lesson 2.

Some people say that a coach can do only so much.

The argument goes like this: after a certain point, there is only so much a riding instructor can say to change a rider's skills. Most of the results come from the rider. After all - if the rider chooses not to (or simply cannot) do what the instructor says, then how much can one person do?

Although it is true that most riders go through difficult learning moments at some point in their riding career, and they might be faced with frustration in a different way than in other sports simply due to the nature of riding a horse, it cannot be said that across the board, riders don't want to put in the effort it takes to improve.

Most of us are riding because of our lifelong passion for horses. Most of us want to serve our horses by being the best rider we can be. Most of us are internally motivated in the first place just because we want to do well and love the feeling of good movement.

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Most of us want to do the right thing.

So, assuming that the rider is in fact interested in performing well, how much can an instructor really do to help a rider improve?

When Good Instruction Becomes Great

Great instructors repeatedly show characteristics that make positive effects on their students. They are the ones that make a difference in their riders in one single ride. They are able to send the student home with concrete feedback that can then be used to continue developing independently.

What are these traits?

1. Great instruction begins at the student's level.

Great instructors quickly recognize the rider's skill level; then, they meet the student with instruction that works to that level. If the student is more of a beginner, the skills being taught might be simplified so that the rider doesn't become too overwhelmed and can achieve success.

The instructor might focus on one or two main points that need to be developed during that ride. For more advanced students, the instructor may come across as more demanding, more particular, more exacting. In each case (and all those in-between), the instructor assumes a different teaching approach that meets the student's needs.

2. Great instructors can explain the basics of the basics exceptionally well.

There is nothing more difficult than trying to explain the most fundamental skills to a rider. The experience of the rider is irrelevant - if there is something that needs to be addressed, then there is no point in going onwards until the basics are addressed. The learning might be the rider's or the horse's - and great instructors will know what to do in each case. Even the most advanced movements are rooted in the basics.

3. Great instructors have an excellent command of the language.

Communication is key, especially for someone who must stand in the middle (or at the side) of a ring while the student is in perpetual motion. The great instructor can change the rider's behavior with only words - well, ok - maybe in conjunction with sounds, energy, gestures and weight shifts to the left and right! But there can be no replacement for a varied and rich vocabulary that can effectively pass on feels and ideas.

4. Great instructors have relevant personal experience.

"There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path," Morpheus explained to Neo in The Matrix. The truth to that statement cannot be overestimated especially when the instructor is trying to teach something new to a rider. Having a good feeling of what the rider is going through can make the great instructor relate to the stumbling blocks and find a way around them.

5. Great instructors are great problem-solvers.

Many top level trainers speak of the tools we need to collect on our mental toolboxes to solve problems. But toolboxes are not critical to just riders - great instructors have superior problem-solving tools that they have used in different conditions with different riders. Experience is key - not from just a riding perspective, but from a teaching point of view as well.

6. Great instructors help the student set goals but know when to break them.

There is a certain amount of flexibility involved in great instruction. Although both instructor and rider should be in perpetual evaluation mode, setting new goals and changing them as they are met, the biggest key to meeting goals is the willingness to break from the beaten path when the necessity arises. Despite having a plan for the day, if during the ride, a completely off-topic situation arises, the great instructor will meet that event head-on without any pre-planning.

7. Great instructors are willing to wait.

They are patient - not only with the rider, but also with the horse. Additionally, they teach their students how to have the same patience when it comes to training the horse.

8. Great instructors are ethical.

They maintain the highest standards of care and welfare for the horse and they teach their students to do the same.

Finally! The Ultimate Rider-Centered Program!

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I'm sure that I am missing many other ways good instructors become great. Can you add to the list? Please comment below.

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If you enjoyed the above article, you might also enjoy:

To Lesson or Not To Lesson? That shouldn’t even be a question!

Stepping “Forward” in Horse Riding: The term ‘forward’ is used liberally in horse riding but is often misunderstood.

A Cautionary Horse Tale: Once you decide to ride horses, you put into place a domino effect of consequences, which will occur whether you are conscious of them or not. It’s like a rule of nature.

The Truth About Balance: We all strive for balance – in our position, our seat, our movement with the horse.

When Do You Start Riding Your Horse? This question was being posed to me by a very respected and horse-wise mentor one day long ago, early in my riding development.


  1. Lets say a kid, is hitting the bleep out of the baseball, you think you should change his batting stance?
    A kid is making his free throws or lets say more than half his FT’s are you going to change his style?

