Teaching someone from your immediate family to ride is one of the most challenging endeavors a horse person can undertake. Anyone who has ever attempted to coach their child or instruct a significant other can tell you that. For some reason, it is quite different from teaching a complete stranger, casual acquaintance, or even a close friend. I can’t count the number of times a parent or spouse of one of my students has said something like, “Why does she listen to you without argument when I get nothing but back talk when I tell her the same thing?”

I think the problem can be broken down into four main issues:

  • Defense of Ego
  • Feelings of Being Judged
  • Association of Similarity
  • Carrying Baggage

Let’s take them one at a time…

Defense of Ego

We all think we are right in the way we approach horses (or we wouldn’t do it that way). When we are questioned or corrected it is natural for us to get defensive; the more confident we are, the more defensive we become. It is why skilled and experienced riders sometimes find it difficult to take instruction from people who may know more than them or simply approach things differently (myself included). Every lesson forces us to reevaluate what I think we know–which can be very frustrating–even when the instructor is extremely modest in their methods.

What I mean by modest is an instructor saying something like, “I want you to try something I’ve found to be very helpful and I think it might help you as well.” Less ideal would be just telling them, “Don’t do it that way, do it this way.” Worst of all would be, “Just do as I say and don’t question it. You are paying me because I know more about this than you do.”

It is fairly clear how some approaches might generate a defensive response more than others. I have noticed it is not uncommon for people to be perfectly comfortable with the modest approach when teaching someone they are not related to but tend to fall back on “because I said so” when working with a family member.

Familiarity, literally, breeds contempt in some cases. It is odd that we will treat family members less conscientiously than we do our friends. This can lead to a battle of egos and that never, ever ends well.

Feelings of Being Judged

None of us like being judged, but being judged as lacking by someone we love and respect can be very painful. For this reason, great care must be taken to avoid coming across as overly judgmental when you teach.

For significant others, this can be especially hard. We often expect more from those we are in a relationship with than we do from others. A husband might become short with his wife when she seems to not understand what he thinks she should, or a boyfriend might become concerned he is not living up to expectations and become frustrated. These “judgmental” situations open the door to conflict.

With parents and kids, the perception of the child is often that the parent is judging them unfairly, even when care is being taken to avoid it. All it takes is a small lapse on the part of the parent’s detachment for them to sound ‘parental’ to the child, instead of like a teacher, and the whole process begins to spiral downward without the parent even realizing what set the child off.

In either instance, great care must be taken to remember to give positive feedback, especially when teaching your child. François Baucher said, “Ask often, be content with little, praise lavishly.” He was of course speaking of training horses, but the same can apply to teaching horsemanship to someone in your family, especially children. Give them the best opportunity to succeed by taking them along gradually, returning to things they do well when they are struggling, and not forgetting to offer praise when things are done well. Try to avoid, as much as possible, setting arbitrary benchmarks of achievement.

Association of Similarity

This may be the hardest factor to understand and recognize. When we see something that reminds us of ourselves in another person, we tend to react with certain expectations. This can lead us into being too demanding, i.e. “If I can do this, you should be able to do it.”

Alternatively, some also react in a negative way when we see a weakness in ourselves, mirrored in others. This can lead us to judge others more harshly than we should. Basically, sometimes we just don’t like what we see when we look in a mirror.

We can lessen the chance of falling into such traps if we make a concerted effort to see the person we are teaching as the individual they are and not as just fun house mirror image of ourselves.

Carrying Baggage

This is probably the most common issue in the challenge of coaching family members.

Throughout our day we have a variety of interactions with our family; some positive, some less so. If we carry these less positive interactions into the arena with us we handicap ourselves by starting the lesson from a deficit. You cannot let the fact that your child is getting D in math affect how you treat them when they hold the reins wrong. You shouldn’t let the fact that your husband bought a new bowling ball without talking to you about it influence how you correct his seat issues.

Avoiding the natural tendency to hold on to the baggage of our relationships can be very difficult and failing to do so can be devastating to the learning process. I wish I could advise you of a simple way to prevent it from happening, but I am afraid I cannot.


Here are a few things to keep in mind when schooling anyone, human or horse, that are vital in the process of teaching family members and close acquaintances:

  • Stay in the moment – Don’t bring the past with you into the lesson and don’t get hung up on something that happened in the past, or even what just happened. Let it go and move on to what is happening now.
  • Treat every student as an individual – Not only is this student not the same as your last student, but they are not YOU either. Play to their strengths while you address weaknesses and keep your expectations realistic.
  • Be patient – Strive to not be, or ever give the impression of being, judgmental. There is a reason they have come to you for training and that reason is they don’t already know how to do what you are now asking them to do. Learning takes time, longer for some things than others; give them that time.
  • Be humble – Even the most skilled and accomplished rider has things to learn, including you. What you know to be the absolute truth, may turn out to be nothing of the sort in a year’s time. We all think we know best until we are shown otherwise. It is up to you to impart this wisdom to your student; without forgetting it applies to you as well.
  • Get outside help – If all else fails, it can be beneficial to call in a professional from outside the family to help everyone involved improve.