Fresh Lessons, Happier Students

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When you are teaching students, whether they are beginners, kids, adults, or upper-echelon riders, you want to keep your lessons not only educational, but engaging and fresh. Here are some ideas from colleagues and peers across the country to help you keep your students happy and progressing.

To keep lessons from diminishing to “same old, same old,” savvy trainers diversify their plans. They learn from every breed and discipline to keep themselves and their students on track and engaged.

Some teach multiple disciplines to provide variety. “All of my students cross disciplines,” confirmed Carrie Everhart of Shawnee Acres Sport Horses (www.shawneeacres.net) in Lucama, North Carolina. With 17 years of teaching experience, Everhart says her students enjoy mostly hunters, but also dressage, cross-country schooling and low-level horse trials, and even Western shows.

“Showmanship in hand is an excellent discipline for kids,” she said. Most of her clients participate in 4-H, where showmanship, with its patterns and turns, is required. Everhart finds value in every discipline. “There are always things you can gain even if what you gain is what you don’t want to do. A technique from another discipline can often help with one particular horse or problem,” she said.

Everhart also believes that “instruction is important, but I don’t want my students to miss out on fun that can also lead to good horsemanship.” For that, her toolbox involves riders working patterns with cones, poles and completing specific movements in certain places. Plastic rings hang on jump standards: riders weave through cones, retrieving the rings. It’s “fun work” to encourage focus on something other than riding, and is especially good for timid kids, she said, to help encourage maturity and responsibility in the saddle.

A little freshening up never hurts horse, rider and trainer. Morgan professional Stacy Hennessy of Gerry Rushton Stables (www.rushtonstables.com) in Gavalin Hills, California, said, “When everyone feels like they’re in a rut or something’s not getting done with a horse, I collaborate with my two colleagues.”

For a change of scene, trainers may swap out client horses for a week—and clients, too.

“I may work on bending through the corners, while my training partner focuses on speed of the gait,” said Rushton Stables trainer Stacy Hennessy.

In addition, larger Morgan shows are infrequent on the West Coast, so this trainer emulates busy “classes” at home “to figure out how to deal with traffic situations at a real horse show.”

Sometimes a simple change of scene ratchets the horse���and the lesson—up a notch, albeit safely. Morgans appreciate the nuances of a different environment, explained Hennessy, who’s trained 16 years.

“People assume that the way they (Morgans) trot—with a high head set—means they’re spooky. Not so. Morgans are a very inquisitive sort. Changing locations encourages stimulation and excitement,” she said.

Make It Fun, They Will Come

It’s best to keep things fresh when teaching lessons. After 40 years of teaching, Beth Thomas of Stone Hollow Sport Horses in Johnston, Pennsylvania, still gets excited by her program. She’s another creative trainer who mixes it up with hunt seat, “bits of” dressage, and eventing. (You can find them on Facebook.)

She reads constantly “to stay on top” of all the disciplines, including Western and saddle seat. “I like to have an intelligent conversation with any horse person I meet,” she said. And there’s no turning up her nose at others. “If it’s what you like, good for you!” she said.

Thomas knows the best-laid plans don’t work if the horse has a different agenda. Today…lead changes? No? “The horse will tell me. I adapt to his mood,” Thomas said.

With adult amateurs in her barn, she must adapt to their moods, too. They might not always be totally focused, so she’ll add spice—like hunters doing dressage or eventers moving long and low like a hunter. She welcomes trail obstacles when riding outside.

“Amateurs must have fun or they’ll find excuses not to come. My goal is: ‘Let’s just make you a better rider within the demands of your job, the horse you have, your skills. If you want to work on something or you’re not enjoying this, let me know.’”

Psychology energizes the curricula of Kirsten Lee of Kearneysville, West Virginia, and Almost Heaven Horse Source (www.wvhorsetrainer.com). Her mantra is that “horses are horses and people are people.” Trainers, she figures, must manage both adeptly. For Lee, that means finding imaginative ways of “solving problems, pointing out similarities between disciplines, improving workmanship and fundamentals.”

She works hard to know how her students tick and how they learn—what inspires them. With a nod to Disney, Lee asks her students what they’ve always dreamed about doing on horseback. “Maybe they’ve seen it in a book or a movie. It may really motivate that person,” she said.

Each day’s teaching can be spontaneous, for as a self-confessed “voracious learner,” Lee incorporates a new exercise or image whenever possible. In winter, she takes students to horse expos to broaden their perceptions of the horse world, and she always sets clear, attainable goals in the ring, whether six months out or a week away.

“Just having permission to dream big is all people need sometimes,” she observed. “‘That’s great,’ I say, ‘so, how can we push it? What’s something you can’t imagine you and your horse doing together?’ We all need a kick in the pants in a nice way.”