Topics in this article:
- Insurance quotes
- Risk management - when and how to split the group and when to recruit help
- When it's best to change your plan
- Pony Club teaching
- How your mentor can help
- When it's best to withdraw gracefully
- Take-home tips
When size matters
There is little that challenges us more than increasing a class size. It’s unlikely that this will be a problem of your own making, for with your own clients you are able to assign them to classes at your own discretion. However, if you are invited to teach at your local riding club or in any context where you are not responsible for drawing up the teaching schedule, you can easily find yourself in trouble. It’s certainly not deliberate on the part of the organisers, to deal you impossible classes. In my experience, it’s just a lack of understanding of what you do and how you do it. It’s surely fuelled by the large numbers of riders who are keen to enjoy a visiting instructor, and if they enjoyed you last time they will be even keener not to miss out on your subsequent visits. So, with finite resources, the organisers try to please everybody. Unfortunately shepherding large numbers of assorted riders into over-sized classes is not the answer.
This is such a common scenario in riding clubs and associations that you’re sure to encounter it sooner or later. Sometimes it gets to the crazy stage. Maybe you’ve read my story of being presented with twenty-five assorted riders to take on a cross-country lesson? Of course, that never got further than the introductions, but just to recall standing in front of that huge group and realizing in one ghastly moment, that I was expected to take this as my next class, still makes the hairs prickle on the back of my neck!
The alarms should go off!!!!
A vital personal consideration when faced with an over-sized group is your teaching insurance quota. Most policies state that they only cover you provided you do not exceed a maximum class number. Mine is eight riders. Practically speaking, even that’s a lot if they are an assorted group, and remember, you’re talking sixteen individuals to keep your eagle eye on when you include the horses, as you must.
So check your policy and make sure you always abide by it. It stands to reasons that the risk of an unwelcome incident increases dramatically with the increase in class size, especially if we’re talking mixed-ability groups or beginners. Of course, you must protect the riders and fulfil your duty of care, but you must also protect yourself.
I do lament the growing extent of litigation in the horse world. It is not entirely of our making however, for we are only a part of the vast sports industry, much of which has been subject to growing insurance claims for some years now. I don’t want to frighten you, but as a coach you need to sit up and take notice of all this. If a claim for professional negligence is successfully brought against you, you stand to lose everything you have in the world. I have known of coaches who have lost everything, including the shirt on their back and their lifetime’s reputation, with claims that ran into millions of dollars. Our insurance policies are there to protect us from these horrendous potential losses. If you teach over-sized groups you may well invalidate your policy. That means you have no protection at all if anything goes wrong.
Statistically-speaking, most accidents happen to recreational riders and most of these are in group situations. I was called as an expert witness to a barrister in just such a case. The inside story was not pretty for anybody. The rider had ended up with a serious head injury. The outcome for those responsible was emotionally, financially, and professionally, absolutely devastating. If you want to trash your career, there are less painful ways to do it than going through the courts and enduring the stress and expense of public humiliation.
Aside from these considerations, and all the normal care you take not to violate the equestrian industry safety protocols, controlling your class sizes is a fundamental element of your risk management. Citing your insurance quota gives you an inarguable, non-negotiable reason for reducing a class size until it is within your quota. It is imperative that you do this, without fear or favour.
Splitting the group
If the group is only moderately over-sized – say you are given twelve riders – you can dismount six of them and have Ride A as a gallery to watch or critique, while Ride B is mounted to learn or demonstrate. Then you can swop everybody’s role after twenty minutes or so. Perhaps you could turn the session into a competition between the Rides. It’s amazing how simple you can make these ‘competitions’. Short of ideas? For Small People, at the walk, try “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s got the straightest back of all?!” And if you don’t have mirrors, (or Small People,) try seeing who can ride the straightest line between two pots/barrels/buckets.... Or you could agree handicaps or assess performances of an individual task on a Personal Best basis.
Almost inevitably, even with the best management, working with a large group means that the learning opportunities are going to be curtailed. It is not a context in which riders can learn new skills, so by definition they are using skills they already have. In other words, large groups stall the riders’ progress. This is another very good reason to split riders up into smaller groups.
Another way to split them is to run two, or more, separate small classes in series. Make the mini-lessons 20 minutes each and point out that the riders will get more personal attention this way than if they were in a larger group.
Just make sure, however you do it, that you keep all riders in front of you and in sight at all times, even if they are dismounted.
Recruiting some help
At most club days, there are other instructors at work. Don’t hesitate to enlist their help if you need to split a group. It can sometimes be useful to recruit leaders for little children, too. And there’s always a spare parent or helper who you can appoint to supervise a group of unmounted riders (perhaps the Ride A, as above), so you can keep them involved in the proceedings but don’t have to mastermind them if you already have responsibility for other riders.
