Is your instructor worthy?

One reason I dropped out of teaching and training was the epidemic of anyone who won a few ribbons hanging out their shingle as a trainer.  In some cases, people who rode horses trained by other people were getting their scores and then becoming professional trainers.  I saw people and horses getting hurt under such trainers, but new students were dazzled by the ribbons and medals, so they stayed in business.

“Should we not ask the question, ‘is competition really the only measure of an equestrian?’  No.  It never was, it isn’t, and it never will be!  For ages, for centuries, real horsemanship existed, thrived, and survived without any competition at all.”

Charles De Kunffy, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage

We are now in the second or third generation from some of those instructors – in some cases ignorance has been passed down and magnified.  Unfortunately, there are fewer true masters around than there once were.  Many that are still around are less known to the public, because they have either dropped out of the competition realm, or they are too old to be ‘interesting’ in our youth-oriented culture.  There are also lesser instructors who may be somewhat early in their own journey, but can still be beneficial to the beginning rider.  Whomever you find to help you on your journey, there are some key things to watch for, to ensure that you and your horse are in the right hands.

Are they nice?  This is one of those things that seems to be important to most people, which is understandable.  But don’t let their niceness be a screen for more important things.  I have watched many people tolerate, and even adopt, dreadful treatment of their horses just because their ‘nice’ instructor “wouldn’t ever do anything unkind” … right?  I once knew an instructor who had this affect on her students.  In the span of just a few years, she crippled at least two horses, got one young rider severely injured by over-horsing her, got one horse killed and another nearly killed through negligence.  Yet, her students waved it all away, because she was so ‘nice’ she couldn’t possibly do anything harmful.  Ironically, when her students were not around, she spoke of them in the most derogatory terms.  So, look for someone who is civil, but don’t be fooled by ‘nice’.  Instead, consider …

“Three traits of character are an absolute must with any successful riding teacher: he must have self-control, patience, and be free of any false ambition.”

Alois Podhajsky, The Riding Teacher

Are they kind to horses?  More than how nice they are to humans, the critical aspect of any true horseman is their care for the horses they encounter.  Every horseman I have ever admired has truly loved the horse.  They all greet new horses with a soft tone, usually a kind caress, and often a treat.  They take their role as instructor not only as mentoring the human, but (more importantly) as the guardian of the horse.  As the teacher, they should use their expertise to guide their human student in the ways that safeguard the horse’s mental and physical well being.  In this era, too many trainers see their role as pleasing their clients.  That may help them keep clients – but it handicaps them in being able to prevent their students from making decisions that may harm their equine partner.  On the other hand, many trainers get so driven to accomplish a specific goal – long or short term – that they do not consider the harm to the horse.  If you encounter someone willing to push your horse around, causing undue stress or pain, start searching for a new trainer!

Do they leave you alone?  We seem to be in an era where too many riders are controlled at all times when they ride.  Many have their horses at a trainers stable, and all of their riding is in lessons.  In between, the trainer schools the horse.  Those riders have few, if any, opportunities to just ride on their own – go on a hack, practice what they learned, or just play.  In addition, so many lessons these days are directed throughout.  A good instructor understands that the best learning comes from making your own mistakes, and will give you opportunities to ride in silence during the lesson, occasionally asking for your feedback on how something went.  It is too easy to allow someone to direct you, and the result is that you fail to actually absorb the material.  It is only by being given the freedom to think and apply on your own that you make the necessary connections.

Do they give you homework?  Hopefully you do have time and opportunity to ride on your own, in between lessons.  A good instructor will end every lesson with a plan for what you can work on before the next lesson.  It may be to practice what you just learned; or maybe a progressive plan to prepare for your next lesson.  They should ensure that you understand, and possibly even provide you something in writing – possibly something from an existing text.  They should follow up on that homework in the next lesson, allowing you to show them what you have accomplished, and taking time to review any questions, concerns, or challenges you encountered.

“The pupil’s contribution to success is an honest affection for the horse, confidence in his teacher, and, again, much patience.”

Alois Podhajsky, The Riding Teacher

Do they give you reference materials?  Any instructor with a well rounded, deep education should have a library full of reference materials.  They should either be willing to share, or should make recommendations to you on reading materials that are pertinent to what you are learning.  Reading some of the masterworks can be a challenge, while you are still in the early stages of learning – but your instructor should be just the person who can help you apply what you are reading to what they are teaching.  Bonus: if as part of your homework, they also assign relevant reading material.

