The topics in this article
- Who are the beginners
- What makes teaching them challenging - concepts, framework, limited knowledge and understanding
- How riding history influences their actions and behaviour
- Overcoming learning blocks
- Learning a new language
- Developing trust
- The importance of riding fitness and health
No teaching career is complete without teaching beginners
Even if this group of riders is not at the top of your popularity ratings, you can learn so much from working with them.
You’ll undoubtedly recognise the start of many later problems with which riders present to you. Looking out for how these problems first arise for a beginner rider, will not only allow you to nip the problem in the bud before it becomes a major issue, it will also help you to develop the most skilled and meticulous eye for detail. This will be invaluable in raising the quality of all your later work where patterns of rider behaviour and gaps in a rider’s skillset which you might otherwise have missed because you didn’t recognise their significance, will then no longer pass you by.
Working with beginners in this way, will seriously reduce your contribution to further problems. Your contribution…? Well, yes, because every one of the beginner rider’s mistakes that you miss, or every gap in their knowledge or skillset that you fail to recognise, unwittingly contributes to their later problems. High-quality early teaching is undoubtedly important for the rider’s education, but it is no less important for your professional development.
The higher the quality of a rider’s initial training, the more secure will be their understanding of riding fundamentals and the better will be the quality of their practice. Conversely, the lower the standard of their early tuition, the more they’ll get to practise mistakes, the earlier these mistakes will slow and block their progress, and the more they will have to unlearn later in their riding career. And that’s before we even mention the consequences of this teaching quality on their horse…
Over the years, you’ll undoubtedly develop an encyclopedic knowledge of riding problems. Recognising later problems through having seen them at their source, however, will not only enable you to identify them quickly and accurately, but it will also mean you are in a much better position to offer a fast, effective and meaningful solution. Training your eye with beginners is therefore a valuable investment in your teaching future.
What makes beginners so challenging
This will give us a more informed perspective on them as learners, so we can develop a more sophisticated understanding of how to teach them more effectively.
- Beginner riders are, quite naturally, unfamiliar with the concepts of equitation.
And it’s very easy to understand why, for even if they have tried to explore technical equestrian books, most of these are pretty unintelligible to the early learner. Let’s face it, concepts like ‘forward movement’, or ‘impulsion’, are pretty opaque without some sort of practical explanation or illustration. I’m sure you know a few experienced horse people who are a bit hazy on some of them!
I remember giving a lesson on the half-halt and being duly astonished when a husband from the gallery told me he had not understood a single word of his wife’s lesson. Until then, it being second nature to me, I had had no idea that equiSpeak was so technical!
- Beginners do not have a framework by which to organise these concepts.
In practice, this means that they cannot contextualise their riding i.e. they don’t yet know how the ideas fit together. Neither do they yet understand which ones are important fundamental principles and which ones are details. All this translates into the fact that while they might hear your instructions, beginners don’t necessarily act on them in a timely manner, or perhaps at all, simply because they don’t understand the significance of what you say.
Watch an unskilled instructor asking a beginner to “sit up straight” time and time again with no positive result. Because the rider does not understand the relationship between their centre of gravity and that of the horse, they can’t understand why the horse continually wants to increase speed. Such riders are caught in a negative spiral of increasing speed, which makes them more nervous, which makes them lean more forward - hence the apparent need for repeated instructions.
The skilled instructor will pause to explain the biomechanics to the rider (in suitable terms), who will then quickly learn to sit up to slow the horse down.
- Beginners will have little knowledge of or understanding of equestrian vocabulary, be it words or aids.
A vocabulary list of all the words you will use in their lesson, given a week in advance, is invaluable. It will accelerate their progress and get rid of tiresome interruptions to the lesson where you have to stop and explain what you’re talking about. It will also get past any embarrassment or shyness a rider may feel that could prevent them from asking you for an explanation. From your point of view, it will also help you to avoid making any assumptions about their level of understanding. Vocab lists are to die for.
- Beginners can only relate to and act upon what is actually happening at this moment.
They are riding in the ‘Right Now & Very Small Picture’… as a consequence of having no overall understanding how it fits into the bigger riding jigsaw. We, however, courtesy of our experience, do understand the context of their riding so are working in the ‘Big Picture’ These are very different perspectives. We need to remember this sense of immediacy and the huge impact that what is happening Right Now, has for the beginner. This explains why anything untoward, such as their horse shying, can totally block out our instructions on how to cope with it. It’s not that they don’t listen, it’s just that their focus of attention is on the unexpected Right Now feelings of being unstable, rather than on what to do next to perhaps avoid further drama.
It’s easy to appreciate that these two different perspectives can quickly be on a collision course. This may manifest itself in any number of ways, but most often when you are acting preventatively (such as asking them to keep their distance from a horse in front of them). The beginner rider may either see no reason for your instructions and get far too close before they think to do anything about it, they may underestimate their own effectiveness to slow their horse, or they may misjudge the time that the horse needs in order to understand and respond to their aids and then be able to slow himself down. That’s before his rider has failed to read the swishing tail of the horse in front, whose glaring eye you will have already registered.
