School's in Session: Taking Riding Lessons

If you want to enjoy horseback riding, you have to learn how to do it properly. And that is probably the best piece of advice you can get from a book.

I imagine you sense the need to find out more about this hobby before you begin. Not everyone takes this approach. Some people just get on a horse for the first time and seem to expect to know what to do — after all, they've seen people ride horses in movies hundreds of times! The idea of taking riding lessons beforehand never occurs to them. They wouldn't dream of going downhill skiing or sailing without some instruction, but they'll climb aboard a 1,000-pound animal without the slightest idea of how to control the creature.

Maybe people think they don't need training because horses are living beings with their own brains. These untrained riders figure that the horse knows what to do. However, the fact that the horse has a mind of his own is precisely why you need lessons first. Convincing the horse to do what your brain is telling him to do — not his — takes some skill.

In this chapter, I provide advice on how to find the best riding stable and the most suitable instructor. I also give you tips on being a good student and getting the most from your time in the saddle.

Finding the Best Stable for YOUR Needs

The first step in figuring out how to ride is finding a good place to take lessons. The environment where you discover the nuances of riding makes a big difference in your enjoyment of this pastime. In the following sections, I explain how to find and evaluate stables in your area.

The initial search: Identifying stables in your area

You can search for stables in a variety of ways. Here are some good resources:

Word of mouth: 

Getting recommendations is the best way to find a riding stable. Talk to people who ride and ask them which stables (or barns, as horsy people often call them) they like. Or visit a local tack store and talk to the staff — and even other customers — about what they recommend. Odds are they can refer you to a stable that has some of the best instructors.

The Internet: 

You can try looking for stables in your area online. By putting "riding lessons" and the name of your county or city in a search engine, you can come up with a list of riding stables in your area.

Telephone directory: 

The old-fashioned method of looking in the phone books still works. Look under "Horses" or "Stables" and see what comes up.

Some people prefer to find the instructor first and then look for the stable. For additional ideas, see the upcoming section entitled "When you strike out with stables: Seeking out a different teacher."

YOUR  major: Finding a school that offers your discipline

Which stable you choose depends on the riding discipline you're interested in. Some stables have riding instructors who teach more than one discipline; other stables specialize in only one. Knowing what you want to get out of horseback riding can help you narrow down your search. Take a look at the disciplines (Chapters 6 and 7 explain Western and English riding in detail):


Because the Western discipline provides more comfort and security and requires less stamina than English styles, Western riding is popular with beginners. Western is the discipline of choice for pleasure and trail riders; you can also work with cattle or participate in shows that feature the horse's speed, obedience, and athletic ability (as well as your own riding skills).

English: Here are the basic English styles:

 Hunt seat: Hunt seat is ideal if you're interested in jumping fences.

Dressage: Dressage is a chance to show off a horse's training. This
"horse ballet" features graceful and disciplined movements.

If you aren't sure which discipline you'd like, find a stable that offers lessons in both and discuss your options with the riding instructors at that stable. You may want to take a lesson in both English and Western to see which you prefer.

Campus Visit: Evaluating stables with a sharp eye

After you find a stable in your area that teaches the discipline you want, pay a visit to the barn. You want to determine whether this stable is the kind of place you want to spend your time in. Look for the following qualities to make sure you find a stable where you can easily develop your skills:

Friendly atmosphere: Approach people you see at the stable, either individuals caring for their own horses or employees of the facility. You can ask around for directions to the office (every good stable has one, even if it's located in the feed room) and see whether the stable manager is available to give you a tour. Ask the manager about the instructors at the barn and find out what services they offer. People should be courteous and welcoming. If everyone's in a bad mood, you probably don't want to do your riding there.

Clean premises: Even though riding stables are loaded with dust and dirt, the facilities should still be relatively clean and tidy. The horse stalls should be free of excessive piles of manure (a few are okay, but more than that indicates the stalls aren't cleaned often enough); the barn aisles should be free of clutter and mess. Look for a facility that's in good overall repair and has a neat appearance. Flies are always present where you find horses, but the pesky insects shouldn't be crawling all over you.

Safe environment: Make sure the stable has enclosed riding arenas with gates that shut. This feature is important for all riders' safety, especially beginners. Avoid stables that have a lot of animals such as dogs, goats, or chickens running loose as well — these critters can pose a safety hazard to horses and riders.

Healthy and happy horses: Take a look at the horses at the stable. You want to make sure they're well cared for before you give this place your business. A healthy horse has bright eyes, a rounded body (no bony hips or ribs sticking out), and a shiny coat. (Keep in mind that very old horses can sometimes look a little worse for wear.)

Come up to the lesson horses' stalls and talk to the animals; the horses should approach you. Their sociability indicates that they're happy and not overused. Overusing lesson horses is a form of mistreatment, and these animals usually aren't pleasant to ride.

