Throwback Thursday: Are American Riding Instructors Mediocre?

Throwback Thursday this week resurfaces a post from October 9, 2013. You can also read the original here.

I recently came across a post called “Top 3 Reasons Why America’s Producing so Many Mediocre Instructors” and was intrigued enough to read it. Partially, my curiosity stemmed from the fact that I don’t believe my instructors are mediocre. Not in the least. So I looked back at my instructors growing up…nope, my most influential trainers have all been great people, excellent riders and fantastic teachers.

That being said, I thought it was still a worthwhile article (not least because of the reference to the great Vince Lombardi – go Pack, go!). The article begins by looking back on a time not so long ago when U.S. riders were renowned worldwide, and posits that the high standard of riding was grounded in the basics.

So what happened? I’ve wondered this myself, occasionally, when watching big events like the Olympics. Why does it seem like the U.S. is continually outshone by Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain? (Mostly Germany. Let’s be honest. Especially in Dressage.) Have we lost an important element of classical riding?

The article from The Riding Instructor offered three main reasons for the so-called decline of American horsemanship, all supporting the main point that “the fault lies in the education of the upcoming generation of horse lovers.”

  1. Instructors are not learning/teaching foundations and basics.
  2. There are too many instructors that are in the wrong profession.
  3. Too many instructors teach for the wrong reasons.

Each point has some convincing details. Some that stood out to me were:

  • A great rider or competitor does not necessarily make a great teacher, because teaching how to ride a horse requires a totally different skill set.
  • A trainer or coach is not the same as an instructor or teacher. Trainers train horses, while coaches coach competitors. Teachers teach. (Full confession: I use “trainer” and “instructor” interchangeably because I view my “trainer” as training me as well as the horse.)
  • Horse shows have become the goal of riding, rather than a “progress test” to see how riders stack up against their peers. This puts the focus in the wrong place – not on the horse-rider relationship but on winning at all costs.
  • Judges facilitate a vicious cycle because they sometimes reward bad training techniques, which perpetuates those techniques.

I don’t fully agree with everything in the article. That being said, I have occasionally been frustrated at a show when I get beat out by horses that have clearly been subjected to poor training techniques – especially the sharp “see-sawing” on the reins to quickly get a “good” headset. Some of this is just the nature of showing; a judge is there to judge what he or she sees during the class, and they aren’t omnipresent. However, my frustration comes because I have been taught to use good horsemanship and quiet aids to develop a partnership with my horse instead of taking those kinds of shortcuts.

It makes me incredibly thankful that my riding experience has not involved mediocre teachers. It has also sparked my curiosity to learn more about classical riding. Mr. K has referred to it obliquely, mentioning that all of our riding techniques stem from the military and some quick Google searches have proved that to be essentially true. And yet, the article from The Riding Instructor laments that “a horseman can’t go into a…book store and purchase books by authors such as Harry Chamberlin, Gordon Wright, Vladimir Littauer, Piero Santini or Margaret Cabell Self.”

I wasn’t convinced – can’t we pretty much find everything online these days? Answer: yes and no. I first searched for Harry Chamberlin and found a little information on two books, but neither was in my local library’s catalog. However, I did find PDF versions online: Riding and Schooling Horses (1934) and Training Hunters, Jumpers and Hacks (1937).

I found books by all of the other authors mentioned in the article at the library, although the ones by Piero Santini are not available for checkout as they are designated as Library Use Only/Reference Use as part of the Art Rarities Collection. However, it is on Amazon both in a hard copy and Kindle edition, which I might buy or ask for as a birthday or Christmas gift.

First, though, in addition to reading the online additions of the Harry Chamberlin books, I’m embarking on a tour of all the available library books from these riders. Currently in transit are:

  • The Development of Modern Riding, Vladimir Littauer (1991)
  • Learning to Ride, Hunt and Show, Gordon Wright (1966)
  • The Riding Instructor’s Manual, Gordon Wright (1975)
  • The Nature of the Horse, Margaret Cabell Self (1974)
  • Riding Simplified, Margaret Cabell Self (1948) [update: read my review here]

I’m intrigued and I want to know how my own foundation of basics stacks up against what the author of The Riding Instructor article calls “classical” riding. I have a sneaking suspicion that what I already know is grounded in classical principles without ever having been explained in so many words. I’m very interested to start reading and boning up on my classical basics!

Overall, do I believe there is a general mediocrity to American riding instructors? I’m not sure. As with most things in life, there is a spectrum from fabulous teachers to terrible ones. Are there coaches who take shortcuts so their riders do well at shows? Yes, I think that is clear. However, in general, I know that there are incredibly talented teachers out there offering lessons, clinics and even online help for riders who care to seek them out.

