If you have followed The Riding Instructor for any length of time, by now you know that I’m a huge advocate for beginners, their instructors and the foundation that is laid in riding lessons.

The beginner rider is where we can establish a strong foundation of basics. It’s to these basics that the building blocks are added, step by step, to successfully develop  confident and effective riders and horsemen. The success of the beginner rider will determine the strength and quality of the riding community because the training these beginners receive has a direct influence on the ability of the Intermediate and advanced rider.

Too often the education of the beginner rider is over looked. It is passed off to the riding instructor wannabees because it is not thought of as enough challenge for the “good” instructors. Or beginner lessons are thought of  “easy” to teach, not requiring a very experienced instructor.

It’s true – Steffen Peters does not need to teach beginners how to post or steer.  But it’s also true that if the beginner is not taught correctly to post and steer, Stephen Peters will be teaching it at the upper level.

Does it take an Olympic level rider to teach beginners? No.  But it takes just as much education and experience to excel in the field of teaching beginners  as it does to excel teaching at the upper levels. The training and experience is just different and appropriate for the task.

If I want to learn to sail, I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to head out to the bay or ocean with a teacher that has recently learned to sail.  I want to go with someone who has spent their life dealing with all kinds of conditions and situations.  The same way if my 16 year old son wants to learn to drive, I’m not sending him out for lessons with his best buddy who passed his driver’s test 3 months or even a year ago. I want someone who knows not only about driving and all that can go wrong but I also want someone who understands teenagers. And 7 year old Susie? She wants to learn to swim. . . I’m looking for someone who has at least achieved lifeguard status, not someone who just earned their swimmer’s badge.

Students who have the correct foundation succeed more quickly when they finally need the specialty instructor.  Riding students who do not have the correct start usually struggle forever, unless they go all the way back to the beginning. Unfortunately many of the upper level “specialty” instructors have holes in their own training because they were started by beginner instructors instead of instructors of beginners. There’s a huge difference.

Giving a rider the tools of a solid basic foundation and teaching them how to think situations through is one of the best gifts we can give as instructors. Today, our sport and art of riding have yielded to industry. Our individual American independent spirit, grit and style have yielded to a cookie cutter process of stamping position in the saddle and outline of the horse. And sportsmanship and horsemanship have yielded to salesmanship. And our riders have learned to be dependent on anyone except for themselves because they are lacking in their basic education because they are being started by beginners. When we don’t give the tools to our students, independence is lost and dependency on the trainer reigns.

Going against the grain is never popular, especially in our fast food, fast fix and win at all cost society. But the past few years have begun to produce whispers of desire to return to the basics and traditions of the past and to refurbish our sport. We need to return to basics and tradition before they are lost. We need to develop teachers that can teach and are willing to put basics ahead of everything else. A person can go a long way on an excellent foundation.

Ours is sport, that taught correctly, lasts a person a lifetime. It’s not seasonal. It’s not limited to the young. It’s not meant only for the physically gifted, the thin or the athletic. It’s a sport that has the ability to add quality of life to every body type, lifestyle and age group. Our sport provides exercise, fresh air, individual activity, team activity, companionship, competition, humility, grace, and accomplishment. If more of our youth learned to care for a horse and ride correctly we’d see less time spent hanging at malls, on electronics and less time spent in pursuit of a high. If more of our adults rode with the confidence that results from good basic training less time would be spent in stress therapy. People always quote  Winston Churchill who said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man” but have you ever pondered about why this is true? If there ever was an activity that has it all, it’s horses.

Good riding requires a knowledge of good basics. Good basics come from good instruction. It requires attention to detail and a desire to improve. Good riding requires patience and endurance and goal setting. Competition and fancy horses are not a requirement for developing an excellent set of basic skills. Competition should always be a test of our progress and should never be our end goal. If it becomes our end goal and winning become our only desire, then we resort to short cuts, gimmicks and tricks and we lose much of the real value of a life with horses. In the end we are riding only for a prize and not for the love of the sport.

