I run a lot of clinics and group lessons in the South West for Area 12 riding club and Equestrian Training South West (ETSW) which I run with a friend.
Over the years I have developed a successful formula for running group lessons and everything we run is popular and booked up. The single biggest reason that people choose group lessons is cost and this is an important part of considering a group lesson. As a rider and a clinic organiser there has to be an offset in having a group lesson to having a private lesson as inevitably you will not get as much out of a group lesson as you will a private lesson.
One of my bug bears is groups of four or five for one hour. This in my experience is not long enough especially if you are jumping. I tend to make my jumping lessons 90 minutes and this makes a massive difference to the quality of the lesson and the input you receive. For dressage lessons I can happily run three or four in a group for one hour as you can keep the horse working while others receive attention which you cannot do so easily when jumping.
I choose group lessons because they are very good at acclimatising young horses to group situations in a safe and controlled manner. I also choose them because they often fit in with what I need to do which is to have a jump under an expert eye or a brush up on the flat. Clinics are also a great opportunity to try a new trainer and see if you think they will be suitable for you without feeling pressurised to go back. In my experience if a trainer is good in a clinic setting they are usually even better privately.
Clinics are not the place to solve problems. If you have an issue which needs resolving then a clinic in my opinion is not the best place to get this sorted. It’s not fair to your horse and it’s not fair to the others in your group. We all have odd problems which crop up from time to time within a clinic but on the whole don’t sign up if you know there is an existing issue. You are better to solve this with your regular trainer when you have the time to do it properly.
It is better to drop yourself down a level at a clinic if you are not sure what group to sign up for, than to be over confident in your abilities and struggle. Be honest about your horses and your own abilities. It is easier to put jumps up towards the end of a lesson to push someone and challenge them. On a cross country session I find this aspect less important as a good cross country facility will always have lots of options so if you are having a good day you can push yourself, and if you are having a bad day you can be more reticent.
There is always a huge amount of choice with trainers in group clinics, so it’s important to do your homework about whether they are going to be the right trainer for you. I have attended a clinic with a Badminton winning 4* rider and it was chronically disappointing. I would not go back to that rider again because of that experience. But the blow of a disappointing session was softened by the reduced costs of it being a group lesson.
I don’t have an arena so often attend group lessons with trainers who specialise in lower levels or are less experienced trainers especially for jumping. These are normally cheaper lessons and I accept that they will do the job I want usually for a young horse which is jumping round a course and behaving themselves in a group situation. I would normally have lower expectations than with someone who is a ‘name’ or has higher level qualifications.
Don’t feel pressured to do anything that you don’t want to do in a group lesson and this is often a hard one! It’s easy to feel peer pressure in a group situation as well as being encouraged by a trainer who has just seen you within the lesson. It’s always good to challenge yourself but if your gut instinct is screaming no then save it for another day. There is nothing worse than coming away from a clinic feeling upset or disappointed. On the whole I find trainers very amenable in clinic situations and I will often just get the question changed to make it more suitable for the horse I am riding. I have to admit that I once had to refuse point blank to do the exercise that was being asked because I felt it was above my horse’s capabilities at the time with a world renowned trainer. I felt awful about doing it and it probably altered the way I was taught that day by that trainer who kind of gave up on me afterwards but I knew it was the right decision for the horse. I never had to see that trainer again but I would have had to live with making a bad decision for a long time.
A friend’s tip for finishing after a good round and not being pushed any harder is to get off and loosen the girth!
Make sure you are on time. It’s an easy one but time is limited so I always try and get there early to watch a bit of the group before and get an understanding of how the trainer teaches and the kinds of exercises they are using. It just means you are then better prepared for your own lesson and can get the most from it.
One of my friends when commenting about group lessons said to be nice to everyone in your group. This friend once attended a group lesson for baby horses and nervous riders and one person spent the whole time bitching about being in the group because they were not jumping high enough and making everyone feel uncomfortable. There are always solutions to problems like this and usually speaking to the trainer honestly works best rather than taking it out on everyone else.