23 Lessons We Learned from Running a Riding School

Here are 23 nuggets of wisdom we’ve learned over the past two decades of teaching about horses and riding… some of it the hard way!

Time flies when you’re having fun, and it’s been 19 years since we officially got into the riding lesson business!

While we can no longer count the number of mounted and unmounted lessons we’ve taught throughout the years, we’re thankful for all of the life lessons our students have gained along with their HorseSense — and for all of the lessons this business has taught us.

Here are 23 nuggets of wisdom we’ve learned over the past two decades of teaching about horses and riding… some of it the hard way!

#1 - Know thyself

Define the values behind your business — in writing if possible! — and make sure that your instruction and services reflect that.

For example, if you believe strongly in the importance of unmounted knowledge and horse care skills, but only offer riding lessons or charge much less for unmounted lessons, your values and business will not be in alignment.

#2 - Know thy ideal client

Trust that you will attract students with similar values who will make you look forward to teaching every day.

It may feel like you need to cater to demands and accommodate difficult clients — especially if your business is new or not very profitable — but in the long run it is MUCH better to let these students go and make space for someone who is a better fit.

Adopt an abundance mindset: there are many students who resemble your ideal client out there, and your authenticity and commitment to creating a positive atmosphere will attract them!

#3 - Ask yourself, “Would I be willing to do this for ALL of my students?”

This should be your filter any time you are asked to bend a rule or accommodate a student’s request.

If the answer is no, you can easily find yourself in the sticky situation of playing favorites. Even if you have favorites (most of us do!), strive to treat your students equally. Sometimes this means helping them find solutions while refusing to BE the solution.

#4 - Put everything in writing — especially policies for cancellation, inclement weather, late arrival, etc.

Share important information widely and frequently via a variety of channels: email, text notifications, Facebook groups, etc. Consider starting a regular e-newsletter that can be cross-posted to your social media, and automate as much of this process as possible.

Then make peace with the fact that some of your student families will STILL not read it, or retain what they’ve read. People get busy, parents are frazzled, everyone is bombarded by information and needs to organize their inbox. Issue gentle reminders preceded by, “Of course, you’ve probably already read this in ________, but just in case….

When in doubt, over-communicate! 

#5 - Be professional in your communication

Even if you love your students and have a great relationship with them, message them like clients, not friends. Include parents in conversations with minors, ask for clarification as necessary, and study methods of conflict resolution.

You CAN be warm and friendly while still oozing professionalism and standing up for yourself and your business.

#6 - Don’t be afraid to think seasonally when planning your lesson and event schedules

We’re sure YOU are a Committed Equestrian and have probably ridden through hurricanes, sandstorms, and/or blizzards.

We also know that horses eat money 365 days out of the year.

In the right circumstances, horses can teach us how to honor commitment, brave adversity, and make the best out of unfavorable conditions.

But people ride for many different reasons. Like it or not, Committed Equestrians are becoming outnumbered by recreational riders who just want to enjoy their limited time with a horse, and may not be keen on taking a lesson in freezing rain.

If you want to make space for these students in your student roster, consider using your hot/cold/rainy seasons to offer alternative programs, such as introductory short courses, groundwork lessons, horsekeeping classes, etc.

#7 - There are many under-appreciated and under-taught aspects of horsemanship

Groundwork, reading equine body language and behavior studies, evaluating training methods, and assessing a horse’s mental and physical condition are all valuable skills that are often left out of traditional lesson programs.

Don’t be shy about breaking the mold and emphasizing the stuff that you think is important!

#8 - Remember that students may hear what you say, but they WILL do what you do

This means setting a good example at all times: in the barn and arena, at the show, in social media comments, etc. (If you want to feed horses in your flip-flops, make SURE there are no students around when you do it!)

This rule can also work to your advantage. If you want to get your students excited about unmounted learning, groundwork, flatwork or any other non-flashy aspect of horsemanship, start by getting excited about it yourself.

#9 - Successful lesson programs rely on well-schooled, HAPPY horses

Good school horses are priceless treasures and it is worth the time it takes to create or find them. Once you have them, put their well-being at the top of your priority list (we suggest second only to student safety).

This sounds obvious but will be tested at every turn! You may have to put your horse’s needs ahead of upcoming shows or profitable camps. You may have to disappoint some students occasionally. You will almost definitely need to invest $$$$ in supportive care, equine enrichment and properly-fitted tack.

Your horses are worth it. Make them a large part of your operating budget and establish with students from day one that everything you do has to be good for the horse as well as the rider. (Otherwise, what are you REALLY teaching them?)

#10 - Beware of unintentional lessons

When we introduce a new student to the horse world, we’re shaping how they view that world and their attitudes about horses. (No pressure, right?) Your students will be influenced both by the lessons you intend to teach and by the lessons you don’t.

For example, if we retire a horse from our lesson program, and say that the horse needs to be rehomed because he is no longer valuable, we are sharing some tough reality about the horse business — but we are also teaching our students that horses have no value unless they are rideable. These unintentional lessons are everywhere. Watch for them carefully!

#11 - Keep those pony bellies full

We’re all becoming a lot more aware of the prevalence of ulcers and the behaviors that can be caused by inadequate forage (grass diving, hard to catch, food aggression, the list goes on). Fatigue and boredom aren’t the only things tugging a school horse toward the gate toward the end of an hour-long lesson!

