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Standards in Riding Instruction

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By Bonnie J. Hilton (Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Now that I have passed the half century mark, more and more, I find myself training with and teaching individuals who are also  teaching and training.  Should I mention that on average, they are 20 years my junior? I am working with several at present and not one of them has ever been through any type of certification program. So what? What does certification have to offer? Why did I spend my time and my late dad s money going through the process all those years ago? Has anything really changed? I hold a Massachusetts license and have for 20 years and what does that mean? In how many states can I hang my shingle out (advertise) and not ever worry about anyone bothering me as to my credentials to teach? Will anyone question my standards? What did certification really bring to me, a bunch of letters I could use after my name? Does certification mean I can expect the best clients? Does certification mean I can charge more? I know that show ring wins mean that an instructor can charge more, with or without standards

What are the standards today for an instructor, as compared to when I came home with my British Horse Society certificate in 1971? Have standards changed? What about the other programs that I represented or participated in at one time or another, are the standards that they tried to impart still pertinent today? What is a standard?

When you start a subject like this it is often either sink or swim in the deep water of public opinion. Thankfully there is still Webster s to throw me a life preserver through definition. Standard means as a noun; the type, model or example commonly or generally accepted or adhered to; criterion set for usages or practices; a level of excellence, attainment, etc., regarded as a measure of adequacy. Standard means as an adjective; generally accepted as reliable or authoritative; conforming to what is usual, regular, or typical, not special or extraordinary. Apply these definitions to our sport, to the individuals who impart to others the skills of handling, training and actual usage of the equine and I hope that we can agree that there are some definite standards. At least I think there should be agreement. How do you teach them, if you are one of those special individuals who would actually want to try?

I may get kicked in the teeth for writing the following, but here goes. Ignorance is lack of knowledge, education, or experience and can be defined as being unaware of something. There is a big difference between really not knowing something because you were never taught it and knowing something and making the choice not to do it. I would like to compare ignorance to being trapped for the first time in your life in a totally dark room. Then along comes someone, willing to help, with a small, tiny, minuscule light source and they give it to you. That s just the beginning. You can see your way around, but only in front of your feet. You can keep yourself from stumbling and falling over something, but you can t move far. You are then offered a bigger light source and with that you can start to see whole areas of the room. You can move out past your stride and explore around. With exploration, you finally find the light switch, and voila, it is a miracle, the whole place is illuminated and the darkness is but a memory. You won t forget how to dispel it ever again. You make sure you have light sources around and you know how to use them!!! At least I hope that up-and coming instructors are not only encouraged to find the light sources, but that they are offered them by others that are willing to take the time to do so, with compassion and understanding, so that they will use them and then turn around and offer them to others as they mature in understanding.

Whether or not these individuals I am teaching ever decide to get certification or not is not something I can spin my brain wheels over. They are already teaching and training and I can only suggest that they seek certification. Yet how much influence can I wield over a young impressionable mind? Why not impart to them as much as I can from what I have already learned. I am in full light source mode at present and these student instructors are like energy sponges!

In the 80s I wrote an article entitled The Mentor which got me in hot water with many of my contemporaries. I don t have to wonder why that article caused problems, I talked about commitment too much. I watch these young people and I can see the similarities from when I was their age and was trying to prove something but was very ignorant. I had the same wrong attitude, for all the same reasons. Then I got a little education and I thought I knew it all and with no humility, I could walk into a teaching venue and find the faults in a split second.

With age has come some wisdom and I attempt to keep those comments to myself and hopefully build on the positive aspects of what I see going on around me. Hopefully, along the way, I will be able to instill some sound truths in their evolving philosophy, from the years of experience I have garnered in this equine world of hard knocks. I will agree with those who are now thinking of the person who is not willing to listen, or who listens but does not change. The person who is not ignorant, but makes the choice to not follow any standards. I have one or two in my life at present and I truly care for them as individuals, but I can t deal with them any more as to an instructor/client relationship. The fact that they teach/train is bothersome, but I can t focus on that. These are the individuals that make it hard for the majority that are trying to adhere to standards. These are also the individuals who make it hard for us to garner respect as professionals. My advice don t lower your standards.

