I am trying to better understand the thought process of a boarder/student. She is exhausting to teach, and I feel I am missing something to help me help her. Older client. Highly educated professional. Learned to ride in her later years. Had started lessons as a child, but had a traumatic experience and stopped.

  • she often talks over me when I am talking. I usually pause to let her talk and then start again with what I was saying.
  • She takes things as “rules” without considering context, and it is hard to get her to modify a “rule” to fit circumstances.
  • She likes to think of her horses as the “worst/best”- “My horse is the spookiest” “My horse needs the vet out the most” “my horse is the last to shed”. It is never true - she is rarely around with other riders, so I am not sure what this is about.
  • She holds her horse to a higher standard than herself. She sometimes is very reactive when riding (horse trips, and she screams/yanks up), but she gets very upset when her horse spooks at anything.
  • She absolutely loses it sometimes. Example - she wanted to do ground work to get her horse walking over/through puddles. I was helping her, but she wasn’t able to stop and listen/process what I was saying and just kept trying to force her horse through the widest part (and upset that her horse would step to the side to go to a narrower part). She ended up in full meltdown and had to get sit and cry while I held her horse. her horse didn’t endanger her. After her meltdown, she became coachable and could process my explanation /reasoning. She also screamed when I was riding her horse and her horse shied at a grasshopper hitting her.

Part of the reason I need to really develop a better coaching style is she wants to start riding her one horse on “trails”, We are currently doing ground work, and arena work over obstacles. Next I will walk with her out and about. but eventually she will want to go ride out with me on another horse. I DON"T THINK I CAN…unless I can feel more confident she won’t have a meltdown when riding. I have told her that - and I am ok continuing to say no, but if I can find better coaching strategies that would be great. Client is moving in the next year or two to her own rural property and she wants to feel ready to ride out and about on her own.

There is something else going on with this girl/woman. How old is she? It really sounds like she’s been through some sort of trauma or is in distress in her current situation.


I think in a situation like this you will have to just have a serious discussion with her. It doesn’t matter what her diagnosis is, if she even has one.

I would try to set up a meeting to bluntly (but politely) address these issues. It sounds like a safety issue for you if you can’t trust her not to have a meltdown while working with a 1000lb animal. What would happen if someone wasn’t there to hold her horse?


What you describe is someone who is not emotionally prepared for horses. With or without an instructor. IMO.

I would strongly urge you consider if you are professionally trained to change her. If you have the appropriate clinical background to diagnose and treat. I am assuming - maybe incorrectly - that as kind, patient and effective as you have been so far, nonetheless you are not a psychologist, neurologist or psychiatrist, or even educated in counseling emotionally challenged people.

If I’m wrong and you do have credentials, then I think it’s better to take this question over to the most appropriate forum for professional counselors (if there is one).

From what you describe OP, this is not about instruction re riding / horse handling. I get the confusion, but for you the effort now is to get an appropriate perspective on what is going on, and then make decisions about the best way forward for you. Even with the best of intentions, it’s possible to do more harm than good in a situation like this. Somehow she needs to be directed to get more help elsewhere with her emotional processes, and only after significant progress to come back to horses.

I’m sure you know that it is not appropriate for a riding instructor to try to diagnose and treat a lessons student for behavioral/emotional issues. A higher-level perspective on her behavior may help you come to your own conclusions about your best next steps.

What it comes down to: You cannot fix what is going on with this lady. And you are not responsible for her plans and their outcome.

You care about your student and any horses in her future. Sometimes those feelings can lead us all to try too hard in the wrong situations. Even if we care, it’s not our lane, not our best role.

Other than that, I do not know the answer. You sound like a very good person. I wish you the best going forward.


How long has she had the horse? Is the horse a dick? Does the horse shy at the same thing in the arena that has been there for 3 years? Does she have some right to be frustrated but is not handling it well?

I definitely agree that there are a lot of things going on here, most of which are way beyond your professional scope to address. I think I’d start with a gentle discussion about how in the horse-human relationship, the human always has to be the less emotionally reactive partner. Then I’d say that while you as an instructor are qualified to teach horses, she might need to do some more work on herself to get to the point where she’s in control enough of her emotions to work with a horse.

I’d also express in as non-judgmental a fashion your concern about getting her own rural property and trail riding and stress the need for professional help, both for her horse, and also counseling (including via telehealth) for herself. “Everyone needs help some time, there is no shame in asking.”

