22 Ways to Level Up Your Riding Lesson Program in 2022

After all, everything we do comes from a love of a horses... it will keep us learning, growing, and striving to do our best for our horses and students - and attracting clients who are equally invested in leveling up their horsemanship!

‘Tis the season for rest and reflection, for planning and dreaming, and for setting goals and intentions for the new year. We have a few suggestions to get you started…

Are you looking for ways to take your equine instruction to the next level?

#1 - Make improving your business — and boundaries — a priority

You can’t pour from an empty cup, and a labor of love can often lead to burnout. Good riding instruction involves creating good business practices, and continually working to improve them — especially if you manage your own facility.

This process starts with believing that it IS possible to be a profitable equine professional with a healthy work/life balance. There is a pervading myth in the horse industry that you can’t have it all, usually perpetuated by exhausted professionals who could use some better boundaries in their lives!

Learn how to set those boundaries in this post: Self Care for Riding Instructors

#2 - Schedule a weekly inspiration hour

Tweaking work hours to make your business more sustainable? Make sure to devote some time to creative development. This can easily get pushed to the back burner when you’re juggling a barn full of commitments, but helps you remain fresh and inspired.

Try setting aside an hour each week just for brainstorming lesson ideas. Throughout the week, collect relevant reading materials or save videos to a Watch Later list. Keep a dedicated notebook for your planning.

Feeling stuck in a rut? Search for inspiration from outside your usual discipline or training philosophy.

#3 - Don’t forget to include continuing education in your budget

Try to set aside a bit of money every month for conferences or certifications, clinic or lesson fees, trade publications, online courses and subscriptions, etc. Remember, these all count as business expenses!

#4 - Poll your audience

Send your students a survey, or supply them with goal-setting worksheets. Ask them what they’d like to see more of in their lesson time, and to prioritize their equine activities and goals.

This feedback can give you valuable insight into your students’ motivations and guide your lesson planning throughout the year.

partial page of Level Up goals worksheet
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#5 - Experiment with monthly themes

Ever wondered why #NoStirrupNovember has become so popular? Are riders really that excited to better their seat and their abs?

Our guess is that it isn’t about doing the hard stuff, it’s about doing the hard stuff together. Working toward a common goal can unify students and create camaraderie across age groups and levels of ability.

student riding pony over groundpoles

Try assigning monthly themes to your lesson plans. Or, if your program utilizes block scheduling or semesters, you might dedicate a theme to each session.

Themes could involve specific skills, such as Dressage, Polework, or Transitions, or include broader concepts such as “Listening” or “Attention to Detail.”

You can use this trick to plan unmounted lessons as well, with each month of classes covering a topic such as Nutrition, Hoof Care, etc.

Bonus: This makes lesson planning a breeze! Simply create a progression of lesson activities based around each theme, leaving room to adapt to each student’s individual goals.

Get help with lesson planning in this post: Take Your Lesson Plans to the Next Level.

Find a list of the Topics we use to organize unmounted HorseSense lessons HERE.

#6 - Challenge your students
Another reason activities like #NoStirrupNovember catch on: humans love a good challenge. Especially when it comes with a hashtag and bragging rights! Try instituting some in-barn challenges, with incentives and prizes for participants. These can tie into your monthly themes or encourage students to hone a specific skill. We just finished a year of monthly challenges, designed to encourage our students — and backyard horse owners — to try new things with their horses. You can see the entire calendar of challenges on the HorseSense Riding Academy site.
#7 - Give them something to think about

Activities like the #StayatHomeHorsemanship challenge encourage students to think creatively in the arena. Our goal is to create confidently independent equestrians who know how to problem-solve with a horse — which means giving them lots of opportunities to use their brains.

Do you exercise your students’ minds as well as bodies? Try adding free periods, interactive exercises, and self-evaluation to riding lessons, so students can practice thinking for themselves.

Stuff Happens While Riding card
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#8 - Let them choose their own adventure

One underrated way to get students thinking is to ask them to plan their own lessons. Ask them for suggestions and requests — you might be surprised by what they come up with!

