Everyone, including instructors, is busy these days and too many of today’s riding instructors “wing it” when they teach.  Each time a student arrives at your barn for a lesson, they are investing.  They invest time, money, and effort in their riding by spending all of these things with you.  When was the last time that you had $45 or $65 or more to wager on a craps shoot?  Probably not in the recent past.  So why should you treat your student’s investment like one?

Between training, riding and running the barn, horse professionals are very busy people. Many don’t think they have the time for “in depth” lesson preparation. Or perhaps they’ve taught for a long time and think they have all of their lessons “in their head”.   Experience shows that the longer you “teach out of your head” the more stale and redundant your lessons become. When this happens, students no longer progress at a satisfying rate.  They become discouraged and dissatisfied.  They either leave or are drawn away by an instructor, who is not necessarily better, but is more willing to give the student their money’s worth.   Don’t let this happen to you.

Good Lessons  Require Good Preparation

Even if you have a solid set of standard lessons that you teach,  planning ahead, making preparation, researching new ideas and thinking about new ways to teach old topics, will keep your lessons fresh and exciting.    Have a goal for the lesson. What do you want your student to gain?  Do you want your budding jumper to learn about bending lines? Will you work on ways to develop an eye for the spot? Develop a lesson plan that is geared toward your goal.

Put your lesson plan on paper.  Not only does this help you to organize, it gives you a great record of what you have taught your student. When you keep a record of lessons you can be certain of not falling into the habit of redoing old lessons over and over again. What activities will help your student accomplish the lesson goal?  Break the segments into time slots so that you can be sure to cover all of the material and provide plenty of actual “try it” time. Incorporate a related warm up as well as a positive finish for your student. Offer suggestions for follow up reading  or media viewing to develop continuity between lessons.

Whether you’re going to teach  grids or weaving poles, set things up before your class.  Make sure materials are on hand at Be preparedthe arena. Material on hand will prevent you  from last minute searches for jump cups, pins or other tools. Measure distances and set poles so only minor alterations are necessary during the lesson. Your undivided attention during lessons is important to  your student. Not only do students set time aside to learn from you, they trust you and believe that you are prepared to help them reach their dreams. Instructing a student to warm up while you set a grid wastes the student’s time.  If warm up is part of the lesson the instructor should be involved in the process using exercises and activities that prepare the student and horse for the entire lesson.

Lesson preparation insures that your lesson has a beginning, middle and end. Any good gym work out has a warm up, intense work period and a cool down. Let’s face it, riding is a work out for both horse and rider and a lesson should incorporate all of the muscle conditioning and precautions included in an athlete’s work out. And pre lesson preparation will help you to save precious time by keeping you on track and on schedule. The good instructor demonstrates professionalism with preparation.

Be able to adapt quickly, or “Roll with the Punches” 

Flexibility is a key word when teaching. Lessons won’t always go the way you planned. Stress effects all ages.  A child is effected by how he was treated at school, just as the adult is effected by how the work day ended.  And remember, riding is unlike any other sport  because two very different personalities, horse and rider, must interact well in order to reach success. 2 personalities increase the chance that one might not be at its best on your lesson day. Have an alternative.  Have a plan that steps any activity down to smaller challenges. Review the goal for your lesson and seize difficulties as new opportunities to help your student progress. Develop multiple ways to achieve the same goal with your students.

Don’t be “Long Winded”did you get all thant?

In a nut shell,  talk less, encourage more. Unless your student has difficulty focusing his attention on you when you speak, the less time your student stands still for instructions, the better. Students come to ride. There is nothing more ineffective than a riding instructor who talks on and on.  Keep your stationary explanations short and simple, not more than 10% of your lesson

Teach your student on the move as much as you can. The Good Instructor is able to teach the rider through the process.  You should be able to talk through the aids and help  produce the momentary success that your student needs in order to experience, not just hear, the lesson.

Know several ways to explain the same thing.  Notice when your explanation  is producing the wrong results or no result at all and change your approach. Different people have different learning styles. Develop several approaches for the same topic.

Make positive comments whenever you notice a small improvement or accomplishment. Encouragement goes a long way toward empowering your student as she progresses toward her goal.  You’re the mentor.  Encouragement and positive comments from you to your students are like giving your lesson a B12 shot.

Make it Interesting and Fun

Even the stodgiest students love to play games and have simple challenges, once they get started.  Games are also a great way to add to the social aspect of riding. Plan ways to get students into action through games and exercises that build on your lesson plan. An instructor with a good imagination can think of simple games for all levels of horse and rider, even if they are advanced students. For instance, the beginner can practice navigation by riding her pony to the fence to remove a colored cloth.  You can use this same exercise for the more advanced rider by requiring that the last few steps toward the fence be done in half pass and then requiring the horse stand quietly while the cloth is untied. Call it a game for the 9 year old and an exercise for the 29 year old.

