equestrian coach education international

mixed ability groupThe topics covered in this article

  • Why it is a challenge
  • Teaching principles
  • Things to avoid
  • Take home message

The ultimate teaching challenge

This is the ultimate teaching challenge! Nothing compares to having a few beginners lightly-sprinkled through a more capable group, or having a couple of nervous adults join a class who are just dying to jump anything in sight. This is the most difficult teaching challenge of them all – there’s no greater test of your ingenuity and skill.

mixed ability group

Alas, the organisers of such groups clearly don’t realise the nightmare that they are setting up for you. In fact, on safety grounds, most such groups must be split up. This can create angst and unrest, but sometimes it’s better than the consequences of keeping them together.

I remember my most challenging group – as a young instructor, I was given a class of assorted horses and mixed-ability riders to take for a cross-country jumping lesson. So far, so good except that there were twenty-five of them – yes, twenty-five!! You’ll be relieved to know that the cross-country lesson didn’t happen. Neither did the twenty five. I immediately recruited four other instructors who were on their way to get a cup of tea, gave the littlies to one of them, to play with in a round yard, split up three teenagers bent on mutiny and destruction and gave them each a leadership role, sorted the rest into interest groups (poles, cavalletti, jumping or no-jumping-please) and relieved two lame horses of further duties. Then I loosened two nosebands, straightened a twisted curb chain, tightened five girths, changed three pairs of stirrups, pocketed four pairs of spurs, and set about making sense of the rest of the afternoon. We had a great time, and I did take six of the most competent riders cross-country jumping the following day, when my blood pressure had returned to normal.

Teaching principles

I’m sure I join many of you in grappling with mixed-ability groups on a regular basis. So let’s try to pull out some teaching principles here that will ensure pupil satisfaction, optimise results, and preserve your sanity:

  • Remember in every class of five riders, you have a class of ten pupils. So here is the first uncomfortable thought for today. We tend to think of the mixed-ability groups as being a motley collection of riders of different standards. But you need to consider the five horses too. Different strides, different temperaments, different responses to the day’s tasks, different levels of home care and preparedness for the lesson…. in reality, you probably have a mixed-ability group most days of your teaching life.
  • Consider both horse and rider skill sets. The wider these skill discrepancies are, the more difficult the group becomes to teach. And don’t be misled by riders who are seemingly of a parity, because it only needs one of them to have a young horse, or a new horse, or a fresh horse and there we have it – our very own mixed-ability group for today!
  • Set individual goals for each rider. This is immensely important, because immediately you have individualised the lesson. This means you can now give individual feedback on even a simple circle or turn, which will relate to each rider’s capabilities, not to the group mean. Consequently, what you may applaud as a great effort from a lesser-skilled rider, you may deem only an average performance from a more competent one and you then can ask for a better effort. Set the bar to suit each rider. This way each rider will go home having achieved a learning goal of their own. 
  • Change the lead rider several times during a lesson, as this will change the task of every rider who is behind them. If it’s safe and reasonable to do so, give everyone a go at doing this.
  • Find the nervous rider in the group. This may surprise you as it’s not always the least competent. Be assured, however, that there will be one in every group. Maybe more. Accommodate them in how you run the lesson, and be sure they are not further intimidated by the presence of more skilled riders in the group.find the nervous rider
  • Use all riders for demonstrations. There is always something that every rider is good at. Maybe they can ride a better circle, or sit up straighter than anybody else. Use whatever skills they have to share with the rest of the group.
  • Choose tasks which have flexible levels of accomplishment. E.g. in working trot, you might ask some riders to have their horses on the bit, some to tell you when they think they are in working tempo, and others to tell you if they’re on the correct diagonal. If it’s not including everybody, change the task.
  • Choose lesson topics that apply to everyone, even if they are riding at different standards, such as use of the aids (plus timing for the better riders), execution of half halts (from notional to sophisticated), correct rider position (always an evergreen), riding a line (make it simple or difficult), etc.
  • For lesson ideas, always start with a simple task. Choose something that the least-competent rider can already do and devise variations on that theme. It’s always easier to make a simple task more difficult by critiquing it to a higher standard for more capable riders, whereas you risk embarrassing the less-competent riders, if you start with a more difficult task and then have to make it easier for their benefit.
  • Be flexible on the day. One of the most disconcerting aspects of mixed-ability groups is that they often change at short notice. It only needs one rider not to show and another to take their place to change the whole dynamic of the group. Even with one of your regular groups, suddenly what was possible last week, won’t work this week. Your flexibility is everything!
  • Practice does make it easier! It takes a great deal of experience to successfully run a mixed-ability group off-the-cuff. By all means have a few options in your back pocket, but don’t think you have to remember all these. Just follow the general principles and your confidence will grow the more often you put them into practice.

Things to avoid are

  • Dumbing-down a lesson so that the less-experienced riders understand what you’re talking about. If you feel about to do that, you are considering the wrong topic for the lesson.
  • Working on a group goal. The more competent riders will be bored when they do it easily and the less competent ones will be embarrassed when they can’t do it at all. 

The take-home message

Fortunately, not all teaching careers include such a horrendous prospect as lined up before me that summer afternoon. Equally fortunately, you don’t need to carry all these ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ in your head.

In a nutshell, the take-home message for you if you are presented with a seriously mixed-ability group is

  • Find some sort of commonality that you can share across the class and devise activities that all riders can enjoy while being part of a shared learning goal e.g. all want to ride better circles, so have more capable riders work on them at a canter and less-capable ones at a trot
  • Use the more capable riders in leadership roles, such as asking them to be the first to demonstrate in front of the class
  • Know any ‘at risk’ riders who are clearly nervous or overshadowed by more dominant riders and do not over-face them
  • If necessary, forget your original lesson plan, if it no longer seems appropriate
  • If you are a guest instructor at a club, do not be tempted to abide by the original club program if, in your judgement, it is neither safe nor sensible to do so.

Perhaps the most comforting thing I can say to you is that there is no right way to cope with a mixed-ability group other than to maintain the safety of each rider and respects these general principles of mixed-ability management. Beyond that, your best teaching resource is the group of riders in front of you.

Everything you do must arise from who they are, what they can do, and what they want to learn. They will tell you this, probably even before you get as far as asking them!

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