My brother and his family recently relocated to a new state and my sister-in-law found an equestrian center close to their new home. She wanted to sign my niece up for lessons and asked me what she should look for when seeking out a barn where her daughter could take lessons. I realized this is a topic I get asked about frequently, so wouldn’t you know, I wrote a blog post about it. Go figure. Below are 5 things to consider when looking for horseback riding lessons for your child. Some of the concepts can be applied to seeking lessons for yourself as well, if you’re new to the horse world or just easing back in after some time away (welcome back!).
- Figure out what are you looking to accomplish with the lessons. Think about what the goal of this activity is. Is your child relatively inexperienced with horses and just a horse-crazy grade-schooler looking to spend time with horses? Or did your son or daughter see National Velvet and decide he or she wanted to become an Olympic level jumper and has been jumping their stick horse over every downed log they see? Anyone entering lessons should start with the confidence building, when the horses are easy going and reliable and the riding is nothing but fun. However, a trainer who doesn’t venture further than local shows isn’t necessarily going to be the trainer who can help your little rider progress to their Olympic level aspirations (if that’s the case). That’s okay, as long as you are comfortable making the switch in trainers later when your child’s skills have reached the maximum of what the trainer can instill.
- Ask the trainer if he or she has worked with kids before, and down to what age and for how long. Children are not just miniature versions of adult equestrians. They are still developing their prefrontal cortex, they have short attention spans and sometimes make terrible decisions. It’s not their fault, they are still learning about the world around them, even into their teen years. A trainer who hasn’t worked much with kids or generally isn’t comfortable with children, is not going to be a good fit as a trainer of your child. They are going to try to apply their training methods that work on adults to children and that is not necessarily an effective teaching strategy. Learning to ride horses is not just about learning the buttons to push on the horse and how to hold one’s body. It’s also about making good decisions when there are other horses and obstacles to consider. A trainer who works well with children has a heightened awareness for the safety horses and riders. An unseasoned trainer may forget to advise the peewee riders about not cutting off other horses or tailgating fellow riders.
- Ask the trainer how much they have trained in dressage or jumping or western pleasure or whatever discipline you think you (or your child) are interested in. While there are definitely some basic horsemanship skills that any trainer should be able to impart on their pupils, as you go further and further down the rabbit hole of a specific discipline, there becomes greater and greater minutiae to learn. A trainer who specializes in a particular discipline is going to be able to offer more coaching around all the minutiae of that specific discipline. The hope is that you find a trainer you can stick with for several years. Finding a trainer you can stick with for several years will lend itself to building your riders confidence as well, students become more comfortable with their trainers, to the point of really having an extended barn family. That extended barn family takes time to cultivate, time that can’t be made up if you switch trainers every year or every other year. This ABSOLUTELY applies to adult learners as well!
- Once you’ve established where to take lessons, show up to the facility early so you can see lessons being given to other students. There is a trainer I used to see come and go who shouted at her students. I thought she was rude. I believe she thought she was firm and impactful. Either way, what matters is what teaching style you are comfortable with. If you think your child will excel under pressure, then the shouter might be just the right fit. For me, riding and learning new skills atop a 1000 pound animal is already a stressful endeavor, I don’t see the point in making it more stressful with someone shouting directions and criticism at me. (Of course my current trainer’s occasional “Sit your ass back,” admonishment notwithstanding, which I talked about here.)
- Accept that horse trainers are not your typical business owners. Their hours do not fall between 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday. Regardless of when your lessons may be scheduled, they work a number of hours outside of giving lessons. They work to train new horses up, they manage websites and show entries and farm equipment and tasks related to horse care like vet visits, farrier visits, hauling hay, barn repair…. I can keep going, but I think you get the picture. The rigidity or fluidity of scheduled lessons will depend on the trainer, but don’t be surprised if the lesson starts a little late or runs a little long. Or even runs a little short. There may be days in which the trainer knows they are pushing the limits of what your rider (or you) can achieve. On those days, it’s better to relieve horse and rider on a high note rather than drilling a maneuver just to get to the 60 minute mark of the lesson. Conversely, there have been days where I’ve had a two hour lesson. I know that flexibility can sometimes be difficult to manage as a parent running from one activity to another, but that’s why I’m giving you the heads up. Everyone will be a lot happier if you can be flexible with the timing of lessons.
Do you have any tips as a trainer you wish people would consider when looking for a trainer? Or perhaps live and learn experiences you had as a parent finding lessons for your child, or even for yourself? Whoever you find, whatever the discipline, best of luck, and I hope it continues to be a source of joy. Horseback riding has been one of my longest and most rewarding loves.
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