- It’s a tall call for a beginner to trust their safety to us – or anybody else.
But to be a good student they really do need to have total trust in their teacher, and follow their instructions to the letter, without question or hesitation. Not all beginners can set aside their nerves, or previous riding or instructional history to do this. (Well, come to that, we probably know a few more experienced riders who can’t do it either.). However, anything less than this degree of trust, will result in slow progress and learning blockages at every turn.
The solution to this little problem is to work only within the rider’s comfort zone, until such time as this trust has been established. This may take a lesson or two, but it’s well worth taking things gently to start with, because the pace of learning will soon accelerate quite dramatically. The secret is not to require that the rider move on to further tasks, but to wait for them to tell you that they want to. Watch for the happy smile and the cheerful tone, and listen for that excited note in their voice. Proceed before this, and you will move on without them.
- Every beginner comes with a learning history
If you watch and listen to your rider closely for a few minutes, you will soon establish their learning history which underlays their current learning habits. If it has been a negative history it may also account for their learning blocks.
A positive history where they have fun and enjoyment will make them a pleasurable and rewarding rider to teach.
A negativer history, however, may be quite a different story. This may have included
- Being bored or confused by bad teaching
- Have had lack of confidence in their past teacher(s) to help them
- Have had lack of appropriate help when they’ve been ‘stuck” or whether they’ve been left to worry that they didn’t understand, couldn’t keep up with their classmates, or couldn’t control their horse
- Have been embarrassed by sarcastic comments or other negative remarks in front of others when they didn’t know the right answers or couldn’t complete a learning task
- Have been overfaced by a too difficult a task or by an uncooperative horse.
- Beginners’ learning habits will be well established.
All beginner riders will have had ample experience of being taught all sorts of things and will all have well-developed learning responses long before they have their first riding lesson. The quality of that teaching will have impacted hugely on them way before you get as far as wishing them “Good morning.” This means that they will long ago have decided whether to be active or passive learners, whether to be brave, experimental learners or nervous and cautious ones. There are a host of other learning habits they will have developed. The particular subject of their learning is not relevant here. It’s how they were taught that matters, and how – as a direct consequence of that – they have learned to learn.
This will undoubtedly impact on how a rider learns from you, for these well-practised learning responses to other teachers will effortlessly transfer to your teaching. That’s why you always need to be monitoring what you’re doing, to establish what is a direct response to your work and is of-the-moment, and to distinguish this from the rider’s well-learned but outdated ‘baggage’ of past experiences. Much of this may be very nicely packaged but of no use whatsoever, while some may get seriously in the way of progress.
Knowing this will remind you that the best teaching in the world can only be as effective as the student’s willingness and ability to learn. We need to remember this when, just occasionally, we need a little comfort.
- Some beginners will have substantial learning blocks.
If a rider’s progress stalls, your first challenge may be to identify their learning blocks. Your second challenge will be to address them and re-teach the rider how to learn. This may come as an unexpected surprise, but beginners are not a ‘clean slate’ for us to teach. There will be learning blocks for those riders who have a negative learning history. These blocks are strong feelings that the rider experiences which intrude between you and them, and prevent them following your instruction in a productive way. Fear and performance anxiety are the big ones, but embarrassment, lack of confidence, over-confidence, poor concentration, inappropriate focus of attention and many others can all be candidates for creating major blockages. Appreciation of this state of affairs will at least give you a starting point from which to begin dealing with this matter. It will take tact and good communication skills to guide the rider past such learning impediments.
- Every beginner also comes with a riding history.
Even if none of it comes from experiences in the saddle they will have pre-conceived ideas of how riding a horse will be. This will have generated hopes and aspirations, some of which will be more realistic than others.
By far the most difficult group here, are adult beginners, whose imagination is alive and well and without fail makes them much more tense than most younger riders. There will be some who have had unfortunate experiences – they may have been bitten, kicked, barged or bullied and of course there will be those who’ve had falls.
Finding out a person’s riding history is always useful. Taking time to ask about their background will then enable you to account for at least some of their responses to their horse and to you. An unfortunate history that has resulted in the rider continuing to be nervous in the saddle is where the trouble starts, because unlike most beginners whom we have established are very much in the Now, these riders are actually stuck in the past. This means that they very often react as they have done before, irrespective of the fact that it is not relevant to the present situation. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy which causes all manner of difficulties for everybody, not least for their horse. More on that later.
Let’s say you are teaching a beginner rider the canter strike-off, who has had a fall when her previous horse bucked as they went into canter. To complicate things, the rider is now nervous of another fall and tentative in applying her aids.
