Many therapeutic riding centers offer only private lessons, but there are centers that only offer group lessons or have a mix of group and private. The center I work at has a mix of private and group lessons and the majority of my teaching hours are from groups.
Teaching to a group is obviously different than teaching to an individual because the lesson needs to be tailored to all of the clients’ needs and there is not as much time to spend one-on-one. However, I like teaching to groups because there are opportunities for socialization, imitation, and different games to play. Managing a group can be daunting; therefore, I want to share some ideas on how I make it easier for me.
I am always moving when I’m in the arena. I walk near each of the clients throughout the lesson to give them individual attention, walk in front and behind all the clients so I can check balance and I move between points in the arena to get a sense of how the lesson is going for clients and volunteers. Standing in one place in the arena causes you to miss out on important cues from a client.
Always watch the horses’ spacing in the arena. Horses should always be about twenty feet (2-3 horse lengths) apart in the arena unless there is a specific reason not to be (i.e. at a whoa, waiting at the gate, lining up). Utilize the full arena space to change direction or ride a pattern and use the whoa! Whoa is the most powerful tool in a group lesson because it gives the instructor a chance to pause and reset.
I like to give all the instructions for the lesson plan and maximize volunteers. I will have clients whoa and listen to the full set of instructions, then break it down individually for each client, and then rely on volunteers to help with each step. For example, I will tell clients they are going through a pattern: walk over the poles, turn right, circle the barrel, whoa at the cone. I repeat each step to the first client and let them start, trusting the volunteers to help with each step as needed along the way. As the instructor, it’s important to use the time wisely. Can volunteers handle directions so you can help a client who needs more coaching? Is it better for you to be at the start of a pattern or the end? In a group lesson, you cannot be with every client at every minute and it is your job to figure out where you are needed most.
One of the best parts of group lessons is encouraging socialization! Clients can interact with one another instead of toys or obstacles. Clients can hand toys back and forth, they can play red light, green light or Simon Says, and they can high five. Take advantage of having more than one client and design a lesson plan that spurs interaction.
Finally, groups can be overwhelming. There are more clients, horses, and volunteers to keep an eye on and there is a higher chance of a lesson going off script. Go with the flow. Not every lesson is going to be dynamite and there is always next week to try again!