Selecting the Best Riding Clinic

We're deep into the season for riding clinics and no matter what your interest you can find a clinic that caters to it. But beware – before you write your check and hook up the trailer, make sure the clinician is appropriate for you, your horse and your riding level.

Clinics can be wonderful learning opportunities. They often give riders the rare chance to work with high-caliber instructors. I recently attended one at which Olympic Three-Day medalist Michael Page was the clinician. He runs a terrific session because he is attuned to both the learning level of the horses and riders he is teaching. Here are a few guidelines for selecting a suitable clinic:

Check It Out

If you don't know the clinician, except by name, take the time to audit one of his or her sessions before you ride – or at least talk with someone who has. Frequently, we are so impressed by the clinician's high profile that we assume they are going to improve our riding miraculously in 90 minutes. I've been to a lot of clinics, and I've yet to witness any miracles.

This is not always the clinician's fault. This person, who has never seen you or your horse before, must quickly evaluate you and your riding ability, as well as the scope of your mount. Unless the clinician is someone with whom you've worked before, all you can hope for are some suggestions for improvements or specific help in a problem area. Three things to look for when auditing a clinic:

A Good Match?

Sometimes the clinician's teaching style may not be one you enjoy. There are several top-level riders who are known to employ less than tactful methods in their clinics. It isn't necessary to reduce grown people to tears in order for them to get their money's worth. After all, this is supposed to be fun.

Even more worrisome, however, are those clinicians who, having made it to the top level of their sport, either have forgotten how to instruct the lower levels or think it's effective to overface either the horse or rider. This is how riders and horses are injured.

I once attended a two-day clinic run by one of England's best eventers. He has ridden several horses to Olympic glory. Unfortunately, the five people he was teaching weren't even near that level of competence, something he appeared not to realize even though they had all ridden for him the previous day. He set the group at a very difficult and technical cross country obstacle – as the first jump of the day, no less – and, to no one's surprise, all five riders had refusals, falls and some were injured. Those who lasted the day continued to jump obstacles that were well over their heads – literally and figuratively.

Although this type of clinic experience may leave the rider with a sense of accomplishment, it certainly doesn't do that for the horse. All the horse knows is that he's looked at some very scary things he wasn't prepared for, and – in most cases – is certainly not going to do this the next time because now he knows better. You can set your training back months, or even years, with this kind of situation.

Follow Your Instincts

Certainly, a clinic should be a place to try new things and experience new challenges, but within reason. When you ride in a clinic, don't make the mistake of ignoring your instinct. We all believe that, because the clinician is so experienced, successful and expert, that he or she must know better than we do and blindly go forth to do his bidding. I actually have seen some clinicians who try to browbeat or shame riders into doing something for which they don't feel prepared. Run – do not walk – from such a situation.

If you are asked to do something that frightens you or for which you're not ready, say no. Some people feel that if they say no and everyone else jumps the fence, theyll feel really stupid. Perhaps this is true, but you and your horse will still be intact, and that's what counts. Some suggested statements for bowing out gracefully:

Whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of thinking that because you spent $100 or $200 that if you don't do everything the clinician suggests, it won't be worthwhile. Sometimes, especially for young or green horses, the simple experience of working in a group is an accomplishment.

Clinics can be a wonderful learning experience. But if you're looking to conquer major new challenges, the place to do it is under the guidance of your regular instructor who knows you and your horse. When it comes to clinics, less is usually more.