Collect a set of props for games and activities.  These don’t need to be expensive. Look for diving rods and rings in the pool diving ringsdepartment at Wal-Mart or Target.  Purchase a set of soccer cones, usually about $5.  Look for colorful bandanas to tie to fences.  Games and activities that provide new challenges for students and their horses are only limited by your imagination.  Activities create a challenging and fun learning environment for all ages of students.

Break it down into small pieces. Start with the simplest skills possible for the level of your rider and increase the difficulty as your student becomes proficient. Small steps provide more opportunities for your student to achieve success.

Wrap up the Ride on a Successful Note

Plan to end on a good note. Normally this is accomplished by reviewing something that you know the horse and rider can accomplish well.  Beware of introducing new material toward the end of a lesson.  If thumbs up ladythe new material is not well received by your student or his horse, you’ll more than likely end on a less than successful note.  The good instructor’s goal is for the student to have a sense of “gain”.  Students should gain knowledge, understanding, accomplishment or practice from the lesson that you teach to them.

A good instructor prepares ahead and lays a foundation to help their student succeed. The thought and effort that the instructor puts into a student’s lesson  is directly reflected in the quality of the lesson. Students come back for more when they accomplish their goals, have a good experience and feel important to their instructors. Planned lessons produce success.  Instructors that “wing it” don’t produce a logical training progression for their students and frequently miss simple basics that are important for their students’ long term success.

Make sure that your student leaves the lesson “energized” and enthused about returning.  Give them a little “preview” of what you’ll be working on at the next lesson and build on the successes they had today. Let them know that their time with you is just as important to you as it is to them.  Let them know that you are investing in them and enjoy being part of their success. Give them something to ponder during the week.  Ask a question that they must find an answer to. Suggest a show to attend as a spectator, another lesson they might benefit from auditing, or a YouTube video they might watch.   Finding a way to develop connection and continuity between lessons will reduce your number of lesson cancellations.

Give my ideas a try. You won’t be disappointed. Your lessons will improve and so will your students. Your students will excited for their next lesson and they will remain clients for twice the amount of time.

To read more about planning your lessons read Teach Riding With A Lesson Plan.  And if you’d like a lesson plan with instructions, just sign up for The Riding Instructor News.  There’s a handy subscription form in the top right hand corner of this page.  It’s free, so is the lesson plan.

Thanks for reading!

Barbara Ellin Fox



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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Such great advice! Sometimes, I have to put my hand over my mouth to let the kids practice on their own without me helping.

    Videotaping has been such a great help in both showing the students what they are doing (right and wrong), and as benchmarks for me to keep perspective as to how things are really going.

  • A profound aspect of teaching is listening. Listening and awareness of what we are communicating through our presence has a profound effect on the human students and the horses entirely.

    It’s also very valuable to be aware of our own motivation as an instructor. This is not to say that there is a correct or an incorrect motivation to have, but awareness of why we are doing what we’re doing brings clarity and congruency to what we have to present to our clients. The horses respond to our presence as we are congruent within ourselves. This is the “secret” of the guru-horse-whisperer. Whether it’s right or wrong, the “guru” is so congruent in what they are communicating, and horses interpret that as leadership. The “guru” is listening to their own awareness, communicating congruently, and listening/sensing to the horse’s response.

    People sometimes argue that they can’t teach that way, they aren’t gifted in that way, you can’t teach feel, that sort of thing, but every teacher already IS teaching that way. They’re either aware of it or they aren’t. Again, not a good thing or a bad thing, just an opportunity to explore greater self-awareness in our communication as an instructor/facilitator of horse and rider.

  • Hrm, how interesting…it sure sounds like developing a rider is a lot like developing a horse! LOL I love this piece, especially the part about using toys and games — I mean obstacles and props for the exercises.

    Someone once told me that he had a hard time learning to inline skate but then someone handed him a hockey stick and pointed him toward the goal, and he had so much fun playing roller hockey in the parking lot with his friends that he forgot he couldn’t skate.

    I think it’s the same for riders. When you’re concentrating on all your body parts and the motions, you tend to get tight in your body, get a look of intense concentration on your face, and look down ad your horse. When you have a job to do — a game to play — your focus goes to that thing, like getting the fabric or catching the ball or whatever — so you do the lifting, lightening, and engaging a lot more naturally. Especially if you’re smiling. At least, that works for me.

  • What you say is true; as always. But the really sad part of it is that it applies not only to riding or horsemanship, it applies to all forms of instruction especially to our schools! Some instruction in some schools these days is quite appalling. That is partly the set syllabus but it is also the attitude of too many teachers. And then we have teachers who actually go on strike about money !

    • Hi Roger,
      I’m afraid the whole underlying root of both issues has to do with a change in values in general. My mantra, as silly as it seems, comes from the movie “Independence Day” during which the President is making a speech about the potential annihilation of the human race and what he plans to do about it.
      “We will not go quietly into the night!
      We will not vanish without a fight!
      We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!” Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!

      Actually, this is just one of my mantras!

      The very best to you,

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