One of the sections in the ITT syllabus discusses assessment lessons. I have to say, they are a bit of an enigma to me.
The purpose of an assessment lesson, the first lesson a client has with their instructor, is for the instructor to gather knowledge about the client’s current level of ability and understanding. Not for the instructor to teach. Apparently.
But if you have a beginner rider, it is unsafe to not teach them, because they have no real knowledge or ability. So the assessment lesson is less about assessing the ability of the client, and more about introducing them to the sport of horse riding.
The assessment I would be making of a beginner rider would be about their confidence level around horses, any titbits of information they have picked up, and trying to identify their learning style. Whilst teaching the client to mount, walk, steer etc I would try to get inside their mind, working out how best I can impart knowledge to them. Then I can have an informed discussion with them about future lessons; frequency, aims and homework.
Assessing a new client, who can already ride, is more complex and I don’t think it can be done sufficiently within a lesson. Again, I try to find out this client’s learning style, and use questions to find out their understanding. Depending on their level of riding, I will see them walk, trot and canter on both reins, working independently as well as following some directives from me so I can observe specific movements or transitions. I usually make a couple of improvements to the rider’s position and start talking to them about my thoughts on their horse’s way of going and how we can start to improve. If there’s time, I’ll watch the client over a jump, but often I’m quite happy to leave that to another lesson.
My gripe with assessment lessons starts here. A lot of horse owners who start having lessons with their own horse are having issues to overcome, or a specific goal (perhaps a competition). This means that they don’t want a lesson where the instructor spends most of the time watching and thinking; they want to get their hands dirty.
This is where the initial conversation is so important; an instructor who’s been asked to teach a client who is having problems with their horse rushing into canter say, will need to work a different lesson plan than with a client who wants to develop as a whole. The first rider is going to want a fairly quick assessment of the horse and rider, then to focus the majority of the lesson time onto solving the canter issue. That doesn’t mean that the whole lesson is spent in canter, but the instructor provides some exercises and explanations that are relevant to the canter issue. The rider who wants to develop their whole riding, often has a longer assessment part of the lesson; developing a rapport with their instructor and then working on a couple of areas that the instructor feels need improvement.
If you were to take an assessment lesson as purely time to assess an unfamiliar combination, then the first rider will go away dissatisfied and the second will be marginally happier, but with no hooks to keep their attention they won’t have a lust to return for a lesson and see what you have planned next.
I find that the best way to capture a new client’s attention and loyalty is to assess them for the first part of the lesson, and then work on a couple of relevant exercises that will give immediate results. Then they’ll see the benefits of you teaching them, and once you’ve explained your plans for them, they won’t be able to wait for the next lesson! You’ve caught them; hook, line and sinker.
The other thing I query about assessment lessons is that they suggest very little assessment in the future. But every lesson I teach has a bit of assessment. It may be the venue – ground conditions, weather, other horses – or it may be the horse today – is he a bit fresh, has he got fitter, is the tack still fitting well, are they in the right frame of mind? – or it may be the rider – are they focused, are they fit and healthy?
Once you know a venue or a horse and rider combination, these assessments are instant and automatic, but it’s still important to reflect on each area so that you can be sure your lesson plan for the day is suitable, achievable and safe.
Yesterday I taught a little girl for the first time. She had a few lessons at a riding school but since having her own pony has just been getting to know her, with a few directives from her Mum. So this lesson was a bit about me watching her handle the pony, finding out her cognitive level, attention span, and then watching her ride. I fairly quickly started teaching her, making a couple of position corrections and doing some changes of reins. By the end of the lesson she had a little bit of homework, her Mum knew my thoughts and plan, and we had started to get a rapport. I don’t think the first lesson was as productive as future lessons, but I think we have the ground lines in place for future sessions so this little rider can get maximum benefit from her lessons.