Making Winter Fun

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Are you sick and tired of going around in circles all winter long? Whether you have a small indoor arena, a large area to work with, or no indoor at all, it is still possible to create interesting lesson programs throughout the winter months. Follow our guide on how to keep your customers captivated, and your business will be steady on even the snowiest of days.

Going Back to the Basics

When the winter months confine you to holding lessons inside, sometimes it’s best to go back to the basics. Susan Pellegrino, owner of and head riding instructor at White Spruce Farms in New Braintree, Mass., finds that her students often need to work on basic skills before making the move to the next level, and the winter months are the perfect time to gain improvement in these areas.

“Giving them something to look forward to in the spring keeps them motivated,” she says. “Winter time is also a great opportunity for beginner riders who are ready to come off the longe line, because they’re in an enclosed area. They can gain some independence and confidence.”

A dressage instructor forced to work in the confinement of a small indoor arena throughout the winter months, Pellegrino has her students focus on riding straight lines and developing their skills while using the reins. She sometimes will attach the horse to the longe line, no matter what level they’re riding at, to help them redevelop their skills. Some of the activities she uses to keep her students motivated include riding without stirrups and bicycling exercises, or riding without reins to help them improve balance.

Rebecca Yates, owner of Sunnybrook Equestrian Center in Scarborough, Maine, also tries to create interesting lesson plans so her students remain inspired throughout the winter months. As an instructor who teaches mostly hunter/jumper students, she often has to overcome the difficulty of working in a small 60-foot covered arena.

“This past winter I decided to start with the same lesson for everyone, no matter what their level, and have them build off of it,” says Yates. “For example, the walk-trotters might have to work on serpentines at the walk and the trot, and as the weeks progressed, I would have them develop their skills enough so that eventually they could practice it at the canter. It not only taught them balance through their turns, but it would also help them get their horses to bend as well.”

One exercise that Yates frequently used last winter included setting up two jumps in the middle of the arena and riding them in a figure eight, which helped students work on perfecting lead changes and looking ahead in their turns.

Taking it Outside

Even if you don’t have an indoor arena to use in the winter months, there’s no need to despair. Though lacking an indoor arena, Sue Connell, owner of Cornerstone Ranch in Princeton, Mass., runs a thriving lesson program throughout the winter months.

“Last year, we only missed one week of lessons, and that was when we had a huge ice storm and there was no power, ” says Connell. “Because the weather dictates so much of what we do, it’s very hard to plan ahead. On days when it isn’t icy and the footing isn’t too hard, we’ll try to use the outdoor ring.”

On days when she can’t use her outdoor ring, she might have her students practice riding on the private dirt road where the farm is located, or takes her students on a trail ride, where the footing is better.

She tries to keep students interested in their lessons by setting up cones ahead of time and practicing exercises such as weaving through the cones, working on changing diagonals when changing directions on a trail ride, or switching from a sitting trot to a posting trot and back again.

Similarly, Yates will plan group trail rides along the beach for her more experienced students, weather permitting. “It’s amazing the number of people who still want to ride when it gets cold,” she says. “The kids especially seem more die-hard.”

Jennifer Wallace, owner of BelleMar Farm in Douglas, Mass., also takes students on trail rides in the winter season. Those who prefer not to ride outside travel to a nearby indoor arena as often as three times a week.

Benefits of Group Activities

“My lessons used to dwindle down to a couple of people in the winter, but now our lesson program remains steady throughout the season,” says Connell, who attributes her success to the riding program’s originality.

Connell describes her riding program as being different from most farms because none of her students own their own horses. Most of her students arrive at the farm on Saturday mornings and stay for the entire day. “Our lesson program also helps students relate to one another and appreciate their time in the saddle because they’re all on the same level,” says Pellegrino.

If it’s too cold or icy outside to ride, there are still plenty of indoor activities that you can enjoy with your students. At BelleMar Farm, video clinics are a fun learning experience that Wallace offers her students throughout the winter.