Perhaps you’ll think I dwell on this topic too much but I can’t help it.  My fingers bolt cross country on this key board because I’m completely passionate about building a foundation in horsemanship.  Any instructor who specializes in teaching the more advanced skills of any venue in the horse world will appreciate the instructor of beginners who is educated and devoted to getting riders started correctly. Why? It makes their job so much easier. And the wise ones know that it takes an awful lot of beginners to produce the handful of riders who move on to the upper levels.  And when the standard of riding at lower levels is high, more riders stick with it, leaving even more to move up the ladder.

Here’s to great riding this summer and thanks for reading The Riding Instructor

Barbara Ellin Fox

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Great read, even if it is old. I really agree. I my self am not a good rider, but love hacking for pleasure. Horses have always belonged In my life, and my two kids 5 and 7 have learned riding at home whit just a girth, both get the horses To stop whit a whoa and theyr seat. When they have mastered all gaits whit the girth, they get the stirrups and after that the reigns. I have the begining of two riders whit a seat that is envied By many good riders. They still have a lot To learn, but the foundation is there

    • Thank you for your comment Pia. It sounds to me like you are giving your kids the most important thing- a love for horses. That’s where it all begins. Good job concentrating on developing their seats! Best wishes to you, Barbara Ellin Fox

  • Agreed. I think one of the best ways to become a good instructor is to surround yourself with great instructors to learn from. I think we each develop our own teaching style from those who have influenced us, so surrounding ourselves with good mentors is vital. Also, there is no substitute for on the job training and learning to instruct under the watchful eye of an experienced instructor. My mentors were able to make corrections I had missed and gave me direct feedback on how each lesson went, what I was doing well and what I needed to work on.

    As a rider, I rode with a “beginner instructor” for many years. I assumed I knew what I was doing because I had been taking lessons for nearly 10 years. When I went to college, I was frustrated to discover that I had never learned the true basics, and spent over 4 years and thousands of hours trying to relearn how to ride. As frustrating as that experience was, I now value it, because I believe it has made me a better instructor. I had to learn how to break each movement, action, and position change down in a way I could teach it to myself and now others. Gaining an understanding of bio-mechanics helped me learn how to get to the root cause of every issue, to help beginners fix problems more quickly and effectively. I think becoming a good instructor is a process that really never ends. I have been teaching for almost 15 years and I still feel that I have a lot of room to improve. Each lesson for the student is a new learning experience for myself, every horse and rider pair are different and present different challenges which gives me new opportunities to learn how to problem solve more effectively. To be great instructors we must first and always be willing students, because even at the highest levels of the sport there are still things to be learned.

    • Laura,
      I so agree with your comments. Thank you for sharing them. Yes we have to be continuously teachable and always curious in order to remain on the path of becoming a good instructor. It’s a process. Mentoring/apprenticing is the ideal way to learn because you can be nurtured through stages. Having a grounding in the basics is one of the most important aspects of becoming a good instructor, as you show us in your comment. After all how can we pass to students what we don’t know? And that goes even farther because the basics keep people safer on horses and the foundation is what makes it possible for our own students to build their riding lives. If you have the foundation and if you are able to give it to students, riding lives can be built.
      Thanks for sharing your insight.

  • An excellent read and excellent comments – BUT – (you know there’s always a but…), I want to share my story into teaching.
    I worked as a working student/groom/trail ride lead at a massive public barn in IL. I wanted to teach lessons, and got my first few total beginner students (and I mean beginner – 6yr olds and 8yr olds who had never seen a horse before), and taught them the summer before I went to college. I had only the experience from my own lessons and showing my horse to go on, but I wouldn’t let them try a new skill before they had mastered the skill before it. I took them slowly so that I would be sure I was doing it right. Of those four students I had my first summer teaching, one of them is a professional trainer, two of them show their horses on the A circuit, and one rides with her little family for pleasure.
    Sometimes, all you need is someone with the drive to teach and someone who will give them the chance to shine.
    (Thanks, Amy Brown, for giving me that chance….)

