Horseback riding instructors are pretty good at winging it. You have to be, when your business partner is a 1000 lb. prey animal with the self-preservation skills of a toddler.
If you’ve been teaching for a while, your skills have probably been honed to the point where you can improv lesson plans for several weeks and your students are none the wiser.
But constantly making lessons up as you go isn’t the most sustainable business practice. Your students have goals, and they need faith in your plan for achieving them. Long-term, unplanned lessons can lack focus and make it difficult to measure progress.
That’s why you need to schedule uninterrupted thinking time for both lesson planning and pre-lesson reflection. And what better time than the beginning of a new year?
Here are a few of our favorite ways to get the most out of your strategy sessions — and to craft connected, meaningful lessons your students will love:
Corral your inspiration
If you’re passionate about teaching and continuing your education, you’re probably actively seeking out new ideas, and generating quite a few of your own. Keep a designated place for capturing all of your brainstorming – clinic takeaways you want to share with your students, ideas for upcoming lessons, and cool polework setups you saw on the internet.
This could be a notebook, a Pinterest board, or an ongoing Note on your phone. The important thing is to have one easily accessible collection, so you can quickly reference it on the fly.
Build around a theme
One of our favorite tricks for lesson planning is to assign each month a loose theme.
Themes can take place entirely in the arena, where you might teach several weeks of lessons based around position, riding patterns or dressage tests, polework, coursework, bending, lateral steps or riding in the open.
You can also use themes to direct unmounted lessons and clinics, with monthly topics such as Pony Parts & Anatomy, Nutrition, Hoof Care and more.
I like to break each of these topics down into small, digestible pieces that can be incorporated into an hour of mounted instruction, so students get a whole-horse education even if they’re only paying for riding lessons.
Why do themes work for us?
Themes should be broad enough to allow for lots of wiggle room, and to keep your school horses’ workload in mind.
If your June theme is Jumping, for example, you definitely don’t want your golden oldies out there jumping a grid every single day.
You might have half your students practice a grid one week while the others focus on flatwork for jumping, such as lengthening and shortening stride.
Rotating the schedule this way can be challenging to schedule but will go a long way toward preserving your horse’s soundness and enthusiasm.
If you’re the kind of person that thrives on structure, you can even assign loose themes to each week within a month.
Maybe the first week in each month is flatwork-focused, while the second week the whole school tackles a new polework exercise that utilizes the flatwork skill practiced in the previous lesson. The third week applies the skill to some kind of course, and the fourth week is devoted to riding outside the arena or playing a related mounted game.
This strategy works best when you have a covered arena, as weather-related cancellations can derail your lesson lineup in a hurry. But it does make lesson planning and arena setup a breeze.
Obviously, these plans are all flexible — if you have a student working through specific issues with a horse, or gearing up for an upcoming show, you may deviate from your monthly theme to make sure their needs are met.
Once you commit to a theme, however, you might be surprised by how many ways you can use it!
Lessons To Go
One more perk of having a theme in mind: you can prepare props and materials well in advance.
This can be a huge advantage if you have an unexpected rain delay and have to pivot to an unmounted lesson.
We like to keep a library of boxes organized by topic. The box for conformation, for example, contains photos of horses standing square from different angles, a weighted string to form a plumb line, chalk and masking tape for marking angles, a protractor, and flash cards of conformation faults.
The dressage-themed box contains copies of tests from Intro Level to Grand Prix, small soccer cones with letters to mark mini-arenas, a pair of reins to practice contact off the horse, blank dressage arena diagrams with stick-on letters, toy horses and dry erase markers for tracing tests.
Print relevant worksheets and pages from HorseSense study guides and stick a folder in each box full of ready-to-go handouts.
Your students might enjoy helping you put boxes together, and come up with their own fresh ideas for teaching tools.
And speaking of student participation…
Crowdsource your lessons
Frequently ask your students what they would like to see happen in their lessons.
We might be the Authority with a Plan in the arena, but at the end of the day, our job is really just to help our students achieve their horsey dreams.
This means the more often we check in with their plans and dreams, the better!
At HorseSense, we pass out a survey every January asking students to list their long-term goals, their intentions for the new year, and the activities they enjoy the most.
These sheets give us valuable insight into what interests and motivates our students – and occasionally contain some surprises!
If you’re teaching a group lesson, you might choose one lesson a month and allow students to take turns choosing the topic.
More advanced students can outline a progressive lesson span covering several months, with your promise that you’ll incorporate their ideas as much as possible.
Secretly, I think these quiet days of New Year’s planning are some of my favorite of the year
Thoughtful lesson planning can take some serious time and creative effort. But it saves time in the long run, and helps me walk into the arena confident that I’ve done everything I can to help my students succeed.
Those plans might change a dozen times over the course of a year – but they keep us moving in the right direction!