If all you care about as an instructor/trainer is how much money you are going to make this week and what new stuff you can buy, I would assume at this point, you would like to throttle me for talking about standards. Well, sorry, it has already been done. I did it to myself when I realized many years ago that end gaining was all I cared about. I was climbing the ladder of success, so I thought. . My genuine compassion and caring was superficial. When my own limitations put me in the economic vice grip and I lost the ability to stay in step with the in crowd, I had to settle. I found that people matter and horses matter and the end gaining will take care of itself, if you can be dedicated to the means whereby, you may not make it to the top rungs of the equestrian ladder, but you will be true to yourself.

True longevity in this business, for those instructors working in the trenches, is not built upon being the flavor of the month in the equestrian world. It is all about standards and really, what you stand for. First and foremost I feel, my humble opinion, that the standards of safety that an instructor instills should be of the highest level that they presently know how to teach. By doing all those certification programs years ago, the light source that shines on safety was offered to me and I have been forever grateful that it was. I m still standing!

However you approach this issue of safety, it has to be a solid foundation upon which you base your work. In time, it will speak for itself, you will have garnered a reputation for your standards. I am pleased to find that in my own little world, my standards have made a difference and I don t have to argue the points anymore. Since I seldom work with true beginners outside of a clinic format, I always present a new possible client with a set of hand outs, that explain about me and that state some of the safety standards  which I gleaned from all the compassionate instruction I have had over the years.

After reading this material, if they desire, we set up an appointment to do the evaluation that I require prior to starting any new student. (Sometimes, and it has happened, I don t ever hear from a possible student again, because I assume they don t agree with what they read.0  Recently, one of the aforementioned instructors went through her evaluation with me and upon my arrival to the barn, immediately showed me a new lead rope. I didn t think that was anything remarkable until she told me that she had been using a chain shank as a lead, had never thought about it as a danger, especially to kids, until she read my hand out on safety and negligence. I had offered her a light source, which she gladly took. I offered her a larger light by talking about primary and  Secondary leads and the standards for such. She was going to start teaching her students more about handling basics and methods of control. She had not been taking the time to do it. We got into a conversation about what is handling, the basics of horsemanship and what are the standards? Granted this talk took time, I was not being paid for the extra time, but I imparted to this instructor student new methods to use in her instruction.

As part of the evaluation process I like to see a prospective student go through positional safety for grooming, cleaning feet and even tail work. Years ago I tackled the subject of grooming and I presented the classic bilateral stances and use of tactile reassurance for both the near and off side. Simply put, we should be using both right and left hands while handling and be aware that just our handedness often times puts us in unsafe positions. As instructors, we need to take the time and teach it, not just rush over it as if it is not important. If a new student is an instructor I mention the fact that we need to be aware of the left handed students we are teaching and how to address their strong side.

I question my instructors especially as to why do we do this, why do we do that, is it safe, is it safe for a child to mimic what you just did? How many children are around your barn watching you, even if you are not teaching them. That is often a sobering thought! You set an example, even though you may not want to. Even in a multi-use facility where you are not the only instructor, if you can teach horsemanship, why not do it? This was a topic of conversation with the young instructors as we compared the standards of ridership verses horsemanship.

What are the show ring standards that need to be separated from what good horsemanship safety standards are? Sometimes they are in conflict as with the hard hat issue, footwear, spurs, equipment, whip use and shank application. How can you teach the two? These are thought provoking subjects and some people don t want to think about them, they just want to have fun! As I recently wrote, I am very sick of hearing that statement. We have discussed the fact that without an indoor, there still should not be any lost wages due to bad weather and cancelled lessons. These are the days when you go over standards, when you bring out the equipment and have the students teach you. I still have my students teach me and it makes them think! I used to take a bridle apart and put it in a bag. I expected my students to be able to explain each piece, its purpose and fit as they put the bridle back together. I would bag up bits and do the same. In my travels I have seen such innovative ideas for instruction, such things as the Concentration Game set up on a board for the youngsters to learn from (the adults had fun with it as well) and barrel horses that were constructed to be used for teaching saddling standards as well as mounting.

