By Julie Goodnight
I was just a year out of college when I decided to follow the path of least resistance (for me) and make a career in the horse industry. My college degree had nothing to do with horses, but I had been managing a breeding/training farm for a year, so it wasn’t a huge leap for me. Although the sport of riding was a big part of my passion for horses, studying horse behavior and science-based training methods was always a huge motivator for me. It was clear that working for someone else—their horses, their barn, their style of training—was not my path. I needed the freedom to train each horse the way I thought best, to expand my capabilities and explore new techniques.
In 1986, I first hung out a shingle for my own horse business, which included boarding, training, lessons, trail rides, pack trips and drop camps. Basically, anything involving horses that someone would pay me for. I would’ve loved to do nothing but train horses all-day-every-day, but there was way more to running a successful horse operation, and teaching/guiding/coaching would be a big part of the operation. I soon realized that no matter how well I could ride a horse, the ability to teach it to someone else, was the key to success. I’ve worked hard at being a better teacher my entire career, and with a little help from CHA, it has opened many doors for me, indeed.
Like a lot young horse trainers, I did not want to be a riding instructor; just a trainer. I had the fleeting fantasy of training and riding beautiful horses all day with absentee owners who paid exorbitant monthly training bills, indefinitely, asking very few questions and never showing up in person. And to be fair, I did have a few clients that were almost that perfect. But most were not and reality set in fast. Early-on in my career I realized that every horse has at least one person attached and training the horse does no good if the people are not also trained. Three decades later, my passion is still training horses, but what I do mostly is train people who own horses. Our motto is, “Helping horses, one human at a time.”
Credentials Required, Past this Point
By 1995, my horse business had grown to the point that I needed better professional credentials. I researched the options for riding instructor certification and quickly settled on CHA, the Certified Horsemanship Association, founded in 1967 to promote safety in group horsemanship programs by educating and certifying riding instructors. I loved the focus on safety and the acceptance of a broad range of disciplines and teaching styles. The fact that you could test out at the highest level in one certification clinic was appealing, since I already had a decade of teaching riding under my belt.
I came away from my first CHA Instructor Certification Clinic, enamored of the organization and the people who comprised it, and with a lifetime dedication to its mission—to promote safety and education in horsemanship. I’ve stayed actively involved with CHA for more than 20 years. Today, the nonprofit organization offers numerous certification programs for horse professionals– for instructors (standard, riders with disabilities, harness driving), trail guides, vaulting coaches, facility managers and clinicians all receive certification from the organization that has continued to remain relevant for fifty years.
I also came away from that first CHA clinic with the highest level of certification, Master Instructor, and a recommendation to become a certified Master Clinician, and certify other instructors. For years after, I taught clinics for CHA, certifying other professionals, while running a boarding-lesson-training program at home. After teaching and evaluating countless riding lessons, I gradually started doing more clinics and fewer lessons; first at home, then on the road.
I stopped teaching lessons to individuals more than a decade ago and for the past fifteen years, I’ve been teaching horsemanship clinics from coast to coast and abroad. In the parlance of the trade, I am a “horsemanship clinician,” a term that can mean a lot to some, is confusing to others and may mean absolutely nothing to the uninitiated.
Who Does What?
There’s often a fuzzy line between the terms instructor, trainer and clinician, when it comes to horsemanship, and often, professionals will claim all three titles. There are no laws or regulations that define these titles as they relate to horsemanship; even Wikipedia has no answer for “what is a horsemanship clinician.” But having lived and worked in this field for more than thirty years, I have a pretty good idea of the differences between instructors, trainers and clinicians, in the jobs that they do and don’t do. Yes, there is a lot of cross-over between the jobs, but they are distinct roles.
Consulting the dictionary, some definitions are quite clear.
- Horsemanship: the art or practice of riding, training and handling horses.
- Instructor: a person who teaches something. In this case, horsemanship.
- Trainer: a person who trains people or animals. Or both, in the case of horsemanship.
