Assertiveness comes naturally to some individuals while others must learn this helpful quality. What do you do with the student who just doesn’t seem to try very hard or gives up after one or two tries at getting a pony to trot? What about the student who tries, gets no result, and just looks your way with a sigh, expecting you to do something? Or how about the student who talks a good game but won’t leave a 20 meter circle when you take her for a cross country school? You long to see the child gallop through the field but she’s attached to you as if there’s a life line between the two of you. Or what about the rider I mentioned in Where’s the Love who wouldn’t make a single move unless she was given step by step instructions?

These riders, all real students, shared several traits. They all love horses. They are polite and well mannered and they are excellent students in school. And they all have at least one parent with strong opinions, who supported their riding.

Who could complain about even one of those traits? Gosh- we should live to have a barn full of smart, polite, horse loving  students with parents who support what they do!

Unfortunately this is a profile for the passive, unassertive rider. This rider can cause some instructors to want to tear their own hair out searching for ways to motivate them. Frustrating? You bet, but while assertiveness isn’t an innate trait for some people, it’s also a skill that anyone can learn, if they choose.

Why a Lack of Assertiveness?

Lack of assertiveness has a lot to do with how you are raised and sadly it can be produced in families who have the best intentions.

The student who lacks assertiveness strives to do things right and usually has a fear of doing things wrong. Many times they accept correction, only because they view it as necessary in order to “get it right”. They spend their school life working to get good grades, handing in great papers, and passing the tests. If they don’t make it, they view themselves as failures. Their self esteem is tied to their success. They can’t and won’t think outside the box because they might be wrong. They would rather wait for instructions than try, make an error and have to be corrected.

Frequently these children have a lot of “stuff”. Mom and/or Dad make sure they have all of the latest in technology. They are usually the ones that end up owning a horse that is too much for them to handle, but they have great equipment. Lovingly, Mom (&/or Dad) just wants to make it easy for their child to succeed and in making it easy, they rob their kids of the character building steps to success.

The parents of these riders may be involved in their horse activities. They help by holding horses, helping to tack up, reminding their child to get their heels down, and making sure they get the most out of their lessons. Sometimes they get involved in horses by taking riding lessons. They’re the parents who get involved in organizing activities for the kids. They’re well intentioned but they don’t realize that by doing things for their kids that their kids should be doing themselves, they’re helping to develop a passive, non-assertive person.

The passive, submissive, non-asserting rider has a lot of fears. I’ve already mentioned the fear of failure. They also have a fear of not being pleasing. They have anxiety and stress because their parent has them on the fast track to succeeding.They are over powered by well intentioned adults and end up being over powered by the horse, and some become afraid of it. And even though they can be the kid who gets great grades in school, most children who are passive and non-assertive have low self esteem

The Bully Epidemic

You’re probably aware of all the media discussion about bullying. It’s almost an epidemic. Sadly it’s the quiet, passive,non-assertive, perhaps timid, well mannered, smart kid who is usually the bully’s target. They don’t even have to be the smart kid, as long as they’re willing to buckle, give in and give up in order not to experience the pain that’s directed toward them. But Good News! That’s the very kid who thrives from being involved with horses and riding.

That’s because horses are not judgmental. They don’t point out your mistakes, make fun of you, or purposely try to terrorize you. At least not the normal ones. Horses don’t care how popular you are or if  you’re cool. Horses take kids for who they are faster than people do. And riding instructors can help turn passive, non-assertive riders into “rock stars.”

Model Assertiveness for Your Students

You can be the example of an assertive horseman for your students by showing them how to manage the horse without losing your patience or becoming overly aggressive. But in order to model assertiveness for your students, you must have a good grasp of it yourself. If you don’t- you need to get busy and work on it.

Students look up to their riding instructors. They want to please you. They want to do well. Get to know your students and develop a sense for when the time is right to apply pressure and when to back off.

Watch What You Say

Resist making comparisons between riders or between horses. Treat each person as a special and unique individual who has their own set of talents and good qualities.

Be careful how you phrase comments about horses. Never destroy a students excitement over their horse with your words. Don’t label  one of your lesson horses as lazy or stubborn or spooky. Students can pick up your labels without understanding what you meant. Better to say, “He needs to be convinced. He’ll help you develop your legs.” “He doesn’t understand what you’re saying. He’ll help you refine your aids.” Or “Every horse spooks now and then. He’ll help you develop a deep seat.”

