The instructor/trainer – student/client relationship is a conundrum that causes major difficulties for everyone involved. A lot of the issues exist because of a lack of clear definition of “who you are” on both parts.
For simplicity’s sake I’ll use the term “instructor” for all the titles we give to those who teach riding and “student” for student/client/customer, etc.
And for the sake of this blog post we’re going to pull the instructor out of the stable mix and separate him or her from the people that board your horse, because horse boarding is a service industry. Instructing riding is not.
Instructors are Educators
That’s right. Instructing riding is not a service industry. It’s actually education. While it’s nice for an instructor to be able to give clients what they want (considered good service by some), it is not what giving riding instruction is about. Riding instruction is about the instructor passing on their knowledge and giving guidance to the student. It’s about teaching you what I know, or at least some of it.
If you come to my barn to begin taking lessons, you are there to learn what I have to teach you about riding. That makes me the teacher (the educator, not the server)- you the student (the learner, not the served). I haven’t come by my education cheaply, nor have I come by it without paying a significant price in time, effort, sweat, pain and even tears. The years I spent taking instruction and the time I spent with my formal education are only part of what makes me a good instructor; the rest comes from years of riding and teaching, and of success and failure. I’ve paid “the price” for my education, as much as any other professional has paid the price for theirs; lawyers, doctors, football players, college professors, you name it. If you don’t believe this, we are off on the wrong foot.
When You Play at My House, I’m in Charge
In my barn, in lessons or clinics that I teach, we do things my way. I am the authority figure. That isn’t to say that I don’t incorporate new ideas and technique into my teaching. If you think that’s a tough stand, take a look at George Morris’ methods. And if you think he just came into his “my way or the highway” position after becoming an icon, think again. He had his standards in place from the beginning. I’m open to new ideas and new trends, as long as they fit into the framework of my basic principles.
And doing things my way doesn’t mean that I don’t adapt to the needs of my students, either, which is part of developing good relationships. But adapting can be a chink in the armor of a dedicated instructor. It can be hard to adapt without feeling like you’re compromising important standards, but that’s why an instructor needs to have a firm grip on what is most important to them. Each instructor needs to decide what they will stand on and what they can bend with.For instance, I’ll work with a lot of personality types, a lot of different goals, financial statuses, and personal issues, but areas I won’t “give” on are how horses are treated, the attitude of my clientele; solid basics or integrity.
Taking riding lessons from a particular instructor is not your right. It’s your privilege and opportunity. I also view teaching my students as a privilege and opportunity; it works both ways.
We Need to Adjust How We Look at One Another
If more students would look at their instructors as teachers, and less as stepping stones to winning blue ribbons, a lot of the friction would go away. And if more instructors would look at the time you set aside to take a lesson from them as important down to the minute; or the money you hand over for the lesson as a product of your hard work, a lot of this friction would go away.
Think of These Things:
Our time is precious; yours and mine
Your success effects my success.
You represent my work/knowledge. You represent your work and what you have learned.
We work hard for our money, you and I
As a riding student you have invested money into purchasing the clothing and equipment your instructor requires that you use for lessons. You’ve spent the time locating your purchases. When you sign up for lessons you clear your schedule for that time period, plus for the time it takes to get home from work, change, drive to the barn, and afterwards return to your home. It’s a lot more than the actual half hour or hour lesson. You need to be respected for your investment and you expect a return for your investment; namely a riding education. When you pay an instructor for riding lessons, the student has not then purchased an instructor, rather you have purchased a predetermined amount of the instructor’s time.
Students Have Choices
As a student you have choices to make that go beyond your dreams of becoming the best rider you can be. Everyone has character flaws; riding instructors and students. You need to decide which ones you can deal with and what you can’t. And you need to decide what kind of relationship you want to have with an instructor. Will you keep it professional or are you looking for an instructor/buddy relationship? Do you want to be stroked and flattered? Or are you wanting to be pushed to the best of your ability, maybe even farther, so that you can do amazing things? Are you a self starter who wants to learn how to be independent in riding while continuing to learn? Are you dependent; a person who needs to be guided through every step of every process from choosing a helmet to going to a show? You can make good choices that will enable you to have a strong relationship with your instructor by determining your needs and choosing the right instructor..
