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A Cut Above

Rhonda Arza is a born teacher. She confesses that she could teach pole vaulting if she knew how to do it. But track and field isn’t her specialty; horses are her game.

“The first time I walked into the ring and taught a lesson, I thought, ‘This is what I should be doing,’” says Rhonda, who owns Forest View Farm in Wadsworth, Ill., north of Chicago, with her husband, René, and business partner, Julie Vincent.

In January 2002, the Arzas and Vincent purchased Forest View Farm, a 57-stall facility with a 72-foot-by-205-foot indoor arena, two outdoor arenas and a clubhouse. Staffed with a barn manager, four riding instructors and three dressage trainers who lease space, Forest View is a bustling operation, taking in 50 to 70 riding lesson customers a week, in addition to hosting summer camps, informal monthly schooling shows and rated dressage shows.

Before assuming ownership of Forest View Farm, the Arzas had instructed and trained on their own for more than eight years, leasing space at other barns. Purchasing Forest View with Vincent was the couple’s first venture into running their own stable.

“My partner Julie and I worked diligently to develop programs, fun schooling shows and summer camps to help us out in our first year,” says Rhonda. “As we worked, we constantly tried to come up with innovative ways to set us apart from our local competitors.”

Forest View’s new proprietors pursued traditional avenues such as advertising and promotions; they took extra care to ensure that their facilities were immaculate, yet warm and inviting. René, who works with the horses more than with the students, fine-tuned the 14 lesson horses on site. Rhonda, the born teacher, felt Forest View still lacked something in the riding lessons department, and it would prove to be the most difficult hurdle in the farm’s transition under new management.

When the Arzas and Vincent took over in January, the lesson instructors operated separately from each other, each taking in their own clients to teach the foundations of horsemanship and riding. If the students showed the desire and the instructors were satisfied with the students’ progress, the students went on to more advanced instruction with the Arzas.

According to Rhonda, the students inevitably adopted riding skills that varied in technique and methodology from one instructor to the next. Sometimes the philosophies behind the techniques directly contradicted those of the Arzas. Consequently, Rhonda found herself “re-teaching” things like feet positioning or seating to bring consistency among the students once they came to her and René for advanced instruction.

“They were all good teachers,” she recalls, “but I felt we could do better. We needed to be on the same page and doing the same thing.”

The Forest View Method

Longtime student Carmen Brown, who helps with the accounting at Forest View Farm, planted a seed in the Arzas’ minds that eventually led to a solution. In listening to their dilemma, Brown thought of her 12-year-old son who attends a martial arts class. She knew that he learned through a series of standardized tests, each of which covered a specific set of skills. Why not standardize Forest View Farm’s lesson program in a similar manner?

According to Brown, the idea not only would ensure consistency in teaching methodology, but it also would make good business sense from a liability standpoint. Developing a standardized testing program would demonstrate the Arzas’ due diligence in taking steps to ensure a safe learning environment. The students would have to prove their mastery of specific techniques before progressing to more advanced riding.

“It also gets the parents more involved and committed because they’re invited to attend each testing to see their children’s progress,” Brown explains. “It helps parents understand what they’re investing in, which encourages longer-term clients.”

The Arzas loved the idea of standardizing the lesson program and the foundation for The Forest View Method, Tests 1-10, was set. “When you move into your own place, you want your philosophy to jell with those who work around you,” Rhonda explains. “Having worked at other facilities, I’ve sometimes had to turn my back, knowing that I did not feel good about everything that was going on around me. I just did not want that to happen here.”

The Forest View Method was the perfect remedy to instill consistency and promote safety, but creating and implementing the plan proved challenging at times. Rhonda’s gift for teaching and her background in psychology (she was a double major in English and psychology at the University of Michigan) helped transform the concept into reality.

In a nutshell, Tests 1-10 of The Forest View Method (undergoing the copyrighting process at presstime) entail 10 rider-readiness exams, from Test 1’s “longe line skills” to Test 10’s “advanced jumping skills.” Each exam emphasizes the specific techniques that must be mastered to perform the general task.

For example, the first test on longe line skills specifies that a rider in the two-point position at a walk and a trot should, (a) have correct balance; (b) bend at the hip, not the waist, and maintain a straight back; (c) have hands in the correct position with correct weight distribution; and (d) keep weight in the heels and maintain a hip-to-heel line.

Students are scored on a scale of zero to four on each line item. A zero means the student does not understand the skill, and a four means the student performs the task correctly every time. Each test takes about 30 minutes; the student can schedule the exam in addition to or in lieu of their lesson time.

“I basically thought about the way I teach and the approach I take with beginners, how I move them up, and what each step is as the levels increase,” says Rhonda, who administers the tests to every student at Forest View.

