Rev Up Your Lessons

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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,” confirms Carrie Everhart of Shawnee Acres Sport Horses (www.shawneeacres.net) in Lucama, N.C. With 17 years of teaching, Everhart says her people enjoy mostly hunters, but also dressage shows, cross-country schooling and low-level horse trials, even Western shows.

“Showmanship in hand is an excellent discipline for kids,” she says. 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 says.

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 says, 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, Calif., says, “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,” says 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, explains Hennessy, who’s trained 16 years.

“People assume that the way they 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 says.

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, Pa., still gets excited by her program. She’s another creative trainer who mixes it up with hunt seat, “bits of” dressage, and eventing.

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 says. And there’s no turning up her nose at others. “If it’s what you like, good for you!” she says.

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 says.

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.’”

Clients definitely ride because of that enjoyment factor, reason enough to keep lessons perky and students constantly motivated. A leading breeder and trainer of American Quarter Horses since 1985, Stephen Stephens (no relation to the author), centers his program on youth, amateur and open riders at his and wife Cindy’s Riverside Ranch (www.riversideranch.com) in Weatherford, Texas. He’s all about “self-fueling” successful lesson agendas. With several kids achieving national showing levels, he’s proven the approach works. He fires students up with simple, effective objectives and goals.

Each child receives a notebook with her name and the ranch’s name printed on the cover. Stellar lessons earn a gold or silver sticker as a reward and as an “attagirl!” encouragement. “Parents look at this and just love it,” he says. The technique often yields a client for life.

“I can’t begin to tell you how high a little kid will be after he gets a star,” says Stephens. Kids write in their books about power points and weaknesses, strategizing how to improve next time. “Until the next lesson comes around, you have them thinking about it. You mentally keep them engaged.”

It’s a cognitive technique he employs with all his students—keep thinking about your next ride, wherever you are. “Hold the core of your body. If you’re used to dropping that right shoulder, don’t, even when you’re standing while talking to someone,” he urges. Use the stairs in a new way. Walk up while remaining centered over your hips, retain your good posture, then drop and stretch that calf.

And he urges the adults to do this as well as the kids. And they heed the idea. Stephens says his mind-body-strengthening games “have adults acting like children,” and it’s all good.

He also suggests fellow trainers establish and nurture an equine internship program with local colleges and universities that offer equine science or related coursework. His interns help him, the beginner students help the interns, and it’s one, big happy and productive family. The positive, cumulative synergy and vibe translates into lessons that succeed, as evidenced by the four national high-point leaders in his barn.

Psychology energizes the curricula of Kirsten Lee of Kearneysville, W.V., 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 says.

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 observes. “‘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.”