December 15, 2017

How To Choose A Riding Program

I know this is a very long article, but consider it the beginning of your equestrian education. That is why you are here, right? If you are really short on time start here- Choose A Riding Program Checklist

By Cheryl Rohnke Kronsberg, CHA Master Instructor

     Take a moment and imagine yourself riding a horse. What do you see? Are you wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a 10 gallon hat? west dressagejumperOr perhaps skin tight breeches, shiny, black knee-high boots and a black velvet helmet. Maybe you are jumping over a log or creek while galloping across country. Possibly, you are chasing a cow while swinging the rope that will soon catch him. Or are you meandering down a shady tree-lined trail with some friends on their horses? trail ridingAll these things and more are encompassed in the equestrian world. You can take your place in that world with a little research, planning and attention to detail. Just follow these steps and you will be well on your way.

     First, remember the picture you had in your head. If that is your goal, you need to find a place that can help you reach it. Riding facilities can range from a small barn behind someone’s house to Olympic-sized facilities covering hundreds or thousands of acres. Some places offer only one type of riding, while others have many styles available for you to try. Many instructors are certified while others aren’t. Horses are provided at a number of ranches while at others you must bring your own. And there is everything in between. How is a “Greenhorn” supposed to choose? Here are some important things to consider…

     Instructor Certification. Under the law, anyone may call themselves a riding instructor. There are no requirements for education, training, experience, insurance or testing. Anyone can take your money, put you (or your child) on a 1000 lb. animal and “teach” you to ride, but you have to go to school for years to cut someone’s hair. Even servers in restaurants must often undergo “Safe Server” training before they can put your plate on the table. But riding instructors? Nothing. Zip. Nada. Riding Instructor Certification is voluntary and varied. Some programs require rigorous on-site testing while others only require paying a fee and passing a take-home test. If the instructor you are researching is certified, find out what the requirements were and what level they attained. Some instructors will teach well beyond their certification level because no one bothered to ask. ASK! Most certification programs have web sites that will explain their testing process and what instructors are qualified to teach for each level of certification. Do your research. Also, make sure the instructor is actually certified with the group they are claiming to be and that their certification is current. If your instructor is not certified, ask about their experience and education. Make sure they teach riding and are not just horse trainers.

     Riding Style- Riding style simply means what type of saddle, clothing, and horse you use and what activities you are doing with that horse. Different styles have varying levels of difficulty. Some people want to start with a very difficult style like Dressage or Reining because they love a challenge. Other riders may want to start off with an easier style to be successful early on. The best way to decide is to do a thorough analysis of yourself (or your child). What is your personality type? Will you do well with lots of challenges? Do you need lots of early success to be happy? (For more information about riding styles click here- )

    Talk with a professional instructor and ask their opinion. Most should be willing to give you some advice over the phone, if you know what questions to ask. Never be the person who calls the stable, asks the cost of a lesson and hangs up. That’s like calling a car dealer and asking how much a car costs. There are so many variables you need details to make a good decision. Here are 10 basic questions to ask over the phone AND the response’s you should get back. Think of these first phone calls as the beginning of your equine education. Pick the instructors brain and get a feel for the type of person they are. Ask lots of questions and be prepared to write down the responses. You can download and print this form to help you when you make your inquiries. Choose A Riding Program Checklist

The Phone Call- Here is what you need to ask when you make those first phone calls.

     1. Who are the instructors and assistants? What is their background and experience teaching riding? Are they certified? With whom?

     When I conduct Instructor Certification Clinics, I meet lots of interesting instructors. Very often these people have decided to become riding instructors because they can ride well. They have never taught anyone to ride, or groom, or even put on a halter. Yet here they are seeking Instructor Certification. Quite frankly, these situations are a little scary when I realize these people are out there teaching riding.

 You need to find out how long they have been teaching. Many barns hire high school or college students to teach summer camps or lessons. (These are often the ones I see seeking certification because their programs require it.) They have no previous experience teaching riding at all. Who will be assisting? Some programs use young riding students or parents as “leaders” or “helpers”. This is simply not a safe practice. Everyone involved with the program should be experienced horse handlers. They should all be capable of handling an emergency. What will the 11-year-old child leading your child’s 1000 lb. horse do if that horse spooks? Or runs away? All teachers and assistants must be at least 16 years old. Head instructors should be at least 21 years old.

