Finding the Right Instructor for Your Young Rider

Finding the Right Instructor for Your Young Rider

Finding a trainer to provide lessons to your child is more than simply running a web search for a local coach, it can take a few auditions to find the right personality to pair with the student.

trainer Sharon Wellman coaches a youth rider aboard a palomino Quarter Horse (Credit: Kate Bradley-Byers)

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By Kate Bradley Byars

The movie industry characterizes riding coaches as stern fellows with rigid methods, wearing tall boots that allow the riding crop to connect with a crack. 

In reality, riding coaches come in a variety of disciplines, personalities and at a variety of price points that fit different budgets. The right riding coach can encourage a lifetime of equine activities, where the wrong kind of teacher can drive a horse lover away from the barn.

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Sharon Wellmann of Conroe, Texas, has more than 30 years’ experience teaching riders of all levels and ages. She says finding a compatible coach-rider team is all about communication. 

“When I first started (teaching and training), I had people with horses of various levels of ability. I got frustrated because we couldn’t move forward like I wanted,” Sharon says. “it took about a year for me to talk to other trainers and become a judge, and it made me realize I needed to make each rider and horse as successful as they could be, not as successful as another horse.

“Not every horse will go to a big show and win, and not every rider wants to show; every rider wants to accomplish their own goal.” 

Here, she discusses how to communicate with a coach, the importance of goals for the rider, and why she makes riding fun. 

Horse Trainers Near You: Listings and Directories

In the movies, a horse-crazy student bumps into the trainer through a series of unfortunate or almost unbelievable events, like catching a champion horse running loose down the street. The next thing the audience sees is the rider learning on that same horse.

This is called a “meet cute” in the showbiz world but not typically what occurs in real life. Usually, a trainer and potential student meet through one of three major means: Google search online, reference from a friend or reviewing a reputable trainer listing.

Cost of Riding Lessons

Often, the search is the easy part. What comes next should be an interview of sorts, one where the potential student and coach share expectations.

First, be sure that the coach is affordable for the student. According to AQHA, the average private lesson ranges from $40 to $80 an hour for a beginner rider. 

Sharon says that communication is key to getting off on the right foot.

“I get calls out of the blue, and the first thing I do after speaking on the phone is invite them to come out to my facility,” she says. “It is important for them to see the facility, meet the instructor – me in this case – and watch a lesson to see how I work with another student.

“I like to talk to the student and parent, if it is a youth rider, about goals. Does the student want to ride English or western? Do they have a horse or need to ride a lesson horse?”

To match a coach and rider, there are basic needs to be met: discipline, price point and expectation. Sharon lives in proximity to the Houston metropolitan area, and she draws clients from the surrounding towns. Some clients travel more than two hours one way for instruction. Travel time often plays a role in frequency of lessons as well as overall cost. These are factors to consider and discuss with the coach at the initial meeting.

When the student is ready to go forward, Sharon provides an emergency information sheet for them to fill out. She says that regardless of the student’s age, it is important to provide the instructor with multiple contact numbers in case of emergency.

Youth riders whom Sharon instructs are not allowed to be unattended at the barn. Some instructors might allow a student to spend all day Saturday unsupervised, but the expectation and reality for each barn is different. Ironing out these details early on can prevent miscommunication down the line.

Sharon says that coaching sessions always start with the basics and that most experienced riding instructors will test out a student’s level of experience before jumping into riding. 

How to Start Riding Lessons

Safety around the horse is the foremost concern, no matter the student’s age. A dramatic rescue scene is wonderful to thrill move audiences, but day-to-day riding activities should be safe and easily controlled.

When 10-year-old Zoe Romanchuk of Montgomery, Texas, arrives at Sharon’s facility to ride, she goes through the routine of grooming her horse with practiced strokes. She started taking lessons only two years ago, but today, she has her own palomino mare – Rockys Proud Mary – and her sights set on AQHA competition.  

“I come out a few times a week, and I just love being around horses. It is so fun,” Zoe says. “We knew Mrs. Wellmann through showing cattle. I thought it would be cool to take riding lessons.”

To start, Zoe learned how to halter and lead a horse, then groom and saddle, and then advanced to riding lessons that include navigating trail obstacles. The trail course is Zoe’s favorite and is what keeps her interested in riding.

An interested student is key to keeping one motivated to reach their goal, Sharon says.

“Learn slow and teach slow. I teach in building blocks,” Sharon says. “When we ride every day, we have cues that come as naturally as walking. But someone new to riding doesn’t have the same innate reactions to a horse’s movement. When a rider makes a mistake, a good coach remembers not to tear that rider down, but to build them up.

“I teach riding like learning the alphabet: Learn letters to make words, learn words to make sentences, and then use sentences to make paragraphs. Each time you ride, you learn more and string it together until eventually, you can tell an entire story.”

For Zoe, the challenge of tackling a trail course came easier once Sharon broke down each step. It was a teaching style that benefitted her more than previous instruction.

“She breaks the elements apart and has me work on each one instead of trying to put it all together at once,” Zoe says. “She jokes and has fun with it, and if I hit a pole, she tells me to brush it off. I did soccer for a little while and didn’t receive a lot of instruction. That is why I like riding with Mrs. Wellmann, because it is not a free-for-all. I know why I’m doing something and working toward doing it better.”

Keeping a student rider’s interest is key to prolonging their time in the sport, and Sharon uses a give-and-take method to keep riders entertained. 

Best Advice for Starting Riding Lessons

Like an Oscar-winning scriptwriter, a riding coach keeps the action moving and doesn’t let the rider get too bored doing the same thing with each lesson. A good coach, Sharon says, keeps riding fun and is constantly evaluating how the rider is learning. 

The key is to have a goal and a willing student.

“Often younger riders can lack a big goal. When he or she gets to a point where some would start showing or focus on a goal but they don’t have that in mind, I try to keep their attention using games,” Sharon says. “I add tennis balls under the chin and do a pattern, or drop stirrups and do a pattern. We may lose a little control, but keep it safe and make it fun. After the fun, I can go back and work on the area that needs more control, like leg strength.”

For Zoe, the nudge to move from riding occasionally to focused lessons aiming at competitions came when her father invested in a horse. Today, Terry Romanchuk watches his daughter put in effort and work hard toward her goal.

“Watching Sharon work with the kids sold me on having Zoe involved with horses,” Terry says. “We trust that Zoe is in good hands.”

Not every coach-student pairing is going to have chemistry. Sharon describes having clients who came with their own plans in mind and weren’t ready to learn.

“I’ve had clients who can’t reach their goal. I try to make it work, but you don’t want every lesson to be a struggle,” she says. “As a coach, I have to remember that this person is coming to me to learn (to ride) in their valuable free time. Not everyone can have the goal to show their horse; some students want to learn to be a safe rider at summer camp.”

Rider expectations and experience should be a primary concern for a qualified, compatible coach. To continue to build the horse industry with enthusiastic riders, coaches need to teach at many different levels.

For Sharon, making a match with a potential student is about communicating expectations and achieving a goal. In return, the reward is another safe, enthusiastic member of the equine community.