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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Silva

Why Ask “Why?”

Teaching and learning, a two-way street

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” (Paulo Freire)

I owe my students in so many ways. The most important one is that they don’t let me become too comfortable, too secure in my sense of how much I know. They keep me thinking, questioning, trying to learn, trying to evolve. In return, I hope I teach them to keep questioning me, to keep questioning others, to keep thinking rather than to just accept what I tell them.

Gary Larson's take on the banking model of education

True learning is a dialogue, a two-way street. Paulo Freire wrote about two models of education. The first one, familiar to most of us from grade school, he calls the banking model. According to this view, students are passive receptacles. Their brains are like empty jars. Only the teacher possesses the commodity of knowledge, which she can stuff into the students until they’re full.

Transformative education, on the other hand, moves along a two-way street, with two-way traffic. In this view, learning is a form of communication, a dialogue between teacher and student. Knowledge happens when dots connect, when problems are solved. The two models have very different goals. The banking model fosters an attitude of unquestioning obedience, of meek submission. Transformative education empowers students, teaching them how to solve problems and to think critically.

Learning is a dialogue

Freire’s theories have been around for almost fifty years, but they don’t seem to have penetrated much of the equestrian universe. From personal observation and experience, I know that the banking model is alive and well, at least in the worlds of dressage and natural horsemanship. Riding instruction for the most part still consists of commands that students are expected to obey without questioning, whether they understand the “Why?” behind the imperatives or not.

When a student does ask “Why?,” the answer is often a version of: “Because we’ve always done it this way.” This is not good enough. Neither is “Because dressage master X, or Olympic champion Y, or Natural horsemanship icon Z says so.” A good student wants to know more: “Why have we always done it this way?” or: “Why does Champion X do it?”

Three teachers, three learners.

Of course, traditions deserve a degree of respect because, unlike fads and fashions, they have stood the test of time. Horsemanship has evolved over many centuries. We should all read the classic texts of dressage, from Xenophon and De La Guerinière to Udo Bürger, along with the wise words of the Dorrance brothers, to gain a sense of perspective. We can appreciate how much dedication, passion, and thought these people dedicated to the pursuit of better horsemanship, but reading these books also makes us realize that they often disagreed with each other. Good riding is not just just one set of fixed rules - it’s an evolving idea, an elusive concept, depending on historic contexts, cultural factors, and many other variables. Good horsemanship is subject to ongoing and heated discussions. Paulo Freire, had he been a horseman, would have said that better horse-human connections evolved because of those disagreements, not in spite of them. There are so many open questions, so many arguments, so much new research. The quest for good horsemanship continues to evolve, which makes asking “Why?” even more important.

Anja Beran, one of my role models. It's good to have a picture of perfection.

Of course, apart from respecting traditions, it’s also important to have role models - riders we look up to, trainers whose methods we admire, whose technique and dedication serve as good examples. But even so, we still need to know why we should try to sit on a horse like they do, why we should do what they do in the warmup pen, or why we should use the kind of tack we see them use. Imitation can be a useful tool, but becoming a good rider takes much more than imitation. Imitation without understanding of “Why?” becomes meaningless or worse, destructive, like in the case of the infamous peanut roller craze in the western pleasure classes of the 1990s.

No, my Western Pleasure horses never dragged their noses on the ground.

When a student asks me a question that starts with “Why?,” I often respond with: “Let me think about this for a second.” I have to contemplate why I do the things I do with horses, why I tell my students to do certain things, why I sometimes do things I tell my students not to do.

I used to use a flash all the time, without really knowing why.

Sometimes, the answer is relatively easy: because this will help the horse become his best self over time: more relaxed, more supple, straighter, more balanced. The answer is not always obvious, which is why I tend to think about it, or consult one of my books, or talk to one of my wise mentors. Other times, I can’t find a good enough answer and have to revise my methods. When I find that I subconsciously have imitated others without questioning, I go back and tweak what I do. I used to use flash nosebands on all my dressage horses, until a student asked me why. The honest answer would have been: “Because everyone in the dressage barn where I board my training horses uses a a flash noseband, and I would like to fit in better!” Now, I rarely use a flash, and never without a valid reason.

We are learning to trust and respect each other: OTTB Ivy, at her first schooling show after two months of training.

There’s another reason to change our model of riding instruction. Students who take lessons in a atmosphere of unquestioning obedience tend to expect a similar degree of blind obedience from their horses because they don’t know any alternatives. While horses can’t think like humans, good training involves encouragement and trust. Good training is a dialogue with the horse, a process of understanding the feedback the horse gives and of choosing wisely how to respond. Or, in Freire’s words: “Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.”

So, I will ask a “Why?” question: why can’t education in the world of horses be transformative instead of authoritarian? Or is it already, and I’m just too pessimistic? Please let me know!

Ride happy,


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