Get to Know HorseSense Learning Levels 

The key to student and parent buy-in for unmounted lessons is to make them engaging, educational, and fun. Photo courtesy of HorseSense Learning Levels

BY Sarah K. Susa

“Lifelong equestrians know that riding is only one little part of horsemanship,” says Nikki Hall, co-founder and co-owner of HorseSense Learning Levels and author of the Big Book of Barn Lessons

When Hall showed up for her first riding lesson as a child, her instructor, Neal Blair, pointed to a field. “’That’s your horse,’” Hall remembers him saying. “’And you’re not getting on it until you can catch her, halter her, lead her, groom her, and bring her to the arena for your lesson.’”

“I took lessons for a month before I ever sat on a horse,” Hall says. 

But that focus on horsemanship shaped Hall’s entire view of what it means to be an equestrian. It later shaped the way she approached her own riding students.

“I kind of stumbled into teaching,” Hall says. Active in her local Pony Club, Hall was moving toward her C rating and needed teaching experience.

“By the time I was 16,” she says, “the whole unmounted program of our Pony Club fell in my lap. I was the highest rated member in my club, and was told there wouldn’t be an unmounted program unless I ran it.” Hall’s mother, Dana Surrusco, also an avid equestrian, was stepping up in Pony Club leadership at the time. The two ran their club’s unmounted program together. 

An instructor at Hall’s farm learned of her interest in teaching and offered an apprenticeship. After a time, Hall and Surrusco leased out a barn and decided to start a small lesson program of their own. A year later, their program was a full-time job. 

Nikki Hall founded and co-owns HorseSense Learning Levels with her mother, Dana Surrusco, with the goal of supporting riding instructors and equestrian programs. Photo by Delaney Witbrod Photography

But Nikki and her mother faced some unique challenges because of their location and the demographics of their clients. 

“We ran a Pony Club for three years out of that barn,” Hall says. “But we were in poor, rural Georgia. Parents struggled to afford weekly lessons, and Pony Club was too much of a commitment.”

Plus, there was a rule that every three years, Pony Clubs needed to elect new District Commissioners. And there was no one to take over. 

Hall and Surrusco love Pony Club, the focus on horsemanship, and the concept of gaining knowledge and moving up levels. They wondered how could they take the spirit of Pony Club but make it more accessible to their own students.

“Most of our students aren’t going to own a horse. They’re probably not going to go to shows. But they’re passionately into this,” she says. She wanted to find a way to give her weekly-lesson riders a sense of achievement without the strings attached. 

Thus, HorseSense Learning Levels was born. 

The curriculum has grown to eleven different levels, differentiated by color, for both English and Western disciplines. Within each colored level are lesson plans, handouts, and other resources that detail the mounted and unmounted skills that students need to master in order to move to the next level. There are free resources that you can download from the website, but membership – available annually, or life-long – allows you access to the entire library. Instructors who use the resources can also purchase ribbons to be given to students as they master each level. 

Hall and her Surrusco first introduced the program to only their own students. 

“It was a game changer,” Hall says. “The program made such a difference for the riding school. Students’ progression isn’t personal. Students have clear goals and clear expectations for what they need to learn and do to move on.”

Their program also stresses the importance of unmounted skills to students.

“The problem is us,” she says, referring to riding instructors. “We have to change the way we present horsemanship to our clients.”

A heavily-followed Facebook page for riding instructors has been plagued by questions this winter about what to do when riding can’t happen. Programs struggle with the lost income. Parents complain when “riding lessons” don’t involve riding. 

“We’ve painted ourselves into a corner,” Hall says, “when we make clients think that riding is the only thing they should be paying for. They’re riding lessons. We’re riding instructors. We need to change that viewpoint. We need to call ourselves ‘horsemanship programs’ or ‘equestrian programs.’” 

“And we need to change the way that we talk about unmounted lessons,” Hall continued. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh bummer, we can’t ride today, so I guess we’ll do something else,’ if you can say to your student, ‘Since it’s too cold/icy/muddy, this is great – we can work on your unmounted skills for the level you’re on,’ you’ll have way more student and parent buy-in.”

But you have to have the curriculum in place. And if you don’t already have a clear mounted or unmounted curriculum, HorseSense Learning Levels can help. 

“We created classroom spaces for students at the barn,” she says. “And I never had problems getting people to come out on a bad riding day. We found a way to make unmounted learning engaging and fun. Our students knew that while usually they rode, sometimes they didn’t. But they were still learning and advancing, and there was a really positive culture of learning at the barn.”

The HorseSense Learning Levels curriculum includes numerous mounted and unmounted lesson plans for each level. Photo courtesy of HorseSense Learning Levels.

A standardized curriculum – with an unmounted portion – has many benefits beyond not losing income in poor weather. 

“Instructors sometimes forget about what it’s like to be a horse crazy kid, or kid-at-heart,” Hall says. “They want to learn about everything. When I took lessons as a kid, I was devastated when lessons were canceled. We need to give our students credit – they want to learn this stuff. The kids who know that it’s a privilege to be in the barn spending time with the horses – they’re still out there!”

Another benefit of a curriculum like this: in a larger lesson program with multiple instructors, it creates a standard and ensures that no students fall through the cracks. 

“And there’s something so appealing about the colors,” Hall laughs. “Students get so excited about collecting all of the ribbons!”

Running HorseSense Learning Levels has turned into a full-time job for Hall, who primarily develops curriculum, and Surrusco, who manages the website.

“We ran a lesson program for fifteen years. It survived two barn-moves and a recession,” Hall says. “But then a perfect storm occurred within a few months. Both of my parents were having some health troubles. There were issues with the barn that we were leasing and we didn’t want to rebuild the program for a third time. And our lesson horses were aging. We didn’t think we’d be able to afford to replace the full string.”

Hall realized that she wanted to instruct on a freelance basis so that she could focus more on building and promoting the HorseSense curriculum, which, she was discovering, the greater equestrian community had an interest in.

“We were posting the materials on our website for our own students,” she says, “and realized that other programs were stumbling on our resources and our program. So we started selling some of our resources online.”

“I wondered if there could be a little business in it,” Hall says. “I was making so many resources late at night in preparation for a lesson or clinic, and I thought maybe I could save some other instructors the headache!”

When Hall and Surrusco closed their program and Hall began freelance-instructing, about half of her students continued to take lessons with her in this new format. She credits the HorseSense program.

“They felt like they had unfinished business with me,” she laughed. “They wanted to complete all of the levels.”

“We want to raise the standard for the industry,” Hall says. “Future horses need these kids to learn this stuff now, so they can be responsible horse owners or riders down the road.”

If you are interested in seeing how the HorseSense curriculum could benefit your program, you can find an overview and sample materials at horsesenselearninglevels.com.

And in December 2023, Hall published The Big Book of Barn Lessons, which contains a sample syllabus, lessons, activities, and handouts on topics like safety, horse care, ground training, horse sports, and more. It can be found on Amazon, or on the HorseSense website in both digital and print formats.  

Sarah K. Susa is the owner of Black Dog Stables just north of Pittsburgh, where she resides with her husband and young son. She has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Allegheny College and an M.Ed. from The University of Pennsylvania. She teaches high school English full-time, teaches riding lessons and facilitates educational programs at Black Dog Stables, and has no idea what you mean by the concept of free time.