The rider believes she is already using sufficient outside leg to control the hindquarters (perhaps because of previous instruction or having learned their aids on a different horse in the past, plus she is nervous that too much of either leg will make the horse buck.). She also considers she is already using enough inside rein to correctly flex the horse – though you can see this is not happening. The result is that her obliging horse does the best he can in the circumstances, and strikes off on the wrong lead. This was guaranteed!
But the problem here is not immediately in her riding – it’s in her learning. She has a combination of gaps in her overall understanding of what you are saying [about the canter aids] and learning blockages [fear and tentativeness] she is putting in her own path. Further attempts at the strike-off will only cement her mistakes, further undermine her confidence, give her experiences of failure as opposed to success, and teach the horse things we don’t want him to learn.
The answer lies in a little discussion on the aids for the strike-off, then practice (at the halt, then walk, then trot…) of their correct application courtesy of an appropriately active inside rein, outside and then inside leg, as determined not by you or by her, but by her horse’s need to hear what she is saying from the saddle. You are merely translating into words what you see as that need, until such time as the rider can read it for themselves.
Her fear and tentativeness also need to be addressed, using mental rehearsal, simulation, positive affirmations and demonstrations (that her horse won’t buck) preferably with you in the driving seat.
- Beginners may be generally healthy but they are not riding fit
Their riding muscles are not yet strong and tire easily. Even riders who are essentially passengers at this stage, will have enough aches and pains the next day to tell them that riding is not an armchair activity. You only have to pit your running fitness against those who run on a regular basis, to realise how the beginner rider feels during or after a riding lesson. Could you run for an hour? Well, perhaps you could at least swim for forty minutes. No...? Yet we expect a non-rider to sit up there making ongoing mental and gymnastic efforts for all that time and more. It’s really quite amazing that they ever return for another lesson!
In fact, riding for too long, while it may be apparently pleasurable for a beginner (until they stop) is highly detrimental to their learning. Once fatigue sets in, their body will start to compensate in all manner of ways. This effectively teaches their muscles to do all sorts of things that they later have to relearn or unlearn, sometimes with great difficulty. Fatigued muscles lose their strength and become wobbly. This makes the rider’s seat even more unstable, which distracts them from everything except staying on the horse. This can seriously undermine the confidence you are trying so hard to establish. And there’s more.
Their instability makes for erratic and confusing aids to the horse. All horses have their threshold of tolerance and chaos. As the rider’s activities approach this threshold, the possibility of aberrant behaviour from the horse rises steeply. This is not somewhere we want our riders to be, and it’s good to be mindful of your duty of care here, for throughout their lesson their safety is your responsibility. That responsibility increases exponentially in relation to the risk of accident, which significantly increases the longer the lesson continues.
Then, at the end of the day, overworked muscles are stiff and sore. “No pain, no gain.” is an outdated concept. We know better now. Overwork achieves little and seriously detracts from customer satisfaction. In other words, longer or more athletically demanding lessons are less fun for the beginner rider than brisk, brief, more frequent lessons, supported by inter-lesson learning.
So the challenge is to put together a cocktail of interesting, informative and athletically-kind activities, which optimise a rider’s learning, maximise their progress, minimise their relearning and obviate their unlearning.
- Beginners riders are essentially learning a new language
To complicate the issue it is a physical, non-verbal language such as they have probably never learned before. Consequently, they tire intellectually, as much as they do physically. Hence the need to schedule their intellectual learning to times which are in between their physical lessons. There is also no reason to tire their horse while the rider learns something they can better absorb in an armchair.
And while on the subject of language, if you speak anything other than your mother tongue, you will know that your first plea when you are amongst native speakers, is to ask them to speak more slowly. Exactly the same thing applies to equiSpeak. The beginner rider will be relatively slow to understand your equiSpeak and will misinterpret words and confuse your meanings. So you have to s-l-o-w down. That doesn’t mean dumb down. It merely means explaining clearly, using simple language, and refraining from using confusing metaphors or complicated examples. Given the physical nature of what the rider is trying to learn, this largely means showing a rider how to do things and then requesting they do it themselves. This is much more powerful than a torrent of partially-understood words.
- Beginners may be out-of-practice learners
The standard hour-long riding lesson is half as long again as the average university lecture. That’s a long time to concentrate on something which is new and different. It’s a long time to be speaking in a new language. Many people find lapses in their concentration spans are an issue. Therefore, to accommodate this and their modest level of riding fitness, we need to keep the reprises [blocks of activity] short. Ten minutes is a lifetime when your muscles are screaming for a rest and your head is struggling to remember new ideas and vocabulary.
So now you have the inside story on why teaching beginners can be so challenging. Hopefully, this will help you better understand them, and at the same time give you some new insights as to how you might continually improve and adapt your teaching for a beginner. What may seem at first glance to be a modest job, will grow to be a sophisticated and highly skilled task which you can tackle with enthusiasm and a critical eye, knowing that you will have the opportunity to become a wiser and more skilled teacher with every beginner who crosses your coaching path.
Download free article