Participant Dismissals- Does it have to be a messy breakup?

Discharging (or dismissing) a student….do those words make you cringe?

If you and your student (and their family) are prepared and the proper foundation has been laid, then a dismissal can be a fairly painless process….no messy breakup is needed!
I’ve been though many dismissals of students who participated in a wide variety of horse related things: adaptive (therapeutic) riding or groundwork, equine assisted learning, equine facilitated mental health, hippotherapy…anything in the Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT) realm as well as traditional (able-bodied) equestrian lessons. 
Some of these dismissals have gone very well….and some have gone very bad.
I wanted to quickly share some things I have learned from both the good and the bad experiences to give you tools to make you feel more confident in this situation or maybe just give you confirmation that you are on the right track!
I’m happy to report that I’m on a streak of ‘good’ dismissals thanks to learning from past mistakes and also picking the brains of my mentors in this industry on this topic to hopefully better myself in this area. 
Terminology note: Discharge and dismissal can be use interchangeably. For the rest of this article I will use the term “dismissal” or “dismiss”.

Even though we often want to, we can’t serve everyone

If you are anything like me, and most of the other instructors I’ve chatted with, I wish I could say “yes” to every single person that wants to participate in EAATs or traditional riding lessons. I hate having to say no and I especially hate having to tell someone that the equine activity they are participating in needs to change or is no longer suitable for whatever reason.

In a perfect world, we would never have to say “no” and never have to dismiss a student…. but we unfortunately don’t live in a perfect world.

We, as instructors, need to be prepared dismiss a student by knowing when we may need to dismiss a student, put policies into place that back us up and make things clear to families, and practice open and transparent communication with every family and person we serve.

Watch a replay of the live Instructor Chat on this topic by clicking HERE or scrolling down to the end of this post!

Why dismiss a student?

There are many different reasons that a student participating in Equine Assisted Activities, Equine Assisted Therapies, or traditional equestrian lessons may need to be dismissed. A few that I have personally experienced or were on my radar for potential dismissal fall within the following categories:

  • Height/weight of the rider– Over time our students can gain height and weight as they grow or age. Sometimes this change in height or weight may reach a point where it is unsafe for them to continue due to the tack, horses, volunteers, instructors, or other factors available and involved to participate in equine activities on the ground or mounted.
  • Change in diagnosis– A change or progression in the diagnosis of the student may shift them to a situation that the instructor or center is not equipped or trained to serve at that time or may move into a “contraindication” which means that certain equine activities or therapies incorporating equines may not be safe for that individual. An example could be a person with Multiple Sclerosis continues to have symptoms progress to a point where mounted activities are causing more harm than good. Another example could be an individual developing a seizure disorder that is uncontrolled and manifest in ways that are not compatible with a barn environment.
    • Note: I an Advanced Therapeutic Riding Instructor an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning certified through PATH Intl. so I follow their Precautions and Contraindications manual.
  • Change in behaviors– A change in a student’s behaviors sometimes goes along with the above point of a change or progression of the diagnosis. As our students grow and change and work through new hormone levels, they can develop temporary or permanent behaviors that may make it unsafe for them to be in the barn environment or around horses. Sometimes a change in behavior just happens. Sometimes these behavioral changes happen without an obvious cause.
  • Change in availability– Sometimes the schedule of the student and/or barn changes and they no longer work together. This will be an entirely separate topic and post but: I highly suggest that you do not change your barn or program schedule just to accommodate one person (which will more than likely then turn into making a schedule change for multiple people because word got around you made it work for that one person. This often creates stress, chaos, and confusion in staff, volunteers, and participant families).
  • Frequent absences or late arrivals– Perhaps the student consistently cancels or is late. This just not a good fit with the standards the barn or program has for their participants. Like I mention in the video below, the topic of attendance polices and expectations will be in another instructor chat and blog.

How can you make dismissals smooth and drama free?

