Facilitating Independence

I have had several conversations with various instructors recently about “Do you 

Beautiful Arizona sunset during a bareback pad lesson focusing on building balance and confidence
Beautiful Arizona sunset during a bareback pad lesson focusing on building balance and confidence

really teach grooming, tacking, and riding each lesson?”…. “How do you keep the same thing interesting?” ……”What does a regular lesson look like?”

The most simplistic answer: Yes, I incorporate grooming, tacking, and riding each lesson and aim to take one more step each time towards facilitating independence. Each lesson may look a little different but I usually follow the same flow each time (catching, haltering, grooming, tacking, riding, untacking).


I personally go for a less-is-more approach and focus my lessons around horsemanship and riding skills. I rarely add in games or complicated activities unless it is a special event.


Perhaps this is something I could improve on… but I find that complicated activities are often more distracting to the student, more stressful on the instructor, and make for less skill progression than if an Instructor were to focus their full attention on the horsemanship skills. This is not to say that fun games that reinforce parts of the horse, parts of the tack, etc. don’t have their place….but I think they are overused and often a crutch because instructors are afraid, or not sure how, to dig into each step it takes to progress a student in their groundwork and riding skills.

Facilitating independence in a student applies to both traditional and adaptive equine activities. And, oh by the way…. “progress towards independence” (Critera RT. 4.1.7) is one of the criteria listed for thePATH Intl. Registered Therapeutic Riding Instructor Certification Criteria.

My end goal is to eventually be able to stand back and be silent. 

Sometimes silence is good.

Standing back and not being physically or verbally involved is a true test on if I have taught the student all the small steps (task analysis) that it takes to groom, tack, and ride all on their own. 

True…’my’ end goal may not be suitable for every student I work with…but it is a good driver for me to keep pushing in small steps to keep facilitating independence no matter if I am in the ‘traditional’ or ‘adaptive’ setting.

So what does facilitating independence actually look like? 

Grooming– All students, able bodied or special-needs, start with verbal…and usually physical…support and prompts from the instructor during the grooming

A student initiating the 'safety hand' independently without instructor prompting
A student initiating the ‘safety hand’ independently without instructor prompting

 process. The instructor picks up a brush, verbalizes the name, physically demonstrates how to use the brush, says why the brush is important then lets the student attempt. Depending on the student, during the first attempt they may need only verbal support from the instructor while some may need hand-over-hand support to complete the task. Some students may start with a baseline of grooming one portion (the neck) or one side of a horse while another student may start with a baseline of being able to groom the whole horse. Regardless of where the student ends that first lesson, the next lesson the instructor must assess what information the student retained and teach the next step to facilitate independence. The next step could look like a student moving from grooming one part of a horse (the neck) to grooming two parts of the horse (the neck and shoulder)…or it could be that the student verbally recites back the 

A young student cleaning hooves independently
A young student cleaning hooves independently

names of the tools and can groom the horse with minimal verbal assistance from the instructor. It all depends on the student and where they are that day. If a student ‘gets it’ quickly you can always reinforce being more thorough, fun facts about horses, parts of the horse, etc.
Instructors can further facilitate independence during the grooming time by having the student go get their horse’s grooming tools. Verbalizing to the student that you are trusting them to go get the tools and comeback has the potential to be an empowering thing.

What if my student is non-verbal or has physical limitations? Assess what the student can do and go from there. If a student is non-verbal see if they can point to parts of the horse or select the next grooming tool. A non-verbal student could also be supported with PECS cards (customized with horse, grooming, or riding items of course). Students with short term memory difficulties may need to repeat very basic skills several times with varying physical or verbal assistance.

Tacking– Just like in grooming, tacking a horse usually starts with verbal and 

A student bridling with only verbal support from the instructor
A student bridling with only verbal support from the instructor

physical assistance from the instructor. The instructor gets an item of tack, verbalizes the name, physically demonstrates how/where to place equipment, says why the item is important then lets the student attempt. Again, like grooming, each student will have a different baseline of where they begin and end the first lesson. 

What if my student is short or has physical limitations? If you have a student that is short or that has physical limitations you may need to think outside the box on how you can accommodate or adapt certain components of the tacking (or even grooming) process. Is it safe for your student to stand on a mounting block so they can reach the horse? Can your student verbalize the steps and tell the instructor or a volunteer how/where to place the tack? If the student is nonverbal can they nod or point if something is in the correct position or to indicate what piece of tack goes on first?

The journey towards independence is unique to each student
The journey towards independence is unique to each student

Riding- And yet again, just like grooming and tacking, riding a horse usually starts with verbal and physical assistance from the instructor whether it is a ‘traditional’ or ‘adaptive’ lesson. 

In adaptive riding, facilitating independence could look like having a rider progress from needing verbal and physical reminders or assistance to hold the reins to just needing verbal prompts. It could look like a rider going from needing hand-over-hand assistance for reining to only needing taps on the hand to cue the reining. It could be a rider going from needing verbal prompts to find the posting rhythm to maintaining the posting rhythm at the trot on their own. Even though those are small steps…they are still steps towards facilitating independence in whatever riding skill you are working on with that student.

In able bodied riding facilitating independence starts much the same as adaptive. The rider needs to learn how to to the basics such as posture, reining, 

Volunteers offering verbal support suitable to a rider (photo courtesy Horses Help)
Volunteers offering verbal support suitable to a rider (photo courtesy Horses Help)

transitions, etc. on their own and they often need not only verbal support but also physical support from the instructor. Even though an able bodied rider may progress faster to the walk and trot than a special-needs individual, there are still so many ‘little steps’ you have to teach and reinforce to truly facilitate independence. This is where my end goal of eventually being able to stand back and be silent is a gauge for where they are at. Have I taught them the skills they need to warm-up the horse on their own and to correct basic behavioral challenges at the walk or trot?

Other keys to facilitating independence

Not only do you as an instructor need to teach all the small steps (task analysis) that it takes to become independent in a groundwork skill such as grooming or posting at the trot, but you also need to impart other important things to your student that help to facilitate independence:

Critical Thinking & Problem Solving- Teaching critical thinking, or the ability to analyse something and form a judgement or action, is important when working with horses because not every situation is black and white. So often we run into things that we have not been ‘taught’ how to do and we need to take things we have learned in the past, put the pieces together, and use certain pieces to address the current task. Going along with critical thinking, teach your students how to problem solve on their own. Give them the tools they need to solve problems on their own. Don’t always jump in and save your student. Let them make ‘safe mistakes’. If need be, verbally talk them through the critical thinking and problem solving steps and draw out the knowledge and help guide them through the process. 

Effective Communication & Self-avocation – This may look different for each student depending on their physical and cognitive ability, but effective communication and self-advocacy is key. Students need to learn when and how to communicate if they do not understand something, how they are feeling, etc.

Assertiveness & Confidence– Riders need to be kind yet assertive with their horse and have confidence in what they are going to progress their independence. Being independent is very hard to do when there is not confidence. Having confidence in what they are doing helps the rider to be genuinely assertive. 

Are there any other ways you facilitate independence in your students?


Written by Saebra Pipoly. Learn more about the author by clicking here.

Send Saebra an email at saebra.p@hooffallsandfootfalls.comsubscribe to the Hoof Falls & Footfalls newsletter, follow on instagram, and subscribe to the YouTube channel!

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