Thursday, December 2, 2010

Beginner: Where Should I Learn to Ride?

So you (or maybe your child?) wants to learn to ride, but you have no horse experience. What now? How do you find a good place? What should you look for? What should you watch out for? What questions should you ask?

So how do you find a place?

Ask! That seems so obvious, but really it's the best place to start. If you have friends, family, random acquaintances who ride, ask! I've never met a horse person yet who isn't happy to talk to somebody who might be interested in riding. Just have a good excuse ready for when you've heard too much and need to escape!

And/or call your provincial organization -- they can point you in the right direction.

Once you have those lists, google. I put google last because of course you'll get the very good with the very bad. But if you're starting with a list of "potentially good" then you can flip through their sites and see what you think.

Once you have a reasonable number of schools to consider, visit them! And time the visit so you can observe a lesson.

While you're there things to watch for:

- general organization - are things organized? Do people know where to go and what to do? Is there help in the barn for any who don't?

- cleanliness - while barns with a lot of people through them (as lesson barns tend to be) are rarely spotless, it should be clean and in good repair. If there's junk lying all over the place, you have to wonder if they might be as sloppy with care or safety.

- tack - does each horse have their own? Is it clean and in good repair? Tack doesn't need to be fancy, new or expensive, but it does need to be safe! There should be no broken leather parts or fraying elastics. Bits (the part that goes in the horse's mouth) should be clean.

- horses - do they appear to be in good health? A new horse-person won't be able to evaluate on sight, but things to look for: are they alert, do they have some weight and muscle on them (ie not a ton of bones poking out everywhere), is the coat in good condition (soft, thick, shiny, consistent -- obviously when they're growing a winter coat or covered in mud after coming in from the paddock the shininess goes away, but the overall health stays).

- safety - everybody mounted should be wearing helmets. Even the adults. If they're not, run.

- do students tack up themselves? Students should be expected to groom and tack up and taught to safely handle the horses and perform these tasks.

Ask to meet the beginner horses. Beginner horses will probably not be the flashiest ones in the barn -- they're usually older and are chosen because they are kind and patient. Flashy and athletic usually requires more skill to ride! Any horse used to teach beginners should stand quietly while you pat them or move around them. If they're flinch or appear nervous, they're not likely a good match for a new rider. The horse should pick up its feet easily when asked. It shouldn't be particularly concerned about what's going on around them (noise, dogs, kids, etc). It should be at least 5 years old, preferably older. Horses become teenagers somewhere between age three and five -- and new riders should not be dealing with them, no matter how quiet they might've been at two! Be aware that even the quietest horse can have a bad moment -- they're living beings, and no horse shy of a stuffed-toy is absolutely 100% reliable. But you can get to about 99% and that's what you want for a new rider. Young and excitable horses are for experienced riders only.

Find out if the coach is certified. Certification is not mandatory in our industry -- you could hang a shingle out tomorrow claiming to be a coach. If you've watched a couple dvds you might even trick someone into hiring you. And unfortunately there are those who do. Note that certification alone does not a good coach make, but it *does* help weed out some of the bad ones! And until you have some experience in the industry, you won't be able to make that call. About the only time I wouldn't require certification from a coach is if they are currently producing top-level competitive riders. And realistically, that's not who you're going to for beginner lessons!

You will be able to get a list of current certified coaches from your provincial organization (ie in Ontario: That being said, keeping "current" is a bit of a pita, so don't discount somebody just because their name has dropped off the list. If they're certified, coaching regularly, and producing good riders, that's a good start.

Watch a lesson. Preferably more than one (I'd like to see a beginner lesson and a more advanced lesson as the dynamic can be quite different). Is the coach in control? Does she seem aware of all the horses in the ring and is she able to keep them organized. This requires more skill than you might think -- not everybody has it.

Are the riders mounted on appropriate horses? Do they seem to be under control? Can they stop/go/turn? A horse that won't go is a challenge every beginner faces and not a reason to avoid a facility. A horse that won't stop is inappropriate for a beginner rider. Although keep in mind it *might* be ok if you're watching an upper level lesson; for example, if an advanced student is learning to retrain a race horse.

Are the horses sound? If a horse is limping and still used in the lesson I would consider that a warning sign. There is the odd exception in a beginner lesson -- older horses may be arthritic and a modest amount of movement will actually help them. But if it's an advanced lesson, stay away.

How does the coach teach? Does she treat all the students equally? How does she deal with problems? Is her coaching style one that would work for you? Does she encourage questions? How do her students react to her? Keep in mind that different styles work for different people -- a coach who's great with four and five year olds may have an awful time trying to teach teens and adults - and vise versa.

Talk to the students. Ask what they like and what they don't like. What is a huge issue for one may be a non-issue for another. Every place has its pluses and minuses -- the trick is to find one whose minuses don't matter so much to you. Ie, a barn that has a zillion little kids around is great if you're looking for a place for your own little kid but potentially less good if you're looking for adult lessons.

Ask about the lesson program. Cost? Teacher/student ratio (if it's over 1:6 you're wasting your time). Cancellation policy? Commitment requirements? Extra opportunities available?

When you think you've found the right place, go for a lesson! See if it suits you. And have fun :)

No comments:

Post a Comment