All of that being said, I want to take a moment to thank all my riding instructors over the years. My very first teacher, Dan, was a classic old cowboy who taught me the basics of riding, understanding horses and collection. Kim started me in the world of English riding, and taught me balance, bending, leg aids, jumping and Dressage, all while continuing to instill in me the principles that the horse comes first. Leanne has brought be back into the world of riding after a hiatus, introduced me to hunters and jumpers, has taken me further into the show ring than ever, and has continued my education on building partnerships and riding softly. Most recently, Mr. K has been building my knowledge of horsemanship in leaps and bounds, helping me to focus on my seat, hands and leg aids while forming a relationship with a horse that goes beyond being in the saddle. In my personal experience, American riding instructors are most definitely not mediocre!

I’d also like to mention that my barn is a place that does an incredible job of teaching young riders. Even at shows, the focus is not on getting ribbons, but having good rides, working through problems that may arise, and learning to care for horses in a situation away from the barn. At shows and at home, there is always an emphasis on giving the horse a positive experience, communicating clearly, being as soft as possible, balancing the horse and generally setting up a horse to succeed. I feel very fortunate to have found such a great barn that focuses on bringing up new horsemen and -women who think for themselves and can ride confidently in a lot of situations.

Do you have recommendations for books I should add to the list? Leave them in the comments. And watch for book reviews as I make my way through the titles mentioned in this post!

Update from the original: read the review of Margaret Cabell Self’s book Riding Simplified.

5 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Are American Riding Instructors Mediocre?

  1. I think geographic proximity is a huge problem in the US. In Europe, you’re only ever a short train or plane ride away from most other european countries. It’s so much easier to get around. So if you’re living in the Netherlands, it isn’t that hard to skip over to Germany and learn from one of the greats in that country. On the other hand, we live in the Midwestern US. To go to the east coast and take a lesson with someone like Linda Zang or Jimmy Wofford would involve at least 2 days of traveling (if you’re driving), or one expensive plane ticket. It’s just not the same. And we don’t have all the european warmbloods at our disposal either. I’d also argue that the focus in Europe is absolutely on real disciplines like show jumping and eventing, and dressage, and not these silly affectations like western pleasure, halter, saddleseat etc. Don’t get me wrong, I saw some atrocious riding in the UK, but the majority of riders in Europe are far braver and more squarely grounded in the basics than the Americans.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a really interesting post, thanks for re-sharing. I have a huge amount of thoughts on this. I agree with you that talent doesn’t mean you can teach, and said the same thing on my own blog a while ago. My experience of the US is through teaching at a summer camp. My camp is theatre-focused, but because there are some very affluent kids from the tri-state area, we get some good riders… Who’ve been taught to ride badly (at least, that’s what a British instructor would say). I’ve spent two summers trying to wrap my head around all of the confusing styles taught here and still haven’t succeeded. None of my students sit properly, none of them are effective with their seat and they all jump during every single lesson at home, which I find appalling. They think a working trot is high level dressage. They have no idea what bend is. So from all of this, I’d agree that the basics and ground work are missing. I’d love to visit some barns and see exactly what goes on. And I’ll happily comment more at a later date.


  3. While I can’t speak for the USA, a major problem we seem to have in South Africa is that anyone who has passed their basic instructor tests is of the opinion that they are the bee’s knees and can teach anyone anything – even if their riding is average and experience minimal. There is plenty of emphasis on qualification, and very little on actual experience. I have been taught by instructors who know all the theory and all the fancy terms but have no idea what something is supposed to feel like. These are generally the ones who you never actually see on a horse. They’re not bad people, of course, but I tend not to trust an instructor who I don’t see riding, except if there’s a real reason for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. First of all I would like to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your head
    prior to writing. I have had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out
    there. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually wasted simply just trying to figure
    out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Thank you!


    1. First, thank you! I’m glad you enjoy this blog.

      As for clearing my head when I begin writing, I really try not to try too hard. I have a general idea for the post in my head and I just start writing it. I always go back once I’ve written a draft and edit it, so I don’t put any pressure on my first draft to be “good.” Some posts come more easily than others; some are basically already written in my head before I type a word, and others are vague themes. Not every post idea gets done right away, either. I have several drafts saved at various stages of being written, because they aren’t ready to be published yet. If something just isn’t coming out how I want, I will save it, leave it for awhile, and come back with fresh eyes.

      Also, I wouldn’t say that you’re “wasting” the first 10-15 minutes by thinking about how you want to begin. If that writing process works for you, then that’s okay! You can take your time. I think there’s an inaccurate perception that there are amazing writers out there who just sit down and brilliant words flow from their fingertips. (If there are, then they’re extremely fortunate!) As long as you aren’t feeling frustrated by trying to force the perfect beginning in your first draft, then I think taking your time before you really get flowing can be very helpful, because you’re thinking about how you want the story to take shape and the path you might take to get from the start to the finish.

      I hope this was helpful!


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