Riding instructors are in a unique position when it comes to relationships with clients. You're required to teach athletics, art, fitness, and theory all at one time while also channeling psychology. Plus, you have a relationship with the horse your student rides. This job is magnified another degree if your student is a minor, because you also have a relationship with their parents. Student/riding instructor relationships can become very complex, very fast.

Differing Support Systems

More often than not, we do not have the same support system other professionals have for clients in their industries.

Take teaching in public schools, as an example. Teachers go through training, not only in the subjects they teach, but they receive training in how to deal with kids in their teaching category. Once in the school system, they have a support team to back up rules and help make decisions or deal with difficult students. They have structure for developing lesson plans, recourse when lessons are not completed, and resources such as counselors, psychologists, and higher authorities.

I admire teachers and am certainly not belittling their hard work and skill. Teaching is a taxing job, and it is often dangerous. Consider this. Riding instructors are also teachers, and we teach an activity during which a student could be injured or killed. Developing expertise in our field is crucial.

Are We Psychologists?

Riding instructors use psychology to work with students. They must figure out how to motivate, how to keep students AND their parents happy, and how to moderate and solve problems. Problems with student relationships are exhausting and discouraging, especially when we see a relationship heading for the drain.

Most instructors have little or no support for dealing with clientele problems. This especially applies to free-lance instructors or those who own their own businesses. But here’s an old truth: you cannot please everyone. This is a hard concept when we are trying to develop a good list of students because, face it. No one (there might be a few rare humans) gets wealthy teaching riding. We teach for so many different reasons ranging from loving horses and wanting to share that experience with others, to developing competitors for the show rings, to passing along art, or keeping our training business afloat. Most teaching incentives melt down to a passion for our sport. That leaves us susceptible to wounds, a sense of failure in situations we can’t repair even when we’ve done everything in our power to make a student happy. Or to motivate one.

Unfortunately, that makes most riding instructors the tail and not the head of their own business. Once that tail begins to wag you, you are headed toward instructor burnout because you cannot do everything, and each student takes or gives something to your emotional reserves.

Help with Boundaries in Relationships

Another old saying comes to mind about it being too late to close the barn door after the horse has escaped. However, with soul searching and smart planning you can begin again. Many problems can be prevented (or minimized) just by taking the time to develop a good plan.

Define Your Business Model

A business model outlines your plans and the strategy you will use for your business both now and for the future. There are multiple models for riding instructors, the two most general being working for someone else or being your own boss. In the first case, working for someone, you become part of their business plan. This post considers the instructor who is her/his own boss. Even then, the category is broad, because there are different ways to conduct your business when you are on your own.

The basic elements of the self-employed instructor are a lot alike no matter how they plan on teaching. My concern today is how you can lay a foundation that will be your support in relationships.

You Need a Support Structure

The best way to give yourself a support structure is to establish your rules, expectations, and boundaries. If you can do this from the beginning, you’ll be off to a great start. But don’t worry. Even if you have been in business a while you can still institute them. It may not be as easy and you may ruffle some saddle pads, but it will help you with your long game.

Choose your target audience. No instructor can teach all things at all levels. In my humble opinion, if you don’t choose a target student category you are asking for loads of stress and failed relationships.

A drawing of A lady leading a brown pony with a rider TheRidingInstructor

Determine what age you most like to teach and how you want to give your lessons.

Consider your interests and abilities. What age group are you most comfortable teaching? Is there a seat you know best? What level of riding do your own skills permit you to teach? Define your skill sets.

Analyze the tools available to you. What can you access for facilities and horses? Will students have their own horses or need yours? How many times a week do you want your students to ride, or take lessons? Anything important to you deserves consideration.

More Questions

You can set parental boundaries, too. How involved do you expect parents to be? Should they come to every lesson? Will you allow them to ask questions while students ride? Can they drop off their child and leave?

How many students do you want to teach? How many hours will you spend teaching on weekdays or weekends? Will you teach groups or privates, or both?

If you have working students, what will you expect from them? What will they receive for their work? Will you have periodic evaluations?

What Do Parents Want?

When dealing with kids it often helps to find out what the parent wants. Consider setting up a questionnaire, then give one copy to the student and one to the parent. You might be surprised at their different goals when you compare the results. And it might be wise to do this before you accept them as a student. In the case of an adult, have them fill out the questionnaire to see if their goals match your goals.

The more you can define, the easier it will be for you to function in your corner of the horse world. Writing your plans down will help you stick to them.