A two-part video clinic can be particularly beneficial to riders in the winter. First, record your students while teaching riding lessons throughout the year. Once each lesson is recorded, hold a clinic where you critique each individual student while they watch themselves ride—and see the mistakes they’ve made. It can also be beneficial to students when recording multiple videos of them over the course of the year so they can see the progress they’ve made. These clinics can be given in a group setting or privately.

When the riding conditions are unbearable outside and the confinement of the arena is just as overwhelming, it’s often nice to treat your students to an off-site event, such as a horse show, riding clinic, or equine trade fair. Many students at White Spruce Farms attend horse shows and clinics in the winter months to get a change of scenery and improve their own knowledge by watching others.

Another way to boost your lesson program without riding is to hold basic horsemanship classes. Pellegrino started offering horsemanship classes at her farm last year, and included sessions on how to properly catch a horse in the paddock and take a horse out of its stall.

The types of general horsemanship classes offered may vary by the level of students that ride at your farm. By requiring students to take classes on how to tack up a horse, put a halter on, and lead a horse, you can cut down on time spent teaching these methods during a riding lesson.

Many farms also host events such as awards ceremonies or Christmas parties throughout the winter season when it’s difficult to ride outside. If your farm is more competitive and offers a horse show series throughout the year, you may want to hold an awards ceremony based on your riders’ point earnings accumulated over the course of the year. But for lesson programs that are less competitive, you can still hold an awards banquet, offering an opportunity for students to socialize with one another.

Cornerstone Ranch holds a year-end awards ceremony for the Worcester County Riders Association, an organization that Connell developed with her own students and local riders from other farms in mind so that they could experience a smaller show setting. Although the shows all take place in the summer, the awards ceremony is usually held at the beginning of the winter season, allowing students from the farm to meet other riders in the area.

In December, White Spruce Farms also holds a combined year-end awards banquet and Christmas party, which Pellegrino describes as a party where students receive awards such as “most improved rider.” “We’ll take pictures throughout the year and put them on display at the banquet,” says Pellegrino. “I think it keeps them motivated to see the pictures with the sunshine so that they want to come back.”

Cornerstone Ranch holds a Christmas party separate from the Worcester County Riders Association banquet, allowing students and their families an opportunity to socialize exclusively with one another. Connell offers activities for everyone in attendance; younger siblings receive pony rides, students receive Christmas gifts, and everyone at the Christmas party enjoys a potluck dinner.

Fun and Games

Whether you’re conducting riding lessons inside or outside, sometimes you need to add a little fun. When students at Sunnybrook Equestrian Center need a break from practicing groundwork or jumping courses, Yates will often hold a group lesson full of fun and games, where students enjoy activities such as Simon Says or compete in egg and spoon races. “The best thing about these types of lessons is that the students are having fun, but they’re also working on their balance and don’t even realize it,” says Yates.

Pellegrino will also incorporate fun games into her lesson program, such as playing “around the world,” where students takes their feet out of the stirrups, and must make their way around in the saddle, until they end up where they started. The game helps riders gain trust, balance, and confidence in the saddle. In one variation on this theme, Pellegrino will ask a student a question; if the answer is correct, the student can move a step closer to going “around the world.”

Another option is a “mirroring game.” This game is best conducted in group lessons, or with an instructor that is teaching a class while mounted. This is something that Connell often does with her students—she teaches all of her classes on horseback, with the exception of her beginner lessons. “I believe that as an instructor, anything I’m asking my students to do, I should be able to do as well,” says Connell. “It helps to teach the kids form if they’re having a hard time.”

While playing a mirroring game, the person leading the game, usually the instructor, will usually perform a task such as going around a barrel, performing a lead change, or making the transition from canter to walk. Once the leader has performed the task, everyone else in the class must mirror the leader.

By incorporating basic activities, a group environment, and fun games into your students’ lesson programs, you’ll soon be on the road to helping your clients attain their goals while expanding your business throughout the winter months.