Good policies: Find out what the stable's policies are regarding riding lessons. Are helmets required? Such safety gear is important, especially for children. Also, ask what happens if the weather takes a turn for the worse or if you have to cancel a lesson. Will you get credit for the lesson?

Don't worry if you're asked to sign a liability waiver stating that you hold the stable harmless if you're injured while riding. This waiver is typical; many insurance companies that cover riding stables require it.

Cost: Cost per lesson varies from one stable to another, so make sure you can afford the lessons before you sign up for them. Keep in mind that in most cases, you get what you pay for. Choose the best lessons you can afford.

When making your final decision about stables, keep all these points in mind. Look for a stable that's conveniently located and maybe even offers special features, such as a covered riding arena if weather is an issue where you live. Remember, though, that a good instructor is just as important as a good stable — possibly more so (see the following section). Try to combine the best stable and instructor that you can.

Choosing an Instructor or Trainer

After you find a stable where you'd like to ride (see the earlier section titled "Finding the Best Stable for Your Needs"), you're ready to sleuth out an instructor or trainer from among the professionals working at that stable. As with any activity, you can find both good and bad teachers. Your task is to find a good teacher who understands your goals, has a teaching style you like, and thoroughly understands riding. The person you pick is the one who will teach you how to ride and the one whose lesson horses you'll ride.

In the following sections, I explain how to decide between an instructor and a trainer and tell you what to look for in either one. And if you can't find someone at a stable you like, don't worry — I give you tips on finding other teachers in your area.

Deciding between a riding instructor and a horse trainer

Most large riding stables have both riding instructors and horse trainers. Before you start interviewing prospective teachers, be sure you understand the difference between these two types of professionals:

Instructors: Riding instructors focus on teaching people how to ride. They don't generally ride other people's horses for a living but instead own lesson horses they use for their students.

Trainers: Horse trainers are people who provide instruction to both the rider and the horse. Horse trainers are most valuable to people who own their own horse and who need someone to teach them to ride as well as school the horse on how to behave under saddle.

If you don't plan on buying a horse right away (and you shouldn't until you've spent considerable time riding), a riding instructor is your best bet. This person can let you ride his or her lesson horses and teach you the basics of controlling this very large beast.

In some rural areas, you may find only horse trainers and no riding instructors. If you're in that situation, go with a horse trainer for riding lessons, but be clear that you're a beginner and need a very quiet horse. Some trainers make arrangements with their horse-owning clients to borrow their horses for riding lessons with non-horse-owning clients.

Understanding what to took for in an instructor or trainer

If you've found a convenient stable that you like, choose an instructor or trainer from the group of professionals who work at this facility. Interview at least two people, and ask them the following questions:

What's your background? Look for an instructor who's been teaching riding lessons to adults for at least two years. Find out whether this person has shown horses or done anything else that indicates knowledge about the horse industry.

Are you certified with any groups? Because riding instructors aren't licensed in the U.S. (as they are in Britain and Canada), you can't ask for official credentials. However, you can ask whether an instructor is certified with one of the groups I list in the Appendix of this book (such as the Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association). Because the number of certified instructors is low compared to those who aren't certified, you may not be able to find a teacher with certification. However, if you're trying to choose between two instructors, all else being equal, go for the one who's certified.

Do you have lesson horses? Because you probably don't own your own horse, you need an instructor who has horses you can ride. Try to go with an instructor who has more than one lesson horse. If one horse is sick or lame, you can still ride another one.

Do you work with adult beginners? Make sure the person you choose regularly works with adults just learning how to ride. Some instructors focus on intermediate or upper-level riders and don't have the experience or patience for a beginner. Other instructors deal only with children. You want someone who knows how to teach adults the basics of riding.

What are your fees? Find out how much the instructor charges per lesson. If you buy a package of lessons, the instructor should offer a discount. If the instructor offers both individual and group lessons, find out the difference in cost. (I cover the differences between individual and group lessons later in this chapter.)

When do you give lessons? Be sure the instructors' lesson schedule is compatible with your leisure time. If the instructor works only from 10 to 6 on weekdays and you have a 9-to-5 job, you'll have a problem trying to coordinate your rides. (I discuss setting up a lesson schedule later on.)

May I observe one of your lessons? Ask the instructor whether you can watch a lesson to get a sense of his or her teaching style. The instructor should be more than willing to have you observe. When you watch, look for patience, clear instructions, and praise and encouragement for the student.

If you're satisfied with the answers to these questions and like what you see when you watch the instructor give a lesson, your next step is to take a sample lesson. Be sure to take one lesson as a trial before you commit to a package of lessons. Make sure you're comfortable with this person as a teacher and that his or her style is compatible with your personality.

