Wednesday, August 19, 2009

About Instructors and Giving Lessons

Wow, I forgot how many associations, federations, organizations, and subscriptions I had before I took a year off to help with an election. I spent all day today (and some of last night) updating, re-joining, and renewing all that stuff.

I also forgot how expensive the whole lot is. I mean, one organization at a time is not too bad, kind of like a monthly payment where you forget that the thing you bought is like, a gazillion dollars, because you don't have to come up with one lump sum.

I got this crazy notion that I would get quasi-serious about showing again. Now I HAVE to follow through with it because I have just renewed membership in USDF, USEF, gotten my HID and USDF Horse Registration, not to mention renewing my ARIA membership for certification (I have kept that current!), renewing my instructor's liability insurance, checking out the entry fees, show fees, stabling fees, USDF/USEF fees for showing, hotel fees, gas fees, etc. etc. etc.
Which is a great segway into the real topic of my post. :-)

I know that some people don't take lessons from me because of what I charge for a lesson. I do understand that, to the lay-person (which in this instance is someone who is unfamiliar with, or just starting to explore the world of horses and riding), what I charge seems expensive when compared alongside the person who is a trainer and instructor because they have owned a horse for a while, it hasn't killed them yet, and they "need the extra money". (Emphasis on the last clause)...I have seen people advertise that they give lessons (individual) for $10.00 or $15.00 per hour (!)

The problem is that it is not very easy to tell by looking at us, which one of us is more qualified than the other (or not qualified at all). In some cases, even the lay-person can get a gut feeling--well, "TrainerX" has a ribby nag with one shoe missing, his back leg cocked and ready and a nasty look in his eye, and he has no arena-just "over there in the corner of the pasture", is smoking a cigarette, and holds a finger up at them while telling the person on the cell phone--"hang on, a potential victi-I mean-customer just walked up" and IRIDE's facility is neat and tidy, the horse is shiny and looks happy to see Mary coming with the saddle, and the arena is clear, level, well-marked and maintained and there are signs to mark your path, and she smiles and greets you like she was expecting you--no, we all know those differences well. And I am certain that we ALL know a facility or two that would fit the "TrainerX" profile.

The big problem is that most examples are not that dramatic. How do you tell if the nice lady with the horse in her back yard and gives lessons to the meighborhood kids is really qualified to keep you (or your children!) relatively safe in your first experiences around horses, and knowledgeable enough to guide you to an effective position and foundation of riding and caring for a horse? Because they say so? Because they give lessons to other people like you?

Remember, there is no requirement for licensing or certification requirement, no proof of insurance requirment, no business license; no proof of anything required on any level--local, county, state, or federal--for most of us (the exception in MA, where there is licensing requirement for riding instructors, trainers, and boarding facilities, although I am not familiar with the specifics). And a LARGE number of trainers/instructors (even some with credentials) do not carry liability insurance...which can be a disaster, even with the best of intentions.

And here is the real kicker--somehow, the public (even a lot of us who have been involved in horses for a while) has gotten the notion that it is rude or improper to question the potential trainer/instructor about their education, background, philosophy and/or experience. If we research a professional at ALL, we simply ask around about what they (or their students) have "done at shows". And we are not very thorough about that, even. Most of the time the trainer with the most first-places wins our confidence and undying loyalty, and that part also makes me crazy.

And frankly, most of the time, the choice of who is going to teach you to ride comes right down to who is going to charge you the least amount of money. And there is a certain amount of perceived logic in that, because you figure that the more times you are on the horse in a given period of time, the faster you will gain the skills you desire.

The problem with this logic is that learning to ride can be dangerous. The whole reason you take lessons in the first place is to learn the skills necessary to understand and guide these magnificent (BIG) creatures and STAY SAFE while while having fun and the exhilerating experience of catapulting over the ground, flying through the air (attached to the horse, hopefully), and moving more gracefully and in harmony with another species than you could ever do alone. But people who have never (or seldom) ridden have no basis for understanding just what it takes to learn to ride and avoid serious injury. They hear, but have no basis for understanding just how educated and dedicated the instructor AND the school-horse have to be.