At HorseSense, we have a tradition that any rider who lessons on their birthday gets to choose the activity for the day.

happy rider in Western saddle on horse
#9 - Dabble in disciplines

Do your English students know how to put on a Western saddle, or vice versa? Would your trail riders eagerly sign up for a dressage lesson, or your hunters jump at the chance to play mounted games?

Even if you teach within a narrow specialty, you can expand your student’s horizons — and prevent prejudiced assumptions — by giving them a taste of different disciplines. Try new patterns, dressage tests or obstacle courses; invite guest instructors; or teach a summer Horse Sport camp.

Start with this unmounted Teaching Guide: Green HorseSense – Horse Sports

#10 - Aim for better biomechanics

Beginner riding lessons aren’t always the best for the comfort and health of the horse. You may not be able to magically give your students soft hands and following seats on day one, but you can create exercises that are good for the horse as well as the rider.

We like to do a lot of slow, thoughtful polework with new riders, and teach them how to recognize healthy posture from the very beginning.

Many of our favorite exercises are adapted from Jec Ballou’s book 55 Corrective Exercises for Your Horse — a treasure trove of physically-beneficial activities!

#11 - Switch things up

Consider scheduling some private lessons for your group lesson students, and combining private students into a group.

Group and private lessons have a very different energy, and each have their own pros and cons. Changing lesson structure occasionally can help your students — and you! — work comfortably in both environments.

group riding lesson with instructor in arena
#12 - Think outside the (sand) box

Another great way to get students outside their comfort zones is by expanding your territory. Take them outside the ring, even if all you can do safely is walk the horses in hand.

You don’t need to be blessed with acres of fields and trails to turn your students into happy hackers. You just need a little creativity and a patient, relaxed approach.

Read about the benefits of hacking lessons in this post: Happy Trails: Hack Your Horseback Riding Lessons!

riding ducking item in bucket during mounted games
#13 - Get your game on

Research has shown that we learn new skills most efficiently when we practice them in the spirit of play. Challenge yourself to create a game for every new skill you teach. The games can be as competitive or non-competitive as you like, but should be scalable for all ages and levels of ability. (Yes, adults need to play, too!)

Need inspiration? You’ll find suggested games on page 2 of all our Horsemanship lesson plans. Be sure to follow our social media feeds, where we post a new mounted game every Friday using the hashtag #FridayHorseFun.

Get more inspiration from this post: Teach Better Horseback Riding Lessons with Mounted Games

#14 - Create trainers, not just riders

Emphasize equine psychology and learning theory in your beginner lessons. Teach the basics of behavior shaping and reinforcement methods, and discuss the motivation behind every horse’s behavior.

Without this foundation, students may be quick to label their horse as “stubborn,” “lazy” or “bratty,” or resort to harsh aids when things aren’t going their way.

Make it a goal to practice compassionate problem-solving at every opportunity, and to help your students view every situation from the horse’s perspective.

#15 - Set a good example

Let’s face it: we all have jokingly called our horses some less-than-flattering names, or anthropomorphizing their behavior. However, working with impressionable beginner students can make these careless words less of a laughing matter!

Regularly audit your word choices and horse handling practices. Ask yourself, would I be proud of a student who acted this way five years in the future? Old habits die hard, so if you’re actively working to set a better example, forgive your occasional slip-ups, and remind your students that none of us are a finished product.

#16 - Film yourself

A great way to become aware of your own habits: film yourself teaching a lesson.

Don’t be surprised if this exercise horrifies you at first! You may discover that you have acquired a number of unconscious movements and verbal tics that make you cringe — but the first step to improvement is awareness.  Try to repeat this exercise regularly, and identify a single goal to focus on before the next video.

#17 - Film your students

What goes around comes around, and your students will benefit equally from frequent film sessions in the arena. Consider creating unlisted playlists on a designated YouTube channel for your lesson program. This allows students to view videos privately or share them with a select audience.

riding intructor videotaping lessons
#18 - Harness the power of social media

Like it or not, social media feeds are where our students get the majority of their information. Even if you don’t have a lot of time or energy to devote to social media yourself, you can use it to market your business and engage your barn community.