Do they tell you why?  This, for me, is a key measure of the quality of your instructor.  They should always tell you why you are doing something, and it should always come before you actually do it.  More importantly, they should never be bothered by any question you have about why you should do something, or why something happened the way that it did.  I have encountered instructors who responded to questions as if you had committed some social affront.  If you encounter this sort of reaction to your questions, get out!  The very best instructors, in any specialty, are themselves lifelong learners and welcome any question as a sign of genuine engagement on the part of the student.

“A conscientious instructor will be only too glad if he can convey the experience he has gained to his pupil and, with awareness of the pupil’s capacities, make learning easy and pleasant for him.”

Alois Podhajsky, The Riding Teacher

I could probably go on all day about the qualities I have found make a good instructor, particularly in the equestrian realm, but I will end with something that is less about learning, and more about your very survival:

Do they have your safety in mind?  Any good instructor will, at times, push you and/or your horse beyond your comfort zone.  Such is the nature of learning any new skill that we will only master it with some slight stress.  The question here is, are they doing it in such a way that does not put you at risk?  I once had a jumping lesson where I needed to borrow a horse.  When I arrived, my instructor was having to rush her dog to the vet, so I ended up riding with her partner – someone I’d known, off and on, for nearly twenty years.  He put me on a very tall, handsome bay.  The entire lesson was a struggle, with the horse attempting to buck many times, especially over fences.  I was continually told that it must be something I was doing to cause it, but I tried everything to avoid interference, keep his attention, etc.  I finally pulled up and quit the lesson – something I had never done.  But I was clearly getting nowhere, and it was distracting from the learning of my students who were also in the lesson.

As I was putting the horse away, my instructor returned and expressed shock at the horse I was holding.  She went inside, and the next thing I knew her partner came out sheepishly and apologized.  It turns out that the horse I was riding had bucked off literally every female rider, including my instructor!  The only two people, in a barn filled with females, who could actually ride the horse was the owner’s husband and the man I’d had my lesson with.  He said he thought I could “handle it”.  Well, handle it I did, as I managed to stay on – but was that situation safe or fair?  The safety of you and your horse should always be paramount to any good trainer.  If you find yourself questioning whether it is, then find yourself another instructor.

“I have stressed the relationship between pupil and teacher and between both and the horse for a good reason: in our world of rapid technical development and of thinking in terms of the masses, the value of the individual is easily forgotten.”

Alois Podhajsky, The Riding Teacher

If you find yourself doubting any of these qualities in your existing instructor, then have a conversation – if you are comfortable doing it, and feel it might help.  Sometimes people are not aware of the effect they have on others, and perhaps it will enlighten that person.  But, if you find that the instructor is not willing to have a discussion on something that would improve the learning experience for you and your horse, then start shopping around!  I have seen talented riders give up because they aren’t willing to put the work in – but I have seen more give up because their instructor has made the experience unpleasant or downright dangerous.

Be good to your horses, and find an instructor who makes the journey magical!




8 thoughts on “Is your instructor worthy?

  1. One of the best instructors I ever had was a gypsy cob dealer that had no formal training or qualification whatsoever and kept horses behind a scrap yard where I’m amazed I wasn’t killed before I reached my teens.

    His horses weren’t the best kept as such in that they had a bit of straw chucked down, buckets with water and an enormous mountain of hay shoved crudely in a corner but that said they were shown a lot of care, kindness and total respect.

    With hindsight I had no business being near any of those horses and I’m not sure if my Mum was completely ignorant or just plain negligent allowing me to spend every moment of my spare time hanging out there as a kid but it was life on a council estate in the 80’s when everything was acceptable and nobody gave a flying one for health and safety. “Gypsy John” as he was known taught me what I still stand by to this day which is that you have to learn from the ground and know how to treat, approach, respect and help a horse learn to trust you which in turn nearly always means there’s little he won’t do for you later down the line.

    I rode his horses for years before even getting in a saddle it was just halters, ropes, a leg up and bareback riding which meant when you came off it was at least a clean fall.

    The first formal lesson with a qualified instructor I ever had was horrendous because she saw my rough round the edges riding style as the worst thing on Earth and I remember having no clue whatsoever what she meant by “change rein” and she ripped me to bits in front of all the posh pony club girls already a dab hand at ripping on me and nearly put an end to my riding for good.

    What kept me going was seeing Madam instructor making such a half arsed attempt to get a horse over a simple jump in the main arena and she cracked and yanked and shouted at him endlessly whilst I stood thinking I had no clue what she wanted him to do so it’s not surprising he didn’t and then came “And I don’t know what you’re standing there looking for – think you can do better? Get on and try then gypsy kid”

    So I did. And I took his saddle off first because I still felt more comfortable bareback and heard collective titters and “Pfft… typical council house kid” then with a little warm up and “C’mon pony lessgo LESSGO!!” we steamed around that arena and over jumps and God in Heaven she was pissed something fierce.