  • Create, and stick to, policies– Create well thought out polices that work for your center. Implement or update a policy and then revisit it every six to twelve months to see if it is working well or needs to be modified. Click HERE for a sample student dismissal policy (I ask for your email so I can track how many people found this policy useful. I promise I won’t sell your information!). Once you create or update a policy, STICK TO IT!!! I’m sure you will be tempted to make an exception for one person. DON’T BEND A POLICY! Once you make the first exception it destroys the integrity of your policy, creates confusion, and can cause more “pain” because people get frustrated when they want to be the exception to the rule but you say no to them.
  • Be transparent and upfront with your policies– Introduce your policies not only in writing but also verbally from the very start. Go over them during the intake, do a reminder of key ones during the first couple weeks of lessons, then do annual updates with your participant families. Just like when we teach things to our students, when we teach policies to our participant families give them the “whats, hows, whys” so they hopefully remember them and have a deeper understanding which can help negate frustration or the urge to bend the rules.
  • Communicate early and frequently about concerns– If there is something that may potentially become a reason for dismissal, communicate it to the participant and/or their parents immediately! This may be during intake, during the first lesson, during the first month, or even years into riding. Be clear about what you are concerned about, why it may lead to dismissal, what you will be keeping an eye out for that leads to further evaluation to make sure the activity is still a good fit, and what will happen if there is a dismissal (ex: move to groundwork only OR completely dismissed until X is resolved)
  • Be straightforward– Don’t beat around the bush. I get it…having a conversation with a participant or parent about concerns that may lead to dismissal from an equine activity is not fun. But if you are not direct and clear about what is going on then what you are saying may be misunderstood. Tip: have the student and/or parents repeat back to you their understanding of the situation, what is going on, and what the outcome may be.
  • Document. Document. Document– If you have ANY conversation about something that may lead to a dismissal (or even removal from the current activity and into a new one)….document it! The conversation went great and everyone was happy at the end? Document it! The conversation was a little tense but still ended ok. Document it! This goes back to being straight forward. Bullet point out what the concern is, what may lead to dismissal in this situation, and other key information and have the participant and parents sign and date the form. This was something that I unfortunately learned the hard way….so learn from my mistake. This helps take away any possibility away for you to be accused of blindsiding a family, making it a personal attack on the student, etc. It’s all documented. As much as we hate paperwork….paper trails can be your best friend.
  • Opt for face to face conversations– In the world of digital communication, opt for face to face conversations when it comes to talking about important policies like the ones dealing with dismissals and also when talking to a student or family about concerns that may lead to dismissal. Face to face conversations allow us to read each others body language, see how the person is reacting, and adjust as needed during the conversations. Email, phone calls, and texts are not advised in situations where you are talking about things that may lead to a dismissal from an equine activity. I promise the more you do it the easier it gets. I highly recommend the book Crucial Conversations which gives great tips and techniques to put into play during important conversations…like a possible dismissal.

It takes practice…

Even if I had been armed with all of this information years ago it would still have taken some practice to get comfortable having these conversations with students and their families.
It takes time.
If you are feeling uncertain don’t be afraid to reach out for support from a fellow colleague or a mentor who may have more experience in this area. Practice talking through the concern for dismissal or actual dismissal with them before you talk to the student and their family.
If you still have emotions about talking to someone about possible dismissal it may also mean that you just really care (but don’t let that make you break a policy you know is there for a reason!)

Have you ever had to dismiss a student or client? How did it go?
Is there anything you do to set yourself up for success that was not mentioned in this blog?
Share your experience and tips in the comments at the bottom of this page!

Watch the Replay of our Instructor Chat on Participant Dismissals

Click Here for a FREE Download!

This download includes:  Sample Rider Dismissal Policy Writing Guide and a Bonus Sample Supporting Policies to help you assess your dismissal policy, give you wording ideas, and also suggestions on including other supporting polices that will back up common potential dismissal situations.

Saebra Pipoly
Hoof Falls & Footfalls Owner/Founder

** I personally chose to use the term Adaptive Riding vs. Therapeutic Riding and avoid ‘horse therapy’ at all costs. Why? CLICK HEREThe thoughts shared in the  post above apply to not only Adaptive riding but also to other mounted equine activities and therapies offered at an EAAT (Equine Assisted Activity and Therapy) Program/Center/Barn.

This post may contain affiliate links and I truly appreciate any purchases made during “click throughs” …even if it’s not the item directly recommended. All revenue from affiliate links goes directly into the creation of more free and low cost educational resources for adaptive riding instructors!

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