncertain terms, to never take shortcuts because you will end up having to go back and fill in the blanks you skipped later anyway at greater cost.

    He avoided commenting on my post, but later in that year he did say in his Practical Horsemanship column that he regretted that the use of the crest release had become “endemic” (his word). Then he went on to blame Rodney Jenkins and others.

    I often threaten to start the “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” museum to remember the 60’s A-bomb shelters, the crest release, Chevy Corvair, the and all the other “great” ideas. I would put a statue of Morris out front by the entrance.

    • Bob
      I could add some things to the “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time” museum!

      I’d hoped for a long time that George Morris would step up and accept accountability for certain things but I’m finished holding my breath. Some of the things he taught have completely altered the course of riding jumping horses in America.

      Rodney Jenkins was a pretty amazing rider and could read horses on a few warm up circles. Blaming him for much….mmm I don’t recall Rodney Jenkins with a huge following of students and hopefuls…if he had we’d have way fewer riders counting strides to fences or needing them lunged to death before classes!

      Speaking of posts- I got into a little “discussion” about one of the George Morris Horsemastership clinics that was written up in Practical Horseman when they first started. I objected to Robert Dover stating “You’ve got to be comfortable being back
      on your rear ends. I don’t know why you think it’s more comfortable on your crotches.” I commented that Balanced seat does not include “being comfortable on your rear ends”. This is not balanced seat.” gave a description of Balanced Seat according to Harry Chamberlin and added “I don’t argue whether or not hunt seat riders should be taught classical dressage seats in George Morris’ Clinic but I do argue that the correct terminology should be used for the seats that are taught. Dressage seat and balanced seat are not interchangeable terms. Dressage seat teaches “The weight of the upper part of the body should be carried by the buttocks, which are its only proper support.”, from “Breaking and Riding” by James Fillis.”

      Robert Dover replied (through the magazine editor) “With the greatest admiration for Gen. Chamberlin and his work, I respectfully disagree with his definition of the Balanced Seat. Here is why:First, his assumption that the fleshy part of the buttocks is not part of the seat is like saying that the fleshy part around my waist is not part of my upper body.

      While I truly would love it if that, in fact, were true, it makes absolutely no sense. The seat of the rider, as understood by most people today, has two definitions. It can be used when describing one’s overall position from head to toe. (i.e., “Guenter Seidel has one of the most beautiful seats of any dressage rider today.”) It may also refer to that part of the rider that includes the upper body, from the sitting bones to just below the head, but not including the arms. Those “fleshy parts” are actually (or at least supposed to be) muscles which,when tightened and empowered, help to make adjustments in the forwardness of the horse. To say that they are not part of the seat is false.With respect to “balance,” one need only look at what this means in other sports like gymnastics or skiing. Balance requires that the person have relaxed and total confidence regardless of the terrain, whether that be on a balance beam, a black diamond slope or a trotting horse. He or she should be able to remain in perfect harmony, using necessary parts of his or her body to create the desired result, independent of all other body parts. With riding, the perfect barometer for this is to, while sitting relaxed in a perfect position from the waist up (erect and with beautiful arm and hand positions), lift the legs up and away in the saddle as if doing the splits. Do this at all three gaits. If you find, especially in the trot, you are moving your arms, or even feeling like you might fall off, think of the gymnast again on the balance beam. When the arms flail or they appear to almost fall, they are out of balance.

      The Balanced Seat does not in any way preclude the possibility of sitting in a “forward seat.” Nor does it mean one can’t sit in a dressage seat, a Western seat or even like a jockey. What it means is that the rider is always able to sit beautifully, without grip or tension in all gaits and can independently use, as necessary, whichever muscles are required at any given time while remaining
      relaxed in all other muscles. Balance means balance—not a particular style of riding. And the Balanced Seat is the product of thousands of years of horsemanship and not that of any one person, American or other.”

      I understood Dover to imply that there actually wasn’t a style of riding named Balanced Seat and that all riding should be in balance. Robert Dover is a Pony Club graduate. Pony Club says it teaches Balanced Seat.

      The reason I mention this is because I think people who become icons owe it to the rest of the world to be responsible for the terminology they use and the twists they put on the definitions and methods that came before them. If they don’t (and apparently they won’t) the next generation is mislead, sometimes a little, but more frequently a lot, and we lose what we had. I could forgive George Morris if he said “I thought it was a good idea but apparently it wasn’t, now here’s what we can do to change it.” Obviously the blame game is a better alternative.

      Your account of the riding instructor certification reminds me of Beery School of Horsemanship’s course by mail!

