Group lessons make great business sense. Your income per hour is greater than it is for private sessions. You can grow your business by reaching more students per day, and by offering an economical alternative to students who might otherwise be unable to ride. And without so much as a potluck or an open house, you can create a sense of camaraderie and positive peer pressure among your clients—a feeling of “we’re all learning (and can commiserate) together.”
But group lessons are not without downsides. With more horses in the ring, safety becomes a major issue. If the group is too big, you can exhaust yourself and still end up shortchanging everybody. Progress may be slower without the one-on-one attention of a private. If the group’s too varied—and in general, a group is only as strong as its weakest link—you may abandon some students to their own devices. It’s difficult to zero in on small details with individual riders. Students may not ask a question for fear of looking stupid. And new concepts can be difficult to explain.
To help you avoid these and other common pitfalls, we sought the advice of four group-lesson experts: Sharon Biggs, dressage instructor of the Civil Service Club at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace; Jim Hagman, owner and head trainer of Elvenstar Show Stables and Riding Academy in Moorpark, California; Lori Hall-McNary, owner-trainer of Rockin’ L&D Ranch in Escondido, California; and Karen Pautz, dressage instructor at William Woods University in Missouri.
Crunch the Numbers
So, how big is the ideal group anyway? “I love semi-privates, but I can comfortably handle three or four riders,” said Pautz, who teaches dressage. “Beyond that, keeping an eye on everybody, fitting them into a small arena, and speaking loud enough to be heard by all can get really difficult.”
“A group lesson should never be more than six,” said Hagman, who teachers hunters. “If you figure six students and six horses—that’s twelve individuals, twelve brains. . . nobody can do a good job trying to communicate with more than that. And as our students advance to three-foot and above, where things start to get very technical, we limit our groups to four.”
Hall-McNary, whose students range in age from 5 to 74, also limits groups to four. In addition, she said, with “three or more youth students, I make sure I have a paid assistant trainer—not a working student—in the ring helping me keep everyone safe.” And there’s no question about it. When it comes to group lessons. . .
Safety is Job #1
Perhaps the biggest challenge of a group lesson is teaching students to “drive in traffic.” Hagman solves that problem by not allowing his students into groups “until they’re ready for groups. We start them in Mommy and Me leadline. Then they go into privates. Then they progress to small groups, usually no more than three.”
“The most dangerous safety moments are mounting and dismounting,” he added. “Our students come to the center of the ring to do both. And when dismounting, they first kick both irons free, so that if something happens at the moment they’re getting off, they’re never hung up.”
Hall-McNary encourages her students to assume responsibility for their own safety. “I remind them all the time, of course, but they also remind each other to do things like checking their cinches before mounting, and keeping two horse-lengths apart,” she said. The best safety tip she can give? “Know your horses’ personalities. Train your lesson string for the task in the environment they’ll be working in, which is always louder and more active than most people anticipate.”
“The first thing I tell all my riders,” said Pautz, “Is that if I yell, ‘Halt,’ no matter what they’re doing, they halt. Someone in the group is having trouble, and they’re not going to help—they may hurt—by continuing on.” If Pautz is worried about control issues at the canter, especially in a small arena, she’ll pull all the horses off the rail, then have them canter one at a time. “Even if I have a horse that’s struggling with a
20-meter circle,” she said, “I’ll stop everybody else to give him room.” And to make sure her school horses are as safe as possible, Pautz not only longes or turns out before lessons, she schedules her more advanced riders early in the day and week. “I try to pick the quietest, warmest part of the day and the week for the beginners,” she said.
Biggs’s rules for safety emphasize efficiency as well: riders warm up going in the same direction; they mount in the center of the ring and move off in a line; they cut across the arena instead of passing on the rail; troublesome horses must come to the center; truly fractious horses must leave; and riders must show up promptly, since latecomers cause the group to stay in warm-up mode longer than necessary (any student arriving more than fifteen minutes late doesn’t ride).
Hear All, See All
How do you watch four or six riders without having eyes in the back of your head?
“It’s very basic stuff that we do in the riding academy to keep it fun and teach them to steer in traffic,” said Hagman.
