Making the most of your riding lessons

10 ways to help make your lessons more rewarding, and how you can become your trainer's favourite student at the same time!

1. Do some prep work

A successful lesson starts from the moment you book. Figure out your budget and how many lessons you can afford during the month, find out when your coach is available and put it on your calendar. Decide which days you can’t ride, due to work, school or other commitments, and mark those on the calendar too, so you can schedule your lessons in a logical way. Having your horse fit and ready for a lesson is a must, according to dressage trainer Andrea Bank.

“I love teaching anyone who turns up on the day with a good attitude and I can’t really recall having a bad a student,” she says. “But the odd time I have had someone come and they have only ridden their horse once or twice in the last month. For me that is really frustrating, because it would be like us trying to run 10km when we have only trained twice,” she says. 

It’s also a good idea to make sure you’re nicely presented; having a clean horse and clean gear is courteous and professional. “It shows a level of respect for the trainer if the rider turns up looking tidy, with clean gear and especially clean boots,” says Andrea. “In Germany they are very strict. You would never be allowed to walk into the arena with shavings in the horse’s tail or dirty riding boots. It’s not about having the fanciest gear; it’s about looking after it.”

2. Arrive early

It’s happened to us all – a horse that doesn’t want to be caught or a traffic jam that’s made us late. There’s nothing worse than scrambling around while your instructor waits for you, so make sure you allow a bit of extra time for unscheduled hold-ups. Many of us are guilty of trying to pack too much into the day, but if you set yourself an unrealistically tight time-frame to get to your lesson after work, it will be hard to relax and get into the right sort of mindset for learning.

Apart from the fact that running late doesn’t set you up for success, it’s also just plain rude – top event trainer Kirstin Kelly says riders who don’t turn up on time cause her a lot of stress. “I have heard of some trainers who stick to their times regardless,” says Kirstin. “Blyth Tait told me that once somebody drove all the Whangarei and only had a 15 minute lesson – he said ‘that’s it, you should have been on time!’ But I could never do that. If something has gone wrong in the lesson, you feel like you want to fix it and then it puts you really late, so everybody else gets annoyed and the last person is in the dark.”

If you’re getting a lesson from someone new, it’s a good idea to check whether they want you to warm up beforehand or just be mounted and ready to go. Dressage trainer Jody Hartstone says she doesn’t like her students to work in at all. “I prefer to watch them from the beginning. Especially if they’ve come with a problem behaviour, I want to see it from the get-go.”

Turning up on time goes a long way with trainers like Kirstin Kelly!

3. Communicate

You should never be afraid to stop and ask your trainer questions if something is unclear. If your coach is telling you to ride a particular way, but you’re not sure why, you won’t be able to recreate the magic when you’re working at home alone. In order for a lesson to be lasting, you need to understand the reasoning behind your coach’s system. Take the time at the end of the lesson to ask them to clarify things so you understand the big picture. 

Show jumping trainer and Grand Prix rider Lisa Coupe agrees there’s nothing worse than coming away from a lesson and thinking you don’t really know what they were on about. “Most trainers are also riders, so they know what it’s like to be in that position and they would rather you tell them if you don’t understand. Sometimes a simple re-phrase might make an idea much clearer, and you can get there a lot quicker if you know what you’re trying to achieve.”

Communication goes both ways, and by providing feedback, you’re actually giving your trainer a lot of valuable information. Kirstin says she always asks people what they are feeling, because if she sees the horse soften or brace against the rein and the rider doesn’t feel that, then it’s something they need to be educated about. “It’s definitely really important to say what you feel, so you can make sure that what you perceive is actually correct – not that you think the trot is really fast when your horse hardly looks like he’s moving.”

Dressage trainer Saskia Ostermeier feels there should be a balance between riding and talk in a lesson, depending on the level of training and how many prior lessons a rider has had with the trainer. “I do prefer that riders communicate with me if they have concerns or questions, but if they just use the chat to stop the hard work, I tell them to get on with it, because in the end, I want results.”

Saskia says there should be a balance between riding and talking, but don’t chat to get out of work!

4. Commit to regular lessons

Improvement takes patience and consistency. No trainer is going to fix your problems overnight and you need to commit to regular lessons to give the principles you’re learning a chance to take root. Saskia suggests picking a local trainer and having weekly lessons, because regular eyes on the ground are crucial for progress. “Bouncing from trainer to trainer may work for some riders, but most only get confused and never develop a real system,” she believes. 

