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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Silva

The Imperative Trap

"Words are the source of misunderstandings." 

(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

Teaching the language of the aids starts from the ground

I've been a professional horsewoman since age 18, but for many years, I also attended college and grad school part time, earning a few degrees in literature and linguistics along the way. While I feel lucky to live my true passion, I also enjoyed the time I've spent hovering on the fringes of academia. I'm realizing more and more that what is true about language, about learning, and about teaching applies to what I do with horses: riding is communication. A rider's seat, legs, reins, and voice are the words that form sentences. There are times when the conversation flows really well. Other times, though, horses and riders don't understand each other at all, and both parties end up frustrated.

We both look like we understand each other at this particular moment

The most common obstacle to good horse-rider communication is one-sidedness. We've all experienced this type of situation, especially in classroom settings: one person - the teacher - does the talking, while the students just sit there, not really agreeing, not really disagreeing, but not engaging either way. In a very similar manner, information tends flow one-way from rider to horse, not back and forth. If aids were words, they'd be imperatives: a nudge with both legs says: "Pick up a trot now!" Just as often, the imperative starts with "Don't!" as in: "Don't lean on my hands!" or "Don't go until I tell you!" There's nothing wrong with requesting things from your horse, but many riders talk to their horses exclusively in imperatives - a string of imperatives, an ongoing, endless chain of them. The only answer they accept is instant and unreflected obedience from their horses. Horse-rider communication becomes a one-way street, a mechanical process of pushing buttons.

Ulla Hudson, a teacher and role model who rarely gets caught in the imperative trap

It's easy to slip into this imperative trap. It's not where I really want to be, but it's a familiar place because I've spent a lot of time there. Most of us have learned from an early age that teachers tell us what to do, and that good students do what they're told. This approach got us through grade school, high school, college, and beyond. Many of us have learned that, even when the teacher asks for our input, our best bet is to guess which answer she would like to hear instead of saying what we really think. We have learned to ride horses this way, too. Instructors typically use a lot of imperatives, like: "Heels down!" or "Keep your hands quiet!" It's no surprise that so many of us use the same kind of teaching style with our horses. From childhood, we're conditioned to follow imperatives when we want to learn and to use imperatives when we want to teach. We want our horses to learn, so we talk to them like our teachers have always talked to us.

It's hard to break out of the deep grooves of old habits, but I know I need to do it if I want to communicate with my horses in a mutually respectful way. I know I need to use a different style of conversation if I want to train responsive, happy horses. So, how can we become better communicators, not just drill sergeants, not just button pushers? Exploring that question will take the rest of my life, but I already have a couple of ideas:

  1. Talk less. Listen more.

Maleficent, responsive, relaxed, and happy at her first show.

Good teaching is a two-way street - a dialogue, not a monologue. Communication that works like it should flows in both directions. As a teacher, it's easy to slip into the habit of talking non-stop, which gives students little opportunity to respond. As a rider, it's just as easy to slip into the habit of always doing something, of constantly telling the horse what to do or correcting what he does wrong. In order to talk less, we have to consciously open ourselves to what the horse has to say. To do this, I check in with the horse's body and mind in between asking him to do things. How does his back feel under me? How does his mouth feel in my hands? What is he thinking about? If he could talk, what would he tell me? Based on his feedback, I can adjust what I say next, and how I say it.

Norman Thelwell, greatest pony cartoonist ever, said it best.

2. Speak more softly than you think you should, and shut up sooner than you think you can.

For riding horses, this means: focus on the give, i.e. the cessation of the aid instead of on the aid itself: the giving phase of the half-halt, the return to a neutral, softly hovering or gently hugging leg position after a leg aid, the return to a softly following seat after a driving aid. These are the moments when learning happens, when horses say "Aha! I got it" Good timing means to give when the horse is giving to you, or, even better, is about to give to you - not after. Pay attention to how fleeting your aids can be. Be wiling to take a chance. Could you give a fraction sooner? Could you use a softer aid for a shorter time? This is how we learn to read the feedback our horses give us more accurately. If you give too soon, it's no big deal - just repeat what you asked in a louder, clearer voice, then back off again. If you don't give soon enough, though, the horse never learns that responding to a lighter, briefer aid is possible.

3. Sometimes, the best response is silence

When horses are doing things we don't want them to, it is sometimes best to ignore the behavior as much as possible. This is especially true for green horses who are just becoming familiar with new concepts, like moving away from a rider's leg. Any time we spend arguing or fighting with our horses is wasted. The only thing horses learn from it is how to fight harder. I can't get too upset with the horse for trying out a range of responses to this new type of touch, like kicking out against it. For safety reasons, I may have to gently discourage the behavior I don't want, but I try to ignore as much of it as I can. While doing this, I'm looking for the slightest bit of the response I do want. As soon as I get a step away from the leg, I take my leg off immediately and praise the horse. I may even quit for the day if it took us a while to get to this point.

Small successes mean we can quit for the day.

The best teachers I've had, in classrooms and in the horse world, did much more than tell me what to do. They gave me time to think, to question, to disagree. They gave me confidence instead of undermining it. They helped me enjoy learning. I would like to do for my horses what these teachers did for me.

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