What's it Worth to You? (Clinic & Lesson Guide)

I recently finished up a lesson with a preteen, and was speaking with her mother about upcoming lessons. I explained that I would be unable to do more 1/2 hour lessons, and wanted to expand the young lady to a full hour. For the rate of a 1/2 hour, slightly more than half my hourly rate, I was putting in an hour and a half of time, getting the pony ready beforehand and taking care of her again afterwards. Business wise, it simply didn’t make good financial sense for me.  By expanding to a full hour, I would have the time to teach the young lady about grooming and tacking up, as well as more general knowledge about horses. I began to offer the mother two options for this – the first being charged at my regular hourly rate. Before I could continue, she exclaimed in horror “I can’t pay that much for riding lessons!  I just finished paying a fortune for violin lessons, and she doesn’t even want to play!”  When she let me continue, I explained the other option, where the young lady could “work off” the additional portion of her lessons.  We will see where this goes…..

And on another riding planet…..

I have paid $375 to ride a 3 year old horse with an international young horse trainer for 45 minutes. 3 times a year, I pay $750 for 3 rides with my coach from England, while she is on her US tour.  When available, I pay $200 to ride with my other coach.  Sometimes clinics are hard to fill, as people may say “I’m not paying that much for a riding lesson!”.

So what is a lesson worth to you?

There are several factors that should go into deciding on taking a lesson with someone, whether it be your regular trainer or a visiting clinician.  When making these decisions, be honest with yourself; it will give you greater satisfaction in the long run, and allow whoever you choose to give you the assistance you are most needing.

What is your current level of training,  and what is the current level of your horse?

If you are a training level rider on a training level horse, you may be better served by going to someone local who can help you on a regular basis.  Riders at this level need more consistent guidance, to stay on track and not get sideswiped by evasions, training pitfalls, and general bumps in the road.  If you are a training level rider on a more trained horse you can still benefit greatly from regular help, as your local person can help you keep the horse working at its level of training, as opposed to it sliding back to meet your level of knowledge!  If you are a more experienced rider with a specific issue, a clinician who specializes can be of great assistance.  More advanced riders are more likely to retain the information gleaned at a clinic, and be able to stay on track with it.

How often do you ride?

If you are a 2 – 3 time a week rider, be wary of signing up for an all weekend clinic!  To make the most of your clinic dollar, make an effort to increase your rides in the weeks prior to the clinic, so that fatigue does not overcome your opportunity to learn while the clinician is there.  No matter how amazing someone is at teaching, they can only help you learn the things you are physically capable of performing while in front of them; a clinician should never be blamed for challenging you too much if you weren’t prepared for the allotted time.

What is your learning style? 

This is a really good thing to know going into a lesson or clinic, as it can really “up” the amount of information you receive.  If you are a doer, you want specific exercises to help you understand what the trainer is trying to accomplish.  This will give you the ability to develop a feel through repetition, so that you can duplicate it in other situations.  If you are a tactile learner, you may want the trainer to put their hands on you to help you position, or to put their hands on the reins to help simulate the feeling they want you to get from your horse.  An aural learner might need a more running dialog, with the instructor saying “yes, that’s it, no, now it’s not enough, etc.”.  This will help the auditory person to connect a feel with the words, and take that forward into their future rides.  Finally, a visual learner can benefit from watching – whether or not you can get the instructor to ride your horse may vary depending on the situation and the instructor themselves, but you can always look to other riders and see what they are doing, putting it into perspective with the trainer’s words to them.

The trainer’s perspective – keeping their interest

In the last few years or so a high level US trainer put out a blog about how she wished other trainers would “vet” their students better before sending them to clinic with her, as she had no interest in teaching someone how to “ride a 20 meter circle”.  A big hue and cry arose from this – how dare she be so elitist, and did she realize that the vast majority of dressage riders rode at or below Second level?!?  I, too, was put off by this, but it made me recognize something:  not every fabulous teacher can teach you something fabulous.   As a trainer, one of my jobs is to guide you, the student, in getting the best education we can get you.  Sending you to a clinician who would easily lose interest in someone of your current level (and not the level we ride in our minds when we are day dreaming!) is not the best way to spend your time, your money, or your confidence.  I have personal experience with an Olympic rider who I have known for years, who has coached many riders to high levels of Dressage.  While educated to the nth degree and ever so charming, if you A) do not have a horse capable of achieving high levels, B) are a confident, fit woman, or C) seem to have a lot of money, this trainer can easily get sidetracked by auditors, other riders, or simply their cell phone!  Even for myself, who meets two of the three, I finally decided to stop beating my head against the wall, and stopped riding with this person.  His life has gone on without a hitch, and I have found more satisfaction with other coaches!

Know your clinician before you clinic!

This is an amusing personal anecdote that really highlights the importance of knowing about your clinician. In the mid 90’s, I had the pleasure of riding in a Mary Wanless clinic, her first clinic to be held in Florida. I was so excited at the prospect of working with an International trainer. I felt quite confident about myself and my horse, without being cocky, and showed up neat, well turned out, and ready to learn. I smiled to myself as I watched the riders before me, who were obviously mere trail riders, and thought how much fun the clinician would have working with me!  When my appointed time came I rode into the huge, cathedral-like covered arena, introduced myself and waited. Mary opened the lesson with her standard “What do you want to get from this clinic?” a reasonable question. I responded proudly with something to the effect of “I’d like some help with my shoulder in, and my counter canter really needs some work, and, in general, I’d just really like some help with getting him more round.”  There was a ghastly pause, as Mary contemplated me and my horse.