Positives All Around

Says Stacy Stickle, whose two daughters, ages 9 and 11, take lessons at Forest View: “They love her. The testing gives Paige and Molly a chance to spend time with Rhonda and to hear her positive feedback.”

Positive reinforcement is key to The Forest View Method, according to Rhonda. From the sidelines with clipboard in hand, she talks each student through the exam, all the while taking notes and giving positive reinforcement. “When you’re a riding instructor and you’re riding alongside the student, you’re saying heels down, do this and fix that,” says Rhonda. “Everything is negative. You’re always told so much of what to change and you’re rarely told the good things that you do.”

Once the exam is over, the students have a written evaluation for their records—something tangible that outlines their strengths as a rider. Any skills that need some work are also duly noted, but the issue is diplomatically raised.

“I’ll tell them, ‘You’re on the right track, but I want to try it again in a couple of months,’” she says, adding that she typically gives the students two or three skills to work on until the next testing session.

Focusing on the technical aspects of each riding skill is important to Rhonda, who rode in the Medal/Maclay as a junior rider (the highest level in equitation). She says she prides herself on having all positionally correct riders. “Form is function,” she explains. “If you do not have the correct position, you cannot perform as a rider.

“I feel that having a good foundation as far as your flat work goes is the most important thing to be successful in jumping,” Rhonda continues.

But technical aptitude isn’t the only focus of The Forest View Method. Students are tested on horsemanship as well. According to Rhonda, using the method has allowed her to have a better handle on how her horses are treated and how they’re being taught technically—yet another benefit of standardized instruction.

“For instance, if a horse refuses a jump, I really watch how [the students] manage their anger, themselves and other people,” she says. “This is such a sport where frustrations and emotions can run high, so you have to keep that in check as much as possible and teach them to control themselves and handle difficult situations with poise and grace and kindness to the animal.”

The Forest View Method also emphasizes patience in learning. Each testing level includes a projected time frame of how long it typically takes a student to master the skill once they’ve started riding. For example, cantering off a longe line—with and without reins and with and without feet in stirrups—can take from eight months to two years to master. Rhonda says both the students and the parents of the students tend to like the method’s approach, because it gives them specific goals to work toward.

The Forest View Method also forces instructors to pace themselves in their lessons. “What I found through the years as I’ve watched instructors teach is that they tend to hurry,” says Rhonda. “They get bored themselves, so they want to hurry their kids up into jumping. By putting them through the paces, so to speak, I’m really testing the instructors at the same time and saying, ‘OK, if you want your students to jump, they’ve got to be able to get to this point first.’”

There were three instructors at Forest View when the new owners came on board. Only one decided to leave after The Forest View Method was put into place. The Arzas and Vincent have hired two additional instructors to bring the total number of teachers up to four. They all practice The Forest View Method, and Rhonda says the new learning environment is working out well.

“The instructors seem to really like it and I find that they’re so much less defensive than they were before when I would step into their lessons,” Rhonda admits. “I think it’s because I’ve taken such an active role with each student and they don’t feel like they are being personally attacked if I say I want to see a bit more of this or that.”

The Forest View Method has facilitated a more team-oriented approach among the head trainers, instructors, students and the students’ parents. Consequently, Rhonda says she has observed a heightened level of confidence in both the instructors and the students.

“There’s a lot less negative feedback going on in the ring,” she says. “There’s a lot more explaining and more theory than there used to be. I’m really happy with the way the students are reacting [to the new program].

“I think it’s really important that we spend more time with the weekly lesson people and help cultivate that part of our business because that’s really where it all starts,” Rhonda continues. “To lose track of that is not a good savvy business way to be.”

Branching Out

What started as an idea to gain consistency among the instructors at Forest View Farm has blossomed into an opportunity for Rhonda to teach others in the industry how to streamline their approach to riding lessons.

Area barn managers and other trainers that the Arzas meet while on the road going to shows have expressed interest in The Forest View Method, Rhonda says. She’s now looking into doing a videotape about the 10-step testing process.

“Originally I didn’t think of it on that scale,” she confesses. “I really just established the method for my own place. But the more I talk to people about it, they all go crazy over it. I would be willing to go and do clinics on how to get the method going at different stables if people were interested. I could teach them how to roll out the program and help people with the transitions.

“Even if they didn’t use my exact tests,” she adds, “I could teach them how to make our tests their own.

“If you think about it, from martial arts to swimming lessons, they all have standardization,” she says. And The Forest View Method gives even the most advanced students the opportunity to progress. Clients who complete all 10 levels are re-tested once every three months as a form of continuing education.

“That’s where my philosophy takes root,” says Rhonda. “It’s learning every day from the people and from the horses. I like to keep that learning environment going at every level, so that everyone is feeling stimulated and happy and the horses are sound and safe. That’s a great place to be.”