Who Makes the Real Change?
I’ve received emails from readers complaining instructors don’t do things the way the reader wants them to. Think about this, the only person we are capable of changing is ourselves; and sometimes even that seems near impossible. If, for instance, you are fearful, your instructor can create a safer, slower environment for you and you may seem to be improving, but truly getting over fear has to come from inside you. Or if you are not placing where you want in shows, say because your lower leg swings, your instructor can tell you ways that you can improve your leg but if you don’t spend the time in the saddle, it will never happen. The actual change comes from you. Should a student take lessons from an instructor with whom they’re not in agreement and get annoyed when the instructor doesn’t change for them?
Does the Student Know More Than the Instructor?
A prevailing attitude seems to be that the student knows better than the teacher and that if the teacher doesn’t change, they’ll just stick around and bad mouth him or her, because after all, there isn’t another instructor who is conveniently located to them. Or they complain that the instructor does things at his own convenience. It’s as if the student believes the instructor owes them more than what they are paying for. Perhaps that’s because most instructors go the extra mile to help their students. But, please, if you’re going to take riding lessons from me at my facility, on a horse that I paid for, wearing tack that I purchased, both that I maintain; riding in an arena that I pay for and maintain or over jumps that I purchased, please think twice before you decide you have the right to determine how I do things. Paying for riding lessons, even paying for a lot of riding lessons, does not make me your employee. I have had instructors tell me, “Because they give you money, students think they own you.”
I also hear from people who complain that their instructor doesn’t take them to enough shows; won’t give the room in the trailer when they want it. My mind boggles over this sort of complaint. If you have a problem with having to be invited to share a ride in a horse trailer belonging to someone else, the simplest solution is to buy one of your own, and a hauling vehicle to go with it, then not only can you go to horse shows when you want to, you can also go to clinics and other fun activities.
Let’s Talk About It
Most instructors and students bend over backwards to accommodate one another. It’s a give and take relationship and it takes work. If you have an issue, discuss it with your instructor. Find out when she has time to sit down with you and talk. Make an appointment. The worst thing you can do is bad mouth someone instead of facing them on an issue. It makes you look bad. And if you and your instructor work out your differences then it’s probably time to move on. But watch the gossip and the bad mouthing.
Let me give you an example, although it has to do with boarding. This fall I was approached by someone asking if I would board her horse. She was unhappy with where the horse was currently living and needed to move it. I told her I was sorry, but I only board horses that belong to students. I suggested several other barns in the area but she had complaints about each one. Then suddenly she found a place for her horse. She seemed like a nice lady and although she wasn’t currently interested in lessons, she thought she might be later, so she kept in touch. I wondered if I should have accepted her as a boarder and then cultivated her as a student. A few months later, while that thought was still on my mind, she emailed me asking if I would reconsider taking her horse because the new barn was not satisfactory. She listed numerous reasons. I knew in that moment, that I had made the right choice by not taking her horse. My impression was that she was never satisfied and bad mouthed every place she went with her horse. Why would I open my barn door to that? She gave me a very clear indication of what it would be like to have her as part of my program.
We all want to be treated fairly. It’s the riding instructor’s job to make clear how things are done in her program and it’s the students job to decide whether or not they can live with that program. Rarely, in my experience, have I found a student that I could not work with, but I strongly suggest that if you find that a particular instructor is not for you, don’t prolong the pain. Look for another instructor that can give you what you need. Just be sure you have a realistic idea of what you are paying for when you purchase riding lessons.
Relationships are hard. Unmet expectations, excessive demands, micro management, assumptions, and bad attitudes need to be brought under control by both the instructor and the student. It is possible to have a great relationship between instructors and students, and instructors and ex-students. It just takes effort from both sides.
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor
Barbara Ellin Fox