Q&A: Adaptive Riding Lessons- How long should a class be?

A fellow coach (what we call instructor here in the US) reached out to me with this question: 

“I am based in New Zealand and I am a remedial RDA coach. For next year I have changed the session time from 1 hour to 45 mins. Of course there are parents who feel that their child will miss out. I have noticed that my riders are not able to focus for a full our and therefore the sessions are less effective. Would you be able to share your thoughts with me on session length and where I might be able to find some research? Many thanks “

She asks a great question! A question that many of us instructors often wonder ourselves…what exactly IS the ‘right’ length of time for a lesson? How long should our classes be? Her question challenged me to do some digging for that research that is out there…and really there is not much I could find that gave a black and white answer (If anyone has some great resources on this topic please email them to me!)

Before giving my thoughts on this topic and doing more research I asked a couple more questions:

  • Q: How many students do you have in each class? 
  • A: 4 students

Why is this question important? Dynamics of a lesson change greatly depending on how many students are in a lesson. The answer of what length of lesson may work well can be impacted by the number (1, 2, 3, 4…or more!)

  • Q: Is your lesson all mounted or a combination of ground and mounted?
  • A: All mounted at this time.

Why is this question important? Again, the format of the lesson plays into the suggested length of time. A 60 minute lesson that is just riding functions very different and has different challenges than a 60 minute lesson that incorporates groundwork and riding. 

So what are my thoughts on this topic and what research did I find? 

Read on below for my response (the original email response was edited for a more blog-friendly format) 

You bring up a great topic about the length of lessons. This is often a point of contention between instructors and parents (and sometimes the students themselves) not only in the horse world…but anything that requires practice! So in your original question, you mentioned that the parents feel like they are missing out with this shorter time. I would suggest pressing them a little to see exactly what they want to gain in that additional 15 minutes…what exactly do they feel that their child is going to ‘miss out’. What they say may lend you some great talking points to explain why you shortened the lesson.I have personally had discussions with parents about why lessons are a certain length. Often parents feel like 30 minutes of riding is just not enough. Or we have reached the point where the student wants to progress more quickly (which comes with time in the saddle) so why can’t we just make the once a week lesson longer because, for whatever reason, riding twice a week just can’t happen. From these discussions that you, I, and countless other instructors have had, there are two sides to look at: 

The Parent’s Point of View: [And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I’m bashing on parents…I get it…I’m one of them. I have two young kids right now so I get the whole Mamma Bear mentality of advocating for them, wanting to get the most out of an activity for our money, trying to fit in everything to our schedule, etc. I’ve even done some of those ‘annoying parent’ things that drive Instructor me crazy if a parent does it…and I try my best to catch myself…but I’m totally guilty of some stuff *cough* coaching from the sidelines *cough* ] It seems that parents can have the tendency to view all time on the horse as equal and the same…so it only makes sense to get the most riding time out of their trip to the barn…right? On a side note, it is amazing how far some families drive for the lessons…kudos to them and a thanks to their commitment! I think one of the main roots of the problem is that parents mistakenly prioritize quantity over quality…and I don’t think it is on purpose but maybe for lack of understanding or trying to make everything fit into their busy schedule. And based off the research I’ve done this seems to be a common thing instructors (piano, dance, sports, etc) see and struggle with. 

The Instructor’s Point of View: On our side as instructors we see that not all time on the horse is equal. We often prioritize quality over quantity [1]. If we make a lesson to long we may start to loose traction and can even reverse progress that we made. Our students get physically and mentally tired and sometimes those longer lessons push them than what is best for them. There are also several other factors that go into lessons that parents are often not aware of…like our horses, volunteers, sharing the facility, etc. 

What length of lesson is industry standard for Adaptive Riding?

There is unfortunately not a cut and dry answer. Each instructor and program has their own unique formula…or may even offer a couple different lengths and formats of classes depending on who they serve. Below are some observations I’ve made over my years working in the EAAT field.

