Trainer Allowed Beginner to Calm Spooked Horse? Is this Normal?


I’m brand new to the forum and to horseback riding in general.
My ASD daughter fell in love with riding recently, so I signed her up for lessons. She’s just starting to get the hang of steering a walking horse.
She recently had her first fall, which we both knew would happen eventually, and she’s ok.
The horse was spooked by nearby traffic.

My question is it normal/ safer for the trainer to stand back and let a beginner try to calm the horse themselves?

Her trainer is a little tough and possibly not experienced with ASD children. She says things like “i’m gonna whip her” or ‘strap a board to her back’ and she smokes cigarettes under a tent sometimes, while my daughter tries to ride on her own and follow her instructions from a distance.

Not all the time, but maybe a little more than she’s comfortable with.

It’s the south so things like that are said jokingly, but my daughter doesn’t understand that they’re jokes sometimes. Maybe I’m just over protective. She’s also more hands on a lot of the time, But it can be hard to find instructors that are patient with ASD kids and give them extra attention. Or is it normal for them to start off more independent?

Her trainer is really nice and experienced, but it’s the only one we’ve tried, and i’m just looking for advice as to what we should expect so I make the best choices available. Thanks!

There really is nothing a person can do from the ground to help a horse acting up. 100+ pounds vs. 1000+ pounds - horse always wins.

That being said, smoking during a lesson and shouting from under a tent is not a good trainer for an inexperienced, nervous rider, especially one on the ASD spectrum. I know it’s hard to find good trainers who have lesson horses and are willing and able to work with ASD individuals. I would recommend trying to find a hippo therapy (special needs) place. They are used to working with ASD and should have several horses that are calm enough for your daughter. If you cannot find a place that will take your daughter, then I would recommend going to a local tack store and asking if they can recommend a trainer who does individual lessons for young children. Good luck!


Until I read this, I was not seeing anything to be alarmed about.
Can I assume Trainer has been made aware of your daughter’s Autism?
Even if this was not a factor, the inattention to a Ground Zero beginner is not what I’d want for a child or even adult rider just getting started.

RE: the Trainer stopping a spooked horse. there’s really not much she could do aside from giving instructions to the rider to either find a more secure seat or to safely dismount*

*When I was a kid, we were taught an Emergency Dismount that we could put in use at Walk, Trot & even Canter.

That said, any horse can spook. Bombproof just means they have not yet met the correct Bomb.
But a School Horse assigned to a Beginner should be as unflappable as Equinely possible.

From your description, IIWM, I’d be looking for another program for my kid. PRONTO.
Is there a Theraputic Riding Program near you?
That would be a better place for your daughter to learn.


I agree with the others. There isn’t much that one can do from the ground. Even if the horse was on a lunge line it might only take a trip or a spook for a rider to fall off before the person holding the line can get the horse stopped.

Saying that, if doesn’t hurt to shop around a little and see if there’s a more appropriate trainer/facility for kids or beginners.


That’s kind of what I was thinking. It makes perfect sense that it’d be dangerous to approach the horse at that point, and may even make things worse. She’s a little “tough love”, which is fine, but I wasn’t if that was her tough love or if it’s what she supposed to do.

Generally speaking in my experience, we don’t put beginner children that are just learning to steer at the walk on horses that may spook at normal traffic sounds that come close by the arena on. Generally speaking in my experience, beginner children that are just learning to steer at the walk are mounted on horses that are unlikely to spook at anything short of a *highly unusual and extreme commotion”. Generally speaking in my experience, beginner children that are just learning to steer at the walk are taught with the instructor very close to the horse so the instructor has a chance to grab horse or kid if things go south.

Yes, anything can happen with horses but this situation sounds questionable from the info you have presented here.


This doesn’t sound like anyone who should be teaching children at all, let alone a special needs one.


Please ask around (even on this board!) for a child-friendly, super SAFE facility for your daughter to learn to ride.

If a horse spooks or bolts it’s pretty normal for the trainer to not say anything besides yell “SIT UP” across the ring. There’s not much you can do from the ground.

But a child just learning to steer at the walk shouldn’t be on a horse that will spook or bolt at traffic. A child who is injured and crying after a fall should not be put back on a horse. And trainers should not be smoking at the barn or threatening to whip anyone, and should be walking alongside a kid learning to steer.


i agreed with this comment up until the point of ‘special needs’ program. Which others above also suggested. I’m ASD, and i can deal with a much more ‘harsh’ personality person, esp in an instructor-mode than most normal people can. I sure don’t need, or want, anything handed to me gently/kindly or in a fake sweet way.
I’d say, that as long as your child is physically athletic, any coach with GOOD INSTRUCTION SKILLS would work just fine.

This riding teacher sounds really sucky though. (I came to a full-stop at the cigarette smoking!)