  2. I think a great instructor will admit when they don’t know something and keep the best interest of the horse and rider in mind. They will suggest someone who might help either or both and not let their ego get in the way. They don’t feel that someone else will “take their student away” if they let them go to a clinic or a consultation. They think only of improving the performances.

    1. Excellent !! Every few months or so bring in a (like) trainer for the same advice with different words. . Sometimes a new face can reach the corner of the mind that seems unintentionally locked.away.

  3. Great instructors are great students. A great instructor can learn from every lesson they teach, even the littlest beginner. Never miss a chance to improve as a rider or a teacher. Use every chance, and with enough awareness you can find something to strengthen. Your most important pupil is yourself.

    1. I love this! I have an instructor who I think is a great instructor. One day after a lesson he thanked me, because he learned something new about how to think about teaching something. (Specifically, in getting my seat into the saddle – as the result of a major back injury my muscles on the fronts and backs of my legs developed unevenly, and I had to consciously think of using my hamstrings – like trying to pull my butt cheeks down to the back of my knees – in order to help open my hip angle and get myself solidly down into the saddle. He had never thought of the legs’ part in helping a rider sit, as he hadn’t dealt with someone who had muscle atrophy from that type of injury before.)

      1. A good instructor will know that the whole body influences the seat!!! And the legs being a major part of that…….. that is basic knowledge that anyone calling themselves an instructor/trainer should know already and not have to learn it from a student!!!!

  4. This is a great one…Just love all of your posts. As a riding instructor, I can certainly relate to all of these points. I also enjoy encouraging my students to trust their instincts. I ask them a lot of questions to find what feels right in their riding. So I would add, good instructors challenge their students to develop their intuition. Listen to the insights coming from within.
    Good instructors need to respect what students are going through on the most internal levels. This not only gives confidence to the riders, it helps to prevent accidents. Instructors need to keep a really good dialogue with their students in order to keep a pulse on how much to push forward and when to repeat exercises. Thanks again for your writing!

  5. When taken in conjunction with an inanimate object, perhaps not. Perhaps, though, the style or stance could potentially be harmful biomechanically to the ball player, perhaps yes. But with the horse, we are dealing with two living things. Perhaps my personal style can get the job done, but it is at an expense to the other living thing. . . then, yes, it should be corrected. And then, that correction may enhance even myself and open new vistas of self-improvement I was not even aware of!

  6. I think great instructors also keep learning themselves, and are open minded. Attending clinics, or reading new books with new ideas also keep your teaching fresh. Great article.

  7. Too bad there are so many BAD instructors…they don’t have the knowledge, the experience, or the personality to teach someone how to ride.

    1. There are BAD instructors I agree. But they have to start somewhere. You can’t be a good teacher unless you practice. 🙂

  8. As relates to more advanced riders, a good instructor will allow the student to problem-solve when appropriate, rather than always giving “now do this, now do that” instructions. If you’re always told exactly what you should be doing, you never really learn to figure out what it takes to ride well in any given situation. Especially because we know that two horses can be presenting the same issue for entirely different reasons! When the student does something successfully, the good instructor will ask the student to explain why that particular action worked. Once you can explain something, you really know it.

  9. My best instructors always make the lesson a positive experience. One almost always has a moment or two—-sometimes more, or doing something well, of getting it right. A great instructor always confirms that momwnt.

    My best riding lessons are when I leave the barn knowing something about horses, tack, fitiing, care, safety —-thngs apart from riding that are so essential in caring well for horses.

  10. As a riding teacher and coach for over 50 years I believe that ALL teachers should learn a new skill as often as possible – preferably one that they struggle with – to remember what it feels like and to stay humble.

  11. Great instructors always summarise the learning at the end of the session and set things for the learner to practice before the next session. Consolidation of learning is the most important element in the process and learner s may concentrate on the wrong things left to themselves, or worse the negative parts of the lesson!

  12. As a coach, I love to learn, to read and to train. I feel it is my duty as said coach to stay current both when riding and coaching. I coach my clients not to NEED me. I am always here for them, however I cannot be in the arena with them 24/7 so therefore I like them to have the confidence and mental tool box to work their horses alone too 🙂

  13. Very well written…..I think that it is also important for an instructor to receive instruction/education themselves and are constantly working to improve their own skill sets. The ability to continually add tools to the toolbox is important in order to help riders and horses. I am fortunate to have such instructors in my life!

