Finding the Right Instructor for You- Justine Wilson

It was many years ago when I decided that I wanted to become a dressage rider. I knew very little about it, except that it was beautiful to watch. The riders and their mounts danced around the arena effortlessly. Thus began my search for someone to teach me how to do that too. My last instructor had been a hunter trainer, and worked at a large facility which had plenty of school horses. She yelled a lot, particularly at me….or at least it felt that way. I didn’t know it then, but that was not the best way to get the information through to me. I went through a few dressage trainers who were screamers, each time ending my time with them feeling somewhat abused and that I had to be the most retarded rider on the face of the earth. Then I met a woman who taught dressage in a different way. She communicated in a positive manner; her voice was steady and calm. She praised me when I executed her instructions correctly, and gently corrected me when I didn’t. She explained the theory behind what we were doing, and always gave me a goal to work towards. It wasn’t long before I was actually riding well and gaining confidence in what I was doing. I was riding at Training Level!! Many of us are adults when we decide to take on the art of dressage. I was not and if I knew then what I know now about myself, I would have spent a lot more energy figuring out what exactly my goals were and how I learned……which leads me to my first piece of advice in searching for a dressage instructor. What do you want to do? Time to take inventory. What are your current goals in regards to dressage? What resources do you have/not have in order to pursue those goals (time, money, horse)? In your search for a trainer, you need to be able to communicate this information to him/her. Your inventory may change later, but for now you need to find someone who listens, understands and is willing and capable of helping you achieve what you want now. How do you want to be taught? This is about your learning style. If I had been paying attention when I was younger I would have noticed that being yelled at makes me nervous and emotionally distraught. Not very productive when riding a horse, and in fact had the opposite effect of what was desired. I would shut down and nothing would get accomplished (or learned), my horse often would be a nervous wreck. Now I would guess that most riders fit into the same category as I do, however, some need a little more energy than what the calm, quiet type of instructor has to offer. Some need more repetition, some more visual input. Think about a positive learning experience you have had in the past. What inspired you? What did your teacher say or do that made things click? It’s not easy to find that perfect fit, but at the very least you need to find an instructor who doesn’t pull any emotional triggers in a negative way. You are paying for information. You need to get it, in a way that makes sense to you. The most difficult piece of it all….finding someone who is qualified. In the United States, unlike the European countries, we have no regulations regarding riding instructors. We have no governing body which determines whether or not a person is actually qualified to instruct riders on their horses. Think about that. You need to get a license to cut someone else’s hair, a certification to massage or credentials to teach Kindergarten…none of which are potentially life threatening. Yet anyone, anyone can be a riding instructor. Crazy, huh? There are two organizations that I am aware of that offer certifications specifically for dressage instruction. One is the United States Dressage Federation; the other is the American Riding Instructors Association. The reason I bring this up is that if an instructor has taken the time to demonstrate proficiency in teaching riders and training horses in order to earn a certification, there is a good chance they know what they are doing. This doesn’t guarantee that they will meet your other criteria though. It is a popular trend among dressage trainers to feel justified in using their achievements (awards and medals) as qualification for riding instruction and training. I personally don’t believe that performing at any level with a qualifying score of 60% or above any number of times guarantees that you have the tools or the skills to communicate and teach someone else how to do that. However, for now that is just my opinion. Hopefully sometime in the future, the rules will change and anyone who teaches riding instruction will be required to get a license. Until then, your job of finding a good instructor for yourself is a bit more complicated. There are many, many ethical and gifted trainers out there who are not certified, and do not even compete. Your best bet is to spend time watching any instructor teach and train (more than once) before making a commitment to a lesson, or any type of training package. If your prospective instructor has an issue with this, find one who doesn’t. For those of you, who are already working with someone, look over this. How does your instructor measure up? Are you getting what you need out of your lessons? You should be. You are paying for it. Justine Wilson Copyright © 2009 Justine Wilson. All Rights Reserved Justine Wilson has been an instructor since 1985, is currently available for clinics and offers a unique remote service via the internet. For more information please visit