While Kirstin agrees it’s important to find a trainer that you can relate to and stick with them the majority of the time, going on clinics with other trainers occasionally can also be valuable. “It’s a fresh set of eyes that might find something else, plus they give you different exercises. Certainly I think it’s very valuable watching other people ride, because then when you come up against that problem with your horse, hopefully you’ll remember what they did to fix that; in that way, being on a clinic becomes four lessons rolled into one.”

5. Keep an open mind

Trying something new often feels uncomfortable and scary, so riding lessons are best approached with an open mind. Riders who are willing to listen and go outside their comfort zone progress much more quickly than those who persist in reverting to old habits that don’t serve them well.

“What’s the point in paying someone money to teach you if you don’t want to take in what they are saying?” points out Lisa. “At least be open to giving something a go – you might get a light-bulb moment. When riders turn up and do the same thing over and over again, you basically feel like you’re yelling at a brick wall.”

It’s very rare that riders are incapable of following instructions; it’s just that if something feels foreign they may be tempted to put it in the too-hard basket, says Lisa.

“It’s always going to feel a little uncomfortable in the beginning when you’re trying to fix something. Your muscles feel different and it’s a little bit challenging for your brain to change a certain pattern of things that you normally do. Also your horse might not be conditioned to react to what you’re asking it to do if you’ve ridden it for so long in one way. Sometimes, you have to get a little ugly to get better.”

Lisa Coupe says communication is a two-way street

6. Do your homework

Trainers want their riders to ride well and do better and this means working hard on what you’ve been taught at home in between lessons. Homework is a biggie for Kirstin; ideally, your horse should improve from one lesson to the next.

“If your horse isn’t adjustable, that should be your goal. By the next lesson you will have worked on the canter poles enough that you can progress on to the next level of exercise,” she says.

Most of the time, it should be obvious what you need to work on, but if you feel like the lesson was busy, take time at the end to devise an after-lesson plan with your trainer.

 “Some people’s retention of a lesson is really clear, but others feel that they’ve done so much they forget a lot of it. If you’re one of those sorts of people, you need to let your trainer know so they can isolate what’s important and how you achieved that,” says Kirstin.

“It’s always good to ask about the bigger picture, because that way it can be condensed into a couple of points that are really important.”

7. Video your lessons

One of the best ways to get added value from your lesson is to video it. Many of us are visual learners and the easiest way to evaluate what’s going on with your riding can be seeing it with your own eyes. 

“It is so important to be videoed!” says Andrea. “I still sit down and watch my lessons with Jonny Hilberath (German team coach) from over a year ago and I still learn from watching them. It’s important not to over-analyse, but sometimes things look so different from what we are feeling.”

8. Have realistic expectations

It’s always a good idea to discuss your goals for the lesson with your trainer and make sure these are achievable. For example, there’s no point in wanting to work on flying changes if you can’t move your horse’s quarters and his canter is not adjustable. 

Jody says she does try to give riders what they want, but there are definitely times when you have to be realistic. “I do understand that sometimes you feel like you’re always going over the basics and you want to learn a half-pass,” she acknowledges. “I have people who say they really want to do piaffe and as long as their horse is half-trained, I’ll often give them a fun lesson like that. But it’s pretty hard if at the beginning of the lesson you say you want to do piaffe or flying changes, because in all honesty if you haven’t been doing them, your horse is probably not going to be ready for them.

“If you discuss your goals with your trainer, they can say look, you’re really going to have to improve your sitting trot if you want to do Level 3. There are plenty of people with ambition, but many want to do far more than they’re ever going to do, realistically.”

Event trainer Jock Paget says he often sees riders who want to jump or compete at a level above where they should, particularly in clinics. 

“Sometimes people genuinely think they should be in the three-star group, when they should really be doing Pre-Novice,” says Jock.

“In that situation, I’ll normally say something like okay, in order to jump that three-star combination, you need to be able to create this kind of canter, you need to be able to place the horse at this type of distance and you need the horse to be able to hold its line on landing and turn quite sharply. If they can’t tick those boxes, then they haven’t got a hope of putting it together in a combination.”

