The Value of Instructor Certification

Most of our top athletes do remember and are grateful to those who started them on their odyssey as an equestrian. Photo by Melissa Fuller.

By George Williams, USDF President

This story is sponsored by Sidelines Magazine.  It originally appeared here.

Often, I wonder why the idea of instructor certification doesn’t take off and I was not expecting, “What if I fail?” as the response when I questioned a young professional on why she and her peers were not taking part in an instructor certification program. 

Aside from my immediate thought of what would happen in other professions if the fear of failure prevented young people from getting licenses or degrees, I was more dumbfounded. It raises the question of how do we overcome that particular fear if we want to move forward with voluntary certification? Please don’t take that question as a threat that we will need mandatory certification in the future, although perhaps it will come to that. I would rather see a consumer-driven motivation and an insightfulness from those entering the ranks of professionals that certification of some sort is expected.

Regardless of the discipline, it seems that riders of all levels seeking out instructors who have invested in their own education and have demonstrated a level of competence in their knowledge and teaching abilities through a formal process such as certification is not an automatic. In other words, as of now, the push for an instructor to be certified is not consumer driven.

The fact that it’s not tells you something about our sport. It is easy to hang out a shingle and there seem to be multiple reasons used when choosing an instructor: convenience, availability, friendships and cost are just some. Some are far more valid than others and some may seem fail-safe. For instance, success in the competition arena does not always translate to being an excellent instructor. Of course, there are exceptions and there are many things you can learn from someone who wins a lot, perhaps mostly how and why they are a successful competitor. For me, the success of their students is a better way to judge the capabilities of an instructor. How to measure success could be a topic for another discussion at another time. 

As a student progresses as a rider, there can easily be many different instructors. Each one can play a critical role, especially the first instructors, who are all too often the unsung heroes of our sport. It takes special skills to impart a solid basic skill set along with a love of horses and riding that will stick with a student for years, thus creating a strong foundation from which they can continue to build. Can you name the first instructors of any of today’s Olympians? Probably not, but I bet most of our top athletes do remember and are grateful to those who started them on their odyssey as an equestrian.

It also takes a special, confident instructor to be able to say to their student, “You’ve outgrown me, it is time to move on.” Having the right instructor at the right time is important. My father, who was passionate about the learning process and an advocate for good teachers, used to say, “It takes a better teacher to teach Einstein’s theory of relativity to grade school students than to graduate students.” While dressage certainly is not rocket science, there are many concepts that are difficult to fully understand and/or communicate, especially if you have not felt them in action on a horse. The concept of “throughness” or having an elastic connection, immediately comes to mind.

All too often there is a haphazard way of learning the fundamentals of the sport. As a clinician, I find myself in many cases filling in holes in the basic education of the students. This is where more formal education systems can help, and I believe the USDF L Program is valuable in helping to fill some of these gaps. However, an instructor certification program can also be a great way to help develop a more complete understanding of the theories and principles of dressage as well as the practical applications of those concepts.

In all the recent discussions around equine welfare and well-being, there is a lot of emphasis placed on the need for education. It may be time to look at instructor certification and the value it could bring to the future of our sport. Perhaps if we all embrace this with more confidence, future generations won’t have to worry about facing mandates. 


  1. I participated in the USDF certification program, and it was very difficult getting enough people willing to lend us horses to use, getting a group large enough to make a session happen, and ultimately, after doing all of the clinics and a mock testing, we were never offered a final exam in our region. I pursued certification elsewhere.

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