What is a good teacher’s long-term goal? In a nutshell, to become superfluous. Most of us who train horses and riders would love it if our clients did not need us anymore because they get along with their horses so well. Seeing our students - both equine and human - become confident, accomplished individuals makes us happy. Because we want them to succeed, we try to give them the tools to reach their full potential, to become all they can be, and sometimes more than they thought they could be. But there are also quite a few trainers out there who don’t put much effort into teaching people how to ride. I’ve seen instructors bring their cell phone to the arena and text while they teach. I’ve heard clinicians make demeaning, derogatory comments that have no effect other than making the student feel like a failure. I’ve been around trainers who keep their students in a state of relative ignorance, teaching them just enough to get through the next dressage test, or the next horsemanship pattern, or their next trail ride. They teach their students how to sit on their horses and how to cue their horses, but they don’t teach them the “why” behind it all. Often, they issue dire warnings to their students, like “Don’t ruin your horse!” implying that ever learning to ride well is beyond the student’s reach. Sadly, in the equestrian world, many students learn how to follow orders instead of how to problem-solve. They become co-dependent, not independent.
Learning is a team effort. On the right, Nicole Thüngen - my teacher and mentor since 2001.
To be sure, there are a few horse owners out there who are content to be passengers on their horses. The traditional model of the show horse industry is based on owners dropping a horse off at the trainer’s so the trainer can get the horse ready to compete. If the trainer shows the horse in open classes, they come watch. If they show their horse in amateur classes, they ride the horse enough times before the show to learn how to get around the ring. But the horse industry is changing. Today, most horse owners want a more hands-on approach that allows them to develop a real partnership with their horses. Shows and ribbons may or may not be a part of the goal, but they’re not the ultimate or only goal anymore. The process of training, of progressing, of really getting to know the horse, has become much more important. So, why do many trainers still act like teaching riders to ride well is not an important part of of their job description?
Part of the reason is a lingering stigma around riding instruction. I’ve heard successful horse trainers say “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” According to this type of logic, good teachers teach because they can’t train, but good trainers don’t teach because they don’t have to. According to this type of logic, teaching riders is a lesser skill, a second-rate fallback option for horse professionals who can’t ride well enough to actually train horses. Teaching well is the equivalent of admitting failure where it counts.
When I was young and stupid, I bought into the notion that good trainers don't teach. Thankfully, I've learned a lot since then.
In my early twenties, when I worked as an assistant trainer at a big show barn, I used to subconsciously buy into this argument, which is why I know it so well. Over the years, I’ve come to realize it’s totally wrong. Teaching riders is very similar to training horses. Both require endless patience, sensitivity, empathy, and theoretical knowledge. Both take a lifetime of experience to develop. If you find teaching difficult because you lack one or more of these qualities, chances are your horse training skills suffer from the same symptoms.
Another part of the reason is a kind of existential fear. If I teach my students everything I know, won’t I be out of a job? Won’t I have to go back to some sort of non-horse related way of making a living if all my students learn so much they can train their own horses, without supervision?
You can have it all, independent students and job security. Really.
Job security seems like a valid reason to keep students in a state of co-dependence, but it’s not. The successful horse-rider pairs who don’t need me anymore now are my best advertising. They send me new clients who want the same kind of outcome. Many former students come back to me once I’ve helped them work through one set of issues with new horses and/or new issues. And my long-term clients simply enjoy being a part of the long-term process because they love their horses and want to see how far they can go. I never feel I have to worry about running out of horses and riders who need what I have to offer.
Julie Wilson, long-term student and accomplished horsewoman in her own right. I admire her so much.
Ultimately, I believe the biggest reason some horse professionals don’t put their heart and soul into teaching is a different one: teaching well means becoming vulnerable. Teaching isn't about stroking one’s own ego. Trainers who try to come across like they know everything there is to know won’t become great teachers. Even if I had a perfect seat and perfect timing (which I don’t), I wouldn’t want my students to spend all their time admiring me. How would that help them learn? Good teachers don’t put themselves on a pedestal. They admit they are not perfect. Good teachers use their own shortcomings as illustrations to help students overcome theirs. Good teachers encourage questions and enjoy looking for valid answers. Good teachers keep learning, and they don’t keep that fact hidden form their students. Good teachers don’t need to tear their students’ confidence down to build their own.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that teaching well is really hard. It can be humbling. It can be frustrating. But it’s worth the effort because creating good riders means the horse world will be a better place for everyone involved in it, including the horses.
Amy Skinner and I, two teachers who think alike.