This is me just reading in between the lines of your post, but while I realize her horse isn’t a spooky monster, he does sound like a horse that needs more tactful management (spooking at a grasshopper, not liking to go through puddles and such). Like, he’s a good egg, but still capable of being surprised. I know it’s the owner who is the problem, but this also sounds like a potentially bad horse-rider match. Like, if this person is riding, it sounds like she needs a horse who is “ho hum” about everything–dude ranch quiet, not average ammie horse quiet.

I will also add, you sound like such a lovely instructor! I’ve had instructors pitch a fit because I struggled with jumping in a lesson, much less had an emotional crisis about a horse not walking through a puddle!


I think I would help her find that place now

Problem with this “Highly educated professional” might be if she is injured she might come after you for failing to discourage her since you have written your concerns

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I taught a teen who was diagnosed with ADHD, and while I know everyone has a different ‘way’ of displaying it, she acted nothing like your student. With the teen I taught, she really needed to know WHY she was doing something. It wasn’t enough to say “half-halt, and then trot,” you needed to explain “half-halt, so the horse knows something is coming up. See her ears? She’s paying attention. Now, you can ask for the trot.”

There’s definitely a lot going on with this student, but maybe it’s time to lay down the law and establish boundaries and expectations? “I’m talking for a reason. You are listening. If you cannot respect me enough to listen, you can go home.” I’ve had to do with my college students. If you let them talk over you, they will take it as permission to keep doing it.

She doesn’t sound like she feels ‘in control’ of the horse, and it seems like control may be very important to her. If so, it’s time for a very frank talk about how much control one can actually have over a 1200lb animal, and whether this is really the right sport for her to be in.

And yanking on the horse for tripping? My old instructor would have ripped her a new one for that. Does she feel insecure in her seat? Or is she just freaking out/wanting to control the situation?

You need to sit down with her and have a frank talk about how her attitude is affecting the horse, and you need to be honest that if it doesn’t change, you don’t think you can keep working with her, if that’s your decision.


There is certainly a lot going on with this rider. You can’t be both timid AND unwilling to listen - and she’s going to get hurt. Whether it happens while you’re there to witness it or after she moves, it’s going to happen. Best case - she moves, gets scared, horse(s) become well pampered pasture ornaments.

Why does she want to ride? More specifically, why does she want to have horses at home and go out on the trails? Most hyper-timid people who ride either do so for the social aspect (but she’s never out while others are) or as some status symbol - they saw it online or on tv and fell in love with the idea of riding, or see it as some idyllic way to be ‘outdoorsy’.

She 1000% sounds like someone who has to be in control of every detail - most well educated professionals have this tendency - and horses do not allow that. A lot of people with this personality quirk are riders who love how they must be more relaxed around horses, but she doesn’t. At least not from your post.

If she wants to get out on the trails and enjoy her time, maybe she should buy a mountain bike.


I should have been more clear - she has two horses. The old guy that “startles” she bought while my student. he is a lovely horse, but occasionally startles at one particular spot. She mostly just avoids that spot, BUT, his lease rider can ride him by that spot…which makes her think she should too. Her yanking up is complete reflex - but then she calls her horse a silly fool, which isn’t a reflex and bothers me more really. His startle isn’t sideways or anything. Just a break is his rhythm. She has it stuck in her head that this horse can’t be ridden outside an arena.

her other horse she owned when she started here, but she rode lesson horses for a while while it was in training (elsewhere). A green on green mistake, but she LOVES this horse. horse was retired for a bit , but now starting back with ground work and walk rides. She wants to light trail ride this horse once she moves. The other one will be retired.

I need to find better language to use. Blunt works, but it is not me, so I only pull out blunt when I am just tired. Oddly, her meltdowns and then subsequent recovery are when we make our best progress. She is over a decade older than me and I am not young. I was hoping there was some book or website or something on coaching a neuroatypical person.


Trial & error from a book or website is probably not what a professional counselor/psychologist would recommend.

If she showed up with a broken arm, would you refer her to a doctor, or offer to set it yourself?

It is important to take emtional/mental challenges just as seriously as physical ones.


Many people who might be diagnosed as kids now don’t even know that they have a psychological difference, and if she’s older, and in a non-psychological profession, she might not even be aware of the symptoms even on the pop psychology level.

She might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on reframing negative thinking and coping mechanisms and replacing them with positive ones. For example, instead of “my horse is so spooky,” thinking “just because he spooked here last time doesn’t mean he’ll spook again.” Or taking a deep breath rather than jerking on the reins. It also focuses on setting small, manageable homework assignments. Like, for an agoraphobic person, that might be as simple as leaving the house alone and going on a shopping trip. However, it is a professional, therapeutic technique, so you shouldn’t feel responsible for taking it on for a student to give her professional therapy!