    There was no mystical or magical ability as some sort of horse whispering with outstanding riding skills though it was purely approach, respect and leading him forward.

    I spent a good few years teaching my daughter how to work with and around horses on the ground before she even sat on and then once she’d mastered that I had her take lessons from a friend I know, trust and whose attitude is very similar to that of Gypsy John.

    Anyone that doesn’t treat horse and rider with the utmost respect and cannot adapt shouldn’t be touched with a pole in my opinion. I have a Welsh Sec A that came to me as a non-ridden companion having been deemed unsafe and unsuitable to ride which was fine because he was intended just to be a companion pony and six months on I’ve just filled the forms for a young lass to ride him at the local horse show later this month. He gave out little bucks and kicks and threw minor tantrums but the young rider is an experienced and brilliant little rider with an excellent attitude and isn’t at all about forcing and controlling and showing a naughty pony who’s boss.

    Eva Roemaat is an outstanding horsewoman and it amazes me when I hear people popping off about her and taking the attitude she’s amateurish and silly for playing with her horses and ponies, kicking back and having fun and treating them with nothing but the utmost respect.

    Attitude is everything 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My background has similarities to yours – not posh or very structured, but good for developing a solid understanding of horses. I was not so lucky to have a Gypsy John … though I met a few of the type, along the way. I would rate understanding and caring for the horse as highest on my list for instructor qualifications – it sounds like Gypsy John had it, and the other woman did not. With rare exceptions that I have known, if an instructor has that quality, they do pretty well by their human students as well. Thanks for sharing your story!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Absolutely and as I spotted your reply I’d just finished chatting with a lass who has her horse at the same yard but lacks confidence to ride. Think she feels a bit intimidated with all eyes watching which I completely understand so offered to meet her when nobody else is around if she wants to jump on and plod around at her own pace but also recommended the same friend I asked to teach my daughter how to ride. She’s that perfect blend of “Gypsy John” but with all the knowledge, skill and experience to boot and there’s not a bit of snooty or intimidating instructor about her she’s brilliant.

        My daughter was protesting about something or other when she was having a lesson and got herself in a pickle over nothing and Gemma went “OK OK I’ll stop asking you to do what you just spent five minutes saying you can’t do…even though you were doing exactly what you can’t do = whilst shouting at me and with that horse beautifully under control the whole time.. I won’t ask you to do that again cos you can’t do it can you?”

        Daughter went “Oooh yeah.. I hadn’t realised yeah I was doing it!! and Gemma nodded heavily “Yes you were and lemme tell you mate it’s not easy to do all that whilst shouting and arguing and keeping a horse steady away either so you’re far more capable than most riders I know. Stop bloody talking yourself out of everything you sound like your Mum when she reckons she can’t open a tin of soup”

        The world needs more instructors like her.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. A bit later in my career, I had a jumping instructor just like that … brilliant, amazing, patient but blunt … and always putting the horse first. We do need more like that!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’ll come back to you actually because two things I could never do 1) Showjumping and 2) Dressage.

        What I lacked there I made up for when it came to endurance and cross country but lack patience and discipline although Gemma has promised to give me some dressage pointers.

        I own and trick-train border collies and would love to know how horses are taught those fabulous movements so we traded and I agreed to train one of her dogs if she can help me to train mine how to perfect a “Hip hop dressage” routine. If you happen to have links with info about the basics feel free to post them whilst I’m gone 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      4. If you look at my Book List and On the Web pages (links at the top) there are some good resources there. If you get a chance, you should check out Angelo Telatin (there is a video series with him on – he is a behavioral scientist who is also a horseman. He works a lot with positive reinforcement in horses. As a dog trainer, you might be interested in some of his approaches to horse training.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I’d love to get clued up but have really bad dyscalculia (number dyslexia) and my brain can’t process things I’m rubbish. Disqualified in the novice show-jumping (wasn’t even show-jumping it was stepping carefully over a lollipop stick) Same with agility my daughter runs with the dogs cos I’d be all over the place.

        XC and endurance was where I came alive though I can do mega super galloping and jumping over things as long as they’re not all packed in tightly together.

        More curious to know how dressage moves are taught – as in the start to finish process.

        I’ve trick-trained ponies and dogs but it’s easier on the ground just “Do as I do”

        Dressage is a whole different kettle of shit and stuff I cannot even begin to comprehend.


      6. Never heard of Angelo Telatin but I’ve saved and will come back to that one later.

        Just spotted your last sentence too dunno how I missed it before?! I’m not a dog trainer just own and have trained / competed with ours but you’re right about the crossover between horse and dog training.


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