Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Take Your next Riding Lesson to the MAX - Five Questions for Lesson Success

Use these Five Questions to get the maximum benefit out of your next riding lesson!

Lessons are an invaluable component of any riding career.  No matter how experienced or successful you are, there is always room for improvement and something else to learn!  Information, opinions, instruction, and even scientific studies are available in print, on-line, and via video to help guide you in between training sessions with your equestrian professional.  However, while advice for proper riding and training abounds, one important topic appears left untouched.  Well that ends here and now!  Today, we will explore the Five Key Questions you can use to take your Riding Lesson experience from ordinary to extraordinary!

1.  What are my goals?  As with anything you pursue the most important thing to know is where you are going.  Create a clear and defined picture of what riding and horsemanship success is to you and communicate your vision with your instructor.  She/he can help mold your dreams into attainable and well defined goals.  Be aware, a simple disconnect in destination between student and instructor can produce a frustrating lesson experience, slowed progress, even to riders and trainers to parting ways.  Communicate and develop goals with your trainer and see the energy and focus it brings to your lessons!  

For instance, one rider may have her eyes on the next blue ribbon, wanting to learn everything she can about how to ride her seasoned horse to a winning hunter trip, while another student may be more interested in mastering the “how’s” and “why’s” and “when’s” of training her green horse to jump with scope and style.  The same trainer can successfully guide these very different students to reach their goals, providing she/he knows each student’s priorities.  

Keep in mind, goals, horses, students, and circumstances all may change over time, revisit the conversation with your trainer every few months.  Ask how you are improving toward your goals and what, if anything, is holding you back.  Have you gotten sidetracked by the latest riding tricks and trends in the barn? Has an injury to you or your horse kept you sitting out for a while?  Setbacks happen, and they can be discouraging; remembering where you started and having a clear goal in mind will help alleviate the frustration which comes from the inevitable delays you encounter.  Use these conversations with your instructor as an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the progress you and your mount have made along your goal-bound journey.  It will keep you on-track, enthusiastic, and encouraged for each and every lesson! 

2.  Is my goal still my goal, and am I still enjoying the journey?  Remember, reevaluating your goals can be a great time to make changes.  Did you once dream of riding perfect pirouettes and wowing crowds with your trot extension, only to realize jumping is really fun!  Or maybe you envisioned winning a Grand Prix at HITS when your troublesome back means your jumping days are over.  Perhaps your goal change is more subtle?  Did you realize the show ring goals you set are not really your style? Would you prefer to trade-in the horse show stress for riding consistent rounds at home and spending your extra money participating in clinics with the Equestrian Greats you admire?  It is just fine to modify your goals or change them completely!  Remember this is what you do for fun!  If you have a goal change in mind, keep your instructor in the loop, so she/he can advise you and gear your lessons toward your desired destination.  If your goal change is more on the dramatic side, you may be in need of a new trainer.  Instead of quietly “trainer shopping” while slowly slipping away from your current trainer, discuss your new goals with your trainer!  I see it all the time, people change trainers thinking their current trainer wouldn’t want to teach them X discipline instead of Y discipline, when in reality that trainer is incredibly knowledgeable and capable in BOTH disciplines!  Now, sometimes a new discipline does require a new instructor, but a good trainer knows her/his strengths and weaknesses, and is happy to refer you on if your equestrian dreams exist outside her/his expertise.  Communicating in this way with your trainer will create a pleasant conclusion to your relationship, and it will also leave you with a good lead for selecting your next instructor.

3.  How was that?  This is the most important and my favorite riding lesson question.  It is the critical question your trainer should be asking you!  Though it comes in a variety of forms, this is probably the version I ask the most.  At the end of an exercise, after a practice round of jumps, upon exiting the show ring, or even as I am bringing your rider-less horse to you while you dust off your breeches, “How was that?” is my go to question!  Before you start to wonder, No, I’m not asking because I don’t know what happened during your ride.  Chances are I could give you a thorough dissertation on your ride, your horse’s effort, and your performance’s probable placement in your division at the horse show.  I don’t ask for my benefit; I ask for my student’s.  The most important responsibility of a Teacher is NOT to instill a litany of facts or to create a class of clones, it is to equip students with a foundation of knowledge and a comprehensive set of critical thinking skills.  A good instructor not only teaches a student what to do, but also empowers and educates each student to assess, evaluate, and problem solve for her/himself.   I am not in the business of creating the Super Student, a near robot who vacuously follows commands, nor am I interested in developing a Mirror Image of my own riding.  I am a riding teacher, and as such I am instructing my students in correct equitation and riding/training techniques, as well as developing their ability to analyze, critique, and improve their own riding.  It is my goal to take each client from being a student to being a mature horseman and a consummate rider, perhaps even a future trainer.  

