Teaching beginner riders seems like it should be easy, right? After all, what do you teach? A few safety rules, how to lead a horse, how to mount/dismount, stopping, starting, how to steer – there’s nothing to it, right? I wish it was that easy, but it’s not the way I see it.

Unless you live in the land of Tra La La; skating along and teaching on auto pilot, you’ll have grueling lessons that leave you wondering where your teaching ability disappeared to, whether you might be taking money under false pretenses, and why these people are riding anyway! Ever felt like that?

The largest share of today’s beginner students, especially children, don’t have any experience with horses when they arrive at your farm.They don’t come from horsey families, or farm life. They come from suburbs and cities; homes that have cats and small dogs.They go to school, do homework, watch TV, play with electronics and participate in activities. Sometimes riding lessons get a thumbs up and become one of the activities.

Riding is not like other activities
I’m all for healthy activities that get kids moving around, building wind and muscles. Soccer, cheer leading,Emma Soccer001 football, gymnastics, rock climbing – even bike riding fits in that category. So does riding.The difference is that most of the other activities are not a once a week occurrence.

Take soccer as an example. Kids go to soccer practice 1 to 3 times a week for recreational soccer, 5 days a week for competitive soccer. In between, kids practice kicking the soccer ball around by themselves or with friends. Soccer is a continuing activity with lots of opportunity for practice.

The other activities follow the same pattern: organized lessons, lots of time for practice, and the ability to practice while playing with friends.Cheer leaders and gymnasts practice moves, football enthusiasts play with their friends, kids with bicycles ride around the neighborhood. These are activities that can be practiced almost anytime in some form, for parts of the day or even all day with friends or alone.They’re continual activities.

Riding lessons are different, usually occurring 1 time a week for 1 hour.

Most of the other activities are team activities.That means there is cooperation and conflict resolution. Emma T Ball 2010 pitcherEveryone speaks the same language, and usually has the same goal.Team members are normally in the same age group, sharing a relative size and development.

Learning to ride is different. While we hope the rider and horse become a team, they don’t start out speaking the same language, they aren’t in the same size or development category and each could very easily have different goals than the other. And while teams sports teach the desirable qualities of how to get along with one another and work towards a common goal while instilling conformity; riding teaches people how to successfully relay their plans and directions to someone who is bigger (5 or 6 times bigger), has a different goal, and can barely communicate with you.

Duration of Sport
It amazes me that more people do not connect the dots on this.Team sports (soccer, dance, football, gymnastics) have a short life span. I mean how many actively participating 45 year old gymnasts, cheer leaders, football or soccer players, do you know? Dance and biking have participants who are older but what about riding? Riders continue into their 60s and 70s. Riding is a sport for a lifetime.

Pick it Up Again
Have you ever watched a person who played football in High School or college try to return to playing, even recreationally, later in life? It almost always ends in injury and pain, adding to midlife crisis! But people who rode as children and stopped to have families or careers, usually succeed when they return to riding. In fact, more baby boomers are returning to pursue their riding dreams in middle age, than ever before.

It’s the Basics
Basics are the foundation, much like the beams and supports under the house or apartment that you live in, or the bridges that you drive your car over. You want all of those foundational pieces in place because foundation is what give strength to the structure.This applies to riding as well as buildings and bridges.

Take a good look at your beginning riders. Are they learning the basics? What ARE the basics? A good seat? leading1 A stellar position? Those are both important but I challenge you to look at a more elementary level. Is your student comfortable catching, haltering and leading a horse? Can they make the horse back up through cones or stop on command from the ground? Handling the horse from the ground has a direct relationship to how a person will handle a horse while they ride it. What about mounting? Do your beginners bounce off of their right foot and clear the horse’s hindquarters with agility or do they drag themselves into the saddle with their arms, barely missing the horse with their right leg? How about their heels? Are they down? Really down or are are you moving on to more fun activities, thinking the heels will come with time? What about simple heel/hip alignment? Hands down and not bouncing? Gentle treatment of the horse’s mouth? These are all beginner basics that your current 10 year old student will reuse when he is 40 years old.

Put yourself in 11 year old Ben’s place. He comes for his lessons one time a week. He’s more of the studious type rather than a physical kid. He likes to do things correctly. Once a week he is in charge of a pony that weighs 600 pounds. He weighs 75 pounds. His family pet is a cat. He’s not assertive but he keeps trying. He’s got the rhythm of the trot and he’s gentle with the horse but there is a quiet tension about what he does. I can see that he’s still nervous around the biggest animal he’s ever had to deal with. He needs more time on the ground with the pony so that he can become confident to move him around and direct his feet. Ben caused me to become creative with his lessons, incorporating more ground work.