When you strike out with stables: Seeking out a different teacher

If you don't like what you see in terms of instructors and trainers at the stables you explore, consider looking for a teacher using the following methods:

Contact an organization that certifies riding instructors: You can find a  stable by first searching for a riding instructor and going with the stable where that person works. Organizations that certify riding instructors (see the Appendix) can provide you with the names of certified instructors in your area.

Attend local horse shows: Look in your local newspaper or horse-related publication for listings of horse shows in your area. (Choose shows that include the discipline you hope to ride in.) Go to the shows and watch the classes. You may notice riding instructors and trainers; working with their students on the sidelines. The instructor or trainer is the one functioning as a coach, giving both advice before the student enters the ring and constructive criticism after the class is over.

When the time is right (after the show, during a lunch break, or when the instructor or trainer doesn't seem busy), approach instructors or trainers and tell them that you're a new rider. Ask what stable they work from, request a card, and get basic information about their program to make sure they work with beginners in your chosen discipline. Instructors and trainers may not have time to talk to you at length at the show but should be happy to discuss their program with you over the phone at a later date. See Chapter 22 for details on horse shows.

Ask for referrals: Talk to other people you know in the horse community (other horse owners, horse vets, tack store owners, and the like) and see whom they recommend as a teacher for a beginning rider in your discipline. Sometimes word of mouth is the best way to find a good instructor.

Getting the Most from your Lessons

Perhaps you've found a good stable and instructor and are ready to start your lessons. To get the most from your training, you need to be a good student. Your education starts with this book, so you're partway there! In the following sections, I explain how to choose between individual and group lessons, establish a regular riding schedule, and work well with your teacher.

Deciding between individual and group lessons

Riding lessons come in two varieties: individual and group. See Table 3-1 for the benefits and disadvantages of each type.

You can take either type of lesson, depending on your personal preferences and your budget. Most people prefer individual lessons, and I've always favored them for myself because I like the one-on-one attention; however, group lessons do teach you how to maneuver your horse with other riders in the ring, which is a valuable skill.

Setting up your lesson schedule

Consistency is key

When you ride often and regularly, the concepts sink in more rapidly. And because horseback riding is a physical activity, your body can better develop strength and skill if you participate in it on a regular basis (for info on the physical requirements of horseback riding and how to prepare your body, check out Chapter 4). Of course, the time of day is also pretty significant when you work out your lesson schedule. In the following sections, I cover both lesson frequency and time of day.


The amount of time you have and how much money you can afford to spend determine the number of lessons you take per month. Two lessons a week is ideal — you learn faster, and your body builds balance and muscle more quickly at this pace. If you can't afford to ride twice a week or don't have the time, schedule at least one lesson a week. Once a week is really the minimum you should ride, because riding less often slows learning and doesn't properly condition your body.

Time of day

The time of day that you schedule your lessons probably depends on your work schedule. If you have a 9-to-5 job, you may be able to ride only on the weekends or after work. If you're self-employed or otherwise free during the day, you have more flexibility. Most lessons run 45 minutes to an hour.

Your instructor should be able to provide you with some advice about the best times to ride at his or her stable. If you want private lessons, during the day Monday through Friday is probably the quietest time at the barn. If you're hoping to meet other riders and make your lessons a social event, you may want to schedule them for the weekends or in the evenings.

Note the season when scheduling lessons; in warm weather, early mornings or late afternoon/early evening is best. Riding is a strenuous activity for both you and the horse, and you'll be pretty miserable if you ride in the heat of the day during the summer. During winter, the middle of day may be best for a lesson so you can keep warm.

Working with your instructor or trainer

A large part of getting the most from your riding lessons is how you work with your instructor. A good relationship with your teacher brings faster results. Also, you have more fun if you and your instructor get along, and that's what horseback riding is really all about. I explain how to foster a good relationship with your teacher in the following sections.

Engaging in good communication

Working with a riding instructor is all about communication. Your instructor puts you up on a horse and then tells you, mostly through words, how to control the animal. That's why signing up with an instructor who is patient, easy to understand, and experienced in teaching beginners is crucial.

Riding is a complicated activity that requires you to do more than one thing at a time. You have to do one thing with your hands, another with your legs, and yet another with your seat — all while staying in balance and moving in rhythm with the horse. Figuring out how to coordinate all these parts of your body at once can be tricky, and coaching a beginning rider at this task takes a talented teacher.

In order to make sure your instructor is communicating effectively with you, you need to be a good listener. Stay focused during your lessons and live in the moment. Don't bring family or other potential distractions with you when you ride. If you do, your mind may end up half on whatever is distracting you and half on the task at hand. When you're riding, remember you're just riding and nothing else.

