December 18, 2017

Who should give my child riding lessons?

           Do I need to hire an expensive, certified instructor for my child? My friend’s daughter, Megan, has been riding her whole life. She has a great horse named “Bleu” in her back yard that she has owned for years. Megan’s in college now and doesn’t have much time to ride, so she wants to use Bleu to teach some lessons when she is home on the weekends. Plus, she only charges $15.00 an hour! She is perfectly capable of teaching my daughter to ride. My daughter, Olivia, is 10 years old and idolizes Megan. They have so much fun together; it just seems like a perfect fit for everyone. Olivia gets to learn how to ride. Megan makes some extra cash. Megan’s horse gets some exercise. I get to save some money. Win, win, win, and win!

            Ok everyone. Is this a winning scenario for everyone involved? Or have I described the perfect set up for disaster?  Let’s discuss a few different ways this could play out.

Scenario #1     Olivia is ready for her first riding lesson. Megan got Bleu out and saddled him up.  Olivia is riding in Megan’s saddle because it’s the only one they have. The stirrups are too long and the seat is too big, but she said it’s no big deal. Olivia’s mom doesn’t need to waste money on a helmet when she can borrow Megan’s old one. It’s only 10 years old and is a little big as well, but it’s better than nothing.  It’s a perfect crisp, Saturday morning and Olivia is ready to hop on Bleu and start her lesson. Bleu hasn’t been out all week since Megan had mid-terms. Megan will start the lesson once they get to the arena, but Olivia really wants to ride so she legs her up, hands her the reins and off they go.

    As they are walking to the arena, the family dog runs up and startles Bleu. Bleu then begins to trot down the path. Olivia wasn’t ready for the sudden change of gait and is thrown back in the too big saddle. Her feet aren’t in the stirrups because they don’t reach, so she wraps her legs around Bleu and squeezes while holding on to the saddle horn with both hands. After a few more good jumps, Megan’s too big helmet falls down over her eyes. Now Olivia can’t even see where she is going.  A few more strides of Bleu’s bouncy trot are all that is needed to completely unseat Olivia and she falls off.

     Now Olivia is lying on the ground in a heap, trying hard to keep back the tears. Megan remembers her Dad always saying, “If you fall off a horse, you have to get right back on.” so she tells Olivia the same thing. Olivia is afraid to get on so Megan tells her if she doesn’t get back on, she can’t ride anymore. Olivia’s Mom now steps in and takes her to the doctor where it is revealed that she only has scrapes and bruises. But now she is afraid to ride.  How would this have been different with a certified riding instructor?

     Well first of all, a properly prepared horse that was good with beginner students would have been used. Bleu had only one rider for years and hadn’t been out for at least a week. Second, the saddle and helmet would have been the proper size for the rider. Using the wrong size tack prevents the rider from developing a correct seat and riding posture; plus it can be downright dangerous. Third, the rider would have been given some instruction when she first mounted so she would have at least known how to stop the horse. And some instruction would have been given before the rider was allowed on the horse at all. Fourth- The rider would have been in an arena, not a back yard with dogs or other distractions. Fifth- The instructor would know how to properly handle a fallen rider and have first aid training so she could correctly care for her student. Sixth- The instructor would know how to encourage the rider so she wouldn’t end up fearful.  Seventh- Proper liability insurance would have covered the medical bills.

Now let’s look at scenario #2-

     Suppose things go along just fine. Megan has been teaching Olivia every weekend for almost a year. They use Megan’s saddle and helmet even though they are too big for Olivia. Olivia is now trotting around the arena and has started to canter. Its summer now and Megan is home from school but has taken a summer job and can’t continue Olivia’s lessons. So Olivia and her Mom make the decision to pay the “big bucks” for the Certified Instructor now that Olivia knows the basics and is ready to move up to a “real trainer”. 

     An appointment is made for an evaluation lesson. Olivia begins like she always has at Megan’s. She selects a helmet that is too large, but the instructor corrects that mistake. The evaluation lesson continues with the usual questions, most of which Olivia can’t answer or doesn’t even understand the terms being used. When she is asked to trot, Olivia struggles to keep her feet in the stirrups because she hasn’t been using stirrups. She also has a hard time keeping proper riding posture because Megan’s huge saddle always put Olivia in the wrong position, so she wouldn’t have been able to correct it if she wanted to.  Olivia is not asked to canter at all, because her skills are at such a low level, it just wouldn’t be safe.

     After the lesson, the instructor explains that Olivia has learned so many things the wrong way, she now has to un-learn them before she can learn the correct way. She needs to be riding correctly at walk and trot before she is ready to canter. Also, her riding theory and knowledge of correct terminology is completely non-existent.  She is well behind where she should be after riding for nearly one year. For the most part, Olivia will be starting completely over or worse, needing to break bad habits before she can learn the correct ones.

