There are many qualities that are essential in an effective riding instructor. Hall of Fame cowboy Craig Cameron always says that the number one most important element of horsemanship is control. Control is safety. Control is confidence. Control is peace of mind.
Finding an experienced and highly competent, effective horsemanship instructor is paramount to your success (and well-being; physical, mental and emotional) as an equestrian.
Beginner riders of any age need a very competent and safety-minded instructor who can effectively instill the basics. These basics include proper safety measures and correct handling of the horse on the ground. They will discuss grooming, tacking and leading the horse well before it’s time to climb in the saddle.
Once in the saddle, a quality instructor will consistently implement lessons that will logically lead, over a course of time, to proper rein handling, rider balance, core strength, and effective use of the leg. Lessons should build on one another in a systematic method, helping riders understand how to read and respond to the horse, along with other assorted skills that are important to the foundation of one’s riding ability.
There is a lot more to riding than simply sitting in the saddle. A rider is not a passenger, and the horse is not a remote control vehicle. All horses, no matter their experience or age or basic temperament, are living, breathing, thinking animals. Understand too that they are flight animals that look constantly to their human handlers for calm, confident leadership. Would-be equestrians do themselves a favor by learning a bit about the nature of the horse before setting foot inside a stable.
Considering a specific riding discipline, be it jumping, eventing, barrel racing, dressage or reining, should be far from your mind during your first year or two of riding. This important introductory phase should be viewed as horsemanship kindergarten. Some riders may take longer than two years to develop an innate ability to ride with balance, a quiet yet effective leg, to feel the right rein length and understand effective rein tension when needed, to solidify their confidence and consistent ability to cue and control a horse. Take as long as it takes. Until all of these foundational skills are truly manifest, a rider is in no way prepared to go on to more complicated tasks.
Highly respected equestrian George H. Morris has suggested that there be standards in place for qualifying riding instructors, and that there be teachers at various levels, addressing the kindergarten, elementary, high school and collegiate skills of riders as they develop and advance. Unfortunately we don’t have such a system in place, so the responsibility to seek out a riding coach that truly is compatible for their personal level of expertise falls on the rider (or, if that rider is very young, on her parents or guardians).
As a rider, you must never be in a hurry, or imagine that your abilities are more advanced than they truly are. Muscle memory takes a long time to develop. Riding is a physical endeavor. You can’t develop muscle memory by watching a DVD or reading a book. Those acts may increase your understanding on an intellectual level, to some degree, but they’re no substitute for riding. Being patient, realistic, and entirely honest with yourself will not only help you connect with a compatible riding teacher, it will help you build the skills you’ll need to be a correct and effective rider, and it just may keep you alive.
It’s strongly recommended that you visit stables and observe instructors in action before signing up for lessons. Here are a handful of general qualities to look for:
• First and foremost, a good instructor is safety-minded
• Good instructors keep it simple
• A good instructor is calm, kind and confident
• A quality instructor teaches functional equitation; they do not force body parts into place
• Effective teachers speak with encouragement, never demeaning a student
• Quality coaches make it obvious by their words and actions that they care about, appreciate and seek to understand the horses
• Good teachers have a logical plan and a consistent method that is always apparent by their control of the horse and the student’s controlled, effective riding
It is also up to you to enter into the student/teacher relationship with the right mindset and awareness. Here are a few basic things that you must do to help yourself in the process;
• Be teachable. Shut up and listen. If you knew everything you wouldn’t need help in the first place. You’re there to learn, not chat about what you think you know.
• Be on time. Rushing around horses is a bad idea. Feeling hurried will start your lesson off on a tense and uncomfortable note.
• Dress appropriately; shoes or boots with a low heel, apparel that won’t flap about and distract the horse, a helmet for safety.
• Relax. Easier said than done sometimes, but the more at-ease you can be, the better you’ll be able to feel the horse, the better you’ll be able to enjoy your lesson, and the better you’ll be able to use your body.
• Don’t drag out an ineffective relationship. If you have a learning style that’s obviously incompatible with the instructor’s teaching style, if you leave the riding pen in tears 9 times out of 10, if you feel confused and baffled by their laundry list of complicated do’s and don’ts, or if you regularly come off and/or get injured, you’re not riding with the right person. Cut your losses and move on.
You’ll find many people hanging out a shingle and claiming to be able to teach or train. Teaching is a challenging skill (often quite different from horse training) and requires a unique gift. It is not something everyone is cut out for. Do your homework and watch an instructor in action, look at how they handle the horse, watch them ride, listen to the manner in which they speak to the student.
When you do go to observe a training session, put your phone away. Go alone and focus on what’s going on in front of you. Don’t chat or engage in activity that will distract you or the person on horseback.
As you participate in riding lessons, you’ll be investing time, money and muscle memory. It’s best to do it correctly from the start if at all possible. Search for an experienced, quality instructor who will keep you safe, helping you to develop the skills and confidence required to enjoy your horsemanship journey.