Don’t to be afraid to take a step back and go over simple basics in your lessons. Remember students don’t have the opportunity to practice leading ponies or mounting up in between lessons, like other kids practice with bicycles or soccer balls.Your students will have to practice during their lessons. You may feel that progress is painfully slow. If that’s the case it could be time for a fresh look at goals. Who wants your student to progress towards faster gaits and more exciting lessons? Sometimes it’s the students who has unrealistic expectations, other times frustration comes because I want to see progress too quickly.To be honest, it’s easier to teach the rider that progresses quickly than it is to teach one for whom you must develop many creative lesson plans to give them time for the practice they need.leading

Teaching beginner basics is not for everyone but everyone needs to learn them. Often, you’ll have better success with your beginner students when you break the basics into smaller pieces and use every corner of your creative mind to keep lessons interesting. Dare to be brave enough to go back to strengthen a weakness. When you cement the basics into a foundation for your riders you have given them value. They may choose to continue and build on the foundation. They may leave and return to it. Or they may decide to move on to another activity. Anyway you look at it, your teaching skills will be strengthened.

When it comes to activities, riding instructors are pleased when lessons get the nod and make the list, but remember…when comparing activities, riding horses is different.

Keep up the good work! And thanks for reading The Riding Instructor.

Barbara Fox

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • I came across your blog while searching for advice to improve my student’s canter experience, what a lovely approach you have! I, too, struggle with sustaining skills with weekly riders, especially when winter temperatures or travel/school schedules interfere. One successful tool I have used with our younger family members who are learning to ride on my horse is to give them “visualization homework” — take one best thing or great feeling from the ride to replay in their mind and muscle memory (ie going with the canter, feeling the right diagonal, the perfect up or down transition) plus one thing in which they can imagine improvement (ie staying in balance, riding with long legs, keeping hands steady). It’s a helpful tool for them to learn self-assessment, and often they come back the next week with that skill cemented or that problem solved!

    • Erica,
      Thank you for your kind comment. I love your suggestion utilizing visualization homework. Replaying good points and positive change is a great idea and could especially be helpful for adults that are a bit timid or nervous. Thank you for making this suggestion. And thank you for reading The Riding Instructor. Barbara Fox

  • I consistently return to this blog because I always take something great away from it–and you’ve done it again! It is so great and rewarding to have those students that can focus and really progress quickly, but often they are the exceptions, not the rule. Thank you for reminding us that it’s okay to have students that struggle and require extra time and care. Your comment to Bob really resonated with me….we take on a huge responsibility with the students in our care and it has been my experience that often we shoulder that weight alone, especially those of us that are not blessed with a stable large enough for multiple instructors. Sharing our experiences and our struggles with each other is so affirming and definitely gives me the perspective I need sometimes 🙂

    • Dear Emily,
      Thank you so much for your encouraging comments. It really lifted my spirits tonight!
      Barbara Fox

  • when I was young I would have given anything simply to be near a horse. I was fortunate that all my lesson opportunities included basic horse care except for a brief stint riding hacks in Central Park. I’m not an instructor but have always welcomed friends who want to learn about horses to visit and get a handle on some basics – from poop scooping to safe lead rope handling, grooming and feeding. Many are older retired folks who really have no interest in riding or are unable due to medical issues but may be considering fostering or adopting a rescue horse or donkey and want to understand what might be involved.

    All parents whose kids are taking lessons should be required to take a “Horse 101”, at least so they understand why a one hour “lesson” actually requires three hours of prep and aftercare and why they may have to wait an extra half hour while their child cools off their pony or why their child is so devastated when their favorite mount is hurt , sick or sold. And what parent hasnt been asked to hold the horse at a show while their child goes potty before a class – can they do this safely?

    Another good, thoughtful article – thank you!

    • Patti,
      I love what you are doing with your friends. Riding is exciting and important but there are so many benefits (for the horse and the human)from the time spent on the ground with horses. You are doing something special.

      I agree with you 100% about parents taking “Horse 101”. Years ago, when my daughter was small, she took violin lessons. I was required to learn the basics so that I could understand how hard it was for her. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Another advantage to parents taking a basic class is that they it can prevent that gap between parent and child that often happens with riding when the kids learn so much.

      Thanks for your good comment and thank you for reading The Riding Instructor


  • I loved this article! I too appreciated your comment of wondering “whether you might be taking money under false pretenses.” I see results in my students and know that I’m giving them a strong foundation, but sometimes I can’t help but feel like “Ah! What am I even doing, I can’t be qualified to do this!” Especially with those students that learn a little slower and have to stay at the same level a little longer. But I always feel better when I see a student doing something totally new with confidence and good basics (alignment, soft hands, long legs and low heels, etc).

    • Hi Cassie,
      When students sign up for lessons I have them write a little bit about their goals on the lesson application. Periodically I go over the applications and usually find that my goals have over shadowed their goals, especially when it’s a student who just wants to learn about horses. I have a progression that I want to move them along with because I know how much there is to learn. It’s also because I know that once they get past the struggling beginner stages, riding becomes so much more fun. When that happens, teaching becomes more fun right along with it.

      We have a traditional riding program and don’t teach therapeutic riding except for with a boy who has down syndrome. I know people say this all the time, but Will was a gift to us. Will is so delighted just to see the horse and have the chance to ride that he reminds all of us that the joy is in having the opportunity and experience. Will doesn’t speak with us but just bubbles with excitement. No one is worried about how quickly he progresses which gives us the opportunity to absorb Will’s joy of riding. You can’t walk away from his lesson with out smiling. Will gives us our “fix” for the week!