If you find yourself confused about something your instructor has told you to do, or if you find that you can't physically or mentally perform the task he or she is asking of you, talk to your teacher. Let your instructor know that you don't understand or that you feel anxious. A good teacher rephrases the instruction or demonstrates a task for you so you know what he or she is looking for; a good instructor also helps you adjust to trying new things and goes more slowly if necessary.

If you're experiencing pain or discomfort while trying to hold your body in a certain way or maintain a particular position, let your instructor know. Remember, your body needs time to adjust to any new physical activity, and horseback riding is no exception. "No pain, no gain" can definitely apply to horseback riding, but you don't want to hurt yourself. Discuss any discomfort you're having with your instructor so you can find out whether what you're feeling is normal for a beginner or whether you're experiencing more pain than appropriate for the activity. (Chapter 4 has more details on getting into riding shape safely.)

Also speak up when your instructor asks you a question or wants you to count out loud. Some beginners are hesitant to ride and talk at the same time. Have no fears! It's okay to vocalize to your instructor while you're riding.

Teacher's pet: Acting like a model student

A good riding student is someone whom instructors enjoy teaching. A good student is also someone who learns and has fun doing it.

Becoming a good riding student is easy if you follow a few guidelines. These conventions can help both you and your instructor make the most of the experience:

Arrive on time: 

Nothing messes up a riding instructor's schedule like a student who's chronically late for lessons. Most good instructors have a full plate and schedule lessons one after another. If you're late for your lesson, your instructor will have to take the next student later than its scheduled or cut your lesson short. Either way, a loose understanding of punctuality can frustrate your instructor and give the impression that your lessons aren't a priority in your life. (Keep in mind that if you're expected to groom and saddle the horse before your lesson, you need to arrive early.)

Cancel early: 

If you have to cancel your riding lesson, don't call an hour beforehand if you can help it. Give your instructor as much notice as possible so he or she knows which lesson horses are available for students, which slots are open for new students, and so on.

Take care of your horse: 

A good instructor or trainer has you groom and tack up the horse you're going to ride before your lesson. (See Chapter 11 for details on how to tack up, or saddle and bridle, a horse.) This step isn't designed to save the instructor time; it's to teach you how to prepare a horse for riding and care for him after you're finished with your lesson. Don't be a prima donna (or primo don!) and expect your horse to be ready to ride when you arrive at the stable or plan to hand the horse off to some groom when you dismount. These luxuries are reserved for the rich, the famous, and characters in movies. Besides, interacting with the horse before and after the ride is half the fun of this sport.

Don't whine or argue: 

Horseback riding lessons are hard work, but that doesn't mean you should complain incessantly to your instructor about what you're being asked to do. You're paying this person because you recognize his or her expertise in this area, so don't argue when the instructor tells you to do something. Respect your instructor as a professional and a human being, and you should get the same consideration in return.

Pay attention: 

You expect your instructor to be fully engaged during your lessons, and that idea goes both ways. Don't engage in chitchat with people who are in the arena or hanging out on the fence rail, and stay focused. Your instructor will recognize you as a serious student.

Do your homework:

Some instructors may give you homework to do to help improve your riding. This work can be anything from exercises to strengthen your muscles to reading a book or article to help educate you on something you're working on. Do this extra work to help improve your riding ability and to keep your instructor invested in your learning.

Pay your bill: 

Most riding instructors are kind enough to give you your lessons first and collect payment later. Don't make your instructor regret this policy by not paying when the money is due. Late payment breeds bad blood between you and your teacher and can seriously affect your relationship.

Expecting the right behavior from instructors and trainers

Just as riding students have rules to live by, so should trainers and instructors. Expect certain behavior from your instructor during your lessons and in your professional relationship. Instructors should be


You're paying your instructor to teach you to ride a horse. If your teacher is chatting with his or her friends during your lesson, schooling a client's horse, or talking on a cellphone, he or she isn't focused on you and your riding. Although an occasional lapse in attention is not a big deal, chronic distractions are unacceptable.


Being able to teach others is a special skill. Your instructor should be patient with you as you learn and should teach you with respect. Don't tolerate yelling or humiliation of any kind from a riding instructor. Anyone who uses this method shouldn't be in the business of teaching beginners to ride.


Just as you should give ample notice if you need to cancel, the same goes for your instructor. Sometimes last-minute cancellations are unavoidable, such as in the case of a lame or sick lesson horse or another type of emergency. But chronic cancellations, especially at the last minute, indicate a lack of respect for the student.


Riders of any level need consistency in their riding schedule in order to develop their skills and build up their muscles and balance. Expect your instructor to schedule regular lessons for you so you can get the most out of your lesson program.

If you find you aren't getting what you need from your riding instructor, discuss your problems with him or her. If you still aren't satisfied after the talk, consider finding another teacher.