“Have you read any of my books?” Mary asked skeptically.

“Ah, no, actually I have not,” I replied honestly. “I figured if I liked what you had to say at this clinic I would pick one up.”

“Well,” Mary countered with, “I think you may be bitterly disappointed in this clinic.  We’ll see.”

Needless to say, I was mortified. I made it through that first lesson, and went home to lick my wounds for the evening.  By the next day I rallied, thinking that I was spending a great deal of money and for that much money (I think it was $100 to $150 for a private lesson back then!) I was going to ask a lot of questions and get SOMETHING from this woman!  I think Mary admired my pluckiness, despite my complete cluelessness about her methods, and we made it through the rest of the clinic swimmingly. Mary’s influence rooted deeply in me, and though I did not see her for several years after that, I am proud to say that I am now one of only 7 Accredited Coaches in her system in the US.

As well as it turned out for me, PLEASE do not do what I did!  

Research your intended clinicians; there are so many ways to learn about someone’s teaching methods today, from YouTube videos to inquiring on Social media to simply checking out their website. With so much information at your fingertips, there is no excuse for not knowing what you are getting yourself into before you waste your time, your financial resources, perhaps your confidence, AND the clinician’s time. Even though the clinician is there to serve you, those who do follow their teachings want the clinician to enjoy themselves and look forward  to returning to that area.

Your riding goals and your financial means

While we would all love to be able to lesson all the time from the best of the best, your goals and your finances do play a part in how valuable a clinic can be to you. Being realistic about your goals is a great way to help decide about the value of a clinician. If you are only able to ride 2-3 times a week and plan to make it to a few schooling shows in the next year, riding with a clinician who costs $250 a lesson may not be a great decision.  Could that instructor give you some valuable information that could really affect your riding?  Absolutely. Take this into consideration first, before you spend that money:  No instructor can work miracles in only one ride. To really grab value, you want to take at least 2 and preferably 3 lessons to really understand and instill what they teach you. At $250 a lesson, that’s $750. For most people, that could be 10-15 lessons with your local trainer. If you lesson once a week, that’s between 2 and 4 months of eyes on you, rather than one weekend….big difference. Is the level of education of the instructor the same?  Maybe not, but if they know more than you, it’s still a big help! If it comes down to one or the other and not BOTH, you may be better off with the local help and riding with the clinician next year, when you have saved up enough to do both.

There is no doubts that clinics are an amazing opportunity to watch some top class trainers work, and you should take advantage of these chances when you can. So how do I get the info without the big ticket price?


Auditing is one of the most underused aspects of a clinician’s visit to an area. Most clinics are available to audit, at a drastically reduced rate. Often times there is lunch involved, and perhaps some time to speak directly with the clinician when they aren’t teaching (but please, people, let them eat lunch unmolested!!); a lot of times they will take pertinent questions at the end of a ride, as well. Some thoughts on auditing to your best advantage:

  1.  Sit by yourself, close to the clinician. You are there to learn, not socialize, so try to avoid those who chatter. Sitting near the clinician gives you a much clearer view of what they are seeing, and you will be sure to catch more of their commentary as the lessons progress. If you must get involved in a discussion with fellow auditors, be respectful and move the coffee clutch to a remote area while you share insights!

  2.  Audit for more than one day. Again, as with riding in a clinic, the knowledge is progressive. Coming in on day three of a clinic shows you exactly how far everyone has come, but not where they started – which might be more useful for you to see!  If you can only audit one day, I’d always aim for day two of three. Another idea would be to audit 2 half days.

  3.  Get to know the riders. Usually the clinic organizer has some idea of everyone’s level of expertise, and can fill you in. While watching upper levels riders is inspiring and beautiful, it may not be of much practical value to you. Watching the riders that are closer to your current level will give you a better use of your time, and more than likely some exercises to take home and try!  Again, make an effort to watch the same riders each day, to monitor their progression and to root them on!

  4. Volunteer!  Most clinic organizers are doing so to get a discount on their own lessons, so having an extra person around is hugely valuable!  You might be able to work off your auditing fee, get to know different riders in your area, and see some of the behind the scenes stuff.

  5.  Take notes! Being in the moment is one thing, but trying to recover a particularly juicy piece of information while on your own horse can become an elusive effort. Take some notes, make some drawings, just get it down on paper so that you can review it – and then make sure to do so!  Riding in your mind can be a hugely effective part of your training, so remembering information from the clinic and reviewing it before riding can have a strangely magical effect!

To conclude this diatribe, there are all sorts of different levels of assistance available to today’s riders, from your local riding instructor or club to the top level clinicians, with many options in between. Choose your poison wisely, I say, and then get on with your ride!  Until next time, I wish you great rides, awesome weather, and wisdom beyond your years in the saddle.  :))

Stephany Fish