A barn full of happy riders who keep coming back for more is the goal of most instructors. Having a nice facility, good location, and trustworthy mounts are important to any riding school, but there are four other keys important to building a successful lesson program. First, you should be qualified to teach. Second, you should instill confidence in your clients not only in your ability, but in themselves. Next, to keep the lessons fresh takes a certain amount of creativity. And fourth, create a sense of belonging at your facility, where every client feels important.
The Right Credentials
Anyone can put an ad in the paper and proclaim him or herself a riding instructor. But riding is a high-risk sport and concerned parents want to know their children are in safe hands. Adult riders are just as safety conscious, and they also want to know their money is being well spent with a qualified teacher.
While certifications and degrees can provide a tangible qualification, which is important to some, many students find there are other indications of an instructor’s ability to teach that have little to do with a certificate on the wall. The instructor’s own years of experience or the success of his/her students in the show ring can give credibility to an instructor’s expertise. A background in education is an additional credential useful in running a successful lesson program.
The Confidence Factor
Confidence comes from knowledge and experience. A confident instructor will not feel the need to run down the reputation of another professional in the same field. Customers will learn quickly if an instructor is unsure of his/her ability and they will soon look for another barn. On the other hand, it is important for instructors to instill confidence in their students. This is particularly important when dealing with timid riders.
One way to do that is to make it apparent that they have confidence in the riders. Since safety of the rider and welfare of the horse are the first order of business when teaching horsemanship, not only from the practical point of liability, developing confident riders will also develop safe riders.
A tangible way to show students their progression, and thus create confidence, is to create a skills checklist—a list of riding and non-riding skills that the student will learn over a course of lessons that can be put in a loose-leaf notebook with a page for each student. The instructor should take time to go over the list with each student and when a student has learned a skill, i.e. tacking up without help or learning to post on the correct diagonal, the instructor can check it off. The notebook can be placed where students have access to it, so they can look up what they have accomplished and set future goals.
As the student progresses, many instructors face the realization that they may have limitations. Perhaps they are unable to do the amount of showing a rider is capable of doing, or perhaps they have a naturally-gifted student that is excelling past the instructor’s expertise. That’s when it is time to let go of the egos and realize they cannot be all things to all students. It takes a great deal of confidence to send a student on to another teacher, but everyone is happier in the end.
The Creative Flow
Keeping the lessons fresh and making them fun takes some creativity and networking. Exchanging ideas with other instructors, reading, and watching videos can help build a bag of tricks to help stave off the heelsdown, chin-up mantras. Children need the fun factor, as do many adults. Making exercises fun and varied helps riders progress with their skills without their even knowing it. Not everyone has the same comprehension level, so different ways of teaching the same thing can be handy.
“Every image will not help every rider. A good instructor will constantly be searching for and trying out new ideas . . .” says Julie Goodnight of Goodnight Training Stables in her article, “Creative Images for Using the Aids.”
A simple example is foot position. When you’ve said heels down for the thousandth time with no success, try asking the rider to point the toes up. Helen Crabtree found a way for getting a student’s leg position balanced by instructing them to point their knees toward the ground. Sally Swift in her book, Centered Riding, is a master at using imagery to teach equitation. For example, to teach riders to hold the reins properly, she has students imagine they are holding a bird in their hands—hold it firmly enough so that it won’t fly away, but not so hard that the bird is crushed.
Games are also excellent tools to use in the riding lesson. Egg and Spoon encourages a steady hand and a more confident seat. Students enjoy practicing transitions with a game of Simon Says. Some games are just fun, and having fun while riding promotes confident riders.
Invest in a good library of books and DVDs and keep your ears and eyes open to new ideas.
A Sense of Community
Camaraderie among the students, and with the staff, is a factor sometimes overlooked in a lesson program. That feeling of being a part of the group often keeps students coming back.
Evie Hornak, who now works with Horses For Hope, a therapeutic riding program in Raleigh, N.C., ran a large training barn in New York before moving south. She believes the instructor can establish the tone of the stable and promote the feeling of belonging by setting a good example.
“Treat everyone the same—whether they own a horse or not, whether they spend $100 or $1,000 a month at the barn. Just because someone is not spending a lot of money with you now doesn’t mean a) they might not have money or b) they might not get money in years to come. Think long term and treat clients right now, so when they get that raise or new job, they’re already planning on investing a hunk of it with your stable. Don’t just treat them like a business—treat them like people and they’ll give you more business,” Hornak advises.
Hornak believes children usually have an easier time fitting in than adults. She goes on to say it takes more than one annual event like a Christmas party to truly create an atmosphere where everyone has the opportunity to socialize. She suggests simple parties or dinners and informal clinics to get everyone involved.
Group lessons, social functions, barn clubs, barn shows and even field trips help promote a sense of comradeship. It is the instructor’s responsibility to make everyone feel welcome and important at these events.
The four Cs of a successful riding program—credentials, confidence, creativity and community— can be summed up by advice from Judy Wyde of Cedar Creek Stables in Youngsville, N.C., “As long as you are meeting the needs of each student, they will keep coming back to you.” The challenge set before the instructor is to recognize that each student will likely have different needs.
Horsin’ Around—Some Creative Games
The Tack ID Game—Divide the group into two teams and have them “count off” so that each team has a member with a matching number. Place various items of tack in a pile equal distance between each team. Choose some familiar items like brushes, halters and lead ropes. Be sure to also include some items the students do not recognize, like a balling gun, martingales, an assortment of bits, or grazing muzzle. With each team behind their starting line, call out a number and the name of an item in the pile. Each team’s number has to race to the pile and find the item and run back to its team with the item. If it is the correct item the team keeps it, if it is wrong they must return it to the pile. At the end of the game the team with the most correct items wins.
This horseless game is ideal for rainy days since it can be played in the barn aisle. Take this opportunity to explain how the item is used so that they will remember more of the unfamiliar items each time.
Pin the Part on the Horse—Use your most tolerant school horse or pony for this game. Write the names of the parts of the horse on labels with sticky backs. Divide the labels among the students and have them take turns sticking the label on the horse at the appropriate place. Students can guide each other to the right part by coaching “hot/cold” as they get close to or move away from where the label should be attached.
Musical Stalls—This is a mounted game that helps build confidence and riding with precision. Arrange ground poles into a row of three-sided boxes to represent stalls. There is one less stall than riders. The students ride on the rail while the instructor tells them to walk, trot, canter, whoa, or back. At random times turn off the music (or if you don’t have access to music just call out STALLS!) and the riders must ride their horse into a stall. They have to enter the open side, no fair riding through the walls. The rider left out is eliminated. Take away one stall after each round until there is only one rider left—the winner. It is advisable to lay out the stalls in different areas to avoid collisions. —DCS