  • It seems that 30-45 minute riding only lessons are very common for small groups (2-4) industry wide.
  • 60 minute long riding only lessons are fairly rare or seem to be reserved for  more advanced riders or for larger groups because of the time it takes to mount, dismount, etc. (so when you look at the larger groups the ‘teaching’ time is really only 30ish minutes once everyone is up and rolling)
  • If an instructor or program offers a 60 minute or longer lesson, they are often a combination of groundwork and riding, not just riding alone. In these longer lessons riding usually makes up 20-30 minutes.
  • Here is the one article [2] I found regarding length of horseback riding lessons…and she also has an ‘it depends on the factors’ answer….hmm…sensing a theme here.

So what about your new length of lesson? (45 minutes)I think that the 45 minute length for 4 riders is a great time frame. It gives you sufficient time to mount the riders, get warmed up, do a main lesson component, do a wrap up, and dismount.  For a class of 4 students, 30 minutes would probably be a little tight (30 minutes is great for 1-2…maybe 3 riders depending on complexity of mounting, volunteer needs, etc.)

So a few thoughts on adaptive riding lesson length…. this in no particular order and as they came to mind. 

  1. Lesson length for traditional/able bodied lessons: In able bodied riding, lessons usually range from 30-60 minutes of riding (possibly some additional time on the ground and preparing the horse if that is how the instructor works). In able bodied riding, instructors also notice a decline in the ability of our students to focus and ‘hold it together’ not only mentally but also physically past the 30 to 60 minute mark. So, if the standard lesson time is at most 60 minutes of riding (usually 30 to 45) for an able bodied individual with no physical or cognitive disability then why would we expect a rider with compromised physical or cognitive stamina to work harder and focus longer than a typical rider? If anything, a lesson should be slightly shorter for certain special needs riders depending on their unique physical or cognitive abilities, their unique attention spans [3], and ability to concentrate [4] Strive to give them the same quality as a traditional lesson….not necessarily the same length of lesson if it is not suitable to that student. And I am in no way saying that a person with a disability can’t ride the same length of time as a traditional lesson, some adaptive riding students absolutely can. However, with some students, we need to adapt our lessons to meet them where they are at and set them up for success….and how we ‘adapt’ may be in the form of a shorter lesson. 
  2. Not all practice is the same- The quality of the practice [5] (or the riding during the lesson) outweighs quantity. Getting a student to focus and engage physically and mentally for 20 or 30 minutes is better than just having them up on a horse for 60 minutes ‘just because’…but the last third or half of that longer lesson is essentially a waste because the student is physically and mentally tapped out. Also, if we ride well and reinforce good things for half the lesson…but then our rider is to tired to ride well for the last half then we are essentially allowing them to practice ‘incorrect’ for that period of time (and this applies not to just riding skills but also applies to behavior and ability to focus). Yes…the movement of the horse can have some great effects on the human body, but, in adaptive riding, we are not there to just give a pony ride for the sake of the movement. Things can go wrong and become dangerous if we allow our students to ride improperly or when they are overly fatigued. If we strictly focus on movement and throw riding skills out the window….because, well, ‘movement’. If we solely focus on ‘movement’ and loose focus of riding skills we are treading very close to the line of ‘therapy’ (and I am not saying that a PT, OT, or SLP that incorporates horses as a treatment strategy runs a session like a pony ride or just let their clients sit up there for ‘movement’. The therapists have different goals for their clients than we have for our students. Their session may look very different or very similar than an adaptive riding lesson. Neither the therapy or recreational side should just flop a person on a horse for ‘movement’…but that is a whole separate topic). Also, using the ‘movement trumps all’ argument could possibly impact the well being of our equine partners and volunteers by asking them to carry around a fatigued rider for longer than is suitable and safe for everyone (fatigue usually equals less ability to control the body, shorter attention span, more likely for behavioral issues to crop up…you get the point and have probably experienced this)
  3. Too long of lessons can get boring for both the instructor and rider- Do you have enough activities and skills to practice (suitable to the rider) to fill a 30, 45, or 60 minute class? Lessons that drag out just for the sake of time often start to fall apart at the end and it turns into more laps around the arena. Can you as an instructor keep it together for 60 minutes? Is the lesson mostly deliberate[6]…or does a significant portion become mindless?
  4. We have to take into account our horses and volunteers- Not only do we have to consider our student…but also the other living things involved in our lessons! Can we realistically expect a horse to focus and stay comfortable with a rider for 30, 45, or 60 minutes? I’ve noticed that my horses (both at the large center I taught at and my own personal horses) start to loose their physical and mental focus around the 30 minute mark with beginner riders….we can maybe make it to 45 minutes with a more intermediate to advanced rider. Same thing goes for volunteers. They get physically and mentally fatigued as well the longer the lesson goes on. 
  5. You, as the instructor, are the professional. It’s your call-  The calls that instructors make do need to be well thought out and have solid ‘whys’ backing them. If you are clearly seeing a drop in the quality and effectiveness at a certain time in your lesson then take note, make adjustments (like it appears you have done), and stick to your decision. You could write out a letter or email to the parents to describe the ‘whys’ behind the decision to change from a 60 minute lesson to 45. Focus on the positives- better quality lesson, able to focus and ride (and behave) well, etc. Despite your best efforts at giving them information, some parents may disagree and may threaten to leave…or actually leave. You need to be ok with that. If you know that a certain length of class is best suited to the students then you, the professional, need to stick to that. Don’t let parents dictate what needs to happen…they are not responsible for the well being of everyone (including horses)…you are.