Sounds like the horse wasn’t well matched for it’s job. Also sounds like the environment sucks…being by a loud highway just doesn’t seem ‘safe’.

The instructor could not have done much else except yell instructions. Running toward the horse, heck, even advancing! might have been the start of a huge bucking bronco episode for that equine. BUT!!! For a new rider…Lesson One should be how to hard-turn the horse out of a runaway. And what to do, how to kick out of your stirrups etc, when a horse is bucking.


To be fair, I think I may have come off a little harsh. Her trainer is very experienced and it’s the south- so those things are said jokingly.

The problem is, ASD children often times don’t register jokes. As a Mom that worries a lot, I worry it might hurt her self esteem.

But she compliments and encourages her too.

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I’m southern and don’t find any of that funny, so I hope I read it completely wrong. Still, sitting under a tent smoking is not where the instructor should be teaching a complete beginner to steer.


Wowee. Lots to unpack here.

I’ll start by saying I am a professional instructor. Fully insured through Argonaut, USEF member with another insurance policy, SafeSport Certified, Heads Up (through CDC) certified etc. I have been instructing for over 5 years.

As an instructor who has been through a few accidents as a rider, and as an instructor, I can tell you with confidence, that most of the time, someone on the ground is NOT going to stop a horse that spooks out of fear. This was a fear based reaction, nothing more. Running or approaching an already fearful horse with often times make things worse for that horse. They are prey animals, so when we go rushing up to them, the fear reaction with get stronger.

I would like to know how this instructor used this as a learning opportunity, or what happened when the horse was caught and your daughter brushed off. What did the instructor say and do when the dust settled?

I do have some red flags for this instructor:

  1. Sitting under a tent while instructing a rank beginner rider? Is she disabled? What would prompt this behavior? I would never sit idly by when a student of mine is in the ring… let alone in a PAID lesson with said student.
  2. Smoking around the barn, arenas, students etc? H*LL NO. JUST NO.
  3. Lack of decent communication skills and jokingly or not, saying threatening things. I don’t care if their joking, they should NOT be saying things like “I’m gonna whip her…” I wouldn’t deal with that as a rider, let alone dish it out as an instructor.
  4. Sounds like this instructor is aware that your child is ASD and has made no effort towards changing or tailoring her program to fit your student. We have to get out of the cookie cutter style training.

I don’t have children, but I do have stake in situations like this. I would not be going back.


Firstly: I never mentioned “special needs”
& The Theraputic program I volunteered with had adult as well as child clients.
And horses that could reliably be used with all of them.
In an urban setting, open air arena, not far from a heavily-traveled roadway.

All of your added info re: this “trainer” aside*, putting a child who is not yet able to steer at the walk on a horse without having the “trainer” holding a lead attached to said horse is not safe practice. Period. Full Stop.

*In my non-horsey career, having worked with clients from the South, I am aware of the Bless Your Heart response.


I guess I feel a little bad complaining about someone. She’s friendly and we’ve mostly enjoyed her lessons.

But it definitely makes me angry and uncomfortable when she says those things. And I can see that my daughter’s feelings are hurt. She’s often very encouraging too, but seems consistently impatient with her. (Even though I can’t really see that she could be “behind” this early on. This is just the first athletic interest she’s really loved)
When I’ve mentioned that she is on the spectrum and may require a little extra patience, she sort of just brushes it off. I’m honestly not sure if she knows what it means.

But I agree, the southern style insults and bad influence of smoking is enough on it’s own to have us move on. I’d be elated if we found someone with a gentle and hands-on approach.

My daughter just adores horses and wants to safely ride and care for them, possibly on trails someday. She’s not dreaming of trophies, at least not yet. And I just want her to be happy and safe.

Thank you for your input!


You don’t need a trainer. Get out of there yesterday. You need an experienced instructor skilled in therapeutic riding. She should have with some knowledge and experience with various conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. She also should provide an appropriate horse. A large TB that spooks is never appropriate. She should spend some time with you so she knows what your daughter needs. She should plan a specific lesson program. Check to find out what her experience is. PATH certification is preferable, but it can be too expensive for smaller barns and instructors. They can’t generate enough income from lesson fees, especially if winter weather is a factor. They can take the various clinics and seminars.

The hardest working horses are lesson horses. We all strive for consistent aids and balance. Lesson horses have to tolerate beginners, and many barns limit the daily number of daily lessons. Therapeutic riding is a lesson program adapted for each rider. Hippotherapy uses the horse’s natural movement to stimulate the rider’s body. They are not learning how to ride. Sitting on a walking horse’s back moves the hips and pelvis. Riders with MS feel like they are walking. Therapy horses must be able to tolerate a variety of disabilties. For example, some children with autism can’t sit quietly on a horse, and they may also make loud noises while they are moving around.