Biggs keeps an eye on “the whole train of horses” by having her students ride no more than one-and-a-half horse lengths apart. That way, she can scan the group quickly and make sure that everyone’s position is correct. She also does lots of drill-team or quadrille as the “best way to teach patterns and make riding fun. And if you also put the horse with the best energy and tempo in front and make everybody keep up with it, you’ll not only get the students concentrating on their aids and what they have to do to keep their horses moving forward, you’ll improve the weaker horses’ energy.”
But, cautioned Pautz, even though quadrilles really teach your students how to ride, there are hazards, especially if you’ve got many different shapes and sizes of school horses. “We’ll sometimes do it for fun, but if I have a couple of nice, big-moving school horses, I never want to adjust the purity of their gaits just so they can stay one-and-a-half horse lengths apart.”
Instead, Pautz may have a whole group do shoulder-in down the long side. “If I stand at the end, I can give each rider a comment in turn, and within a few minutes, each person’s gotten her little piece of individual work.
“I’ll also say, ‘Now on the other side, experiment with your aids to see if you can make it better.’ That way, my riders are becoming more self-sufficient, which is one of the best things about group lessons. They’re not always waiting for me to tell them what to do, and that’s very important, because I’m not going to be there for them all the time. I don’t want to be there for them all the time. In fact, I consider it my job to become obsolete.”
The trick is to give as much individual attention as possible in a group setting. Said Hall-McNary, “I treat each student in the group as an individual. My lesson plan is geared toward the highest level of fun and learning for two, three, or four different people. I also frequently demonstrate things like a gymkhana pattern, or my assistant does while I comment. And each rider gets handouts to reinforce what we’re working on, be it the balance line (ear, shoulder, hip, and heel) or sitting the trot over ground poles.”
Become a Conehead
“I love cones for group lessons,” said Pautz. “Sometimes, they’re the only things that keep my students from running into each other, but I can also use them to set up a 20-meter circle, or mark the spots in the arena where you cross the centerline to do a three-loop serpentine. I can use them as focal points, or to indicate exercises, such as ‘Turn down centerline and leg yield to that cone over there.’ And instead of running all over the arena, I can stand in one spot near a cone, and remark on each rider as she goes by me.”
Biggs agrees that cones not only help an entire group understand geometry, they can be used to direct traffic, and can map out a particular exercise. And Hall-McNary uses cones and other objects to “set up obstacle courses, patterns, and ‘what-if’ scenarios, so skills that will keep horses and riders safe on the trail—like directional control and the all-important whoa—never get boring.”
With a little organization, group lessons can be run successfully and that makes both riders and trainers happy.
Up Close with the Trainers
Sharon Biggs is a dressage trainer, riding instructor, award-winning writer, and author of “In One Arena: Top Dressage Experts Share Their Knowledge Through the Levels.” Although Biggs has taught all levels and age groups in the United States, her current group lesson “gig” is the Civil Service Club at the Royal Mews in England’s Buckingham Palace.
Sixteen years ago, when Jim Hagman started his Elvenstar Show Stables and Riding Academy in Moorpark, California, group lessons were an impossibility. All he had were a school horse, a school pony, and a handful of students. But Hagman changed all that. Today, he says, group lessons are a business staple with Elvenstar’s 60-or-so “great” school horses and ponies, 300 active students, and 15 staff instructors.
Lori Hall-McNary, a third generation cowboy, is owner, trainer, and instructor at Rockin’ L & D Ranch in Escondido, California, where the motto is “Yes, I can,” and the object is to help students reach their personal and professional goals. Lori’s students range in age from 5 to 74, and include the NBHA Youth World Champion Qualifier (in her rookie year); local, state, and national gymkhana champions; trail riders; and “people who just love horseback riding and the beauty and intelligence of the equine.”
In 1981, Karen Pautz graduated summa cum laude from William Woods University in Missouri with a double major in English and Equestrian Sciences. After teaching at William Woods for seven years, she took a long and varied sabbatical, then returned in 2002 as the university’s dressage instructor. While Karen focuses on group lessons these days, and probably has more experience with group dressage lessons than most people, she readily confesses, “I love private lessons.” —KG