Get Kids Talking

Assertiveness is a skill that can be learned. The non-assertive child usually doesn’t like to speak up. Ask each student a question during your lesson and have your students speak loudly when they answer. It may take several tries for your student to speak up. Projecting the voice is an act of assertiveness because it implies confidence. And oddly enough, the more kids speak up, the more confident they become.

Ask one student a question and another if their answer was correct. For instance, “Annie, on which leg does Susie’s horse have a stocking?” Annie answers and you say “Susie, was she correct?” Susie wiggles around and looks at her horse’s legs and answers. This engages both girls with an easy question and they speak it out. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry I couldn’t HEAR you! Can you repeat that?” and smile.

Encourage students to ask questions during lessons, not just when the lesson is over. If they don’t ask you, you can ask them.

In a group lesson, have the leader say something to the person behind them and let them pass it along to the person behind them, sort of like the game “telephone”. Come to a halt before the last person answers and let her tell everyone what she heard. The act of calling back to the rider behind you while moving forward is assertive. And sometimes the end results are pretty funny! You can do this at all gaits.

Have students post trot poles and count them out loud as the horse steps over with the front leg. Have them do the same in 2 point. Your riders will be hesitant at first and you may have to count with them. Encourage them to count loudly.

An Example from United States Pony Clubs

United States Pony Clubs helps kids learn to be assertive. When members are examined for their proficiency certificates, a certain part of the test is oral. Pony Club kids practice orals on a regular basis. Most kids that have spent time with Pony Club can voice their opinions with authority and confidence.

Pony Club also teaches children to teach their peers by having them prepare a short 10-15 minute lesson starting with an unmounted topic. They prepare (using a lesson plan) and present the topic to their group. The kids learn to make their point and to speak clearly. Everyone knows they will have a turn, so the kids are very supportive of one another. Your riding program could use this method during a camp or an overnight.

Simple team games and relays will help a passive child assert herself. Make sure you rotate the captain so everyone has a turn. When kids are having fun and feel like they are part of a group, you’ll see them cheering for each other and encouraging their team mates.

Keep a variety of activities going for these smart children and don’t run in to help them the minute you see them struggle with a task. Encourage them and when they accomplish a task, praise them.

Develop Assertiveness and Kindness

Sometimes kids don’t want to swat a horse with a whip or kick it very hard because they perceive it as cruel. This requires a better explanation about the aids and maybe a demonstration from you. But sometimes they can not coordinate the actions that are required to kick, swat, steer, cluck and keep their seat all at the same time. In this case, you should consider switching your rider to a different horse for awhile. And speaking about horses, a child who is timid or non assertive should definitely be mounted on a size appropriate horse or pony.

And About the Parents…

And finally, if your student is the product of parents who like to “do” for her; if they interfere or if she is under stress for a good performance when her parents watch her ride, perhaps this is the time that you should ask the parent to sit out for a few lessons and allow you to work without distractions.

Riding Instructors Are Influencers

Once again I want to point out to riding instructors that the influence you have on your students can be significant. The self assurance and assertiveness that is learned in riding lessons will translate to all aspects of your students’ lives. You teach a lot more than riding.

And please – my disclaimer: I’m not in the mental health profession and am not advising you about raising children. I’m merely passing along my own experiences. You must be the one to choose what to do with them.

Thanks for reading!

Barbara Ellin Fox

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Very good article. You made some suggestions that I haven’t thought of.
    Sometimes I’ll offer a reward if a student can accomplish a set goal, usually students riding a lesson pony 😉 It might be a mini-candy bar if they get the pony to stay on the rail at a trot all the way around the arena, or a quarter if they can do a walk/trot/walk/halt transition at specific points, or 10 minutes less ground work during their next lesson so that they have 10 minutes longer riding time.

  • I really appreciate this article. I just started giving lessons and articles like these are so very helpful! Looking forward to your next one. 🙂

    • Heather thanks for commenting. I love to read that I was helpful The best to you in your teaching. Barbara

  • This was a GREAT article! I really enjoyed it. And there’s another “Cari” out there too, I see!
    This reminds me of a student I had, a young girl. She was the youngest of three sisters and was always very quiet and timid. She was too young to ride at first and for several years watched her sisters take lessons. When it was finally her turn for a lesson I assumed she would be unassertive so I told her that she would have to kick really hard to get the horse to go! She gave that horse the biggest leg wollop ever… and the horse certainly listened!

