If you teach horseback riding, unmounted lessons aren’t just a way to pay your bills during rainy season — although they can absolutely make or break the financial success of your business!
As an equine professional, you have undoubtedly learned that riding is just one part of what we do with horses, and that our ability to ride is dependent upon all the other parts.
Unmounted education is the foundation of good horsemanship. What good is it to learn how to ride if you can’t keep the horses sound, healthy, and happy? Even recreational riders can benefit from lessons off the horse — especially if they care about the welfare of their equine partners.
And yet, a peculiar thing is happening in this industry.
Every week, support groups for riding instructors are populated with posts lamenting the loss of income from inclement weather, poor air quality, lame horses, etc. The objections to substituting unmounted lessons include:
Sometimes this is an educated guess; sometimes these instructors have tried their best to teach unmounted horsemanship and the program has failed.
But if you asked those same instructors whether or not THEY thought unmounted instruction was valuable, most would not hesitate before replying with a resounding “Yes!” They know just how important well-rounded horsemanship is!
So the question is: how did we get here?
Why do so many lesson programs struggle to teach in alignment with their values?
And what can we do to change this situation, and make a positive impact on the future of horsemanship?
Let’s explore some of the reasons why unmounted lesson programs fail, along with some possible solutions:
Reason #1 - Clients have unreasonable expectations
Imagine a baseball player signing up to join a local team. At his first practice, he announces that he has no interest in learning to field the baseball; he’s only interested in practicing hitting.
How long do you think that player would remain on the team?
Imagine an aspiring violinist signing up for lessons. Can you picture the music teacher’s reaction when the student announces that she won’t be wasting her time or money on learning to read music, or to care for her instrument — but her goal is to play first chair in an orchestra?
Sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? Yet equine instructors hear the equivalent from their clients all the time… and roll with it!
You don’t need to be particularly familiar with baseball to know that fielding is part of the game. So why don’t new equestrians understand that understanding the horse and learning how to care for him is an essential part of riding?
After all, unlike a baseball mitt, a horse is a living being with feelings and pain receptors. Are we dealing with a lack of empathy?
Or a failure to communicate?
When we onboard new clients, we must be VERY clear about the kind of commitment horseback riding requires. New students should hear that their ability to advance, compete, purchase a horse, and participate in your barn activities is dependent not just on their riding ability, but their horse savvy and knowledge.
By emphasizing the importance of unmounted time right out of the gate, our students form realistic expectations, both about the structure of your lesson program AND the nature of horsemanship.
Reason #2 - You aren’t selling what you intend to offer
When the public perception of horsemanship doesn’t match the reality, we need to ask ourselves why… and the uncomfortable answer is often that yes, we are the problem.
Turns out, when we paint the picture that it’s ALL about riding, that’s all our students expect to do!
Reason #3 - People buy what they see
So how are we going to paint a new picture of horsemanship — one that accurately conveys the responsibilities involved in riding a living, breathing animal, and shows off the many possibilities for enjoying a horse’s company?
We can start by setting an example. Your students emulate everything you do, so you must show them that you walk your talk:
You can also make the importance of ground lessons clear by making them mandatory. Yes, we said mandatory!
Prerequisites are part of many programs of study; it is not unreasonable for you to insist that students commit to unmounted learning in order to progress in your barn. (Especially when you consider that their safety and the well-being of your school horses are at stake.)
If new students see that everyone in your program is participating in non-riding lessons, they will consider it to be normal.
Reason #4 - There’s no road map
Students need to know how their lessons relate to their goals. Whether they ride as a form of recreational exercise, or to compete, or to achieve a specific performance goal, their unmounted lessons should be tailored to reflect their ambitions. This leaves students satisfied and feeling that they have made progress.
Goal-oriented students AND students who lack direction can benefit from a system, such as a Levels-based curriculum. The Levels form a written road map, giving them tangible stepping stones to achievement.
Your students might also benefit from regular goal-setting sessions, during which you can help them create action plans and point out the unmounted skills and knowledge that will help them succeed.
Reason #5 - Lack of positive reinforcement
No matter how enthusiastic your students are about horses, their motivation and commitment will likely wax and wane. This is a normal part of life and learning — no one is 100% motivated all the time, even when they are doing something they love. (As an equine professional, we’re sure you can relate!)
This is where incentives can be helpful to you AND your students. You could award small prizes during lessons, host contests, and extend special opportunities to students with excellent attendance at unmounted lessons.
Again, an unmounted Levels curriculum can make a big difference here. Students can earn rewards and public recognition for completing Levels — and you can use the Levels as prerequisites for activities such as camps, leasing and showing, spurring students to continue investing in their ground skills and horse knowledge.
Reason #6 - Lack of lesson material
It doesn’t matter what kind of lesson you’re teaching — if it isn’t fun and fresh, your students will lose interest. Many instructors find it challenging to teach engaging barn lessons to different age groups, or to produce new lesson material week after week.
Luckily, there are many successful unmounted programs that can provide ideas and inspiration.
We’ve found that it is possible to teach weekly unmounted lessons to the same students for three consecutive years — children and adults — and have them still eagerly come back for more!
If you have an established riding lesson program, and want to make unmounted lessons a bigger priority, expect that this may be a gradual process
Your existing students are used to a routine and may be resistant to change. It is much easier to “train” new clients right out of the gate than it is to create new rules for long-time clients.
But don’t lose heart! Your students may just surprise you with their interest in groundwork or horsekeeping.
And if you are committed to shifting toward a whole-horse approach to lessons, the students who aren’t enthusiastic about it are not likely to be a great long-term fit for your program anyway.
You probably have an ideal student in mind for your equine lesson business. Does that student appreciate ALL aspects of horsemanship, and look forward to lesson time whether that lesson is mounted or unmounted?
If so, then state it with pride, and attract the kind of clients who will appreciate ALL of the knowledge and experience you can give them.
Your students, horses and bank account will all be better for it!