     This last scenario is one I have personally seen many times over. The entire year of lessons, money and time were pretty much a complete waste. Olivia would have been better off not riding at all because she wouldn’t have so many bad habits to break. Had she started with a good instructor to begin with, Olivia would be well on her way to becoming an accomplished equestrian. Instead she is in for many months of frustration while she breaks bad habits and catches up with the skills, terminology and theory she should have learned long before now. Many riders at this point will give up riding altogether rather than face such a daunting task. Another rider is lost because they didn’t do things the correct way. Or because they wanted to save a little money.

We welcome your comments and questions. Please feel free to share this article with your friends, but rights to publish this article are restricted.  Cheryl Rohnke Kronsberg is a Certified Horsemanship Association Master Instructor and Clinic Instructor. She is also an AQHA Professional Horseman. Cheryl has been teaching riding and horsemanship for over 30 years. Currently she and her husband own and operate CRK Training Stable in Yorba Linda, CA.



  1. WOW!!! That pretty much sums it up, Cheryl! I can offer some advice from a “formerly certified” capacity and a current professional capacity. I have been teaching for over 20 years and have seen so many horrific things in this industry. It is just sad, sad, sad. The things I see done in ignorance, I pity. Then there are things that are just plain irresponsible! There are many people who are talented riders that have wonderful natural ability, who may or may not also hold many certifications from many different agencies. They may meet the basic requirements to teach. But are they really good teachers? Someone certified through an organization dedicated to safety is certainly a bonus, no doubt. This is often times not available in your area. I think there are only a very small handful of trainers in my area who have ever been through CHA. I would love to go back again to become re-certified, but time and money can be an issue there.

    I very often have to refer people to other places for riding lessons. Where I currently teach, we are a bit “hard core.” With the size of our facility and the level at which we compete, we require anyone using our school horses to take a minimum of two classes per week. Many just want to ride for fun and have no interest at going to the level to which our school aims to teach. That being said, I try to coach friends, family and acquaintances on how best to look for a good instructor and safe place to learn. I want anyone (whether they can afford to attend our school or not) to have been better off for having called us. If in the future, they decide they would like to or can afford to get more serious, who do you think they will call???

    Here are some things I have told friends, family and even potential customers to ask potential instructors/ facilities: What qualifications do your instructors have? Do you require that students wear helmets? Vests? Do you teach students how to get the horse ready for the lesson and how to safely handle horses on the ground? May we watch some of your lessons? (If the answer is no – then find somewhere else!)

    Places should tell you to wear appropriate safety gear (ATSM helmet) and suggest or require vests for any jumping activities (especially cross country). They should have the student arriving prior to the lesson and learning all aspects of tacking up / untacking the horse, getting the horse and putting the horse away. I cannot tell parents enough to stay at the facility and audit lessons!!!

    Another word of caution regarding certified or uncertified instructors: If a trainer is pushing you to do things you do not feel ready for or feel unsafe doing, then there is a reason you are having the feelings you are having. If you often times don’t “get” what is being taught in your lessons, SPEAK UP! As an instructor, it is my responsibility to be able to explain things to you in a way you understand. If you don’t understand on the first try, TELL me, and I will try another way. Your instructor should be adamantly encouraging you to speak up when you do not understand concepts they are trying to teach you. Not every one gets things on the first try, or has the same learning style. It is MY JOB as your instructor or coach to come up with as many ways as it takes until you finally understand! :o) If an instructor cannot do this or is not willing to do this, then you must question if this is truly someone who is a good teacher! If an instructor just keeps yelling the same commands over and over again with no different way to explain things, then look elsewhere! It probably won’t be a good learning experience.

  2. Hear! Hear!
    I spent so much time — and money — being trained by shingle-hanging charlatans! I wouldn’t hire a contractor who wasn’t licensed and whose credentials and references I hadn’t checked first. I wouldn’t let someone without a license cut my hair, and yet, I spent thousands being trained by someone who wouldn’t put their knowledge and skills up against a simple standard to prove they knew what they were doing.

    Thankfully, I love the sport and found a certified trainer who took the time in my first lesson to even teach proper mounting techniques. (Who teaches MOUNTING!?! In fact, one self-proclaimed trainer had a hissy fit when I had genuine fear issues mounting and shouted, “If you can’t get on, you can’t ride” instead of breaking it down and recognizing that I was dealing with something from my past — being bolted with by a horse in a scenario much like Scenario #1.

    Thanks for this article, CRK. I’ll be sharing it.

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