School Daze – find the right riding school

Habits and skills learned from a horse riding instructor can make or break you as a horse rider. Your quest to find the ‘right’ instructor for yourself or your child should take into consideration:

Personality – my 4-year old daughter was really put off by the personality of the owner at a local stables. The riding was fine, the ponies were sweet if a little bored. Perhaps adults can suck it up better. If everything else works for you but your instructor doesn’t exactly have a good bedside manner you have to just weigh up whether that affects your enjoyment.

Respect and trust – the bigger consideration. If you don’t 100% trust the instructor and what they’re asking/telling you, really you need to change immediately. Not least because your horse will sense that lack of trust. Likewise, if you don’t trust the horse things aren’t going to end well. At best your confidence will decline. At worst your horse will sense your lack of trust and react.

So how do you choose a good horse riding instructor from the myriad of schools out there? Here’s Horsefinder’s guide on how to find the right riding school for you.

Ask around

One of the best ways to find a good school in your local area is to ask for recommendations from people you know. So, if you have any horsey friends they should be your first port of call. Other useful people to ask are your local equine vet, or at feed and tack shops, and livery stables. Since 2010, the BHS (British Horse Society) has adopted an approval rating system for schools that follow good practice for both horse health and rider safety. They use unannounced inspections to grade establishments to either A (approved), C (commended), or HC (highly commended).

Make a list

Narrow your list down to schools that offer the disciplines you’re interested in, and that are within easy travelling distance. There’s no way of telling whether a school is the right one for you on the phone. So, give them a call, and ask if you can visit to look around and observe a lesson. You’ll probably be visiting several schools, so do keep reasonable notes. This will make comparisons easier on prices for things such as private and group lessons, and the facilities and disciplines offered. Take along a more experienced friend if you can, to help you work out which school is best for you.

Look at the facilities

Arrive promptly, and ask for a tour of the facilities. The first way to learn about the school is to use your eyes and ears.

Does the owner seem helpful and friendly?
Does the school look clean and tidy? E.g. is the muckheap tidy and do the stables (if relevant) look as if they’re cleaned out every day?
Is the place in good repair? Are there dangerous items, such as glass, lying around?
Is the riding arena big enough and fenced?
If you’re interested in jumping, is there enough equipment to enable you to build your skills?
Is the tack in good condition, and clean?
Is there a toilet you can use when you’re there for lessons? You’re going to be spending a lot of time in the school!

Look at the horses

If an owner doesn’t care about the health of their horses, they’re unlikely to care about you.

Are the horses ill, bad tempered, nervous, or lethargic, or do they seem good natured and alert?
Are they well taken care of? Are they well groomed, with neatly trimmed hooves, or caked with mud? Are they well covered on the hips and ribs?
How are the horses treated? No-one should strike or yell at a horse.
Are there rules posted prominently, and are people obeying them? I.e. is everyone wearing closed shoes, helmets, keeping tack areas closed, walking rather than running, and being calm around the horses?

Questions to ask the owner

Do they offer the disciplines you are interested to learn? It’s no good being pushed to enter dressage competitions if all you’re interested in is hacking.
What do they charge for private, semi-private, and group lessons?
Is there a qualified first aider present at all times?
Can you use your own horse?
If you are very heavy, or have special needs due to a disability, discuss whether the school can accommodate you.

Questions to ask the instructor

Do they teach you about the care of the horses e.g. grooming, mucking out etc. as part of what they offer?
What are their accreditations, and how long have they been teaching?
How long are lessons? Less than an hour can be better for beginners who are under 12 and those who are older.

Watch a lesson

Being a good rider doesn’t mean you’ll make a good teacher. You can tell a lot about how good an instructor is by from watching one or two lessons.

Are the students appropriately dressed?
How large is the class? It’s difficult to keep an eye on more than six riders at a time, without an assistant.
Do all the riders in the class seem to be at about the same level?
Do the riders seem to match their mounts (both in terms of weight and temperament)?
Is there good overall attention paid to the safety of horses and riders?
Talk to some of the riders afterwards. Are they progressing at a reasonable rate? Are they happy with their lessons?

Watch the instructor

Is the instructor appropriately dressed, with jodhpurs, and closed boots, and a helmet, if riding?
Does the instructor pay attention to all the riders? Some will talk on the phone or chat to others. Or concentrate either only on the worst riders, or only on the advanced ones.
Do they know the rider’s names, and seem willing to answer questions?
Do they teach something new every lesson?
What is their teaching style? Is it positive and constructive? Do the riders appear to have improved by the end of the lesson?
Is the instructor someone you feel comfortable with? Instructors do have to shout to make themselves heard in a group. But bullying and demeaning pupils is never acceptable.

Choosing for your child

If you’re considering the school for your child, bring them along. Watch how the instructor interacts with the smaller and more nervous children. Check that there will always be a responsible adult around when your child is with the horses. Ask them if the staff and instructors are CRB checked. And although your child won’t be able to make as sensible assessment as you will, pay attention to the places they liked the most. They’ll be spending a lot of time at the school and it needs to be a place where they feel comfortable and happy. And pay attention to your own instincts too, of course.

Book a lesson

Once you’ve narrowed down the schools on your shortlist, book a lesson at each one. They should be willing to let you book a private lesson before you sign up to a course of lessons. In fact, a good school will insist that you have a private lesson first, in order to assess the level you’re at, and to match you to the right horse. They won’t let you go into classes until you’re able to control your horse confidently. This is the time to check your observation and instincts about the instructor. Are they someone you feel comfortable with? And can you see yourself learning from them?

Making a decision

It’s tempting to go for a riding school that’s close to you, or one that doesn’t seem too expensive. But long term, you’ll make better progress at a school that has good instructors, and the equipment and range of horses you need in order to enhance your skills. And in a place that’s friendly, where you can build your confidence. Taking your time to choose the right riding school will enhance your riding experience. And it’s better and safer too.

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