Be Certain Students are Informed

Have rules and go over them with prospective students (and their parents.) Take the time to read the rules with your clients and have them sign the rules sheet. This way you have proof they were informed, should they later claim they didn’t know.

The Downfall in Relationships

All these rules and definitions may seem harsh, but they are for your protection.Instructor burnout is real and it often stems from dealing with difficult students. Trouble begins when you forget your goals and try to accommodate everyone. Your business may not grow as fast as you hope when you stand your ground, but here is another truth. If you take students who don’t meet your requirements and you are unable to meet their needs, at some point they will become dissatisfied and you risk being badmouthed. That can hurt your business and the good reputation you wanted to develop. And it will stress you.

Decide who you are and what you want to do. Don’t compromise your requirements. Be aware, though, often as we put our plans into practice we realize some things must change. For instance, you may find you need to be flexible and adapt to your students’ needs and schedules. Just keep things within your requirements.

When You've Nagged and Nagged

Another plan to have in place is an action you can use when a student becomes a problem. Maybe they are always late. Perhaps, they are a little mouthy, or they don’t pay attention. Will you put up with something you dislike until you are so miserable you hate teaching their lesson? Or will you put them on probation? Will you give them improvements they can make to show they are serious? If they fail to improve, will you ask them to leave? Follow through is important. Letting a situation escalate almost always ends in emotional turmoil for the instructor and the student. It rarely has a good end.

Here's a simple example. Suzie comes to your barn and wants to show but your target audience is people who want to trail ride. You take Suzie because a filled stall produces income and because you have the time to teach her. Show season looms on the horizon. Suzie is chomping at the bit for the season opener, but you don’t take riders to shows. You’d be happy to include her in your group trail rides, maybe even in a competitive trail ride. Suzie has every right to be unhappy. Now she’ll complain to her friends and to every barn manager she talks to while she looks for her

3 horses, 1 a bay Appaloosa, 1 brown, 1 Palomino with riders. TheRidingInstructor.net

Trail riding is fun but it might not be what the student wants to do.

horse’s new home. Your own barn drama will increase because unhappy clients have a way of catching attention. Dissatisfaction snowballs. Both you and Suzie would have been happier if you’d refused to take her from the beginning, even if her lessons made the difference between ramen and fajitas for you.

The Goal

Make a plan for every important step in your business. Write it down. Over time your ideas may change. Review you plan once or twice a year. Make any adjustments you want to make. Then stick with your new plan.

What if the horse already got out of the barn?

Make changes one step at a time. Put careful thought into what you want to change. Look at your largest problem, the one that gives you the most stress. Implement new requirements in increments. And avoid targeting individuals.

Are you tired of students being late to lessons? Put in writing for everyone, “As of (DATE) students will not be admitted to lessons after the lesson has been underway for ( NUMBER) minutes. Late minutes will not be made up." Make sure everyone knows.

Tired of cancellations? Put your cancellation policy into action. Hang it in your barn and/or send an email to each student and/or notify everyone on your face book page. Then don’t back down.

You Set the Rules

Teaching riding is an educational business and a service business. You set the rules. The people who come to your program get to choose whether they will cooperate. You are not obligated to accommodate a student who won’t or can’t. They come to you for riding lessons, not for a psychology session. 

Two Horses with riders . The Riders are visiting. On horse is gray. The other is brown. TheRidingInstructor.net

Be friendly with students but remember they are your clients, not your buddy.

Don’t let your clients walk over you. But at the same time, be kind. There isn’t a need to be nasty or loud. And certainly, keep your own complaints about a customer to yourself. Don’t share your frustration with students, their parents, or other clients. Not even if they ‘promise not to tell anyone.’

More Advice.

We all love to have friends in the horse world, but you begin to tread on thin ice when you make friends or buddies of your students and clients. Set your professional boundaries early and don’t cross them. Teaching riding is your business and you need to treat it as such.

More Help

If you want tips about student relationships, take a look at the advice schoolteachers give other schoolteachers. Check out 10 Ways to Prevent Discipline Problems from Teach 4 the Heart.

Or if you want to read about specific riding problems check out Making a Plan to Get Susie Riding or one of the other Insights into students from The Riding Instructor Library.

You Can't Prevent All Disagreements

Even though you cannot eliminate disruptions and difficulties in relationships with students and clients, you can minimize them by making a good plan and following through.

What Do You Do?

I'd love to know what you do to settle disputes or to keep them from building. Would you share your idea in the comments?

Thanks for reading my blog.

Barbara Ellin Fox



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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
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