No matter your chosen discipline or your level of expertise, taking riding lessons with a professional can be extremely beneficial. Friends who aren’t equestrians often tease me, jokingly asking whether I have finally---after all these years of instruction---learned how to ride a horse.
And there’s something to their questions. But I feel that there is always more to learn. Whether I’m preparing for a show, learning a new skill or maneuver, or just making sure that I’m on track with my riding, I’ve found that riding lessons are worth the investment of time and money.
However, I can’t afford to board my mare at a facility that has a resident trainer or riding instructor. Instead, I keep her at home. That leaves me with three choices when it comes to riding lessons. I can pay to have an instructor come to my farm for private lessons, I can take lessons at another property aboard a borrowed mount or a school horse, or I can trailer my horse to the instructor’s home facility for weekly lessons.
For the past few years, I’ve gone with the last option. When I have felt that I needed some additional help or I was deviating from a goal, I have dutifully trailered my horse to a facility a few miles away from home once a week for lessons. Along the way, I’ve had many experiences---mostly positive---that have taught me how to maximize this opportunity to grow not only as a rider but as a person as well. Some of these tips are specific to my particular situation, but others apply however and wherever you take your lessons. Whatever your situation, I hope these help you make your sessions as enriching and enjoyable as possible.
1. Do some prep work. Talk to the instructor ahead of time and ask what a typical lesson entails, including the amount of time spent on the basics as well as more advanced and specialized exercises. If you and your horse are not accustomed to the level of exertion that you anticipate will be required, you may want to delay starting your lessons until you are both physically ready. Or discuss the situation with the instructor and ask whether it would be possible to take a break or two during the lesson. Keep in mind, however, that if you need to take rest breaks, you may not be able to make the best use of your time with the instructor.
2. Arrive early. Especially for your first few lessons, plan to be at the facility with plenty of time to spare so you won’t feel rushed when tacking up and getting yourself ready. This will also give your horse a chance to get used to the unfamiliar surroundings, an additional benefit of taking lessons away from home. At the very least, plan on having your horse tacked up and ready to go 15 minutes prior to the scheduled start time of the lesson. By planning for this prep time, you can avoid wasting the first few minutes of a lesson getting set rather than actually riding. Not to mention, you cannot expect your instructor to run a lesson late---disrupting the entire day’s schedule---because you were not ready to begin on time.
3. Come prepared to learn. It’s difficult to focus on an instructor’s direction when you’re shivering from cold or sweating uncomfortably. Check the weather ahead of time and plan to dress accordingly. Dress in easily removed layers if you’re unsure. And make a master checklist of all the equipment and gear that you are likely to need for your outing. In addition to the obvious---your boots, your horse’s saddle---make sure you bring along grooming tools and other gear you might need. While you’re at it, check your equipment to make sure it’s in good shape---you’ll be wasting time and money if tack failure keeps you from taking part in an entire session.
4. Take time to warm up. If possible, allot time to warm up before the lesson---this will not only help you and your horse relax and get loosened up but will give you time to consider any issues that you’d like to go over with the instructor. If you are an established client, your trainer or riding instructor will likely already have a lesson plan in mind. But most will gladly add new exercises to help you tackle particular problems or address new issues that you’ve noticed during your warm-up period.
5. Have realistic expectations. If you begin a lesson expecting to master an advanced skill, yet suddenly have trouble with a basic transition, be prepared for the lesson plan to change. A good instructor knows that it’s unwise and unsafe to ignore fundamental equitation and training issues while rushing to a larger goal and will re-adjust based on the horse’s mindset and abilities on that particular day. If you are in a group lesson, the instructor may give you a task to work on alone while the rest of the group continues on. View it as the thoughtful individualized instruction that it is and take full advantage of it.
6. Sidestep the crowd. If you take group lessons, don’t try to hide and blend in with the other riders. We’ve all been there. We don’t want everyone to see just how much we need to work on some of our bad habits. Yet, if the riding instructor can’t see you, she can’t really be of help. Just as when showing, be purposeful about maintaining your position in the ring---making sure the instructor has plenty of opportunity to see you and your horse. Also, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions if you don’t understand something.
7. Use the cool down period wisely. Even as the lesson winds down, you can keep learning. If your instructor lingers as you cool down your horse, use this time to ask questions. For example: What should you be working on until your next lesson? If your instructor heads out before you have a chance to ask questions, consider sending a follow-up email or text. It can also be helpful to jot down some thoughts in a notebook immediately after your ride, when your ideas are still fresh in your mind. Then you can refer back to those notes while you are working at home on your own.
8. Do your homework. Between lessons, practice both your established skills as well as the new ones you have learned from your instructor. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a friend tag along to watch your lessons and then also observe your riding at home to help you recall specific exercises and be your “eyes on the ground” to spot improvements and changes in your horse. If that’s not possible and your riding instructor is agreeable, have a friend take a video of your lessons so you can review them at home. Your instructor may also give you some suggested reading.
9. Commit to a regular lesson and practice schedule. Any lesson is helpful, but you’ll get the greatest benefit from regular instruction coupled with practice time. If you are dedicated to improving your skills, establish a regular lesson schedule and set aside practice time at home. For me it works well to take a lesson once a week and then practice what I’ve learned with two to three rides at home afterward. Of course, sometimes you’ll have to cancel or reschedule, but try to make that the exception rather than the rule.
10. Build relationships. Even though I enjoy the experience of riding and training on my own it can sometimes be isolating. So when I visit the boarding barn for my lessons, I use the opportunity to socialize with other riders. During the post-ride grooming session I catch up with friends from the barn and, more often than not, I have learned something instructive that I took home and used later---perhaps a common horsekeeping problem that someone has dealt with in a new or different way. Friendships aside, there are also professional contacts to be made outside of your riding instructor. Perhaps there is an upcoming clinic with an outside instructor being scheduled that you may wish to audit, or you may need contact information for a new farrier or veterinarian.
As much as I’ve learned under the watchful eye of an instructor, I’ve seen the most value of lessons well after we’ve loaded up and headed home. The payoff comes when I’ve successfully taken skills that I have learned during riding lessons and applied them at home. Regular lessons have been a confidence booster to see that I can tackle training problems with my horse on my own, and I’m proud when we can return to our next lesson to demonstrate our progress.
About the author: Hope Ellis-Ashburn earned a master’s degree in agriculture education from The University of Tennessee–Knoxville and a bachelor’s degree in animal science–horse science from Middle Tennessee State University, where she was a member of the horse judging and equestrian teams. A rider since the age of 12, Ellis-Ashburn has competed in Western, English, halter, dressage, hunter and jumper classes. She currently owns a Half-Arabian mare with whom she enjoys trail riding and competing in halter as well as hunter classes.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #463, April 2016.