- Clinician: a health care or medical professional that works directly with a sick patient in observation and treatment, to help them get better. Oops, here’s where things get tricky.
Yes, I could easily argue that a person must be sick to want to ride a thousand-pound flight animal that could spook at his own shadow, but that’s not the point. ‘Clinician’ is a term we borrowed from the medical profession and morphed it to fit the needs of the horse industry. Therefore, a “horsemanship clinician” is a horsemanship expert that works directly with a horse/human pair (the patient or client), in observation and treatment, to help them get better, at whatever it is that they do.
The difference between an instructor and a trainer can be murky too. Many riding instructors are not horse trainers and don’t want to be; they prefer to teach humans to ride on well-trained and well-behaved horses (a very civilized attitude, I might add). If the instructor does not specifically train horses, but does teach lessons on school horses and/or privately-owned horses, that person is a riding instructor. Typically, riding instructors teach private lessons (one on one instruction) or semi-private lessons (instructor and two students), or group lessons (3 or more students). A large group lesson would generally be 6-8 riders.
Conversely, many horse trainers are not riding instructors and don’t want to be; they focus on training/riding/competing and only teach a lesson if they must; and then only for a training client. However, many horse professionals consider themselves instructors/trainers, since they are working to train both horse and rider and/or doing some combination of all-of-the-above. Even when the trainer does not teach lessons to the general public, training recreational horses almost always involves teaching a person too.
While a trainer or riding instructor generally teaches a student on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, and may even observe them daily, the horsemanship clinician is usually seeing the horse and person for the first, and possibly only time. Observation is an important part of the equation for training horses and riders. Seeing a horse and/or rider on a daily basis, provides a far different point of view, than seeing the pair for the first time and having no history or preconceived notions. There are certainly pros and cons on both sides, but often a fresh pair of eyes—objective observation, not clouded by history or baggage, can see things that are invisible to those who see it all the time.
How is a Clinic Different from a Lesson?
Clinics are typically taught by someone from another area, who is an expert in a particular area of horsemanship. A clinic is usually taught by someone with a higher level of expertise and/or contains content one would not normally get in a regular riding lesson. Horsemanship clinics tend to be costlier in time and money than lessons and may involve travel for the horse and rider.
The format for horsemanship clinics can vary a lot, depending on the riding activities and the clinician. They may be discipline specific (dressage, jumping, cutting, barrel racing, trick training) or more general in nature. Most of my clinics are general horsemanship, which means we address everything from groundwork, to leadership skills, to confidence, to riding skills, to improving the performance of the horse in any discipline.
Some horsemanship clinics will be taught like a series of private lessons that are given in front of an audience, over a PA system. Dressage clinics are usually that way—the clinician works with the riders one at a time, one after the other, and others pay to watch, observe and learn. Other clinic formats will have all the riders in the arena at the same time, with the groups as large as 10-20 riders. Performing in a large group, in front of an audience, brings unique challenges for both the horse and rider, but also has the potential to greatly expand the training and confidence of both.
Another unique quality of a horsemanship clinic versus a riding lesson, is that there are usually auditors—spectators who have paid to observe the clinician as she/he works with the horses and riders. This can be nerve-wracking for the riders (and for the horses, when the spectators laugh, applaud or open an umbrella), but is an excellent and cheap source of information for the spectator. Auditing horsemanship clinics is an excellent source of continuing education for riding instructors and horse trainers, because it allows you to observe all the different horses and see how the clinician adjusts the techniques to the specific needs of each student.
Teaching horsemanship is a broad endeavor that goes on at every level from a grandfather teaching his grandkids, to an experienced friend helping someone new to the sport, to 4H leaders, to riding instructors teaching beginners or coaching riders to the Olympics, to trainers who work their magic with horses, to clinicians, working with people and their horses on a one-time basis. We need all kinds of teachers and all kinds of students, to keep the industry strong. For more information on the Certified Horsemanship Association, visit www.CHAinstructors.com and www.CHA.horse