23 Lessons Learned Full Pony Bellies Please

Devise strategies for keeping easy keepers nibbling throughout the day. Providing school horses with hay nets immediately prior to lessons can keep them relaxed in their work, especially if they’ll be ridden in proximity to grass.

If your horses work back-to-back, schedule snack/water/pee breaks — and make sure your students understand why this is important!

#12 - Quit earlier than you think you should

It is so easy to fall into the trap of “Okay, one more time to make SURE you’ve got it…”, especially when you are getting paid by the hour or feeling pressure to advance students quickly.

But while repetition is important, horses AND humans learn best in shorter time periods, and regress when fatigued. This can have dangerous consequences. SO many of the incidents we’ve had over the years could have been prevented by ending the lesson 10 minutes early.

Remember that confidence takes months to create, but can be destroyed in an instant!

#13 - Set office hours and stick to them

Publicize when you will and will not respond to messages in your program’s policy packet and newsletter. Utilize “Do Not Disturb” settings on your phone, post a sign on your office door, and stay away from your inbox when you’re officially off the clock.

Horse people work long enough days as it is!

#14 - Mind your business

You can be the best-loved instructor in your state, and have a waiting list that wraps around your arena, and still be struggling to make a profit. Let’s face it, most of us get into this profession because we know a lot about horses, not because we know a lot about business.

The good news is, you can learn. Actively invest time and money into Leveling Up your business skills, and work on your mindset and professional growth.

Be open to new ideas and be willing to make changes.

#15 - Attracting new students is important, but successful lesson businesses also focus on retention

Create a system where students can continually unlock opportunities by Leveling Up, motivating students to stick with you for the long haul.

23 Lessons Learned Social Connections

Another important way you can improve retention is to foster a supportive, drama-free community within your barn.

“Barn family” can be the glue that holds your program together during tough economic times.

The more your students come to love their time spent at the barn — and the people they spend that time with — the more willing their families will be to commit to horsey activities.

#16 - Don’t forget that the parents make all the decisions that impact their child’s involvement in your program — and that includes making attendance at lessons a priority!

Most school-age students these days are chronically overbooked with extra curricular activities, and parents are often tired and overwhelmed. If you want your students to make and keep commitments, you need to provide a lot of value and show parents that their investment is worthwhile.

Emphasize all of the character-building aspects of horsemanship, and prioritize them over competitive success or advancement. Consider what non-horsey parents want and need and how your program can enrich their lives as well as the lives of their children.

#17 - Ask your students what they want — and allow them to surprise you

Schedule regular goal setting sessions within paid lesson time, and periodically send out surveys for feedback. It can be easy to project your goals and opinions on horsemanship onto your students, but this can easily become one-sided and lead to dissatisfied or unhappy clients.

Establishing regular opportunities to check in will allow your students to communicate their priorities and help them feel heard. It will also influence your lesson planning, and help you divert students to a more appropriate program if yours is no longer a good fit.

And give your students a little credit. We’ve seen that many adults will enthusiastically participate in Rainbow Level lessons or mounted games, and that many children are just as happy to spend a lesson working on groundwork as they are to ride. You never know until you ask!

#18 - Make your program’s curriculum transparent from day one

Post information about your Levels prominently in your barn, and share that info in your welcome packet and student materials. Students and parents will appreciate seeing the logical progression of skills, and gain an appreciation for just how much there is to learn.

Bonus: You will not be bombarded by weekly questions about “When can we canter…?!”

#19 - Don’t rush horse ownership

Even if your goal is to prepare students for horse ownership, encourage them to take their time and consider ALL the implications of buying a horse.

If your students decide to jump the gun and purchase a horse without sufficient training and experience, ESPECIALLY if the horse is unsuitable, don’t be afraid to discourage them.

Stand firm in your expert opinion. Everyone involved — student, instructor and horse — suffers when expectations don’t match reality.

#20 - Never speak ill of other equine professionals

The horse world is very small, and your local horse community is even smaller, and your words can and will be used against you, probably out of context. Don’t think that you’ll be safe if you avoid using their name, or add “I’m sure they’re nice/mean well.”

There are many classy ways to respond to students who ask for your opinion on another trainer. Discuss the method, not the person, and emphasize that we all have our own reasons for doing things the way that we do.

#21 - The best cure for burnout is prevention

Burnout is an ever-present threat for equine professionals. We will work ourselves to the bone because we love the work, and because it is an industry norm.

But hustle can become unhealthy in a hurry. And as we learned the hard way, the debilitating effects of burnout can last for years.

Make space in your schedule for rest and activities that fill your cup instead of draining it. Charge your worth and ask for help when you need it. Remember that you can’t take care of anyone unless you take care of yourself first.

#22 - Take photographs of everything

Document all of the activities that take place at your barn with photos and video.

Enlist volunteer photographers to help you capture special moments when you are busy teaching, and periodically set aside an hour to organize your files and back them up to cloud storage.

Don’t forget to provide your students with a photo release so you have written permission to include them in marketing photos.

Trust us: you will treasure and make good use of these images. There are a lot of memorable activities we wish we had captured!

#23 - Sharing the emotional highs and lows of teaching and managing horses with someone who understands is invaluable

Find a herd of like-minded equine professionals — locally or online — and make time for those important connections.

And if you have the opportunity to run your business as a partnership, do it. Making decisions, handling the daily workload, and adjusting to challenges is so much easier when you can work as a team.

And sharing the success of your program makes it twice as rewarding!

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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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