This topic is for Instructors in Training who are preparing to teach their first Therapeutic Riding Lesson. My first lessons were chaos because I had no idea what I was doing, so I want to share some ideas with you to make your first experience a good one! While teaching your first lesson is a very exciting time, it can also be very nerve-wracking, so I want you to know that there ARE things you can do to set yourself up well.
Guest contributor on this post is Allison Carns of “Pages of Allison”, who recently emailed me about her own good experience in instructor training at Renew Therapeutic Riding Center. She kindly offered lots of good advice for this topic! Anything in quotations is from her, the rest is from me.
Join a mentor group
“The executive director at our center, who is also an instructor, started a mentor group where anyone interested in becoming an instructor can attend. We try to have a meeting once a month with different topics each month. Components of a lesson, objectives, standards, and hands-on mount & dismount training to name a few.”
Shadow and Wean Into It
In the weeks before, practice teaching just parts of the lesson first. For example, you teach the warmup and cool down, your mentor does the rest. Slowly add in more parts as you are comfortable. “It was very helpful that for the first few lessons my mentor had me shadow, then let me start teaching in ‘pieces’. The first time, I did the warm up and cool-down. Then I added in the mounting and dismounting, then completed the entire lesson- all of this with her help standing in the middle with me and us planning the lesson together.”
Write a detailed lesson plan, including EVERYTHING: the what, why, how, and where, have several options for activities and progression, know how you want to reverse directions, line up, etc. – so you’re not caught without knowing what to do. Do this for EVERY lesson plan you teach, because if you do the hard work of training yourself to do a good job now, this will turn in to good habits, so later down the road you won’t have to plan and work so much.
Research Your Riders
Review your rider’s files before, so you are familiar with what they can and can’t do already. Consider asking the rider’s regular instructor for tips on teaching them – but only if it helps you to feel more comfortable (I found that often it was too much to remember and did not like having preconceived notions about my riders).
Research the Skill
Research the skill you are going to teach (the what, why and how) so you are able to give good explanations and feedback. Have a lot of potential different explanations – everyone learns differently and you may need to use a few throughout the lesson until a certain explanation clicks with the rider.
Have Options for Activities
Come up with several ideas for activities (the where) and progression. Again, so you’re not caught without knowing what to do. My first few lessons I taught I was so nervous I did everything super fast, and had to fill in time at the end! When I got more comfortable I learned to pace myself and got a better feel for how long certain activities would take.
Have a Plan for Arena Management
Decide ahead of time how you will reverse, where everyone will line up, how you will ask them to do these things, what you will do if they get too close or too far, etc. My first lesson I had no clue how to do this and it resulted in chaos!
Plan Your Time
Plan for how long each part of the lesson will take (such as 5 min mount, 5 min warmups, etc.). During the lesson keep track of your time (or better yet have someone else do it). After the lesson compare how you did to your plan. This shows you what to work on and develops the habit of keeping an eye on the clock. This also helps you figure out how many activities to prepare. “A tip that I would have loved to have at the beginning was being aware of time management. The lessons at our center are hour-long, and the first lesson I taught, I had the students dismounted 15 minutes early because I didn’t plan for more of a progression of the lesson. I realize now that I was more concentrated on the objective than anything else. I remember now to take plenty of time explaining how-what-why’s and getting the students feedback if possible. Now I always make sure to be very thorough with warm-ups and have plenty of progressions in the event that the students are johnny-on-the-spot meeting the day’s objectives.”
Write a Script and Rehearse Dialogue
“What really helped me in addition to the lesson outline, was writing down a kind of word-track. I pretty much scripted my entire lesson from ‘Hello’ to ‘Goodbye’. I read and re-read the outline, then when I was at home making dinner or cleaning, I would record what I was saying on my phone to see how I sounded and what I could improve. Now of course, I didn’t read off the outline during the lesson, but it helped me immensely to have a plan-of-attack for the first time because I was very afraid that I would get into the arena and just blank!
Make Note Cards
Make note cards or have a cheat sheet with you in the arena. It’s okay to read off paper if you need to (at first)! To this day I still take a little cheat sheet with me. I think it’s been to sneak a peek than teach a poor lesson.
Prepare to be Flexible
Now that you’ve created this wonderful overprepared lesson plan, realize you may need to just go with how your students are doing that day. Don’t get so focused on the lesson plan that you forget your riders are real people.
One of my mentors did similar activities with each group, so I would watch her teach before me, then imitate how she explained the activity with my own group.
Record Mentor Feedback
“Another thing that’s just great to have are the instructor feedback sheets- I love being able to read their notes to see where I did well and where I could improve. Nothing is better than a little constructive criticism!” My barn has feedback sheets we fill out and review with our Instructors in Training. An alternative is to write down notes of what they say so you can review and incorporate the suggestions into future lessons.
Practice (Don’t Quit)
Keep teaching! Nerves only go away with time. When I first started teaching I was so nervous I got nauseous. The nausea went away, but I didn’t lose the nervousness for 2 years. Maybe I’m extreme, but Allison also relates: “The first time that I actually did a lesson on my own, I was a complete nervous nancy (actually, for the first several times and it hasn’t quite gone away yet! lol) To give a little background, I have been a volunteer side-walker & horse leader for about seven years now, so I had a lot of experience in the arena, but boy when you actually learn what goes into a lesson it is way more complicated that what I could have imagined. I had no experience actually teaching a group of any kind, I work 9-5 in an office for a living.” So don’t get discouraged, you are learning a new skill, much of which can only come through experience. Only through practice will you learn how long it takes to mount and dismount certain riders, how long it takes to teach a skill, how to get the riders’ attentions back, etc. So keep at it! By the end of your required teaching hours, you will not know everything, just hopefully enough to pass the test and start teaching on your own – and that’s when you really come in to your own as a therapeutic riding instructor!
Thanks so much for your comments, Allison!
What helped you teach your first lesson? Please share!
Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!