Fear in beginners usually stems from a sense of not being in control, whether it’s the horse or the student’s own body that causes the problem. It’s easier for adult beginners to understand the concept of being a leader and taking charge but telling that to kids can fall on deaf ears. Kids need to experience being in control.

A grandmother enrolled two 10 year old cousins in a group lesson. One girl was out going; sort of the athletic mini achiever of the family. She competed in gymnastics, had great balance and was all about getting to work. The other girl was her antithesis. She was tall and thin, not very strong, and timid. She  was hesitant; fearful of doing something wrong. She was a dreamer. If I could have seen in her mind I’m she would have been riding bareback with a flowing skirt through a field of flowers.

My best – does everything including push the giant ball around – pony for beginners happens to be my pushiest pony on the ground. He’s kind of a ‘get ‘er done’ sort of guy. You open the halter and he crams his head in and is ready to go. If the kids leave a grooming box too close, he’ll step in it. Leave a saddle on the rail within his reach and he’ll probably knock it on the ground causing some kid to have to brush down the saddle pad. Most of my timid, gangly riders end up on this pony because under saddle he’s trustworthy. Not under saddle? He’s not going to bite or kick or do anything to hurt a child but they won’t be gawking off in the distance or chatting with their friends. He expects them to pay attention. He loves attention.

But his pushy, pony personality can be intimidating to an already timid child. And grandma couldn’t help but make comments to this girl during prep time. No matter how often I assured grandma that the girl was progressing well, grandma had her own agenda. One day, grandma blurted out, “Show him who’s boss!”fear in beginners Ground Pattern #1

A knot formed in my stomach. I looked at the 650 pound pony, who wasn’t doing anything other than being a pony and I looked at the 82 pound girl, who needed grandma to back off and let her become comfortable. This is one of the ways violence with horses begins. ‘Show him who’s boss’, or any of it’s derivatives, should be banned from barn vocabulary. It conjures up the image of the tough guy forcing his subject to do his will. When a being, a fraction of the size of another, tries to force it to submit to their will, the only tools at their disposal are violence and inducing fear. Before horsemen used the term ‘leader’, they used the phrase, ‘show him who’s boss’.

I did my best to contain the smoke that had to be belching out of my ears. “We prefer not to use that phrase. Respect is earned and she’s doing a good job.”

So, how does a kid become a pony’s leader? Phrases can conjure up vivid pictures that are associated withfear in beginners exercise 1 &2 life experiences and perception. Tell an eight or nine year old to be a leader and he may picture his class at school following the ‘leader of the day’ from the bus to the entrance of the museum on their field trip. Ponies don’t operate that way. The position of leader in their world is earned. People become leaders with horses through successful practice.

When I see a novice student struggling with confidence while riding, I look closer at what they are doing on the ground. If they are not comfortable and confident controlling the horse on the ground, they probably won’t be confident on its back. Fear in beginners is natural but ground lessons help students gain confidence.

Riding instructors must be observant and adaptable. Rarely do I switch a mounted lesson to unmounted but there are special times, such as weather or problems. I am always ready with a ground lesson when I see it’s needed.  Some instructors hesitate making the switch fear in beginners Exercise #3because they are concerned parents will be angry because their kids aren’t riding. After all it is called a “Riding Lesson.” For some reason we do not teach people that ground lessons are every bit as important as  mounted lessons and they require practice. Fear in beginners can have a shorter life if we address issues o the ground. If a parent or a student is trusting you to have a plan to develop their riding skills, they won’t grumble over an occasional unmounted lesson, particularly when they see riding improvement at the next lessons.

The Lesson-

Riding instructors must also be creative. Choose a plan that your lesson horses will easily accept. When I want to work on a ground lesson I may set up a small obstacle course that I know my lesson horses will manage without hesitation.fear in beginners exercise #4

If I plan the lesson ahead of time I may number the obstacles. If I make the change on the spur of the moment, numbers don’t matter. The number of obstacles you use will be determined by the length of your lesson and the number of participants. The course might look something like Ground Pattern #1 – above.

