Riding with a qualified instructor who meets your needs and skill level can help you reach your goals and work to your full potential. The demand for qualified instructors seems to be growing, and there are many educational programs available that offer better training. What is the educational background of these instructors, and are they experienced enough for the job?
Many of the discipline-specific organizations in this country, such as the United States Dressage Federation’s Instructor Certification Program and the United States Eventing Association’s Instructor Certification Program, offer rigorous certification systems involving study, workshops and mentoring designed to further educate riding instructors.
The well-respected Kentucky-based United States Pony Clubs Inc. offers a system that develops young riders through nine stages of the progressive Standards of Proficiency, which evaluate knowledge and riding ability. Pony Clubbers who reach advanced skill levels within the organization earn internationally recognized credentials. In addition, the Pony Club assists their regional clubs with planning instruction programs by providing lesson plans, study guides and other tools designed to promote overall good horsemanship.
Some accredited universities have four-year programs that prepare students for careers in riding instruction, including Lake Erie College in Ohio, which offers a bachelor of science in equestrian teacher/trainer. Educational programs that certify qualified instructors after they reach a certain competence level are available through top clinicians such as John Lyons or Pat Parelli. Riding instructor certification programs are also offered through organizations such as the Certified Horsemanship Association in Kentucky and the Florida-based American Riding Instructors Association. Years of riding experience at the high levels can also prepare someone for a teaching career, as long as they also possess professionalism, communication skills and all-around horsemanship abilities.
Mary Pardee teaches equine studies at Lake Erie College. She has 24 years of experience as a trainer and instructor, specializing in hunters and equitation. Pardee sees education and certification programs for riding instructors as a positive step toward increasing the number of qualified teachers in this country.
“I feel the industry is looking at what we’re producing and is realizing that we need to get back to the all-around horse person,” she says.
Pardee’s formative equestrian years were spent under an instructor who graduated from the British Horse Society (BHS) system, which provides a comprehensive education in horsemanship. Pardee says she was “instilled with the basic ideas and ideals of the BHS,” which include education, safety and equine welfare. She feels the system incorporates a “strong sense of duty and attention to detail, and a very strong work ethic.”
Pardee firmly believes that good horsemanship is critical to good instruction. “It’s not just about the riding,” she says. Education in horse handling, nutrition, anatomy, veterinary and farrier care, training, conditioning and barn management are just as important. So is rider safety, which includes being able to appropriately match people with horses and recognizing their limitations and weaknesses. First-aid training is also imperative.
“It’s an all-around perspective, which I think is what is essential for a successful trainer or instructor in today’s world,” Pardee explains. She says many equestrians possess some of the skills of a good riding instructor, but it’s hard to find someone who has it all.
“You can’t just be a good rider or a successful competitor,” Pardee explains. “I’ve known and seen people at top levels who are phenomenal riders, but they have a hard time explaining why they do what they do.”
Additionally, Pardee has seen some people go into business too soon. She explains that, over the years, she has watched successful junior riders come out of the ranks and set themselves up as instructors. “Some of them didn’t have the all-around background that would enable them to be a good instructor,” she says.
Certified Standards of Excellence
Along with formal education and existing certification programs, some people in the industry feel a national certification program, established under one governing body, could help address the problem of unqualified riding instruction.
The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) may seem like the logical choice to implement a national certification program for riding instructors, but it’s not an easy task. Chuck Walker, the USEF’s assistant director of continuing education, says the USEF has no plans at this time to take on instructor certification or licensing. “There are so many breed and performance organizations that would need to be considered,” he says. “It’s a huge undertaking.”
One of the forerunners of riding instructor certification is the United States Dressage Federation (USDF). Its program has been in place for 15 years and includes workshops in longeing, riding and teaching. The final exam for certification consists of practical riding, longeing and teaching components, in addition to a verbal and written test that covers equine management and competition rules.
The Kentucky-based Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA) currently offers different levels of riding instructor certification, all of which focus on safety. CHA has partnered with several organizations to help improve the safety and quality of riding instruction in the United States, including the American Vaulting Association, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association and the American Quarter Horse Association.
Even though CHA certifies riding instructors, Chief Executive Officer Christy Landwehr says certification isn’t her biggest worry. “I have concerns about people hanging out shingles and calling themselves instructors when they aren’t qualified to do so,” she says. “It’s very dangerous.”
Knowing that no national certification program exists in this country and that not every equestrian discipline offers an instructor certification program through its association, should riding students rule out teachers who aren’t certified?
“I wouldn’t rule out instructors in America because they don’t hold certification, but I would certainly want to know why they call themselves qualified instructors,” Pardee says.
Many trainers and instructors earned their qualification through hands-on experience. However, who they learned from contributes to the development of a quality skill set and training philosophy. Other factors that build a trainer’s résumé include competitive achievement, years of riding at a high level, and years as an equine professional. The success of current and former students speak to an instructor’s competence. Participation in horse sport or breed organizations and the local equestrian community, as well as judging credentials also demonstrate a level of involvement and knowledge.
Originally from Utah, Chelsea Olsen, 24, graduated from the Lake Erie College’s Equestrian Teacher/Trainer program in 2007 and continues as a working student there while she pursues her MBA. She believes a well-rounded education is imperative for riding instructors, but she says that riders need to be proactive, too.
“Clients need to become more involved in their education by seeking out qualified instructors,” Olsen advises. She says by furthering your own equine education, which includes immersing yourself in equestrian-related books, videos and publications, you can make better decisions about choosing a good riding instructor (See sidebar page 36, “Tips for Finding a Good Riding Instructor”).
Riding instruction is a huge responsibility for those who make it a career. As more and more education and certification programs are established, it is hoped that unqualified instructors currently in the business enroll in these programs and get more experience. “It is an awesome responsibility that we need to really pay careful attention to,” Pardee says. “We’re responsible for our students’ happiness, safety and learning experience.”
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Toni McAllister is a horse owner based in Southern California and a contributing editor to Horse Illustrated.
This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.