She would need a professional diagnosis and therapy to treat her deeper issues.

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I agree with fivestride on the control issue. I don’t think a diagnosis of anything is necessary here. Maybe there is an expectation that the rider be as skillful/successful/confident or whatever in her riding as she is in her regular work. It’s also possible she wants to feel in control in order to ensure her safety, so when things don’t go exactly to plan, she loses it. Kudos to you for seeking other ways to get through to her. I think she may need to do some work on herself and her mindset…on the ground. Good luck.


I can’t force an older adult to go to therapy. We have discussed it, including in the framework of how it has helped others with similar issues (I have a few clients who have been open with their own mental health issues and their process to healing), and in the framework of how it is blocking her ability to progress/enjoy her riding. I have said specifically that I am unable to help with certain things because they are not riding issues. I think it is because in the moment she is overwhelmed/terrified, but afterwards she completely seems to forget how serious her reaction was in the moment. When I DO get through to her with some issues (challenging her own perception of herself) it gets a little scary. I realize there are limitations to what I can do, but I need us both to survive the next couple years.


That sounds like great insight. And information you did not include in your first post.

You do not have to survive the next couple of years with this student. If it is not the right or healthiest combination, you can explain that you can do no more to help. She has to address her non-riding issues first. Later she can come back with improvement. She doesn’t have to be cured, just much more manageable.

That is … you can say no. You are not responsible for getting her to her goal. Or for what happens after she does what she is planning.

The way you are presenting the situation, it just seems there is some over-reach here. And it is not necessarily good for your student. If that makes sense.

You are there and I am not, so maybe I am wrong on this. But the way you have recounted it – it does seem there is a wrong lane going on. Books and websites are not on when a professional in the field is needed.

If she had a professional therapist who didn’t do horses, would you suggest the therapist take over teaching her horses and riding, as well as therapy? Do you see that is rather what you are offering to do with therapeutic teaching, if you do not have a therapeutic background? There is a real potential for unintended harm.

I know this is not the answer you were looking for. But you did ask COTH, and sometimes the answer is not what was expected.


While I don’t yank, I absolutely will get on a horse’s case for tripping, with a boot and a spank. After my mare nearly killed me tripping over flat ground because she’s lazy and elected not to lift her feet, I don’t tolerate it anymore. Funny enough, since I started getting on her case about it, it has all but stopped. I digress…

OP unless you NEED this client, I would let her go. You’re a riding instructor, not a psychologist, and this woman is going to be a permanent problem for you - even after she tries moving the horses home.


Frustration has ZERO. Zilch. Nada. Place in horse training. Horses can not be “dicks”. Horses can spook in the same spot for eternity and the rider has no room for frustration. If you know your horse spooks in X corner every time, why are you not prepared for it?

My Old Man horse spooks at arena doors 1 out of 200 times. He has done this for 21 years. I don’t get frustrated at him - it’s my fault for not engaging his brain at the door. A lapse in my riding. Anywhere else he is fine all the time, except at the door. He is not a dick, he just gets a fright when he sees something at the last minute and it’s already behind his drive line.

For all the problems one can have with their horses, it’s a shame to hear “he’s being a dick” instead of “how can I make this more clear for him so he understands the expectation?” Or “how can I build his confidence so he isn’t too scared to do what I’m asking?”

Fwiw, I’m not a froo froo rider, I have no problem giving consequences for bad choices. But my horses are not being dicks. They’re being horses, and it’s my job to give them an education without attributing human attributes on them. You’re setting them up to fail.

One of my pet peeves. Back to topic.


How does she feel about having you video? If she’s got a bit of a warped perception of how she handles things, maybe seeing it on camera would help (and it wouldn’t feel like a criticism coming from you). As a kid my trainer would video EVERYTHING and then we’d have movie night and break down our rides, talk about how things felt vs how it looked, etc.

Now with smartphones, you could film her, have her stop and then watch the video as y’all discuss “okay so here he just did the tiniest trip, since you didn’t have him moving forward from behind. And see how when you yanked you made him fling his head? If you’d just stayed quiet I wouldn’t have even known he tripped cause he took such good care of you!” and so on. Instant, irrefutable feedback. In the case of a meltdown, maybe send it afterward as ‘homework’ to come back with ‘1 thing she did well and 1 thing she could improve on’ from the footage for the next lesson.


Honestly, it seems like high functioning autism may be at play.

When the horse “spooks” does she kind of fall backwards?


I’m not in any way qualified to say, but what you are describing sounds like she may be on the autism spectrum.