Riding in Europe and the States has afforded me plenty of opportunity to determine what separates a good instructor from a bad one. Riding lessons are not cheap. You, the student, are entitled to be happy with the caliber of instruction you receive and the rate of progress you are making.
A good way to find out whether an instructor possesses the following key qualities is to watch his or her lessons and talk to existing pupils.
We all know the saying “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” But horse riding is one of those disciplines where an instructor who rides well inspires more confidence than one who doesn’t. Not all good riders make good trainers, but every good trainer I’ve had has been a good rider.
Ideally, instructors should competently ride at least one level higher than their students. If they are active and successful competitors, so much the better. They will also be able to prepare interested riders for showing.
Even if the instructor rides well, he or she must be able to convey directions clearly, explaining the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how.’ The pupil should understand the reasons behind the training, not just how it’s done. A good teacher will take pains to ensure students grasp what is being asked, and will patiently repeat explanations where necessary.
It is useful if the instructor is willing to get on a student’s horse and work through problems. Sitting on a horse often makes tackling issues easier than just giving advice from the ground. I had a cross-country coach who thought I was over-shortening my gelding’s stride before a downhill fence until he got on the horse. “Ah!” he said, “It’s not you — he’s doing it by himself.” After that he was able to teach me to help my horse.
Sadly, this is not a universal quality in riding teachers. Is the focus completely on the riders or on chatting into the cell phone and with other people during the lesson? It’s important to find a barn where the instructor takes lessons seriously. Riding is supposed to be fun, but no progress will be made without attention being paid to the pupils.
Are the students spoken to respectfully, or made to feel stupid in front of the other riders or spectators? You don’t want a trainer who uses a pupil’s weaknesses to get cheap laughs. The trainer should create a comfortable learning environment for riders of all levels and abilities.
Here’s a quick way to find out whether the instructor takes his or her job seriously. Does the lesson start promptly and continue for the allotted time? One acceptable reason for shortening the lesson is when the horse has performed well, unexpectedly quickly. If he has already jumped as high as asked, why make him continue until he gets fed up and refuses? If he has mastered a new dressage movement, why drill him further? The instructor should reward him by finishing early: it teaches the pupil to show regard for the animal and keeps the horse fresh and willing
But if the instructor regularly shows up late for a lesson and/or finishes early without good reason, look for another. Your time and money are too precious for you to put up with such discourtesy.
Instructors should begin a new acquaintance with pupils by asking what their goals are. Otherwise, how can they help them get there? For students on their own horses, does the instructor ask about their mounts’ ages and backgrounds and get an overview of what the owners can reasonably expect to accomplish? Maybe they want to compete in a novice one day event, or a 3′ 6″ jump class, or move from Training to First Level dressage.
The next step is to assess how realistic the students’ goals are, and future frustration can be avoided by agreeing on a sensible time frame for achieving them. The instructor should be committed to his or her pupils’ success, taking as little or as much time as necessary to bring it about. The process should not be spun out in order to make more money.
This is where it becomes important to assess whether existing clients are making progress or not with your prospective instructor. Does he or she build on the last lesson, adding more challenges (as appropriate), or do the same thing every time?
Is he or she willing to attend shows with students? For many riders, the ultimate goal is to compete. This can be very intimidating, and having the instructor at the venue helps enormously to calm nerves and correctly focus attention.
It doesn’t matter how good an instructor is if you don’t like his or her personality or teaching style. Your temperaments must suit, otherwise you will have trouble getting past the person and listening to the instruction.
But it is possible to accept some negatives if you respect the trainer. My jumping instructor in Germany is an example. During group lessons he’d shout at my husband and me: “You can jump, but you can’t ride!” Yet there was nothing personal in his remarks– he was tough on everyone and always told the truth. A very successful show jumper, he knew what he was talking about and was committed to turning me into a winner — which he achieved. He is one of the best instructors I’ve ever had.
However, glaring personality clashes will result in unhappiness on both sides.
Does an instructor have to demonstrate all four qualities to be right for you?
As the above illustration shows, it is possible to have a good working relationship with a less than perfect instructor! But don’t settle for someone who is incompetent, discourteous and also not interested in helping you achieve your goals. You want your time in the saddle to be fulfilling and fun. Accept a little leeway on the personality side, but don’t sell yourself short on the other qualities.