     2. What is included? Are school horses available? What types of horses are they? What attire does the barn provide, if any?

     Programs offering horses should also provide ASTM/SEI approved Horseback Riding Helmets. Bicycle helmets are not rated for horseback riding and should never be used. Riding Boots should be required unless the saddles are equipped with safety stirrups. Fashion boots, hiking boots and some cowboy boots may not be good for riding. And, of course, tennis shoes or sandals are never acceptable. School horses should be at least 7 years old, well trained, calm, gentle and experienced at teaching new riders. Older horses are usually the best teachers, so horses in their teen years are great!

     3. How many people will be in the same lesson?

     Most beginners benefit from private lessons and will make the most progress that way. Very young riders (under 7 yrs.) should always be in short, private lessons for safety reasons. Intermediate to advanced riders may do well with the interaction of group lessons. Certified Horsemanship Association standards recommend that a Group lesson should have no more than 6 students with one instructor or 10 students with 2 instructors. All group lessons should be ranked according to the ability of the riders, not their age or size. Also, any groups beyond basic riding should be separated according to riding style and the focus of the class. Riders being added to an existing group must be able to meet the minimum riding requirements for the group. This will keep newcomers from holding back the riders already in the group.

     4. Are ground classes required? Are they included?

     All programs should require at least one ground lesson before you are allowed to ride. More may be indicated depending on the student, but more than 2 or 3 shouldn’t be necessary unless riders are very young or handicapped. Ground work can also be reviewed at the beginning of riding lessons as needed.

     5. What are the requirements for riders?

     A program should be able to tell you what type of riders they specialize in. Ask about your particular situation such as age, height, weight, experience, riding style, able-bodied vs. handicapped, etc. Not every barn can handle every type of rider, so don’t be surprised if you have to look around to find the best match for you.

     6. What level of riders do you teach?  How are riders advanced?

     Some barns only take advanced riders and do not teach beginners. Some are the other way around. If they teach advanced riders, does their certification or experience match? Do they have horses suitable for your level of rider? Do the rider’s progress? Watch an advanced lesson to be sure, perhaps riders that have been in the program for a year or more. Some programs advance students very slowly, on purpose. They concentrate on perfect riding. They keep the students walking until they can do it perfectly. Other programs will bring new, beginning students into groups with more advanced students. That slows down the entire group because group lessons should be taught to the lowest level rider. This keeps the students around longer thus making more money for the barn. So be sure you know how the riders are advanced. Do the riders set goals? Do they have a system in place to test students or is advancement arbitrary?

     7. Are you insured?

     Liability insurance is a must. Find out the name of their insurance company and call to be sure their insurance is current. Some barns will require you to have insurance as well, but usually only if you have your own horse.

     8. What riding styles do you offer?

     So many options here, but the basics are Western and English. Western style-think western movies, clothing would include cowboy boots, “ten-gallon” hats, jeans and western shirts. Western saddles are larger, heavier and provide more rider support. English style- Movies like National Velvet. Clothing- Hunt coats, breeches, black tall boots, velvet hunt caps. English saddles are lighter, smaller and provide less rider support. For more information on riding styles click here- )

     9. Can I watch a lesson? Is an appointment required or can I just stop by?

     If they won’t let you watch a lesson, continue your search elsewhere. But an appointment to watch someone at your level is a good idea. Also, some instructors are the only staff, so it may be necessary to make an appointment to discuss your situation. Don’t expect them to stop a lesson to chat with you. If they do take time out of a lesson for you, what does that say about their priorities? Will you be getting the lesson you are paying for if someone calls or stops by while you are riding? Plan to watch the entire lesson and perhaps schedule time to chat with the instructor after the lesson has concluded. Ask if you can speak to the students and/or their parents as well.

     10. How much do you charge? Do I pay per ride, buy a package, or monthly? Are there minimum requirements?

     Be sure you are comparing apples to apples. Determine how much you are paying for each lesson, how long that lesson is and how much of that time is spent riding. Some programs offer “horsemanship” programs that have no actual riding at all. Students will simply watch horses being handled and ridden. And remember, not all instructors are the same. The cheapest instructor may not be the best deal. Better instructors might charge more, but you will advance quicker and therefore pay less in the long run.  In this area it’s best not to skimp. Pay for the best you can afford. Also, some instructors are capable of teaching from beginners to very advanced riders. If you choose one of them, you won’t have to change trainers to keep improving your skills. Every program should allow you to purchase one or two lessons as an evaluation or to try it out. If they will only sell you a package that includes several lessons, maybe you should look elsewhere.