      Teaching can be draining for good instructors. We put a lot of effort and care into our students, wanting them to succeed and love horses. When students are struggling we don’t receive much back which can be pretty discouraging. It’s one of the reasons we need to encourage one another.

      I like that you’re willing to keep students at a level for as long as they need it. They come out much stronger for it. Keep up the good work.

      And thank you for encouraging me!


      • “Teaching can be draining for good instructors. We put a lot of effort and care into our students, wanting them to succeed and love horses. When students are struggling we don’t receive much back which can be pretty discouraging. It’s one of the reasons we need to encourage one another.”

        Well said, and there are so many types of struggle. We have the US Army War College here in town. With every class we get new students, either Army officers, their wives or kids. Our country has been at war for over 10 years. Military families have struggled for a long time. High divorce and suicide rates.

        And then there are the “regular” struggles, low natural athletic ability, attention deficits, the know-it-all over empowered youths of today. The list goes on. I think teaching riding was easier 10 or 20 years ago.

        But the rewards are enough for me. The successes keep me going. It is good, I think, for instructors to share the challenges they face each week.


  • Your comment about “whether you might be taking money under false pretenses” made me laugh. After decades of teaching, I feel that all the time.

    What a great summary about teaching beginners. One of your best posts, Barbara. I have to admit that I prefer more advanced students, but there is nothing quite like seeing the smiles of the 6, 7 and 8 year old beginners on a horse.

    Your point about how riding gets one time a week and soccer or dance get at least two, often four or five times a week is very real. Here, I’d say only about 10% or 15% of the students take more than one lesson a week. In the early 1950’s when I began riding, I went to the stable five times a week. It was not uncommon then.

    We have a summer half-lease program for the lesson horses. This allows the dedicated students to ride almost every day when a horse has a light lesson load. Time in the saddle gets the kids who have a half-leased horse or pony grow as riders much more quickly.

    Great post. Thanks.

    • Dear Bob,
      Thank you so much for your very kind comment. It’s very interesting to me to work with the types of students that come for lessons in 2015. Like you, I’m used to a different back ground and grew up in the generation that believed you could achieve what ever you wanted if you worked hard and worked smart….work being the operative word! That generation made opportunities for themselves. We became the audience at the schooling arena, the kid who would work for the opportunity to hang around the barn…at the beginning my lessons were confined to a really great summer camp program named Equitation Lodge and for the rest of the year I figured it out with my own horse or one from the summer camp program. Since I didn’t come from a horsey family, I was on my own. I drained the library of every book that had the word horse in it’s text! And was regularly glued to Fury, My Friend Flicka, Roy Rogers and any cowboy show just because it had a horse in it! I remember riding my horse home and sneaking my mother’s vacuum cleaner out to take care of his loose hair in the spring. Eventually my Dad banned me from riding in the yard. It was killing the grass. And the school hated finding manure on their ball field. They banned horses in general! I was obsessed. That was the late 50s and early 60s.

      Kids are shaped and directed differently in this generation and so we end up in sort of a “Love the one you’re with” situation. I find myself looking for ways to replicate some of my horse life for them- certainly not the part about destroying lawns- but finding ways for them to spend the time with the horses.

      I love your attitude about teaching and by offering half leases in the summer you’re creating opportunities, too. I also like the idea of Equestrian Summer Camps- as long as they are well done. Camps give kids the time with the horses and with other horse kids.

      The snag I run into frequently is parents who do everything for their children, not wanting the child to suffer or struggle; seeing failure as a bad thing. But that’s a whole other topic which I’ll save for another day.

      Thank you again for your comment. Your input always stimulates my mind.

  • You couldn’t be more right about this. I remember when I started riding. I came at the barn 4 days a week not just one day and progress was sooo slow. I knew it and my instructor knew it. I’m 28 years old so I can tell if I make progress or not. I kept trying and trying, I ended up taking lessons almost every day and still it seemed like I will always be stuck at trotting and that I would never canter. When it finally happened…the canter I mean I fell off the horse a few times and hurt my knees pretty badly. I got up on the horse again but I became stiff and afraid. I then suddenly realized that I am more afraid of the animal than falling off. So I took time to come to the barn an hour early to spend time with the horses on the ground. I cleaned, showered them, picked their feet and after a few weeks I wasn’t afraid anymore, I somehow knew how they would react on the ground that made me feel more secure in the saddle. After that progress was picking up, my heels finally came all the way down, I was cantering and jumping small fences with confidence. Then I had to take a break because I got pregnant but I can’t wait to get back in the saddle and I also talked to my instructor about buying one of his horses.

    • JoJo
      Thanks for taking the time to write your good comment. I admire that you made a big effort to figure out why you were not progressing with your riding and that you were able to solve the puzzle yourself! I love seeing riders progress on the back of the horse but ground work and becoming comfortable with general horse care is so important. If we can’t get a horse to work with you on the ground, what makes us think he should work with us while we’re on his back? Grooming and handling are big keys to having a relationship with an animal, to say nothing of what it does for confidence. Kudos to you. Take care of the new baby but be sure to get back to riding ASAP!
      Barbara Fox

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