If the group was so unmanageably big that you had to dismount some of the riders, they can be recruited to help too, in any number of ways. If you find you have no adult support, then it’s up to you to recruit some help from within the riders themselves. This means devising roles (other than teaching, which they are not qualifies to do) and apportioning appropriate tasks for them in accordance with their ages and capabilities. Just keep them all included and busy whether that be putting out markers, placing flags, leading a smaller child, or holding each other’s horses....).
Changing your plans
Lesson plans are always a flexible feast. If what you had in mind (or perhaps what the organisers had in mind) does not – in your considered opinion – suit the group that you are given, be sure to say so. Then comes the problem of what to do instead. Just so long as it’s a topic that has relevance for everyone, you can then devise personal goals for each rider within that topic. It can be fun to divide them into pairs if you have any who can be reasonably matched, though only if you’re up for that, because it takes higher-order teaching skills to manage working pairs, and you can’t have them all riding at once.
Well, after all this, it’s now time to put your own knowledge and imagination into action. It might help to spend an hour or so on a wet afternoon putting together some possible Plans B for this sort of scenario. And remember, you can always raid someone else’s imagination – like mine!
Pony Club teaching
Rest assured, there is nothing – but nothing – more difficult than teaching at Pony Club. Not only are the numbers often large, the standards range from the little girl who bursts into tears at the trot to the Royal Show contenders who are our seriously-talented young champions of the future. Add to this fresh ponies who haven’t been worked since the last school holidays and kids who have just been bought a Thoroughbred straight off the track.... I absolutely take my hat off to every Pony Club instructor and unreservedly salute you all!
I’ve been a member of the Pony Club since I was five years old and still think it’s the most marvellous youth organisation on the planet. For many years, I was on the Professional Panel of the Australian Pony Club and so I am hugely familiar with the challenges that instructors face each and every rally day. I think you have the most challenging job on the planet, so I’ve run countless Pony Club schools and clinics to try to answer your questions and lend you my support.
In gathering these ECEi resources, I hope they will be as useful in Pony Club teaching as in other teaching contexts. The principles of teaching groups apply as soundly to Pony Club rally days as they do to organising and teaching any other mixed-ability groups. It’s just that the Pony Club groups can often be bigger and more diverse than anyone expects, and the ideal number of instructors is not always available on the day.
Equestrian safety protocols and risk management, however, are universal. They apply equally to Pony Club teaching as they do to general recreational teaching, and to Pony Club competition coaching as they do to competition coaching in the wider equestrian community.
Yes, the riders are there to have fun, but it should be fun for you too. Many Pony Club instructors are highly experienced and do an amazing job. However, I’ve also met some caring but inexperienced and perennially-worried parents, who regularly quake as rally days arrive with alarming regularity. My heart goes out to them. Being over-faced by your teaching scenario is nobody’s idea of a pleasant or safe experience. So if you’re not absolutely sure that you can handle the situation, it’s much better for everyone that you say so. Then you slip effortlessly into Plan B which is to bring in some reinforcements, change your original plans, find some new resources or activities, and set sail in a new direction.
Do I hear you ask “What mentor..?” Hopefully not. Hopefully you are already in an ongoing productive relationship with at least one mentor. If not, then it’s time to consider your options. Without doubt, there will be lots of kind, well-experienced people out there who would be only too willing to help you. It’s the first move that’s the most difficult one. You don’t have to formalise a mentor relationship. Try just asking them if they’d be kind enough to act as a sounding-board for you now and then. You’ve got nothing to lose if they say they’re a bit busy, and everything to gain if they welcome your enquiry.
The take-home messages:
- NEVER exceed your insurance quota of mounted riders
- Split over-sized groups
- Split up any cliques or factions
- Engage reinforcements in the way of extra instructors, leaders or anyone else you can lasso at the time, and use whatever skills they have to help you manage the situation
- Be flexible - change your plans to better suit the new challenges of the day
- Give more-capable riders the opportunity of a leadership role
- Give disruptive riders new responsibilities
- Reduce the complexities of the lesson content
- Once you’ve got a theme, set individual goals around that, for each rider
- Take the group in relays or parts
- Ask your mentor for advice.
If you’re overwhelmed by the challenges of the day, it’s always OK to withdraw gracefully, while all horses and riders are safe and sound, and your sanity is intact. Yes, this may cause an organisational emergency, but that’s a whole lot better than a medical mishap or a veterinary disaster.
You are never duty bound to teach any group if, in your judgement, it is not safe to do so. I know it’s sometimes hard not to feel pressured to do so, but if you ever feel worried or have concerns about being able to control a large group or give a meaningful lesson to a mixed bunch of riders, you are always, always, free to withdraw gracefully.