The Barn Visit-

     Now that you have completed your research, it is time to visit the facilities you have chosen. If you have made an appointment, please be on time. Allow the staff to show you the facility while you observe. Is the facility clean and well cared for? Keep in mind that the instructor may not own the grounds and might not have any control over this aspect. Are the horses healthy? Is the Tack Room (horse equipment room) neat and well organized? Is the tack well cared for? Are the students properly supervised? Is everyone- students, instructors and staff properly attired? (Long pants, boots, riding helmets when mounted, no shorts, tennis shoes or baggy clothing) Do the students and staff seem happy and excited to be there? Are the students having fun?

     Observe the lesson. The instructor should greet all the students by their name, not the horse’s name. All tack (saddles & bridles) should be checked along with the rider’s attire. The lesson should include a warm-up for both horses & riders. Students should be engaged in the lesson. Students should be challenged, but not overwhelmed. Most important of all- The instructor should teach! That means they are talking most of the time, giving instruction not just on what to do, but how to do it. When I am doing riding instructor clinics the most common comment I make  to the participants is “Give the students the How To’s!”. Many instructors will say “Trot” without telling the students how to get the horses to trot. Every instruction should include How To’s. Example: If the students are going to trot the instructor should say something like-

“Riders- Prepare to trot. Now riders, TROT- Shorten your reins, squeeze with both legs and cluck or say trot. Continue cueing until you have the speed of trot you want, then release the leg cue.”

     The instructor should always be offering position corrections while keeping a positive attitude. The instructors should be attentive to the lesson at all times, not texting, talking on the phone or to people not in the lesson. Students should not be yelled at! I firmly believe that people who have taken time from their day and paid me some of their hard-earned money for a lesson will try their best to do what I ask of them. If a student doesn’t understand, the instructor needs to fix it, not the student. Students will make mistakes, go the wrong direction or ride at the wrong gait because they are STUDENTS!  Instructors should not get mad at them. Riding instructors need to have infinite amounts of patience. Students must feel they can make mistakes without being yelled at or embarrassed about it.

Your Turn To Ride- After you have watched a lesson or two, evaluate the program and decide if it is a fit. If so…..

     Schedule a lesson- Speak with management and schedule a lesson. Understand that most first lessons are only on the ground and not riding. If that is not what you want, see if they can accommodate a change. Confirm that you meet their requirements and determine what attire you will need to purchase. Some barns have very specific requirements, so make sure you get the correct items. Filling out paperwork & making your payment in advance will reserve your lesson and save time on lesson day.

     Attend your lesson-  Make sure it is everything you wanted it to be, but don’t be surprised if you feel nervous. If the lesson fell short was it the fault of the instructor? Or were your expectations too high? Everyone wants to gallop off into the sunset, but those skills take time to achieve. If you are a beginner, your first ground lesson should include- Safety around horses, catching the horse/putting on the halter, leading, stopping, turning, grooming, tying/untying, and putting the horse away. The first riding lesson should include-everything from the ground lesson plus saddling, bridling, mounting, stop, go, stop, turn, stop, reverse, stop (lots of stops!) and finally dismount. Anymore than that is usually too much. Less might be an indicator that the barn progresses its students very slowly.

Evaluate the lesson and decide if you want to continue. If so, check out some package prices. They usually offer a better rate than the Pay-Per-Ride rate, but may have more restrictions. If the lesson wasn’t what you expected, be sure to talk to the instructor and find out why. They should be able to explain. If the explanation makes sense, give it another shot. If after the second lesson things still seem wrong, perhaps this place isn’t a good match for you. You shouldn’t have to talk yourself into it. It is either a good fit or it isn’t. After a few lessons you should know. If it doesn’t fit, look elsewhere. The right program for you is out there. You just have to find it.

     The world of Equestrian Sports is challenging, wide-ranging and exciting. You can always aspire to a higher level of riding, no matter what your discipline. You just need the right person to show you the way. Enjoy the Ride!