  14. As other comments emphasized, a good teacher must always keep learning herself. This keeps your lessons from becoming boring and more importantly, keeps you from believing that your knowledge-base is the “be-all and end-all.” Horses provide us with endless opportunities to learn and deepen our training/ teaching practice – that’s the FUN of it! I would also add that good teachers must find something to like and admire about every student (whether human or equine) – look for the good! Thanks for this awesome blog post!

  15. Wonderful post! I am continually amazed by my instructor’s ability to find new ways to explain concepts to me when I am not “getting it”. And when I am stuck and cannot do something, she knows exactly how to break down the task into small achievable steps, then ties them together until – surprise – I am doing what she asked me to in the first place.

  16. Reblogged this on thebestmare and commented:
    Well said! I’ve had some “OK” instructors, some less than that even, some “good,” and some “great.” The proof is in the pudding: when I think back and realize I’ve learned more in a month with one trainer than in a year with another, I know I’m looking at one of the great ones.

    1. I agree. I was with an instructor for about 4 years. Due to certain circumstances, I started riding with another instructor. I learned more from my new instructor in 2 months than I did with my previous instructor. And the proof is in the way the horse moved (much better with the new instructor).

  17. Great instructors do not humilate their students, either alone or in front of others, by saying how much they suck (in my case, right before going down center line at a recognized show). Don’t need to be fluffed up, but don’t need to be taken down so I doubt my riding before entering the ring. Some riders may benefit from this, but I don’t.

  18. In my school, I have had great success with a patient, ‘When you are ready’ approach; not rushing the student, the horse, or the moment. Every riding instructor wants their students to progress swiftly, however, even though the most talented and well balanced rider, is insecure in their own body, no matter how many times you tell them they are fantastic, and play the Nationals or Olympics card…Yea, kinda frustrating! Take a step back, cherish those moments of synchronicity, and relish the accomplished, happy looks on the faces of those students. it is their moment, not yours…Celebrate the softness and willingness of the horse, at that same moment. My students say it is hard just walking and getting their body correct, to where the horse blows it nose with appreciation, then the magic begins. The student likes to hear the horse blow (say thank you) for sitting correctly and relaxed in the saddle. Both the student and the horse learn to crave just that subtly, and refuse to move forward in a walk exercise, until they have mastered the BALANCED UNITY, due to the frequent reward from the horse.
    That look, at that moment, when the students eyes light up and silently say, YES!! I GOT IT!!
    Hugs for More Great Moments with your Equine Partner…
    Kat Klenk
    Harmony Stables
    Elkhart, Indiana

  19. I think good a good instructor always considers the horse first. Many riders do not like this approach. Now this also includes the rides level. This is a sport that a horse is included so therefore it must be about him/her first. How else does rider learn how to think about whom ever they are rider like these unless it happens from the beginning.
    It is not about the instructor nor the rider it is about the horse and what we can do for them. I have had to many riders that would like the lesson to be about them. I have learnt over the years the more I cater to the horse the better it is for everyone in the end. Other riders need to take up tennis if they want it to be about themselves.
    The horse is the teacher , the master , the student and the communicator if we listen !!!

  20. I feel it is my job as a teacher to know my own limitations. We need to recognize once we have helped our students to reach the point where they are ready to move on.

  21. A great instructor believes in repetition . No matter how far you are in riding, there is a lot to be said about repeating the basics and drilling both your student and thier mount to maintain that they are retaining what they’ve learned. Not to mention the muscle memory that certain exercizes can have on a horse.

  22. I have to say that you can tell when you have a great instructor(s) when you’re in the show ring. I took everything they had taught me and listened to their little hints on the rail and it really paid off. Last summer was my first time showing and I started off with my first ever show in second place. I then went on to get two first places later on in the summer at my last show of the season. It was a great feeling for sure. Now they’re teaching me the last bits of what I need to know to take care of my horse while I’m away at college. My dream is to one day own a barn of my own and teach how I’ve been taught. c:

  23. Micro- A great teacher gives his students drills or other ways to help them improve in unguided practice.
    Macro- A great teacher understands that LEARNING, not teaching, is his product. He builds the feeling of “I learned”, “I improved”, or “I accomplished” into every lesson.

  24. To add to #3, as far as the communication, they should also know when to be quiet. Drives me nuts when I’m trying to concentrate on executing something new and the instructor has verbal diarrhea.