And before this post gets so long that I lose my entire audience due to death by words, here are some tips for choosing an instructor:

  • ASK for a resume or CV--if they cannot produce one, whether it is by deflecting, stalling, or getting offended that you would ask, don't walk away--run.
  • RESEARCH their claims--check to see if they have the certifications that they claim. If they list shows where they have earned certain awards, such as USDF shows, reults are published for the current year in most cases on the USDF website. If they only list local shows, you might want to expand your search for an instructor--although that shouldn't be the only criteria for elimination.
  • INSIST on a trainer with certification in one of the nationally-recognized associations...ARIA, USDF, CHA, and others. The instructor's CV should state what organization they are certified with, what their level of certification, and a website that will list them as certified--and check the wesite! Make sure they are telling the truth! I have seen personally four different people who have lied or seriously misled clients about being certified....they think you will not bother to check.
  • SET an initial appointment after you have done your research (and be prepared to pay for it--an instructor's time is what they get paid for, whether it is mounted or not) to discuss lesson rules, ettiquette, format, attire, and get a feel for the instructor's philosophy, temperament, protocol, etc.
  • SET an appointment (if possible) to watch a lesson that is approximate to the level of instruction you will be receiving (the instructor will guide you in this).
  • SET up a lesson, make sure you know what the price will be
  • BE on time for your lesson
  • BE prepared to pay a reasonable price for a lesson. My prices that I charge are listed on my website and I have paid as much as $200.00 to ride in a lesson with an instructor where I had to trailer my horse in, which adds to the cost of the lesson in terms of time and travel...and I was happy to pay it because of the credentials that this person has (and my horse and I are at the level where it was worth it). But for basic riding lessons--which means from first time on a horse up through "third level dressage" equivalent lessons, expect to pay between $50.00-$75.00 for a session on your own horse, and $70.00-$120.00 for a lesson on a schoolmaster provided by the instructor. If you are not paying this much for a standard lesson, then you are likely not getting what you are paying for, no matter how cheap it is, and add to this the fact that the less you are paying the more increased is the risk of serious injury to you.
  • BRING the agreed upon amount and method of payment with you to your lesson and present it as you start the lesson.

Only book for one lesson, initially, even if they offer a discount for a lesson-package. You should certainly come to the lesson expecting that you will have a great experience and will come back as often as you can (please try for AT LEAST once a week if you don't have your own horse), but, if for some reason the lesson doesn't work out the way you planned, and you decide not to return, things don't get complicated. :-)

These are only my own opinions, and I would love to hear others' opinions, as well as additional elements that I may have not thought about...this post is long enough, but any comments are most welcome and appreciated!


  1. Totally agree. I had to self-educate myself (and I still don't know everything) in what is appropriate for tack, a horse, riding posture, etc. and look at that when I look at an instructor's picture gallery or any pictures on their site or if I go out to watch them ride. There is only one instructor in my area (and even then he wasn't that close) who could take me all the way up to Grand Prix if I wanted. His prices were reasonable ($75 per lesson for up to third level) and he had some amazing credentials: he had been trained in Europe! But I went out to watch a lesson (I later realized there was probably a reason behind his not having a site) and was horrified to see that he rode his horses way behind the bit (just short of chin-to-chest) with overtightened flash and crank nosebands and a horse with a stiff tail and lathering sweat and who was bent in the neck and not at the poll who was obviously uncomfortable.

    Had I not previously taken a small amount of dressage lessons and educated myself as thoroughly as I could without actually riding beforehand, I might've thought this guy was the best there was around. Yikes!

    There are so many "wannabes" out there who prey upon the noobs. It's quite unnerving!

  2. Very true, Dressager! You were smart to go and have a look before jumping in, and thank goodness you knew what to look for in quality training...most people would have thought that the "Rollkeur" was proper training, and how are they to know otherwise if this guy had been successful at shows and had trained in Europe? As we know, there is both good and bad training going on in Europe as well as here! LOL But the accent gives instant credibility...sigh