I’ll allow ample time for my students to practice each of the obstacles in graduating order of difficulty. I’ve broken down some of the examples to show you more detail.

I utilize my dressage markers as control points to have students walk, circle, halt or wait, etc.

Once the students are proficient at these obstacles I teach them to trot the horse in hand.fear in beginners Exercise 4

Using the unmounted lesson as a mounted activity for the students next lesson will reinforce their control skills and give them a boost in confidence.

So now it’s your turn.  What are some of your favorite ways to help overcome fear in beginners?

Thanks for joining me at The Riding Instructor!

Barbara Ellin Fox


Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • I really like your blogs…..feel like I am on the same page! I teach a lot of beginners and they love the Feeling Game. At this stage they are still being hand walked in their lesson. I use this game to emphasize feeling and hearing the movements of the horses feet and teach awareness of how the riders body sways with the horse at a walk, halt and back up, circles both directions and walking over obstacles. We start with riders eyes open and I explain what we are doing….for example relaxed walk 20 steps, halt, back up 3 steps, working walk 30 steps, circle etc. make this as long or short as you need. Then have the student close their eyes and do the same routine again, talk them through what is happening. Lastly do the exercise again and have them tell you what’s happening. Once they get the concept, do another series but start with students eyes closed, tell them what’s going on then have them tell you. You can make this simple to complex to accommodate your rider, all my fearful students love love this….they smile big and feel big on their horses after we do this one.

    • Hi Sigrid -I like the Feeling Game that you describe. I bet it makes students relax, too. And we all know the adage ‘You can’t teach feel” but you can provide the opportunity for students to experience it. Riding with eyes closed (with all proper precautions of course!) is a good exercise for all levels. It’s amazing how many people rely on site for their balance. Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you’re here! Barbara

        • I have been reading her blogs too! I love her ideas and always look forward to it!

          Maybe some one could talk about what to do with a pony that is getting tired of lesson kids riding him…lesson sour? He is great for me and my daughter to ride – forward, happy, willing…but when a kid gets on his back he turns into a naughty pony. He does have more whoa than go so that is a good thing for brand new beginners, but for kids who want him to willingly go forward he refuses and wants to only follow me around the arena.


          • Hi Beth – Ponies are so smart and without knowing your pony personally all I can do is give you ideas that were “suggested” by my own ponies. First I’ve learned never to say always about ponies, but most of the ponies that I have known who were well trained but misbehaved with kids were yelling and screaming in pony words that they were sick and tired of having their mouths injured. A large share of those ponies improve when they are allowed to wear some type of bit-less bridle. It makes sense when you think about it. Beginners pull and have poor timing. Ponies’ mouths are sensitive. When you take away the pain the pony is no longer angry. Sometimes it takes them a while to understand that they’re not going to be jerked around and sometimes they require training for a bit-less bridle. Put yourself in the pony’s place. Would you be willing to go forward if someone caught their balance on your mouth or pulled hard on the reins to turn or stop you? Not me. I’d just stand there and let the kid whack me with a whip if it meant my gums and teeth didn’t hurt. Add a little leverage -say a kimberwicke- and ouch!
            After I decided if bitless was helpful I might put the pony into lunging lessons so I could help reinforce the kid’s correct leg aids. Beyond that I would start to use lesson plans that gave variety to the ponies.
            My oldest pony turns 30 this year and arthritis is the only reason she is not happily continuing in lessons.
            Thanks for commenting and thanks for reading the blog!- Barbara
            Does anyone else have ideas for ponies? Please share:-)