As far as getting back on after you fall off? You can make that decision for yourself or your daughter. I got back into horses when I volunteered at a large lesson and boarding facility with a therapeutic program. If a rider falls off you don’t put them back on. You have to determine their comfort zone. You cannot force them beyond it. If they won’t stand closer than 10’ from the horse for 5 minutes that is what you do. When they are ready they will move to their next comfort zone. They call the shots. We had a young rider fall off a pony. She was afraid of it but her parents were at her side every week. It took several months with patient and supportive parents and barn staff. She regained her confidence. She led the pony around the arena until she decided she could remount. She sat until she was agreeable to taking a few steps. Ultimately she got back to riding, comfortable and happy.

My horse was a perfect therapy horse and I frequently loaned him to the program. I had to put him down 2 weeks ago, but I have a wonderful collection of riders’ artwork. It helps the hole in my heart. I can recall his riders and how much they gained in therapy and hippotherapy lessons. He helped two individuals overcome significant challenges and accomplish life-changing goals.

Any coach with “good instruction skills” won’t work. It assumes they know enough about autism that they can successfully adapt a lesson program and communicate. The “trainer” the OP posted about shouldn’t be anywhere near a barn. Any barn. I’ve watched an incompetant instructor work with reriders and adult beginners. She has shortcomings but they pay her money. She can work effectively with riders who lack joints where their elbows should be. If being “physically athletic” is all you need then you can throw OP’s daughter back on that TB. If you are looking for “happy and safe” look elsewhere.


I think it is definitely worth your while to see if there are other barns that might be more suitable. We have a child at our barn who has a genetic-based issue who was almost non-verbal when she began riding with my trainer several years ago. Now she is a confident, happy, chatty member of our little group of barn kids,and she competes at Intro-level eventing, very successfully, on her own horse. Her mother (who also rides) is obviously protective of her child, and said it took a while to find the right fit for her daughter. There’s actually an article on them by CoTH, and I think it is a good example of how riding can be so amazing for anyone, but you need the right trainer, the right atmosphere, and the right horses.

Your situation doesn’t sound great, honestly. Riding is hard enough, at what ever level, to have a trainer not be as supportive as she could be, but especially with a beginner. f your daughter is having her feelings hurt by the trainer it’s probably a good idea to stop riding with that one, no matter how many other things are on the plus side of the list, and shop around a bit more. Good luck!


So sorry for your loss, @walktrot. I’ve always enjoyed reading about your horse. He sounded like a grand old man.

OP, I agree with walktrot. A therapeutic riding center with an adaptive riding program sounds like it would be a great fit. Check out the PATH website and see if there are any centers near you.


First, to address the question in the title.
At the moment of a (fear based) spook, there is nothing that anyone (rider or on the ground, experienced or not) can do to “calm the horse”.
An experienced rider is less likely to fall off, but all of us, even the mot experienced, sometimes fall off from an unexpected spook.
An experienced rider, immediately after a spook, can “keep the horse between the hands and the legs” which reduces the chance of another spook. (Or, by starting off with the horse “between the hands and the legs”, reduce the chances, or severity , of the spook in the first place)

Unless the person on the ground is walking long next to the horse (in which case they can grab the reins) there is nothing a person on the ground can do to “calm the horse”.

That being said, if the new rider is " just starting to get the hang of steering a walking horse", IMHO there SHOULD be someone walking alongside the horse and rider who can grab the reins when needed.

No, it is NOT normal to start off “more independent”.

If there were a SERIES of spooks, in which the rider stayed on for the first ones, the instructor SHOULD give instructions to the rider to help her stay on: “SIt up straight”, “Shorten your reins”, “Turn left”, whatever is appropriate.

And after the fall, the instructor SHOULD discuss with the rider what she could/should have done to stay on.

That said, regardless of the experience and competence of the rider, I would not tolerate an instructor who hides in a tent, smoking, and giving instructions (or worse, NOT giving instructions) from a distance.

I would also not tolerate an instructor who threatens to “whip her” (whether horse or person) even if it is intended as a joke.


+1 to all of the above.

Also want to mention that as a young, beginner rider, you and your daughter deserve someone who will foster that fun and love for horses - not someone who is impatient and insulting to someone who is still learning to ride (even if it is “jokingly”).


You are actually implying that this is what i meant? geezus

Maybe you are just not aware, (and i’ll just go with that…)But there is a HUGE degree of motor skill variance within folks with even the same basic degree of autism. Huge! And this is what i was attempting to address.
Given good motor skills, a person with autism is as capable of taking riding instruction from a good instructor as anyone else. Maybe even better! But, if a person’s particular neuroatypical-ness is paired with awkwardness than sure, by all means, seek a therapeutic riding academy.