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Choosing the Right Riding Instructor

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Choosing a riding instructor may be as simple as calling the one and only individual within a hundred mile radius who offers riding lessons. For most of the equestrian minded public, however, the choice is not nearly so limited, or so easy.

Before beginning your search for the best possible instruction, it is both helpful and necessary to make a complete and honest assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, and goals as a rider. With which riding skills do you feel comfortable and competent, and in which skills do you feel yourself lacking? Identify those equestrian activities on which you would most like to concentrate your educational efforts. Do you aspire to ride capably at the annual saddle club trail ride? The local show circuit? Mid-level dressage competitions? The Olympic show jumping stadium?

You must also consider the relative importance of improving your level of riding proficiency. Just how much are you willing or able to put into this? Deciding issues concerning the amount of time you are willing to commit to your instruction (both in lessons and in practice between lessons, if available) and the maximum distance you are able to travel regularly will help to narrow your search.

Having asked and answered these questions of yourself, it is time to locate those sometimes elusive riding instructors. Instructors will occasionally advertise in local newspapers or in the yellow pages of your local telephone directory. Feed and tack stores will often be able to connect you to area instructors either through advertisements on their bulletin boards or directly through employee contacts. Regional equestrian publications may list instructors within a reasonable driving distance. By far and away the best sources of information on instructors, however, are the riding students with whom they have worked. These riders may be most readily accessed through saddle clubs, local breed organizations, area stables, and by attending clinics and horse shows.

Armed with a list of potential instructors, you must now prepare to interview these individuals. There are many variables to be considered and many questions to be answered. The time it takes to ask a few key questions may be all the time necessary to determine the suitability or unsuitability of any given instructor. But before we discuss which issues one should address first, let's consider those which should be addressed last, or not at all.

As a riding instructor, I am well used to having my rates be the primary consideration of potential students. While there is no denying that the cost of lessons can be a significant determining factor in a student's ability to commit to instruction, you must first weigh the value of the instruction you will receive against the financial investment. Shopping for the cheapest rates will by no means guarantee equal value, or even acceptable instruction. There is no required national certification for riding instructors in the United States. Indeed, anyone who has access to a horse and believes him or herself capable of teaching someone else to ride can hang up a shingle as a riding instructor. The old adage, "you get what you pay for," holds as true for the riding profession as it does for anything else. Of course you must determine an instructor's rates, but it should be neither your most important consideration nor your first question.

The issue of legal liability and liability insurance in the riding instruction arena has forced the closure of many fine smaller stables around the country. In our litigation-obsessed society, the issue of personal liability must be clearly defined and understood in any situation involving the potential for significant physical risk. Horseback riding is one such situation. Despite the best possible efforts of any riding instructor to the contrary, the fact remains that not all conditions can be controlled, and safety cannot be unconditionally guaranteed in any circumstance wherein a human being sits atop an animal possessing both free will and a body mass equal to at least eight times that of the rider. Many instructors will require you to sign a comprehensive liability release before lessons begin. Do not inquire about a stable's or instructor's insurance coverage. They will not be likely to divulge that information, and, as a responsible student willing to assume the risks of your equestrian activities, you have no need to know.

And now to the really important matters —

For every fifty potential students who call and ask me about my rates and insurance, there may be one who questions my qualifications to teach. You must question an instructor's equestrian-related background and knowledge. Instruction from a well-meaning yet unskilled horseman or horsewoman can lead to the acquisition of inappropriate, or perhaps even blatantly cruel, riding techniques. Instruction taken from a highly trained and experienced professional may be no more productive if you are not concentrating in the area of his or her specialty. You are not likely to learn the fine points of running barrels from an instructor of western pleasure.

Nor are you going to learn to compete successfully at the upper levels of your discipline from an instructor whose forté lies in working with rank beginners. If you aspire to consistent wins in the show ring, inquire about the instructor's students' competitive achievements. You may need to be prepared to accept the instructor's version of reality, however. Instructors are frequently faced with students whose claims of riding mastery are embarrassingly overstated. If when asked to pick up a right lead lope, the best you can manage is a blank facial expression, do not expect an instructor to immediately introduce you to reining patterns. If you think posting the correct diagonal refers to putting up signs in kitty corners of the arena, plan on a slow, progressive education in the basics before attempting anything more difficult.

It is not only important to note the instructor's training and specialty; the individual's teaching style can determine the success or failure of any student/teacher relationship. Not all riders who excel at their sport have the disposition or technical understanding to teach effectively. Some instructors teach primarily by explanation and repetition. Others utilize demonstration. Some instructors relate easily to children, but poorly to adults. Others lack the necessary patience to deal with very young riders, but appreciate the more intellectual approach taken by their adult students. Certain students require a tender touch. Others require strong motivation. Some need constant reassurances and feedback. Others work best with minimal guidance.

