Assessing the Horse Instructor and Student Relationship

Today I was catching up with a student who I hadn’t seen in a few years, we wound up having a conversation that was all too familiar.  Irrelevant to the discipline, level of “competition” or desired end goals, I believe the human student is often “failed” by their equine instructor. 

The focus of today’s blog, which honestly I was going to write as just a quick FB quip, but I couldn’t bear “to leave so much out,” is to address the modern-day student-teacher relationship.  Through my experience as a student in various disciplines under the guidance of instructors ranging from Pony Club students to Olympic Gold Medalist, to international superstar trainers to the “dying” breed of quality horsemen roaming ranches throughout the west, I have experienced ALL kinds of “treatment” from my trainers/instructors. 
I’ve encountered positive and supportive to almost noncommittal/aloof, from vulgar and abusive to aggressive and belittling, from patient and kind to tolerant teachers.  Some instructors I believe cared about my well-being, but with others, I was just another “hopeful” student with big dreams/ideas and they were just waiting for their paycheck.  Some wanted me to understand what they were teaching, but could not communicate verbally in a way for me (and other) students to understand and resorted to bullying or aggressive tactics.  Others at times were frustrating to work with because of the LACK of direct communication, but who forced me to search for answers within my current understanding; often the "aha" moments would come at a later time triggered by something they had said in the past...
All in all, it has been quite the journey and still is an ongoing one.  I suggest to my students about all of the opinionated horse folks they’ll encounter, “take what you like, and leave what you don’t.”  I had to do the same with my own experiences as a student, to hopefully become a quality instructor for my students.
I know in today’s western society, we are very “goal” orientated. Somehow people have been led to believe that if we achieve something by a certain point in time that it will translate into us being “successful.”  These time pressures are then felt by trainers and instructors to help hurry up and “get the job done” with a seemingly at-all-cost mentality, towards both the student and their horse, which in the long run can cause frustration and major consequences.
As I’ve written in other blogs, humans tend to put enormous mental pressure upon themselves.  The negative impact it has on everything we do thereinafter actually creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of what we originally DIDN’T want to happen, rather than having the self-inflicted time pressure be a tool to help motivate/ improve performances with our horses.  This isn’t to say I don’t believe in mental discipline, I do and most folks have to work incredibly hard to achieve this, but I want healthy mental discipline based on rational clarity rather than emotional chaos.
Over and over among all competitive athletes, not just in the horse world, it seems to “come down” to mental clarity and focus.  So I always wonder what a negative, critical, aggressive, personally-attacking coach adds to a student’s ability to ride in the show arena or at any given point in time? 
So many students come away totally stressed out, emotionally worn out and overwhelmed, from something that was supposed to be fun.  Can a rider have FUN and be competitive?  Of course.
My approach towards humans is similar to when I’m working with a new horse, if I don’t establish trust and boundaries near the beginning of our relationship, the horse and my students will be lacking focus and unable to “hear” what I’m saying and unable to get the most out of our sessions together.  They are very few other activities that require such an honest and “real-time” approach where every single minute matters.
If someone, anyone, at any level/experience is willing to “show up” mentally, physically and emotionally, and is willing to try, then I’m happy to teach.  But that isn’t always the case.
Just like my “lectures” in regards to riding with intention, I remind folks the more accurate they ride the less “fast” they have to ride and can still have a competitive time, the same goes for mental clarity.  The more mental clarity a person has, the more specific, direct, and effective their communication is with their horse.  This in turn makes them “believable” which allows their horse to both “know the plan ahead of time” and trust that their rider is “taking them” rather than just sitting in the saddle reacting after the fact.
I think the teacher/student relationship in the horse world needs to become a respected and treasured partnership, rather than the often “holier than thou” mentality some instructors seem to evolve into. 
I want instructors to be held accountable to be mentally present, supportive, clear, and sensitive to what their student is experiencing.  Often I hear “coaching” from “successful” (which in most people’s minds means they’ve placed well in the competitive world) top-level professionals, who would make even the most seasoned sailors cringe at their language and insinuations.