          • I have a 12 hand welsh cross that started acting up last year after being quite good with nearly all my students. She seemed arena sour and got to the point where she didn’t even want to be tacked up. After a lot of thinking about this problem here is how I approached it. I called the farrier and had her feet checked. Then the vet came out and did a health examination. Since vet and farrier said they didn’t see any issues I called my saddle sitter and he evaluated her and found that the saddle placement on her back was restricting her shoulder movement. I actually had to get her a shoulder relief girth because now her saddle sits far enough on her back that a normal girth tightens to far back on her belly. She seems much happier now…..but I am still evaluating it. She likes to be tacked up again and I rode her and she seemed way happier. My students will be riding her again in the next few weeks as I gave her about 6 months off to heal her back and shoulder soreness and get everyone out to evaluate her. So I think going back to basic checks is necessary anytime a horse or pony acts up. My vet actually said that the problem was just that she was a pony….and I couldn’t accept that answer and was a bit disappointed that she was brushed off so easily when she really had a legitimate problem. After this assessment I am considering that she be sent to a trainer for a couple months to smooth out any behavioral issues that may be there…..I have to evaluate that this summer.

            About the bit less bridle….I thought of that for my beginners too but I have to warn you that if your pony has never had one on, you can’t just throw it on in the next lesson and expect success. The pony should be trained to understand the way the bridle works because it puts pressure on the nose instead of through the mouth, and some horses may not like that, initially. Also….a bit less bridle doesn’t mean the beginner can yank on the face with the reins…that still hurts the horse even without a bit.

            Just my two cents.

  • I sometimes set up an obstacle course in a group lesson and run a timer on the course for each rider. The kids aren’t told ahead of time that I’m not looking for the fastest time, but the most improvement. After each person’s first go I instruct them how to improve the ride and their time. After collecting the second round times I calculate the most improvement. Often the more timid riders make the most improvement – though I’m not sure why! It’s an interesting dynamic for the class.

    • Candy – Having the kids work to improve there own time is a terrific idea and I love that the timid kids do well. Thanks for sharing your good idea. Barbara

  • When teaching students ground work, I do several different activities in the arena.
    1) I put out a series of orange cones that the student has to weave through
    2) Parallel trot poles for the student to walk the horse though – then back up
    3) I lay out a series of trot poles – 3 to 5 of them that the student has to walk the pony though
    4) I have a big horse play ball that the student has to walk the pony around with out touching it
    5) I have a mug race game so I have the student get the mug from the pole and place the mug on the next pole.
    6) I have a tarp that all of my horses are accustomed to being walked and ridden over…so the student gets to do that too.

    I like to have the student walk and trot in hand at the beginning of the lesson, then I have them do all of these exercises at the walk and or trot so by the end of the lesson they have both gained confidence on and off the pony.

    Sometimes I even ride with my student on my own horse and we play games – like who can walk the fastest with out breaking gait. Who can walk the slowest – my lazy pony always wins this one!
    We play Simon Says, Green light – Red light – or I have my students follow me and they have to do the same things I do. I try to have a fun lesson session at least once a month (most of my students are young – ages 5 to 13 so being creative and not barking orders at them seem to keep them happy.

    I LOVE your articles!

    • Beth – Wow! I almost feel like we share the same brain! I love all of the activities you mentioned. You have some lucky students. Thanks for sharing your ideas. Barbara

    • Hi Kelly – I’m glad you like the lesson. If you want to print the pictures of the exercises individually, I think you might have to save them to your computer first. Barbara

  • Great post! Ground work and building a relationship with the pony make such a difference. If a kid considers the pony to be her friend she is more inclined to lead rather than force.

    Once mounted, my favourite is lots of games! Especially for kids. It gets their mind onto something else and all of a sudden they are doing it. Once they realise (and I often need to point it out) they get a huge confidence boost. For the very fearful ones we take it very slowly at the start – ‘lets just take one step’ then ‘now lets try two steps’ etc. Before they know it they have taken 20 steps and are smiling.

    • Jen – I love games for kids too. (And Adults) Sometimes the simplest games give the biggest success. Do you have a favorite?
      Thans for your comment. Barbara

  • These are really good exercises! I used to have a lesson pony trained to do showmanship patterns without a halter. Once those kids could control a pony without anything on it, they gained a ton of confidence.

    • Caren – showmanship gives people excellent skills and also makes horses and ponies have good ground manners. I love that your pony would do it without a halter. That’s great! Thanks for commenting. Barbara

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