Choosing a riding instructor to teach you how to ride (as opposed to a trainer who trains your horse) can be tricky. Here in the U.S., instructors do not need any third-party certifications (in the U.K. the British Horse Society, or BHS, offers trainer certification), anyone can hang out their shingle and proclaim themselves a trainer.
So, how do you evaluate a potential riding instructor? It’s not as simple as choosing a good rider or even a successful competitor. The ability to teach is different. You need to find someone who can help you understand the techniques of riding. And you need to find someone with a teaching style that jives with how you like to learn.
Here are some guidelines to evaluating an instructor:
- If possible watch a potential trainer teach a few lessons. See how they talk to their students, how they explain things and what types of solutions they suggest to problems that come up during a lesson. I, personally, will no longer tolerate sarcasm or yelling. I used to until I remembered that riding was supposed to be fun. I try hard and I want my trainer to respect my efforts and talk to me like an adult.
- Look for a trainer who has a plan. I like to have a road map that gives me an idea of how I will accomplish my goals and I seek out trainers who can give me that guidance. I rode with a trainer for awhile who seemed to be working on something new every lesson. I never felt like we were building on past successes and I found it confusing.
- Avoid trainers who rely on “gadgets”. Yes, there are times when they can be helpful, but in general I don’t believe that short cuts work. If every student is riding a horse in draw reins, I don’t want that person teaching me.
- Does the trainer explain instructions in context. I like very specific direction — such as move your left leg back and weight your seat bone more — but I want to understand why doing something helps. When a trainer explained to me that keeping my hips pointing forward during shoulder in would help my horse stay straight, I could feel it and see the immediate effect. It also helped me to understand how many classical movements serve to strengthen and stretch the horse. Shoulder in became more relevant to me when I thought about it as a way of increasing my horse’s ability to step under himself and lighten his forehand . . . or as a way to stretch out his shoulders. I don’t like to ride with trainers who only give instructions, not explanations.
- If you are riding school horses, how do they look? Are they shiny and healthy? Do they look tired, overworked or lame? Do other riders look happy while they are riding? Make sure that the horses being used in the lessons are well cared for and well trained. Take the opportunity to observe how other students manage the lesson horses; riding horses that are poorly trained, sour or lame won’t be satisfying.
- Does the trainer talk on the phone or text during lessons? The instructor should be focused on the lesson not spending their time on the phone or chatting with friends.
Once you have selected an instructor, it’s okay to continue to evaluate their teaching style and make sure that they are the right trainer for you.
- Do you learn something every time you have a lesson? It doesn’t have to be an earthshaking discovery, but the best trainers that I’ve worked with have an unerring ability to hone in on something specific that makes me re-evaluate what I’m doing and leave the lesson feeling armed with new information.
- Does the trainer have the flexibility to adapt their lesson to my needs, or my horse’s needs. I had a horse that liked to be ridden a bit differently than many horses — he didn’t fit with trainers who had a “program” and it took me awhile to find someone who tried different approaches until we found one that worked.
- If you are in a group lesson, does the trainer address your needs or do other students monopolize the session? Sometimes you have a student who has so many needs that the trainer cannot keep the whole group working toward new goals. It’s okay if it happens on rare occasions, but if it’s habitual, you may need to find a different group or a different trainer.
- Does the trainer accept my training schedule? Because I don’t have the time or money to lesson every week, I need to ride with trainers who accept that I am only able to ride with them occasionally. I know that this puts me at the bottom of the priority list for some, but if I think of my lessons more as clinics, I am usually able to take away a few key ideas that I can practice until I see them again. Some trainers only want students who ride with them every week, or several times a week. That’s okay as long as you are both on board with the schedule.
- Does the trainer help you achieve your goals? I want to be pushed during my lesson but not terrified. I had two or three lessons last year with a local trainer who is well respected. I rode, my horse was good and we never got to the problem I had told her I wanted to solve — issues with jumping at speed. Partially this was the function of the other riders in the lesson but I also think this trainer was comfortable moving her students along at a slower pace. However, after the third lesson I realized that my goals were not aligned with her teaching style.
Generally I give a trainer two to three lessons before I make the decision whether to keep riding with them. For the most part, I’ll try whatever they recommend and see if it works. Occasionally I’ll come across someone whose teaching just doesn’t jive with what I’ve learned before. Since I’ve been lucky enough to ride with some excellent trainers, if they tell me to do something that’s really off base, I don’t come back.