What do you think about free time during therapeutic riding lessons? I have seen the whole spectrum of opinions used appropriately.
No Free Time
I have heard it said that there should be no free time in lessons because everything in the lesson must have a purpose and be working toward therapeutic benefits. Wandering around aimlessly does not accomplish this as the rider is neither focused nor receiving the most benefit from the horse’s movement (an aligned working walk is preferred).
In particular this applies to new instructors, who need to work on having a reason for everything they do in their lesson, and work on always giving instruction or feedback of some sort.
Structured Free Time
I have seen instructors give their riders free time in which the rider must plan where they will ride and tell their plan to their helpers before or as they ride.
For example, “There are four obstacles set in the arena, you may choose your favorite two to ride through. Before you take off, first tell your helpers which two and in which order. Then I’ll let you do it yourself and be quiet unless you really need help.”
Another example is Advanced Warmups, where you teach the rider to plan their warmup then give them structured free time in which to warm their horse up as you watch. You can do the same thing for cool downs.
I think stepping back for short amounts of time can be a valuable tool for the instructor because they can learn about the student by watching them, how they plan, and how they react to situations. Structured free time can be valuable to riders because they learn to make a plan and follow through with it, while practicing problem solving and decision making on their own with less help.
Reward Free Time
Using free time as a reward can be used to motivate riders who dislike work, like to have alone riding time, or just as something special.
I did this recently for a rider who was have their last lesson with us for a while. I told them, “For the last 3 minutes of your lesson you get free time to choose to do whatever you want. What is your favorite thing to do?” They answered, “Just ride around.” To clarify, I asked, “Like ride on the rail at a walk?” They said, “Yes. I can take my feet out of the stirrups. You always say that is good for me.” This was neat because at the end of lessons I had been having them ride with no stirrups to cool down, even though they were hesitant at first, apparently they came to like it. I think this rider also liked being left alone to their own thoughts and just being with the horse – in the end what I like to do when I ride, too!
Complete Free Time
Not exactly unstructured, but pretty close. This is for more advanced riders. Set some boundaries, make sure they have arena awareness, then step back and let them figure things out.
I have seen this done with advanced riders who were in a lease program at a therapeutic riding barn. They got to come in once a week to groom, tack, ride, bathe and hand graze their horses without any assistance but still under staff supervision (it took a few weeks to work up to the no assistance part!). The expectation was that during riding they need to warm up their horse, work on what they learned in their lesson that week for at least part of the time, and appropriately cool down their horse. A staff watched but only stepped in if help was needed. I watched a few times and it was so neat to see these riders grow in their independent horsemanship skills, self confidence, bonding with their horses, and surprisingly, bonding with each other. What struck me most was that let on their own they played with each other and their horses – one time after their lesson work was done, they started trying to get their horses to knock all the cones down, and then tried to get them to knock all the cones back up again! This play bonded them to each other, and to their horses. The horses also loved doing something other than the usual lessons. There are a lot of articles out there about the value of play and unstructured free time to the learning process and mental well being of people of all ages.
Do you use free time in your lessons? How do you go about doing it?
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!