How to Find a Good Riding Instructor

Finding a good riding instructor is not as simple as a trot through the yellow pages. The two most important rules for riding lessons are that they should be safe and fun. If either of these is missing, you're in the wrong barn.

Before you begin, determine what type of riding you want to do. There are a variety of disciplines, divided into two types: Western and English. There are more choices within those two styles. For instance, English includes Jumpers, Hunt Seat and Eventing. Western offers Gymkana, Pleasure, Reining and more.

The easiest way to choose type is to evaluate your particular interest. Do you want to jump? Then you should take English instruction. If galloping through the woods over stone walls appeals to you, go to an Event instructor, or a Dressage trainer if you like the idea of "ballet" on horseback. Do you think you'd enjoy games like barrel racing? Then you want to ride Western. Many people learn more than one discipline before finding their niche. The more you learn, the better a rider you become.

Look for a Good Facility

Once you've decided what style you'd like to ride, look for a good facility. It's important to do a little legwork. Don't just telephone barns – visit them. Look at the horses used in the riding program. Ask questions about the mounts available for lessons.

If you're shopping for lessons for a child, don't assume that because the barn is stocked with ponies, they're all good beginner horses. Ponies can be unruly, and don't necessarily make the best rides. My children both began their riding careers on a 17-hand former New York City police horse who was the gentlest creature I've ever met. This is definitely an area where size doesn't count – temperament and experience do.

When you visit barns, make sure safety is paramount. A good teaching facility will have a firm helmet rule. This means everyone is required to wear a helmet when mounted. Don't accept the excuse that, because he or she is a "professional," they don't need a helmet. This is like saying that a good driver doesn't need a seatbelt. And it's certainly not the message to send to students.

Observe the Teachers

Now it's time to search out instructors. Spend a few hours observing a teacher you are considering and you can save considerable time and money in the long run. An instructor who screams at students, berates them or is condescending is not the one you want. Talk with the instructors about the lesson program, riding style and student goals. Then, make arrangements to watch a lesson or two with someone at your riding level before signing on.

Don't assume that a good rider automatically makes a good teacher. I've seen some Olympians who can ride like they were part of the horse but couldn't impart how they do it. A good instructor doesn't just shout directions; he or she explains why it is important to keep your heels down or your eyes up. It's much easier to do something when you know the reason for it. And there are some very basic riding rules that do not come naturally to us physically but are vital to correct riding.

Question Instructor's Experience

Don't be afraid to question the instructor's experience or background when you research lessons. Some states, such as Massachusetts, require instructors to be certified. Check that out. And ask for referrals from an instructor's students before you hire the person.

If you are considering riding lessons for a child, avoid group lessons if the child is under the age of seven. No matter how good the instructor may be, it only takes a moment when she turns away to observe another student for the one behind her to get into trouble. Although private lessons may be slightly more expensive, it's well worth it from a safety standpoint for this age group. Between seven and ten, semi-private lessons are good for children with some experience.

In general, taking the time to choose a suitable riding instructor can help you enjoy a lifetime with horses.