The most reliable means for evaluating an instructor's ability to relate to students is to obtain and contact student references. Request the names of current students of as similar an age, level, and riding interest to your own as possible. Be candid about your instructional expectations in your conversations with these individuals, and encourage them to be as candid in their evaluations of their instructor.

The instructor/student ratio is another key factor in determining the effectiveness of the learning environment. You will likely pay dearly for private instruction, but the benefits can make the investment well worthwhile. The constant, personalized attention of the one-to-one situation maximizes the rider's and instructor's time together in the ring. Group instruction will generally offer substantial savings over private lessons but will often take on a somewhat generic tone and greatly diminish the opportunity for specific attention to riders' individual needs. Semi-private instruction offers a middle ground. Two students sharing one instructor grants each rider some focused attention and a certain monetary savings over private instruction.

The frequency and term of lessons varies tremendously from instructor to instructor. Beginning students, particularly if very young and/or having no access to a horse on which to practice between lessons, tend to benefit more from multiple weekly lessons over an extended period of time. Riding properly requires both the learning of skills and the development of the physical strength necessary to perform these skills effectively. Progressive learning can take place only when students have lessons frequently enough so as not to forget that which they have already been taught. Students riding at a more advanced level, however, may need only occasional coaching with an instructor to keep their skills sharp.

Each instructor's equestrian offerings vary with his or her situation. Independent instructors have no permanent facilities at which to teach. Nor do they necessarily have access to horses for their students to ride. These instructors teach either through established stables or by traveling to the student's facilities. The availability of an instructor at one's home may be the only possible solution for students with no ready transportation to or from commercial stables. Students contemplating having an independent instructor furnish lessons at their own facilities need to consider the available riding environment. No instructor can reasonably be expected to teach a ten-year-old novice how to ride a green-broke, herd-bound filly in the middle of an expansive, unfenced hayfield.

Not all riding stables share equally adequate riding facilities, either. Arenas (either indoor or outdoor) should be sturdily constructed, fully enclosed, fairly level, possessing of adequate footing, and neither mud-filled nor chokingly dusty. You may find an indoor arena or well shaded outdoor arena to be mandatory if you live in an area with oppressive heat or overwhelming fly populations.

Suitable and well maintained tack must be available to meet the needs of all students. Aside from the obvious English tack for English riding and western tack for western riding, all saddles need to correctly fit student riders in order to facilitate proper riding technique. Bridles and supplemental equipment must be kept in good repair for safety's sake. In addition, if the instruction you seek requires specialized equipment or facilities, be certain the stable is so provided. You will not be able to cut cattle or jump cross country fences if these are not present.

For the large population of non-horse-owning riding students, it is essential that the chosen instructor have adequately trained horses available for lessons. While many fine instructors work from small stables with limited equine resources, you must be assured that any animals used for instruction are both level and activity-appropriate. Horses used for lower level riders are typically older, well settled mounts with a phenomenal tolerance of rider errors. Horses who offer more vigor and challenge should be reserved for the more skillful and experienced students. Of course, no responsible instructor will expose students to horses with known dangerous behaviors.

And finally to address the monetary aspect of riding instruction —

In addition to the outlay for the lessons themselves, there are other potential expenditures involved in your equestrian activity. Depending on your riding discipline, specialized attire may be required. Appropriate boots can be a hefty expense. A safety helmet will be required by many instructors and will add again to the overall investment. If you choose to trailer your horse to your instructor's facility for lessons, the travel expenses should be duly considered.

Now that you have discussed these most critical issues with your list of potential riding instructors, arrange to visit each facility and request to watch a lesson or two. Some riding teachers may even agree to schedule a trial lesson to give you a taste of their instructional technique. It is one thing to be told how articulate and patient the instructor is, how accomplished the students are, how well the horses are trained, how perfectly the facilities and equipment are maintained; it is something else to confirm it all for yourself. Be unobtrusive and courteous while making your observations.

One last piece of advice: always ask a prospective instructor what he or she expects of a riding student. Some instructors run their schools in a very casual manner. Some are as rigid as any military drill sergeant. Most mold their policies to reflect their student base.

Take time before making your final decision to thoroughly evaluate your instructional options. Remember that we share a common goal, the instructors and the students: to foster a greater love and appreciation of the equine animal through the educated partnership of horse and rider.

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