Try planning and scheduling content ahead of time. This might include regular features such as quiz questions, featured horse or student, and articles, videos or infographics you think your students would find valuable. Throughout the month, sprinkle in some announcements (welcome to new students, show results, etc.) along with some behind-the-scenes photos or videos from your barn.

Make social media marketing work for you with the help of this LLPro post: Marketing for Riding Schools: Eight Proven Strategies to Attract and Keep Students.

Tips for using social media in lessons: 5 Creative Homework Ideas for Riding Lessons.

#19 - Work with instead of against Mother Nature

While you’re doing all this planning, consider the inevitable: frozen ground, scorching heat, and miserable rainy days that make you wish you had an office job instead. Stockpile inclement weather lesson plans you can teach indoors or in the barn aisle when the arena becomes a hostile environment.

Maybe your philosophy is that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing — in which case, teach students and parents how to outfit appropriately!

Or maybe you’d be better off embracing seasonal programming. Months of extreme weather can be devoted to unmounted education, ground training, or basic flatwork at the walk. There is no off season to horse care, but there’s nothing wrong with saving competitive or ambitious riding for more appropriate seasons — as long as horses are brought carefully back into condition, of course!

instructor and pony teaching unmounted lesson group
#20 - Normalize unmounted education as part of your riding program

If you’ve owned a horse, you know the truth: that horsekeeping and ground handling skills are more important than the skills we learn in the saddle.

Even students who have no intentions of ownership benefit from a deeper understanding of a horse’s physiology and health care requirements. (How many “training problems” have you seen that were actually caused by poor diet, hoof trimming, saddle fit, lack of fitness, or all of the above?!)

Make barn lessons a regular, required part of your lesson programming, and approach them with equal enthusiasm. This has the added benefit of allowing you to employ non-rideable or retired horses in your program — and to teach students the value of honoring and caring for less “useful” horses.

See how you can work unmounted lessons into your riding school in this post: Back to the Barn.

Get ideas for unmounted lessons: Unmounted Lessons Your Students Will Love.

#21 - Make life easier for future you by creating a resource library

Packing folders and boxes with lesson materials can save you time and effort in the long run, especially if you find yourself teaching unmounted lessons on the fly.

Your library might include printed handouts, worksheets and lesson plans; reference books; old pieces of tack; bagged samples of feed/hay/toxic plants etc.; and tools and props organized by topic.

Learn more in this LLPro blog post, which includes inventory lists for several of our Lessons in a Box: Build a Library for Teaching Hands-On Unmounted Lessons.

#22 - Fall in love all over again

Would your inner ten-year-old be delighted to be living your life? What was it about horses and teaching that led you here in the first place?

Give yourself permission to reconnect with your horse-crazy side. Schedule play dates and Sacred Horse Time, rewatch a beloved old horse movie, or simply take time to indulge in a ritual that gives you joy, such as grooming or listening your horse munch on hay.

woman sitting in field with her horse

After all, everything we do comes from a love of horses

Whatever goals we set in this business, let’s make it a priority to keep that love alive. It will keep us learning, growing, and striving to do our best for our horses and students —  and attracting clients who are equally invested in leveling up their horsemanship! 

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We’ve been blessed with many talented photographers over the years: students who voluntarily stood in sweltering/ freezing arenas, capturing lifelong memories of lessons, camps and shows. We’re grateful to all of them!

One former student, Delaney Witbrod, is now a professional photographer with a gift for animal portraits – see more of her fine work here. We’re also grateful for photos of Western riding donated by LLPro instructors – particularly Bit of Pleasure Horse School and Joyful Hearts Photography!

You’ll find illustrations throughout our online courses and printed materials graciously donated by our friend Rhonda Hagy. Evan Surrusco contributes additional illustrations and handles most of our photo processing. Contact us for information about their work.

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