Just as you can earn a horse’s trust and lose it in a heartbeat, so can you too with a human student.
I believe most folks whether professional or amateur initially have the best of intentions when they are first involved with the sport, but somehow time and “experience” seem to cloud a lot of people’s perspectives, standards, self-respect, tolerance, and goals.
As the “unguaranteed lifestyle of a horse trainer/instructor” takes its toll, many instructors after a while get burned out and are teaching for the dollar, and are so distracted and overwhelmed by the work/financial strains/etc. that often they lose the love for doing it.  Those that do so, also tend to bring a lot of “personal baggage” to their student’s sessions which can have ongoing negative effects.
So how do an instructor’s personal “issues” affect their student?  110% in either positive or negative ways.  Whether or not they realize/recognize/are intentional in how they present themselves, from how they dress, how they speak, how they approach teaching, etc. completely affects the human student.
I wish more professionals recognized that what works, is healthy, appropriate, and suitable for one student may not be for another, of course, the same can certainly be said for a horse’s training program too.  Even at a competitive barn, there does not need to be an instructor creating chaos or turbulence among students by setting an unhealthy undertone.
Students can often suffer from staying with the same trainer out of “guilt” that often has nothing to do with a rational assessment of what the instructor is offering the student.
So whether you’re an instructor, or in a position of “influence,” or a student, perhaps take a few minutes and ask yourself these questions:
When I take/offer a lesson what is my more-often-than-not feeling I have afterward?
Is any part of what I’m doing allowing me to laugh, smile, and enjoy?
Am I feeling a sense of overwhelming emotions every time I teach/learn?
Is my horse happy when I take a lesson?
What have I learned in the recent short term (three months) and the relatively long term (year)?
When I think of taking/teaching a lesson what do I feel?
Do I feel the lessons help me and my horse be successful even when the instructor isn’t around?
Do I treat my trainer/student with respect?
What are my goals for working with this trainer?  Are they rational or emotional? Are they reasonable to be asking of both myself and my horse?
Of course, the list could go on and on.  But what it comes down to is often people get “comfortable” in their relationships, including those with their horse trainers.  It isn’t ever a “convenient” time to take some time to honestly assess the quality of relationship/information/instruction you are receiving as a student.
Because of “big names” students can feel paralyzed or worried about judgments from others within the equine community who would be critical of a “lowly student” leaving/questioning an “established trainer.” 
But as I tell most folks, it is okay to take care of you and your horse.  YOU are his only voice.  No matter your experience level, if that little voice in your head is questioning a scenario, trust your gut instinct, and DO something about it.  It is OKAY to say “no,” to not “do” what everyone else is doing/saying, etc.  You are supposed to be having fun; yes it can be “serious and intense” but if you’re not having fun, your horse certainly won’t enjoy the session either, which only sets the tone for the next time you go to take a lesson.
Be proactive as a student, take time and explore audit lessons/clinics, DON’T get distracted by someone’s credentials, and remember just because someone can ride well does not mean they can teach well.   Feel that your communication with your instructor is a two-way, respectful relationship.  If you have concerns, fears, and issues, or questions, your instructor should be a “safe” person to consult with.  If you feel intimidated, overwhelmed, or stressed at the thought of “discussing” anything with your trainer, I’d suggest stepping back and re-evaluating.
Here’s to seeking quality teacher/student relationships and fun learning!



  1. I'm struggling with this very issue. Left my last lesson in tears and then had a heart to heart discussion with the instructor about being given a chance on a different lesson horse next time. We'll see how things go!

  2. Thanks for the post, Sam. It can be challenging as a student to question those who are in authority positions whether it's as a riding student or anywhere else in our lives. A lot of us are taught growing up to keep our voices small but that doesn't translate into healthy relationships.

    1. Yes, all too often we're taught we can only reach success by doing only "this" way and can be badgered, belittled and bullied for questioning otherwise! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Nice post, things explained in details. Thank You.


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