  25. This is an excellent post. I also find that to be a great instructor you have to understand how that particular rider learns and adjust to that. If she is an auditory learner, you need to do a lot of talking. A visual learner might need to see a demo or read a book and a kinesthetic learner may do best trying a new skill on an experienced horse to get the feel. An instructor needs to learn the student’s personality and then mold to it regardless of whether or not it’s the instructor’s true personality.

  26. A great instructor, like a great trainer needs a superior sense of ‘feel’ and intuition for both horse and rider.

  27. Your article just confirmed what I already knew — I am blessed with a GREAT trainer/instructor!!

  28. Listen to the rider. Keep safety in mind, but also challenge them.
    One of the hardest things for an instructor is knowing when to trust a student that doesn’t want to jump higher, go faster, or try a difficult movement, and knowing when tof push them to try something hard or new. Sometimes the student can feel something that the instructor can’t see or knows their personal limits better. Safety is the most important thing because no one wants a hurt horse or a hurt rider, but sometimes mastering something difficult can also give them a surge of confidence. This is why maintaining an open and respectful dialog between instructor and rider is so important.

  29. Great instructors explore different teaching techniques when things are not getting through to the student. Great instructors recognize different learning styles.

  30. Great instructors will acknowledge the rider’s efforts to achieve, even if they haven’t quite achieved the goal. A little praise goes a long way to building confidence and timely praise, at the exact moment the rider does something right, helps internalise the feeling of ‘doing it right’. Great instructors always end with positive reinforcement of the learning and progress that has happened and sets a few realistic achievable goals for the rider to work on.

  31. I aGree with all the above. Was an instructor for many years. But you also need a student willing to show up, listen, and try. Will work forever with them. Really hard to help the blame the horse, the horse won’t, and the yes, but … Students that don’t take any responsibility for their poor relationships with their horses.

  32. If my students are having difficulties understanding something I am trying to teach them, and if I can not put it in words that they are able to understand, I will ‘switch places’ with them so that they have a visual. It works every time!:) Also during a lesson, we always leave off on a good note. If it is getting close to the end of the lesson, and we are having troubles getting the desired result, we continue until we have achieved our goal. I make sure the student was able to feel the difference in what they have done, I always have them praise the horse when they ‘get it right’ and I ALWAYS praise the student!

  33. I am an instructor and am constantly reading and learning new ideas. I will print out articles from the Horse Listening blog, have my students take them home to read and we will work on that idea or movement in our next lesson, We will discuss anything they had a difficulty understanding, Speaking in riding instructor lingo is a whole different language to a new student.
    I too take the horse into great consideration, I teach my students to treat the horse with respect so the horse enjoys each ride/lesson,
    I have had many students who have helped me in my way of thinking. Who have taught me a better way to teach, a better way to explain something and have raised a question I never thought of before, Each of my students teach me something new and valuable about my teaching methods and I never take any student or horse for granted.

  34. A Truly great trainer has a talent in spotting a potential student that have a common
    “take” sense of boundary , sportsmanship and commitment ,work ethic and most importantly a similar “SENSE OF HUMOR ” Let’s face it. The act of learning ,let alone competition needs a safety valve . To close a recipe for the worst teacher /student relationship hands down is MONEY ,career advancement or any relationship ruled by self serving motives i,e. trophy clients prestiege trainers any aspect in a relationship that is self serving or one sided

  35. Throwing in my two cents! An instructor that can foster or create trust can make the difference between good and great. I trust my instructor to challenge me but not ask for things that are so beyond me. I will take bigger leaps and bigger challenges because I trust him and the other great instructors, the horses!

  36. Courtney Has an instructor that can explain a feeling or sensation she needs to achieve. She too watches for that moment when achieved she says there did you feel that? She is a great instructor

  37. A great instructor realizes horses are like children some are very sensitive you have to be careful how you handle them with your aids with your tone of voice sometimes a strong word makes a sensitive animal shake in their boots
    Some need a stronger approach They are lethargic or lazy or laid-back or have become dull through past experience in their life with people
    You’ll learn to handle each personality type of both the combination of horse and rider Some riders are suited better to certain animals Through great instruction they should learn to change their own approach depending on the mount

  38. Another great article. 🙂 I teach bellydance as well as riding and I can tell you that these points you’ve articulately made work for both disciplines.

    One thing I’d like to add is that great instructors humble enough to know they do NOT know it all and are STILL actively learning, themselves. They are still taking lessons, have a mentor, attending workshops/clinics, etc.