Ride to your level, advises Jock

9. Set goals

Riders who can set concrete goals make more progress than riders who don’t. Talk to your trainer about what your goals should be in your weekly training, as well as longer-term targets. Your goals should be achievable, but also challenging enough.

Jock says it helps to ‘put a pin in the map’: you don’t always get a straight route to the pin, but if you know where you’re going the decisions you make can revolve around that pin. He also likes to give riders goals to work on when they are on their own. 

“I don’t think it’s healthy for people to have lessons all the time – it gives you no chance to own what you’re doing. If you give a rider something to work on, you learn a lot about the rider when they come back again.”

However, riders who are extremely focused on competition need to be wary of using scores and results as their only goals. It can be hard to see a friend going up the heights faster, or scoring better percentages, when you work just as hard. Goals can be more personal, such as improving your horse’s suppleness or your sitting trot. Talk to your trainer about your goals and don’t try to compete at a higher level if they insist you aren’t ready yet.

“It’s hard to coach some people away from that mentality, if they are very competitive,” says Jock. “Training horses is a real process. You need to be able to do particular things before you go up the levels. The scary part is when people blindly enter a two-star not knowing what the horse needs to be able to do.”

10. Be honest

Trust is a huge part of the coach/rider relationship and being open and honest with your trainer is crucial. If the trust breaks down and your relationship is not great, your trainer isn’t going to be invested in you and you won’t get the most out of your lessons.

Lisa says while trainers definitely don’t love it when you jump ship completely, it’s far better to front up and admit that things aren’t working out.

“If they know you’ve been seeing someone else on the side or you’re not doing your homework that trust will fall by the wayside,” Lisa explains.

“Trainers often understand if you want to have a lesson with someone else – just be honest about it. It can be fine, but not if it’s not being done in an open way, or if the rider is looking for a band-aid trainer with a magic trick. That’s frustrating as a trainer when you’re working down a path, because there are no short-cuts; improving takes time and effort and patience and consistency. 

“It’s like any relationship: what you put into it is how much you get out of it.”

Jody says great students always do their homework

What makes a good student?

Saskia Ostermeier: A good student is one who takes responsibility for their own development as a rider. Judges are people too and yes, they do make mistakes, but overall they do a good job in New Zealand. Respect the judge’s marking of that test, on that day, and move on and work harder. Look in the mirror and set realistic goals. Recognise the limitations of yourself and/or your horse. You should also have empathy for the horse and give them a proper warm up and cool down.

Kirstin Kelly: Someone who puts what they learn in a lesson into practice. There’s nothing worse than having someone turn up every week and having to go over the same exercises with them every time.

Andrea Bank: I enjoy teaching people who show some emotion if they get the right feeling, or give me some feedback if something doesn’t work. It has to be a team effort. I love to hear how my clients are going and will often send them a message after a competition. It is rewarding for the trainer and also helps keep the rider inspired.

Jody Hartstone: Someone who has done their homework – there’s only so much we can do in 45 minutes, so that’s definitely the way to make the biggest improvement. Make sure you’ve got the take-home message and if the instructor hasn’t given you one then ask them: what’s my homework?

Jock Paget: You can always be more productive with someone who gives you feedback, as you can get a little bit of insight into what they’re thinking and their interpretation of what you’re saying.

What NOT to do

Kirstin: Rock up and say ‘I haven’t ridden my horse for two years’ – and I’m not joking, I have had that happen when I taught a jumping clinic! If your horse isn’t fit, at least warn the trainer so they can be kind and give it lots of breaks.

Lisa: The worst thing is when people turn up and they have an answer back for everything and a reason why it’s not going to work. You just stand there and think ‘why did you come, because clearly you think you know everything?’ 

Andrea: My pet hate is seeing frustrations being taken out on the horses. If you have had a bad day at work/home you must leave those emotions outside of the arena.

Jock: Don’t make excuses. If you sit and watch great riders have a lesson, you won’t be hearing any excuses. If they can’t do something, they won’t avoid it; they will figure out what they are doing wrong and make sure they get it right.

Jody: I find it annoying when people say they really want something but aren’t prepared to put in the hard yards. And also the people that talk the whole time. Some people just want to socialize, but they pay a lot of money and it makes me a bit edgy if they chat too much. I am actually very aware that I should be giving you plenty of bang for your buck, and it seriously eats into our lesson time!

  • This story was first published in the April 2018 issue of NZ Horse & Pony magazine