  • I learned to ride as a young adult…I had the ups and downs and struggles that most new riders experience. The difference was, that I was old enough to remember what being a beginner was all about! Now, when I teach, I can feel what the beginner feels and tell them in several different ways how to fix their issues. I don’t get frustrated because I was there too…doesn’t seem that long ago (almost 40 years but it feels like last week!).

  • The idea of giving beginner riders to older student riders to teach is as destructive as it is common today. These lesson barns seem to pick their best teenage riders for this task when most of the best young riders are natural physical learners, and have not had to struggle much with learning to ride. Most beginner riders do struggle, and having a young cocky kid teach them without empathy for the challenges most beginners face results in some very tense or scared riders.

    To teach beginners, young or old, well we must understand how they are experiencing that bouncy trot or the frustration in accomplishing what looks easy for the other riders. This requires maturity, and at times real insight into which of the many struggles to address in a rider.

    If we had a coherent national quality instructor program, I suspect 90% of these young instructors would not qualify. I blame George Morris. He was the one who showed America you could make good money by putting a bunch of riders in a fenced arena and yell “Heels down” or “More hip angle”. He simplified the Fort Riley Seat to the point a teenager could act enough like an instructor to convince parents to spend their money.

    • Bob,
      I agree with you and I’m especially bewildered when I look at the requirements for teachers in our public schools. The beginners are like the elementary school learners. They need the strongest foundation and teachers with the best education for emotional, physical and mental development. Some kids in particular, go through dramatic physical (and emotional) changes which seriously effect their ability to ride and to feel confident. I can’t imagine letting a teen teach that tender group.

      I think the the horse left the barn for future for a coherent national program in America when the school at Fort Riley shut down and I believe we will be for evermore dealing with a variety of programs to suit a variety of needs. When I looked to be certified in the 60s the choices were even more slim. As long as we have a choice to be tested or not, there will be many instructors that are not worth the time it takes to saddle a horse. My hope is that the good professionals, like yourself, that visit The Riding Instructor can help guide some people in the right direction. There are so many directions an instructor or student can head.

      I don’t think you’ll find anyone with a stronger opinion about George Morris than me (perhaps yourself), but as I study the history of horsemanship in the U.S. I see those before George Morris, such as Littauer, Margaret Cabell Self and Gordon Wright, as having laid down the foundation for the endless circles and lame commands. Littauer and Wright saw the openings for careers in public riding instruction, Wright knew how to tweak the Cavalry Manuals and Littauer knew how to make it easier for the general public. I’d credit George Morris for having a special ability to commandeer a sport and develop it into an industry that suited his purposes. But then one has to wonder, because if you take a look at the other “sports”- football, baseball, hockey, even Olympics – they have all become big industries- so maybe for George Morris it was more of a right place at the right time, quick on his feet thing, and a whole lot of luck for him. But he didn’t do it alone and he didn’t begin the change. I think we also have to give him credit. He has always been beautiful to watch on a horse (I hope I can keep what I have through his age) and he’s a good coach, probably better at inspiring people than teaching. He knows how to get what he wants out of people and horses. And even though my husband refers to it as “reinventing oneself”- the later part of his career is better than the beginning and the middle.

      Thanks for your comment. I love to hear from you because you have strong opinions that are grounded in experience.

      Barbara

  • I have always said that my favorite students to teach are beginners. While I am very lucky to have some excellent more advanced riders it is the beginners who inspire me. The riders that stick with it long enough to be truly excellent are few and far between usually because of issues like money,time and talent and the nuances of riding make achievement come more slowly as you progress through the levels. An achievement for a beginner can be as small as posting without bouncing for the very first time. It is so very satisfying to see a rider beam with accomplishment. I also love the respect I get when I am ready to hand off my riders to more competitive trainers because my students are easier to teach and have a strong foundation. Nice article!

    • Another Susan,
      I agree with you 100% about the achievement with beginners. Thank you for commenting. The best of luck to you with your career

  • There are lesson barns out there that don’t believe that beginner lessons are that important and they assign other students to teach those foundation beginnings. I don’t think that’s right. I have acquired students who have had one, two and even three years of lessons elsewhere and I’m always astounded at how much they don’t know about horses and riding! They may be able to sit straight and stay reasonably balanced, but Heaven forbid they have to actually steer their horse!

    • It’s too bad teaching beginners seems to be equal with being a beginner instructor. We’d have so many more successful, long lasting and knowledgeable riders if we took our beginners seriously. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to understand why teaching elementary school takes more training that teaching college….

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