  • I am a beginner instructor. I agree with you completely. There is a language to teaching new riders. I have been shadow teaching with another instructor for over a year now and that experience has been invaluable. I am also going for my instructors license so will be mentoring under a level 2 coach. I am 50 yrs old so am coming to this a little late in life, but have been riding for over 25 years. I feel that the learning process is never over…not for the beginner, nor the intermediate nor the advanced level coach. I believe what you said is true. If you don’t have a solid foundation, you are forever trying to correct those bad habits. I also believe that you need to have some really solid schooling horses, along with those that will challenge the kids to become better riders.

    Once again, excellent advise. I research as much as possible and ask as many questions as I can. I am getting better everyday! Thank you for your time and for your advise. I always enjoy your posts!

    Kim (The beginner Instructor)

    • Hi Keela, this is a pic from the internet I am happy to remove it if you want me to . Just say let me know. Barbara

  • As an aspiring instructor, I find it very frustrating in this getting started period of my career. I feel a lot of pressure to learn every thing I can so that I get it right. I don’t want to be a stumbling block to any new riders. I lack experience, but I don’t want my lack of experience to excuse poor training on my part. I am really hoping that following my certification I am able to find a professional and well-respected trainer to study and learn under. Perhaps I will be able to find a working-student position even (I can dream). I just don’t want to do any beginners a disservice just because I lack experience, and I very much respect the wisdom in this article.
    This sport is too dangerous to not make sure the beginning riders get the best foundation possible, which is why I’m not going to let my ambition and zeal get ahead of me. Just as riders need to have a strong foundation as beginners, so do riding instructors that are just starting out. Thanks for the good read and the reminder to take this responsibly and slowly!

    • Hi Kayley,
      I like your outlook about teaching. A working student position might be very helpful to get you started. Apprenticing is one of the best ways to learn and gain experience. Have you checked out services like yard and groom http://www.yardandgroom.com to see what’s available. There are other websites for finding positions that might help you. You might look at http://www.equistaff.com . Maybe it’s time soon for a post on working students… What certification are you doing, if you don’t mind me asking?

      Thanks for your post

  • Your article gave me pause for thought. I have a wonderful 26 year old mare that I rescued from going to a kill buyer 4 years ago. I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out that in her younger years someone clearly invested a great deal of training into this mare. More importantly to me, she is the most level-headed horse I’ve ever worked with, while still having enough personality to make her an interesting ride. I myself learned to ride as a kid, by guess & by golly, and I KNOW I am not a good rider, but I am a decent horseman; I can read a horse well and can address behaviour problems.

    Because my sweet lady is so good with nervous riders, I am frequently asked to teach raw beginners. I tell them up front that I have no formal training or credentials. I tell them that I can start them, but that once they are over their nerves, they really should go to a professional riding stable for lessons. I don’t accept payment, because I don’t feel that it is right when I a have no credentials. I spend time teaching them how to understand how a horse thinks and what their body language is saying. I get them to relax on the horse and teach basic position at walk/trot. Usually at that point, I get them to move on to a real instructor.

    Right now though, I have 2 girls, 12 and 16, that really want to ride, that really show potential, but their families cannot financially pay a riding instructor. Am I doing them a disservice by trying to carry on with their riding instruction? Am I starting all of these kids off wrong because I have no formal riding training? At 48, I have had 10 riding lessons in my entire life, so maybe I have no business teaching these kids to do anything other than to groom a horse 🙁

    Wow, that was long winded. Sorry.

    • Dear Teresa.

      The circumstance you wrote about is interesting and I’ll probably tread a thin line with my answer, but please realize that this is my opinion and opinions are subjective. I’ll make peoples’ hair stand up…. in my opinion, certification has little to do with being a good riding instructor. Certification indicates that a person has learned certain skills and passed certain requirements. Certification programs, including college programs vary and produce results that range from good to bad. Some programs emphasis safety, others emphasize a particular type of riding or competition (dressage, eventing, HSE….)Some, such as the British Horse Society place a lot of emphasis on teaching, others place more emphasis on training. Many college programs give students a taste of many types of riding, creating a jack of all trades instructor. In the U.S. we have so many interests in riding, types of riding, breeds of horses and differing activities that trying to come up with a program that covers it all would be impossible. That horse has already left the barn.

