A great instructor or trainer can’t have enough great teaching tips up their sleeves. We’ve rolled up ours and assembled a plethora from experts across the industry.
Shawn Flarida is the National Reining Horse Association’s all-time leading money earner and the first ever “Four Million Dollar Rider.” “Throughout the year, we check in on client goals, and we make the necessary adjustments,” Flarida says. “The plan doesn’t always go exactly as we hope. Sometimes the accomplishment of what appears to be a small goal can be a huge milestone for a client.”
Above all, it has to be fun, says Flarida, and fun means making sure the horse and rider match is a good one. “The horse has to be appropriate for the rider’s skill level and their goals. Sometimes I have to be the one to point that out. That can mean that we need to replace the horse, or that we might need to set different goals that can be accomplished using that particular horse.”
Keep it simple, says hunter/jumper trainer Ali Hamann of South Coast Sport Horses in Cedar Creek, Texas. Her best advice: “Only two emotions belong in a saddle. One is patience and the other is a sense of humor. Trainers need to continue their own education and be able to read and understand each horse and student as an individual. I’ve seen several talented students and even more talented horses quit because they were with someone who had no understanding of how far that horse or rider could be pushed.”
CHA:?Certainly Helpful Advice
Next, we’ll tap the versatile teaching experts of the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA).
Accentuate the positive, says Cheryl Rohnke Kronsberg of hunt seat and Western pleasure. A CHA Master Instructor and AQHA Professional Horseman at her CRK Training Stable in Yorba Linda, Calif., this 30-year veteran says: “Stay away from negative teaching, like, ‘Don’t hold your hand so high.’ Instead say, ‘Your hands should be right above the pommel of the saddle.’ It’s a good chance to teach saddle parts, too.”
Never stop the lesson with an unsuccessful attempt at a new skill, she continues. “If the students were learning to lope that day, finish the lesson with some trot exercises they already know how to do and be encouraging. Say, ‘Loping is a hard skill to learn. Keep trying as hard as you did today, and you’ll get it very soon.’”
Also from CHA, Shellie D. Carmoney of Howell, Mich., and Girl Scout-centric Innisfree Equestrian Center teaches English and Western with 20 years’ professional experience. She’s a CHA Master Instructor and Assistant Clinic Instructor.
“An instructor should not only listen to students, but actually hear what they are saying,” she says. “Honest, open communication is the key to success on both ends, for humans and horses. Be honest and fair, firm but gentle.”
Great training is “safety for the horse and commitment to care foremost, with good riding skills next,” says Carla Wennberg, a CHA Level 4 instructor who teaches—using 100 horses—at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, N.C. Her focus is dressage and Western, and she’s an AQHA, NRHA and NSBA judge. No matter the discipline, Wennberg likes to start all lessons like this:
“Start with a relaxed walk, a bend from the rib cage, then a slow spiral out laterally from a leg yield and then walk forward. Maybe do four-to-five strides of leg yield on a circle, then walk forward again to relax. Do this at the jog or trot and canter or lope, depending on the horse’s training level—the circle will be larger to start, maybe 20 to 30 meters. Then as you get the horse working both sides, start to circle 15 meters and spiral out, as the bend comes from not only the rib cage but also the light feel and bend of the neck as outside aids hold the circle.”
Breathing and Visualizing
Meet Jo-Anne Young, trainer and instructor since 1964, director of Houghton College Equestrian Program in New York State since 1986, and a CHA Master Clinic Instructor since 1987. She teaches and trains hunt seat, jumpers, Western, eventing and dressage.
“Try to find analogies from the student’s background and other interests or experiences to help explain and illustrate riding techniques,” she says. With a tense adult, Young told her “to imagine she was an angel, and needed to fold her wings and land for a down transition. That lifted and opened her chest, relaxed and lengthened her legs, drew her shoulders back and softened her arms and hands. The horse loved it! The student then pictured herself being a duck landing on a pond, an image that worked for her.”
In Bellefontaine, Ohio, Beth Powers is a CHA Level 3 Western, Level 2 English, Overnight Pack and Trail Instructor—she does it all at Bar W Ranch YMCA Camp Willson. But her teaching philosophy is simple: Powers wants students to “just breathe.”
“I believe that people have the ability to project certain energy on to their horses,” she says. “For riders busy in mind and body, I remind them to breathe in through the mouth and out through the nose—slow, steady, settling their thoughts to be in the moment with the horse. I can see the horse relax as well.”
For unsure participants who get frustrated when the horse isn’t doing what is asked, Powers talks about “taking their emotions out of the equation and breathing out, then slowly proceeding with the task at hand.”
Using the Senses
Former hunter/jumper trainer Michelle Reese in Covington, Va., believes training’s a song when it comes to stiffness and nerves in riders. “Sing your ABCs or ‘Where is my hairbrush?’ or tell me a story about your favorite vacation—margaritas on the beach,” says Reese. This technique gets the rider to relax and become far more teachable.
Erin Mackintosh freelances in Ottawa, Ont., teaching basic dressage and jumping skills, and wants students to really “feel it.” “Some learn best by seeing, some hearing, some doing, but everyone has a slightly different set of best learning tools, often different for different age groups. Sometimes it’s watching their coach riding the horse, or both watching someone riding a horse, or watching a video of themselves riding.” Regardless, Mackintosh feels that observing others is a great way to get clients to see what she is trying to teach.
And here’s a great piece of advice: Explain why you’re asking something, says British Horse Society instructor Paula Sainthouse, formerly of Shipley Lane Equestrian Centre, Alnwick, Northumberland U.K.
“I constantly got told off about cutting the corners of the riding ring, but no-one ever told me why it mattered,” Sainthouse says. “Eventually someone told me it was the horse making it easier for themselves and by riding my corners, I showed I was in control. Also, by using corners properly, my horse was having to use the inside hind leg more and becoming more balanced. Understanding made me try much harder to ride correctly.”
Finally, and most trainers agree, if what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t have clients do more of it harder. Try something else, instead. And on the plus side, when the horse does its job well, train clients to reward him by “releasing” him, otherwise how will he know he’s got it right?
Horseback riding for most of our clients is a recreational activity, so keeping lessons positive and frustration-free goes a long way to keeping those same clients coming back for more.