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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Silva

Double-Edged Words

“I saw a stop sign, and it occurred to me that just as no one expects a stop sign to stop a car, I shouldn’t expect words to substitute for experience. That’s not their job . . . The job of words is to direct us toward experience, to round out experience, to facilitate experience, and to give us ways to share at least a pale shadows of that experience with those we love.” (Derrick Jensen)

“Keep your hands still!”

“Keep your heels down!”

“Don’t pull on that inside rein!”

“Put him on the bit!”

These are all phrases I’ve heard over and over during lessons and clinics. Instructors - myself included - use them all the time. Most of us can’t imagine giving or taking riding lessons without them. And yet, these words, in spite of the good intentions behind them, rarely seem to have the desired effect.

Ulla Hudson, a teacher who uses words wisely.

In theory, teaching people how to ride is a simple process: instructors dispense information, which the riders they teach translate into practice. A teacher’s words cause her students to do things a certain way, which makes thier horses respond a certain way, which in turn leads leads the riders to experience and feel correct movements and transitions.

Here’s the catch: in real life, this hardly ever works. Many riding lessons follow a different script. The teacher tells her student to do something. The student tries to do what she is told, but it does not look that way to the teacher. The teacher repeats her words, sometimes in a louder voice. The student tries harder to do as she is told. Her shoulders tense, her jaw clenches. The horse under her begins to worry about what is going on. His back stops swinging. He stops chewing on the bit. Horse and rider become more and more tense. So does the teacher. The lesson ends with all three parties - horse, rider, and instructor - feeling frustrated.

This does not happen because trainers don’t try hard enough to teach well, or because students don’t try hard enough to learn. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of verbally abusive teachers out there, or disinterested ones. There are also plenty of students who take lessons for the wrong reasons, e.g. so they can claim to have “worked with” dressage guru X. I am not talking about these teachers, or these students. I am talking about knowledgeable, well-meaning instructors and motivated students with realistic goals. Why is teaching to soneone to ride better still so difficult? Why is learning to ride bettter still so hard?

Contact is a tricky concept for Western riders.

The answer is complicated, but at least a part of it has its roots in the nature of language. The meaning of words is not set in stone. It’s not the same for everyone. It also changes over time. All nouns, verbs, and adjectives have denotations, i.e. the slice of reality they point to, and connotations ,i.e. the color-coding of these denotations as positive, neutral, or negative. Connotations can be subtle or glaring. A rider’s background and previous experience will play a role in her understanding of words and expressions. “Contact” means something desirable to a dressage rider, while it sounds like pulling on the horse’s mouth to most Western riders. My own understanding of “on the bit” has evolved over the last thirty years from positioning a horse’s nose near the vertical no matter how you do it, to a feeling of controlled power that involves a horse’s entire body, along with his mind. I used to think of “suppleness” as a horse that feels like an overcooked noodle, instead of one cooked al dente. The student’s brain may translate a teacher’s words into a totally different picture from what she intended. Teacher and student end up confused. Often, the horse does, too.

Even if teacher and student agree on their idea of straightness or the angle of a shoulder-in, it doesn’t always help the learning process. Most of us, with enough time and effort, can learn to sit on a horse in a position that looks at least halfway correct, and to use cues our horse responds to. But we don’t really learn how to ride that way. We don’t learn about feel and timing. We don’t learn about the wisdom to know when to do what, or when to quit doing it.

So, what is a teacher to do? And what should students do? Should we just give up on formal instruction altogether? Should we wait for a good seat and an effective system of communication to evolve naturally, without feedback, without guidance? Should those of us who teach quit trying to explain things and instead give our students mysterious clues, like “you just have to feel it”?

That’s not the answer. I know lifelong riders with great feel and horse sense, whose ineffective seat or habitual crookedness limits what they could otherwise accomplish. I know riders, even professional trainers, with tons of practical experience who keep repeating the same mistakes on every horse they work with, ending up in the same dead end of mutual frustration. I think we need to keep teaching, and we need to keep learning, but we need to change our understanding of both.

Nicole Thüngen, a teacher with a knack for explaining how dressage works[/caption]

Good teachers know their stuff, but they don’t just throw all available information at their students at once. Even if they see multiple things they would like to see a rider change, they choose their words wisely, focusing on one issue at a time. Good teachers see more than a rider’s alignment of ear, shoulder, hip, and heels. They’re aware of a student’s riding experinece, her level of anxiety, her level of fitness. They’re aware of the type of horse she is riding. They’re aware of her relationship with that horse. All of these factors influence what a good teacher tells her student.

Good teachers are sensitive. They encourage questions. When a student looks or acts confused, they have alternative ways of explaining the same concept. Good teachers know when to push and when to back off, when to talk and when to shut up. Good teachers assume their students are doing the best they can with the horse they are riding today. Good teachers want to give their students tools to probelm-solve, not buttons to push. Good teachers want their students to become independent, thinking riders, not co-dependent marionettes who follow instructions without a real sense of the purpose behind them.

Learning to feel what's correct on the Balimo chair

Good students respect their teachers, but don’t worship them blindly. They know that not every teacher is right for every student, but they don’t jump from teacher to teacher at random intervals, hoping to find the holy grail of good horsemanship in just a couple of lessons or clinics. Good students are not afraid to ask questions, especially questions starting with “why?” Good students try hard to do what their teacher is asking, but not so hard that it makes them anxious. Good students are willing to give feedback to their teacher, along the lines of “this was helpful!” or “I don’t know what you mean - can you explain it a different way?”

Horses are our best teachers, no question. But we still need human teachers, too.

Most importantly, good students know that their teacher is also learning from them. Most importantly, good teachers know that their student is also teaching them. Good teachers, and good students, know that teaching is a two-way process. One of the first trainers I worked for told me: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” The implication was that being a good trainer meant you didn’t have to bother with the menial task of teaching. It took me a few years to recognize how wrong she was. Being a good trainer of horses requires the same qualities as being a good teacher. The really good trainers will teach their students like they teach their horses - with kindness, humility, and endless patience. They will work on refining their use of words during lessons ike they work on refining their use of aids when they ride.

Ride happy, and keep learning,


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