      My opinion again… life experience, a love and understanding of teaching, and the interest in continually improving your own knowledge go farther toward developing an instructor than courses, requirements, and the resulting piece of paper. If you learn all of the theories for riding but do not spend the time in the saddle to get the mileage, muscle tone, reactions and feel you’ll never be much of a rider. But the same goes for teaching…the practical experience is what grounds the knowledge. Some people are natural teachers with an innate sense of how to relate what they know to another individual. (And by the way, I am of the unpopular opinion that an excellent instructor does not have to be a great rider.) A limited teacher is one who is not a horseman. Years of dealing with many types of horses, learning reactions, being able to see imperceptible changes and responses, understanding and learning a variety of ways to illicit a response from a variety of horses is education and it’s one that is missing in many of our instructors and riders today. So few riders learn from real horsemen or women.

      One of the advantages in taking good riding lessons is that it gives a natural instructor a sense of teaching and can even leave you with a few basic lesson plans. But then the opposite is also true- if one’s own lessons were haphazard not only do you not learn about riding, you don’t learn about teaching.

      Another huge key for me, and the one that can make all the difference, is the person who is willing to self educate. While books on teaching riding are extremely limited (and very boring) there is no end to books on correct riding and theory. Even the out of print books of the masters from the past are widely available today from hard copy to pdf. Another part of self education is observation, which can be accomplished by auditing clinics, watching DVDs, or internet videos. There is no end to the educational resources that are available to us.

      The short side of this long winded answer is, what kind of instructor are you? Your description of yourself implies that you are a good horseman who is passing good skills to entry level riders on a safe horse and that you have enough back ground to keep them and the horse safe. You don’t seem to be trying to pass yourself off as something you’re not and you’re filling a need in your area.

      If you are able to pass good knowledge that is gained from experience to people who are hungering to ride- by all means keep it up. If you can pass along that which you learned in life experience and give someone the opportunity to ride who otherwise would have to sit things out…You have a pat on the back from me. You know if you’re a safe instructor, and you also know when you have reached your limit.

      I’m putting you in my special category of selfless, giving people who are willing to make riding possible for someone who needs a break. It’s one of my favorite categories.

      Barbara Fox

  • You have a point! Especially with this part that sportsmanship turned into salesmanship. I saw proffesional riders changing horses as the girl changes her clothes because of lack of its “potential”. I saw these sports riders hanging on reins during jump and collecting horses – heads only by pulling reins, with flat backs and no change in pace, bouncing in saddles like a potato sack. Horses hanged with tack as for Christmas – chambons, gracles, martingales because it looks serious… People wants results quickly to save money on lessons, instructors wants to get money out of competitions, everything faster, cheaper, effortless. Ech… Time to die.

    • Anna
      No No! Not time to die!!!! Time to let the horse world see something different!:-)

      Thanks for your comments… you got my blood boiling!


    • Anna,

      You comment got me thinking about the whole of this topic. Barbara first made the very important point that better riding begins at the beginning with better instruction of new riders. I added that part of better instruction is providing effective mounts for new students that give consistent feedback.

      Now it occurs to me that we also have to acknowledge what you have pointed out, that there are commercial forces in our culture that make it very difficult to raise the level of riding and riding instruction.

      Today we could divide the riding student population into consumers of equestrian services (purchasers of an experience) or students (learners). In other words, do we have a business aimed at satisfying its client’s requirements of meeting THEIR goals, which may or may not include high quality riding, or do we have a true school that teaches high quality riding whether the students like it or not? What drives the process at the barn? Is it pleasing or charming payments out of the student’s wallet into our own, or a more take-it-or-leave-it offering of a demanding process of learning?

      Some of both, I suspect.

      This tension or compromise between demanding dedicated students and addressing the need to feed horses and pay the bills is part of the question of quality instruction.

      At our stable we are very demanding in comparison to other stables in the area. Students must ride a minimum of 4 times a month (seems very minimal to me but many find it too much). Short notice cancellations meet strong consequences, and there are several other demands we place on students to sort out the entertainment consumers. We are here to teach high quality riding and if a student thinks that canceling a lesson because they are invited to a fondue party or because they were up all night at a slumber party, they need to ride somewhere else.