If your trainer isn't asking you "How was that?" or a similar question, ask her/him to let you evaluate your next round of fences, dressage test, or other exercise.  In your evaluation identify the good components of your ride (for both you and your horse) as well as describing the parts that need work.  Suggest improvements and ask your trainer how your critique differs from her/his.  Ask if she/he is comfortable incorporating a few mini-evaluations like this into each of your lessons.  Also, see if your trainer has any suggestions as to how you can develop your riding assessment skills.  

4.  What does that mean?  Ask clarifying questions of your trainer and consider her/his answers in depth.  Remember every trainer communicates differently.  So for instance, your new instructor may sound very different from your former instructor, even though they are giving you the same direction.  As a very simple example, one instructor may say “lift your toes to the sky” and another may say “heels down toward the ground.”  Two very different ways of saying the same thing.  Variations in our "trainer vernacular" can confuse and frustrate students.   So if your instructor seems to be giving you confusing or contradictory advice, Speak UP and ask for clarification.  I once told a student for many lessons to release her horse’s mouth in order to slow him down.  Though she wasn't really getting it done, I thought she was doing her best to execute the instruction.  Then one day she says to me, “I know you keep saying to half-halt and release him when he is too quick, but you can’t really mean that, right?”  Well, “YES I most certainly do mean for you to release him!”  I had given the same direction for many, many lessons, never realizing she did not understand the why’s and how’s of the instruction.  Once I explained in more detail she was able to give the crucial release to her horse, allowing him to carry himself and to rock back on his hind end, slowing his run-away canter to a more balanced gait.  Thank goodness she ASKED!   

Trainers need to ask clarifying questions too.  Recently I taught a capable riding student in a clinic who just could not get her hands in the right position.  I asked her if she knew where her hands should be and why.  I could tell she was frustrated when she answered, “Every trainer I've ridden with has commented on my hands, and they have all told me to place them somewhere different.”  Bingo!  I thought, if I had simply said “pick our hands up,”  I would have been just another trainer who didn't like her hands.  But since I asked the question, we could address the Real issue.  This rider was perfectly capable of holding her hands wherever instructed.  The problem was not her hands; it was her understanding of their orientation in relation to her mount.  This rider regularly rode different horses in her lessons, and since every horse is built differently her hand position changed with each horse.  Since her trainers had only instructed her to “lift your hands” or “hands near the martingale” or “hands just in front of the saddle pad” she had become frustrated and nearly given up getting her hand placement correct.  But, when I asked the right question, I revealed the actual obstacle.  I explained how the conformation of horse and rider affects the correct orientation of the hands, and I showed her how to create a straight line from bit to elbow.  Now, she can find the correct hand placement on any horse she rides!  Questions again were the crucial key to moving beyond months of frustrating lessons!  

5.  What’s my homework?  Since most riders take one to two lessons per week but may ride their horse four or five times per week, there are several days of schooling available for a little homework assignment.  Of course not every riding session should be 45 minutes of intense work but the old adage that you are always teaching your horse something is very, very true.  So ask your trainer what you can do to keep you and your horse sharp in between lessons.  Neither you, your horse, nor your trainer want to work on the same things every lesson.  To avoid this, make sure you are making improvements in between your training sessions.  Homework can be simple such as incorporate backing up into each ride, doing transitions, or practicing lengthenings and shortenings.  It could also be geared toward strength training.  Often the thing that holds you and your horse back from reaching your goals is fitness.  Does your horse have trouble with lead changes, does he not have the hind-end push to get you through a course of jumps at your goal height, does he get cranky toward the end of your ride?  Is fitness what you are missing?  Fitness is vital.  Riding a fit horse will not only make training easier, but will also make your rides safer, as your horse will be strong enough to get you and he out of a sticky spot.  If strength and fitness is your weakness, ask your trainer if trotting hills, brisk trail rides, trot poles, laterals, or isometrics (like belly lifts) will give your horse the boost he needs.  And don’t forget about yourself!  Be sure to ask what you can do in and out of the saddle to better your riding.  I've often suggested swimming, riding without stirrups, riding in two-point, and even Pilates or Yoga as great between lesson fitness homework.  Ask your trainer what she/he thinks will help you, and give it a try!

Now that you are armed with a few questions, it’s time to call your trainer, head to the barn, and tack up your horse!  And remember, in equestrian sports there are Passengers, who can sit attractively on a horse, and there are Riders, who can get the best out of a horse.  I’m educating perceptive, reasoned, and capable Riders!  Is your trainer?  Happy riding everyone!

Mary Berlauk is the owner and trainer of Made to Order Equestrian.  Please visit,, or email to learn more and schedule a riding lesson.

Copyright Mary Berlauk and Made to Order Equestrian 2014.  All rights reserved.