A few tips that may help the transition to a different length of lesson

(I do not know if this instructor has tried any of the tips below. She may have already attempted some of these prior to reaching out)

  1.  Have a meeting with the parents (or a formal letter) that describes ‘why’ the change has been made. Emphasize the positives (higher quality lesson, they are paying for a shorter lesson, etc). If you can make a face-to-face meeting happen…then do that! Those often go over so much better than letters and emails. 
  2. Can you offer an hour lesson that is a mix of riding and groundwork? That way attention is divided between the different activities but the parents get the time they want (groundwork may not be suitable for all students).
  3. Are you charging a different amount for the shorter class? Not sure how families pay for adaptive riding in NZ. If the parents pay less for the shorter class then really hit on that point.
  4. For those that are really afraid of their child ‘missing out’, could you offer them a second day of lessons? (not back to back days of riding). Again….quality over quantity. Or find out specifically what they are afraid of their child ‘missing out’ on and see if you can have a discussion about that topic or find a remedy that does not necessarily mean a longer lesson.

In conclusion…and some article links

Unfortunately there is not much research (or even informal articles) on an ‘appropriate’ length for a riding lesson so we have to do our best as instructors to make an educated decision off our experience, the information available, and balancing the various factors we have in adaptive riding.Thank you for your question and best of luck!

Helpful Articles: 

[1] Quality over Quantity: An introduction to high quality training

[2] How long should a horseback riding lesson last?

[3]Average Attention Span

[4] 10 Ways to Improve Student Concentration

[5] Perfect Practice

[6] How many hours a day should you practiceOptimal length of a training session (athlete)

Have a question or a topic that you want to discuss? Email saebra.p@hooffallsandfootfalls.com!

Written by Saebra Pipoly. Learn more about the author by clicking here.Send Saebra an email at saebra.p@hooffallsandfootfalls.com, subscribe to the Hoof Falls & Footfalls newsletter, follow on instagram, and subscribe to the YouTube channel! 

2 thoughts on “Q&A: Adaptive Riding Lessons- How long should a class be?”

  1. Saebra,
    You really hit the nail on the head. We find that the longer classes sometimes create boredom, tired volunteers, etc. You have some good points. I like the combining of ground and mounted class for those who are able to do that. For those who are more involved, shortening the lesson might be a very good option.
    Thank you.

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