      This may seem a risky approach to the need to pay the bills side of the equation, but we have found that in the end it results in more committed students, and thus more dependable income. So, thank you Anna for motivating me to think this through once again. We need better instructors for beginners, better horses and better students if our national riding standard is to be raised. And we need to communicate to parents of new young riders that here is a difference in what we offer, quality education not entertainment.

  • Thank you! I have been teaching beginner to intermediate riders for over 25 years. I enjoy starting the “newbies” as much as working with the more experienced riders. Sometimes I see more progress week to week with the new riders and find it very rewarding.

    I also don’t mind when a student has outgrown me, that means I have done my job! One of my past students (Daryl Kinney) is now working for Denny Emerson and competing one of his horses at Intermediate Level in Eventing. Someday I will be going to watch her compete at Rolex, knowing that I was a piece of the equation. 🙂

  • I think you make a great point – but how do you suggest beginner instructors get teaching experience? I wish you would have gone a little further in helping those wanting to take that step.

    I got my teaching certificate (in riding) in college where I was overseen by the head instructor and peers. I think this is a great way to teach in a setting where your mistakes can be seen and corrected. I also interned under an experienced instructor who guided me further. I’m not sure how others get through the beginning stages and I’d like to hear your suggestions.

    • Cari
      It sounds like you are following a good path. I would love to see all new instructors apprentice under an experienced instructor for a couple of years. Having that ‘go to’ person for guidance, suggestions and problem solving is very valuable. I would also suggest that new instructors work for a reputable instructor as a junior instructor rather than trying to set up their own program. There is so much more to learn about teaching and running a horse business than you learn in college or any other program. Education is just the start of things. Gaining practical experience with someone who is seasoned to guide you can save a myriad of heartaches. Plus having the covering of a head instructor can alleviate some of the pressures that an individual finds on their own. Also audit clinics with good instructors in your field; observe their teaching methods, ask questions. And read everything you can on teaching, not only in the horse field but take a look at some of the material used in traditional education.I’d also suggest learning as much about personality and learning types so that you can work with the huge variety of students and their parents that you will face in your career.
      Once you have a good education, the next step is to gain mileage under the best instructor that you can find to work with you.

      Best of luck to you in your career as an instructor!

    • Cari Z,

      We all started somewhere. Along the way I believe the biggest thing a person wanting to teach riding can do is learn from an experienced teacher what to teach in a specific moment. There are always 10 to 20 things we see that could be improved in a student, but picking the one thing that will move the student forward is the skill that makes a teacher effective.

      This is far from yelling “heels down” or “more hip angle”, imitating someone else’s teaching style. It is prioritizing the next step for the student. I do not think it can be learned in any other way except by being an apprentice to a very good teacher.

      Other things like competing, training horses and going to clinics with Masters are very important too, but not as important as seeing the one thing in the moment you are there to teach to that unique student.

  • Barbara, of course I agree. I will add to that beginner horses and ponies are equally important. A lesson horse teaches. If a stable has inappropriate horses and ponies, all the teaching skill in the world cannot advance a beginner. Here in central PA I get so many students from other barns who say something like, “I left there because the horses always ran off with me, and I was constantly afraid.” Or they say something like, “The horses were so dead that I spent all my energy hitting my horse with a crop that I never learned to canter well.”

    I good beginner horses has just the right balance of forward movement and controlability. They are consistent in their feedback, and tolerant of minor mistakes while being intolerant of abuse in a safe way.

    Few barns today that offer lessons take the time to develop and sort horses so they have the optimum teacher in their mounts. This combination of poor beginner horses and teenage “instructors” is dangerous and self defeating.

    I do not know what to do about this. Our Federation seems to be disinterested in raising standards, or identifying them for that matter. Without standards there can be no accountability and beginners will have to take what they get, I suppose.

    • Bob
      I agree about lesson horses. The right ones become partners in teaching and are way more valuable than they may appear on the surface.

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