When my friend Sheri started taking riding lessons, her coworkers were mildly interested. They asked her questions like, “Is it scary? Is it exciting? When are you going to join the rodeo?” As the months went by, the questions became rare, until one day she mentioned in passing that she had been riding in her lesson the past weekend. One of her coworkers looked a little startled and asked, “But Sheri, haven’t you learned how to ride yet?”Learning to ride isn’t a project that has an end – it’s a lifelong undertaking, especially if you aspire to the higher levels of equestrian competition. But it does have a beginning, and a good beginning gives you the solid foundation you need to be successful, which is important when dealing with horses. Being safe on a horse is directly related to training, and training is directly related to the trainer.Anyone with a little money can buy a few horses and hang out a sign offering lessons. It’s hard to tell who is truly qualified to teach, especially if you’re a novice.To find reputable instructors in your area, check tack shops and feed stores, ask your friends who ride, or search the Internet for riding instructors in your area. Good instructors usually don’t have to advertise; their clients are glad to give recommendations.The barn visitThe first step to finding a good instructor is the one that many people seem to skip: going out to the instructor’s barn, talking to him or her and observing a lesson. Leslie Laing of Falcon Creek Farm. “I advise them to come out and meet with me first,” said Leslie Laing of Falcon Creek Farm. Michelle Shupe of Calhan, who teaches at Mariah Farm in Castle Rock, said, “They just want to come down and throw themselves into it! They call me and ask, “How long does it take to learn how to ride?”A serious instructor will take the time to talk to you about your riding goals and get to know you as a person. It’s important to choose an instructor whose personality is compatible with yours. “I like to have an evaluation lesson,” said Ann Fouret, who teaches at Latigo Trails. “It’s a half-hour lesson that lets them evaluate me and me evaluate them. … You want to ask, “Is this going to be a good match? Am I going to feel comfortable riding with this person?” If your goals include competing, you may want your instructor to encourage you to venture out of your comfort zone. However, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like pressure, you’ll want to look for an instructor who is low-key, patient and supportive.The first priority: safetyWhen you observe a lesson, focus first on safety. Are the riders wearing appropriate riding attire, including boots or shoes with one-inch heels (to prevent the foot from going through the stirrup and being caught) and properly fitted riding helmets? There are differences of opinion on helmet use, but all beginning riders and all children under 18 should be wearing them.Ask the instructor how she starts beginners. “It’s very dangerous to start beginners in a group,” Fouret said. Since horses are herd animals, if the horse in front of you starts trotting and you don’t have control over your horse, you may find yourself going faster than you want.Private lessons are a good way to start, at least for the first few lessons. Most new riders want to get on the horse and go, but it’s important to have ground training on how to lead, groom, tack up and otherwise handle the horse before you get on. “I start all my students on the ground,” Laing said. “We can’t skip this part.”Fouret starts all her beginners on the lunge line. “I like to keep them on the lunge line for the first two or three lessons just to make sure they’re in control.” Her school horses know their jobs and seem to understand that they need to move slowly until the new student develops a sense of balance.Check out the school horses: Do they look healthy and well groomed? Pay special attention to their personalities. A horse used for beginner lessons must be calm without being a plug and responsive without being excitable. “It makes it hard to learn if you’re just trying to stay on,” Fouret said. Look for relaxed horses that seem to enjoy their jobs. Watch to see if the students kick them repeatedly to get them going or pull on the reins to get them to stop. “And you have to be willing to school your horses yourself, probably three days a week, to keep them up to par,” Shupe said. Otherwise, the school horse will become dull and not respond properly to cues.Ask the instructor about his or her own experience. How long have they been riding and teaching, and what riding disciplines do they teach? Are they certified by a riding instructors’ organization? While certification doesn’t guarantee that an instructor is good, it does indicate that the person is serious about his or her career.Organizations with certification programs include the Certified Horsemanship Association, the American Riding Instructor’s Association and the U.S. Dressage Federation.Other things to look for
- How much attention does the student get from the instructor? Is the instructor on her cell phone for the entire hour, or is she talking to other people in the arena?
- Does it seem like the instruction has put some thought into the structure of each lesson? Is she considering the individual students and their abilities and needs? Does she accommodate different learning styles?
- How many lessons do you want to take each week? How does the instructor judge when you are ready to go to the next level – say, progress from a walk to a trot?
- Does the instructor have an instructor? If they don’t take lessons themselves, do they attend clinics, read books and magazines and watch instructional videos to keep up on the latest techniques.
- Does the instructor take her students to clinics and schooling shows to expand their education? Does she recommend books or videos to compliment her training?
- Is the facility where you’ll take lessons well kept? Are the barn aisles, stalls and runs clean? Is the tack well kept? If you don’t want the unpredictable Colorado weather to interfere with your learning, is there an indoor arena?
- What is the attitude of the other riders in the barn? Do people seem friendly and happy?