Another one of the new instructor students and I were put to one of the ultimate tests of patience, concerning safety standards, during a lesson, when we had to share the facility indoor with a young woman who came in riding with sneakers and no hard hat. I didn t know the individual riding and I was concerned about the individual who came with the rider and was giving instruction and making comments to the rider. Were they an instructor? In a multi-use facility with an open ring policy I could not ask them to leave and due to weather conditions I couldn t leave to go teach outside. I asked what side of the indoor they wanted (A or C) and once I explained enough so that they understood what I was talking about, I quickly set up cones across the indoor to make the line of demarcation that would put my student in a safe zone and give the other rider a barrier to stay within. Once I had my cone barrier up I stood inside and straddled the center line and put my back to the other helmetless and suitable foot-wearless rider and proceeded to teach my student who I kept in front of me. In an obvious loud voice, I proceeded to explain to my instructor student what I had just done and why.

That you use cones, jump peanuts or other visual aids to develop a safe zone when you have to share an indoor or outdoor ring with other instructors/trainers or riders in a multi-use facility. In my safe zone my student is under my care, custody and control and I don t concern myself with what is going on in other areas unless I am asked or have other authority to do so. After the rider and their companion left, I found out it was daughter riding and mother commenting. I am still shaking my head and would love to get in a private room with their instructor/trainer. The instructor that I was working with was firing questions at me as to where I learned to handle a situation like that and where could she get the little cones? How do I handle the hard hat issue and what about suitable footwear? She could see where she needed to state attire standards before she took on any job. A wonderful opportunity opened up for us to talk about setting facility standards and also about teaching the importance of safety principles that were contrary to what was being done in the show ring. In the back of my mind I was wondering if the mother of the helmetless teenage rider still had a VCR in use and if I could find my copy of Every Time Every Ride to give to her.

If I could put my finger on the things that have been a dramatic change for me as an instructor/trainer and what have caused me to have to stop and reevaluate my own standards they would be time and money. People want instant results and it puts you on a treadmill that doesn t belong in this business. Three decades ago I was taught about lesson plans and teaching a lesson following the classic sequence of preparation, explanation, demonstration, application or practice, demonstration, repetition and confirmation. I was told to keep it simple and consistent. Take the time and do it the best that I could. We live in such a fast paced society and with individuals who are looking for something I keep hearing called, bang for their buck.

One of the instructor students told me how several parents were negative about longe lessons because they thought their children should be able to ride! They don t need to learn all this stuff about how the horse moves or how they feel, just get them riding! They heard complaints that the kids were spending too much time cleaning up the horses and not enough time riding, they were wasting their money. Remember that I myself got fired when I tried to explain to an adult why they couldn t canter, when they didn t have the tone or balance to trot! Can you explain that thinking to me? How do we approach teaching a public standards, when the public is more focused on rushing off to the next thing the child (or even adult) is involved in than the quality of the thing that is being taught in front of them, if they are even present during their child s lesson? How do we slow people down to get standards across and then convince people that quality teaching takes time and it does come at a cost?

I just had a phone call from a past student, who is a close friend, who is looking forward to riding again with me this year and to start her teenage son, who wants to ride. I posed the aforementioned questions to her and Patty said, well, we aren t dealing with a soccer ball here, this isn t an inanimate object, maybe that is the way to approach it now. We slow down, we teach horsemanship to the best of our knowledge, we keep looking to expand that knowledge and we share it with others to use and we set standards and make no exceptions.

 It is hard to explain to a young instructor, who is struggling to keep up the lease payments that they would be better off to turn people away than to lower their standards and let the public dictate to them. I remember a young instructor who let the public dictate to them for a few months when they opened their first facility. They were stumbling around in the dark for awhile, until they chose to take hold of what they had been taught to teach, turn on the lights and stop the chaos. I am so glad that I did, but even back then I lost possible clients when they were told that all my students, children and adult, had to start lessons on the ground, that actual riding lessons would come when students learned how to handle, groom and tack up independently using the standards that I set for the facility. All beginners were to start on the lead and longe. Even with supposed experienced riders, it didn t happen in one lesson, it usually took several. Even back then, people were looking for the experience of riding and not understanding the responsibility to the equine that goes along with it.

That approach has served me for over 20 years and is the reason why I start all my students now, even those who are experienced, with a ground and mounted evaluation. I want to see what standards they have learned and maybe, I can hand them a light. What I find fun, is sometimes I get the light shined in my eyes with new ideas. We never stop learning.

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