Not Just Imperatives: What Horse Professionals Can Learn from Language Teachers
Teaching the language of dressage to a young Quarter Horse
In addition to training horses, I have spent a lot of my life studying linguistics and literature in German and English. I still love words. I still find languages fascinating. Yet, my passion for horses has always been stronger. Two years as a full-time teacher were long enough to make me realize for good that a life without horses is not worth living. Though I still teach a class here and there, the horse world is my home - my main source of income, my main source of joy and satisfaction. There’s nothing I would rather do than spend my days at the barn, helping horses and riders get along with each other.
My favorite classroom
So, did I waste all those years of university education? Not at all, because, in a way, I still teach full-time. Training horses and improving horse-rider communication is a lot like teaching a foreign language.
Learning how to speak a language is not about memorizing verb conjugations or vocabulary lists. It’s a process that takes place without much conscious effort if the student is exposed to a steady stream of comprehensible input, i.e. a level of the target language that’s slightly above her current comfort zone. But that’s only half of the equation. Often, the so-called affective filter forms a barrier to learning. This filter is made of anxiety, low confidence, a lack of motivation, or a combination of all three. A tense student who worries too much about getting the grammar wrong will have a hard time learning to speak German, no matter how hard she tries. So, my role as a language teacher is simple: I need to provide students with comprehensible input, and I need to keep the affective filter low enough.
Tools for providing comprehensible input
My role as a horse professional is exactly the same: I need to get to the level of the horse, or the rider, with the goal of ending up a little bit above that level. It’s my job to make things interesting and challenging, but never intimidating. I don’t want to repeat the same exercise until the horse is sick of it just because it’s familiar. At the same time, I don’t want to ask for more than the horse can handle. For example, when a horse won’t do flying lead changes, it’s time to go back to more basic exercises until the canter feels rhythmic and cadenced on both leads, and until the transitions in and out of the canter feel effortless. When I’m working with riders, I’m just as responsible for figuring out what they need to work on in this particular session, which depends on their horse, and their goals, of course, but many times also on the kind of day they are having. When I first started teaching riders, I wanted to make sure my students were getting their money’s worth out of each lesson, so I wanted them to learn everything I had to offer in 60 minutes or less. The predictable result was that no one learned much of anything. I have since changed my ways.
A low affective filter - i.e. the frame of mind that allows learning - is even more important. Horses and riders need to feel motivated, but not worried about making mistakes. Attentive, but not anxious. Respectful, yet comfortable. Creating that balance is an important part of training.
A lazy horse needs motivation, which is not a synonym for whipping and spurring. Motivating a lazy horse may involve a tap with the whip here and there, but the most important element is still praise for anything the horse does right. And, having worked with hundreds of horses of many different breeds over the years, I can honestly say that truly lazy horses are rare. Most horses we call lazy are really just unfit, confused, or uncomfortable.
Focus and hard work are important . . .
Anxious horses are a lot more common than lazy ones. When a horse worries too much about doing things wrong, he won’t learn anything, at least not correctly. This is why relaxation is the basis of the dressage training scale. Without it, the whole system collapses like a house of cards. Fear and tension turn dressage movements into a cheap imitation of what they should look like: mechanical and stilted, rather than joyful and flowing. An anxious horse can obey, but he can’t dance.
But so (or even more so) are moments of release and relaxation.
It’s the same for riders. When I was a child, my riding lessons consisted of yelled imperatives along the lines of “Reins shorter! Heels lower! Activate the trot! You #*%* look like you’re half asleep!” Getting yelled at made me tense, which did not have a positive effect on my seat. The worse I rode, the louder my instructor’s voice became. We were locked in a vicious cycle.
This teaching style did not end with the 1980s. Some instructors still insist on using “tough” methods. I’ve asked a couple of them why they do it. Their answer is usually that students who can’t handle their approach don’t really want to learn. Nothing could be further from the truth. I desperately wanted to learn, but couldn’t. Today, I know why: my affective filter was in overdrive.
Relaxed, yet attentive: this horse's affective filter is low enough to learn
Since then, I’ve been fortunate to learn from several kind, constructive mentors in the horse world who have my eternal gratitude (you know who you are). On the other hand, there were a few times when I paid hundreds of dollars for what amounted to a weekend’s worth of borderline verbal abuse by well-known dressage clinicians. I learned nothing except that I was a lousy rider. No, I did learn something else, at least hope I did: helping horses and riders get along better means more than repeating imperatives. It’s about adjusting to the situation. It’s about being clear, consistent, creative, and kind - just like a good language teacher.
Is horse-human communication a language we can learn? Or is it more complicated, like calculus? Please let me know,