Riding Lessons From The Trainer’s Perspective ~
What’s Best? Group or One on One?
By Nikki Alvin-Smith
Just like horses people are individuals with different needs. Every student will respond to your method of training at a variant pace and some will respond better as part of a group while others do better on a one on one basis.
There are good reasons to offer both options. I grew up under the British Horse Society edicts where riding schools are heavily governed with riding staff required to meet minimum qualifications as Assistant Instructor (B.H.S.A.I.) and then if they wish they can progress to an Instructor (B.H.S.I.) which is required to run a riding establishment and not just be a hired instructor. Germany has the Bereiter program and in the U.S.A. there are a variety of options none of which are required by law to operate as a riding teacher. Often overlooked in all the wonderful training programs is advice on how to identify which students will work best in which environment, group or private lesson. In fact in Britain nearly everyone starts out in a group setting and has to earn the privilege of working one on one with a trainer, usually once they have chosen a particular discipline.
The benefit of the group lesson for you as instructor is the time it saves. It allows you to share your wealth of knowledge with all students in the group at once and for the more nervous rider being able to follow along with the person in front can be a comfort. A beginner rider often does not have the stamina or skill set to answer your demands right away and may need time to practice them as you shift focus around the group. The added benefit of the horse following along with the horse in front can also be beneficial for the beginner rider and can facilitate more control if the lesson horses are all the prized ‘steady Eddie’ variety.
The group lesson is also ideal for the chatterbox. You know the one. In fact I’m sure you have met a few. You try as best you can to keep the lesson and the horse moving but the student likes to chitchat, ask endless and not always quite relevant questions. What’s a girl (or boy) to do? If you have explained to the student that long chats need to be reserved for when they are dismounted and the message has not been received then a group lesson is a great way to keep this student busy. In my experience many students that chat excessively do so out of some form of nervousness or a lack of stamina to keep up with even the most modest of exertions. So once again a group setting, where they can visualize by copycat to learn what they are supposed to do and having them keep up with the pace of the group can be helpful.
Nervousness and lack of relaxation in any student will also limit their ability to learn. Humor plays a key part in establishing relaxation with this type of student. Well actually. Who doesn’t appreciate a witty trainer? It is easy to create fun tasks for the group to complete on horseback that help defray the nervous brain clatter from which some students suffer.
Then there is the highly motivated rider who is very competitive. A group can be the perfect way to help them make quick progress as they try to out do their compatriots. While the group environment will keep them on their competitive ‘hooves’ if they are an over-zealous type then you will need to be certain to keep them in a group that is above their level and where they are consistently challenged.
On the other side of the arena are the students who will benefit from your undivided attention. These may be advanced students who already have a measure of ability in the saddle and can answer your commands effectively and ride for fifty minutes with a measure of fitness, energy and mental focus.
The 1 on 1 private lesson gives you time to focus completely on the student and the student may improve more quickly than in a group session as they simply spend more time under your direct, watchful and talented eye. Ah yes, I know you are talented. Why else would you be an instructor? This 1 on 1 lesson is ideal for students with certain learning difficulties and also for those who are at the point of truly learning to train the horse effectively not just how to ride it correctly in the basics.
Students who have limited time to ride due to their busy schedules also appreciate the 1 on 1 private lesson They don’t have time to stand about waiting for Susan to find the right bridle, John to go to the bathroom again or for the inevitable delays that can happen with a group setting. Notice there I put in tacking up. I hope you teach your students horsemanship from start to finish not just from mount to dismount!
Sometimes you have a student in a group that is entirely disruptive. Perhaps because of their lack of ability or perhaps because they have never learned to listen and hear what is actually said or perhaps they are overwhelmed by the horse and need time on a lead line, longe line, or one on one safety zone time with you, their wonderful instructor. If this is the case then switch them to a private lesson for a while and then see of it works to switch them back to the group or do both if their budget allows.
Students can also work well with a 2 on 1 ratio. As experienced dressage clinicians my husband and I have worked for years together as a team. You have to know and respect each other well for this to work, have different ‘eyes’ to bring to the arena, and the student needs to be able to digest a lot of information. It is also ideal if as a team you have competed/trained to the same advanced (hopefully) level. For some students no matter their riding ability they can find the 2 on 1 overwhelming, for others the symposium style training works very well and they love all the input.
So when the next new face arrives at the barn door, bright-eyed, bushy tailed exhibiting palpable excitement at the sight of ‘horse,’ take the time to get to know them a little before you sign them up.
If they are governed by budget and take a group lesson and it is not working out, then offer them a semi-private lesson as a compromise. If your students do well they will keep coming back. Well not always. Sometimes they head off to a neighboring barn anyway. It happens. You will never regret doing the best job for them you can and the right lesson program is a great place to start.