The riding 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. This is because horse boarding is a service industry. Instructing riding is not that black and white.
Instructors are Educators
That’s right. Instructing riding is part service industry and part 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 putting in a significant mount of 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. Always remaining teachable, I stay open to new ideas and different points of view.
With the busy lives we all lead I do my best to adapt to the needs of my students. Flexibility 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 where they can bend. 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 the same way. We are fortunate to have one another.
How Do We View Each Other?
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 affects 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 develop the kind of relationship you want 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?
Sometimes a prevailing attitude seems to be that the student knows better than the teacher. If the teacher doesn’t change, some students believe it’s their right to stick around and bad mouth him or her, especially if there isn’t another instructor 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, using tack that I purchased, and ride in an arena that I pay for and maintain, 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. Or I hear from horse owners who say the instructor 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. You’ll also need a hauling vehicle to go with it. At that point, not only can you go to horse shows when you want to, you can also go to clinics and other fun activities. And you could even give a friend’s horse a ride.
Let’s Talk About It
Most instructors and students bend over backwards to accommodate one another. It’s a give and take relationship. This requires 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 can’t work out your differences, then it’s probably time to move on. But watch the gossip and the bad mouthing. It nevers make a person look good.
Let me give you an example, although it has to do with boarding. 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. Fortunately, she found a place for her horse.
A few months later, the same woman 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 turning her down. 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. It’s the students job to decide whether or not they can live with the program. Rarely, in my experience, have I found a student that I could not work with, but I strongly suggest that if you find 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 tough. 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