    Horses helped me find my assertiveness and teaching got me over the fear of instructing people. I really like all the tips you gave in your article – very helpful for instructors! Sometimes we forget after awhile what it was like in the early days.

  • Thank you for this article. This is a great reminder on how to work with and aid my non assertive students. I have found that almost every beginner reacts the way your article describes. With the exception of a few, most are comfortable after a few months of lessons. It is those few that I want to help move on and up. I have seen regression..they begin to show confidence and then the next lesson, fall back. I will definately look at myself to encourage them forward. Thanks again!

    • Shelley
      Thank you for your comment. I think regression is a natural process in riding horses and a good instructor recognizes it with her students. Kudos to you for being observant. Overcoming setbacks, gaining control of the things that are hard and frightening, learning to stand your ground in the things you believe, dealing with disappointment, and having the opportunity to try again and again are some of the lessons we’re privileged to teach our students. I think about the opportunity we have because we work with kids who love what we do. (We are more fortunate than so many public school teachers whose students hate class) Keep up the good work. Your students are fortunate to have you.


  • Great article, I will try some of the points to make my shy students more assertive. I’m wondering if you could be so kind as to write an article about students who are too assertive, meaning students who ride quite well but, obviously don’t know everything yet(!!!), however, they act as if they knew everything and ignore their teacher or better yet, question their knowledge, rolling their eyes and simply not listening to what their trainer is saying to them. As the kid’s trainer, I’m starting to loose my nerves, and I’m wondering what to do with that particular student.

  • Great article. I especially like getting the student to speak. At the end of the lesson I always ask the rider what they thought they did well and what they thought needed more work. It seems to give ownership to the rider, and is a good way to reflect on the lesson. I usually find more things to compliment the rider on than they relies. So many times working through something that started out ugly is the best part of the lesson.

  • Unfortunately I used to be quite unassertive myself, up until a year ago. (It still shines through every once in a while though!) My journey to end this started when I purchased a 2 year old filly, and had to deal with her behavioral issues from lack of being handled. This turned out to be a good and bad decision, as she’s taught me alot, but she really took advantage of me at the time. Fortunately, a trainer stepped in without my asking and taught me how to be assertive by posturing. Slowly, over the course of a year, I have used my posture to calm myself, and my horses. That filly has taught me a lot, and she is now a well-mannered sweetheart because of all I learned from the trainer!

    I am not an instructor, but if I were, I would use a horse like this to my advantage. For instance, my mother has a gelding that did NOT listen when lunging. He’d look everywhere but at you. It was clear that this was a lack of respect. That same trainer helped me learn to be assertive (and therefore gain his respect) by lunging him, and making him pay attention. We didn’t use excessive force, just voice, posturing, and transitions. This assertiveness now accompanies me when I ride him as well.

    Learning to have good balance when riding also helps boost confidence too, and that will allow a rider to become more assertive. Focusing on the seat and balance could really help in developing assertiveness.(It did for me, anyway!) 🙂

    • Ha! Arms, legs, (and pointy elbows). That pretty much describes my daughter exactly (a 5’7 eleven year old). Although she was (in some ways still is) a tad shy.

  • While I agree with everything you said for a specific type of unassertive kid, there is a second type that should be mentioned as well. It is the kid who is behind the pack in personal maturity (physical or emotional) and/or social skills. They become especially self-conscious, tense, etc. in groups of their peers or with a particularly dominate instructor. The answer for these kids is exactly what you stated above, plus they just need a few years to grow up. (My eldest fell into this category and only now that she’s hit her early teens is she suddenly blossoming in her sense of confidence and riding assertiveness.)

    • RT,
      You are so right about maturity and I’d add the child who suddenly hits a growth spurt and is all arms and legs and has to relearn balance. Thank you for your good comment.

  • I really enjoyed this article! As the shy, unassertive kid myself many of your insights rang true. I gleaned many useful things from the tips as well. I would add one little thing, which falls under getting the student to speak out. I always ask them questions too – such as a reminder of how to do something (get the horse to canter, for example). Or I ask their opinion – “Is your horse trotting smoothly?” This gets them thinking and also gives confidence because usually there is no right or wrong answer…

    • Cari, I agree that anytime you can ask a question that has no right or wrong answer, your student will feel safer answering. I like this point that you have made. Thank you

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