What, Why, and How Do We Teach?

Photo courtesy of Lake Erie College

An inside look at how equestrian professionals can guide their students toward success

By Mary Pardee, Director of Riding at Lake Erie College & Assistant Professor of Equine Studies

I spend a lot of time developing curriculum and teaching courses for Lake Erie College’s School of Equine Studies’ Teacher/Trainer program. This deep dive into the process and theory of riding instruction has led me to ruminate on equestrian education. Why do we teach? What do we teach?  How do we teach? Unlike many countries, the United States does not require any certification to be a riding instructor or trainer. We have several different organizations that offer certification but no unified code of theory or instruction.  Lacking this, it is critical that we self-evaluate our role as instructors and trainers.

At Lake Erie College, prospective teacher/trainer candidates must take three semesters of coursework in the theory, methods, and practice of teaching riding. We cover instruction from beginners through advanced riders in hunters, jumpers, dressage, and western pleasure. Our focus is first and foremost on the safety of rider and horse; then on classical principles of theory, anatomy, and physiology of horse and rider; psychology; and effective teaching techniques. The first assignment I give the students is to write a paper on their “Best/Worst” lesson experience. I ask them to read it aloud to the class, and ask the class to observe their speech and body language as they relate their story. The good moments are told in bright, confident voices, often with a smile on the student’s face. When they talk about the bad experiences you can see the hurt, anger, or fear—as fresh as though it just happened.  It is an eye-opening lesson in the power of instructors to inspire and also to damage their riders!

Everyone starts with their worst experience, even though I deliberately structure the prompt to elicit the best experience first. Why? Because bad moments stick with us. They do not lose their power to wound us, even after many years. There is a commonality to all of the stories. Instructors who, through ignorance, laziness, or outright incompetence, have scared, demeaned, or injured the rider.  I wonder if we trainers truly understand the lasting power of our words or actions?

WHY DO WE TEACH?

 Is it to educate and inspire riders to be compassionate, thinking horsepersons? If so, are ground lessons in proper grooming, horse handling, and saddle fit a mandatory part of your program? Do you teach safe and correct longeing techniques? Do your students know how to recognize signs of general good health and soundness? Many professionals grumble about having to teach beginners, but they are the ones who need our expertise the most. Others don’t take the time to teach their students “why” they are doing something. Theory is inextricably linked to riding.  While we all need to structure our program so we can make a living, there has to be a way to balance economics with good horsemanship. Don’t we teach because we want to create a safe, knowledgeable rider who is capable of solving problems? The pursuit of ribbons, accolades, and horse sales should never supersede that.

Photo courtesy of Lake Erie College

WHAT DO WE TEACH?

The term “school horse sound” makes me so unhappy. Too often it is code for “well, they limp, but they’re just a school horse.” Serviceably sound is totally different. That is a horse that starts out a bit stiff and may need a few minutes to warm up. Too often, we medicate and mask rather than look for the root cause of the problem. Our horses all deserve a holistic approach to their care that includes the trainer, barn manager, farrier, nutritionist, alternative therapies, and conventional veterinary medicine. Sometimes a simple change makes a huge difference.  When we turn a blind eye to our horse’s discomfort we send the message to our students that the horses don’t deserve care and kindness. Do your riders understand how bad saddle fit can hurt a horse? Do they understand the mechanics and effect of bits in a horse’s mouth? Do your students understand the biomechanics of movement and proper muscle use in horses? Can they tell you when a horse is truly on the aids versus being pulled into a false frame? Do they know the subtle signs of discomfort or distress in a horse? Most riders want to understand more about their horses. They feel empowered by knowledge. They want to try new things. Horses and riders at all levels can do fun and physically challenging exercises that encourage self-carriage, good balance and muscle development.

HOW DO WE TEACH?

Last, but certainly not least, is the how. Our words and actions are so powerful. All of us have bad days and lessons we wish we could do over. I am certain I have made someone’s “worst lesson” list. All we can do is try to be better, each and every time. In our teacher/trainer classes we talk about incorporating three positive comments for each criticism. We assess tone of voice and body language. No on teaches with their hands in their pockets or crosses their arms over their chest. These subtle gestures convey disinterest or unapproachability. 

Our students deserve our full attention, free from phone calls or side conversations. Every rider does something right, no matter how small. Did we find it and recognize it? Yes, we must set clear standards and expectations—these are critical for teaching. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep an element of joy and kindness in our teaching. It is more than fair to tell a rider with higher aspirations that they aren’t meeting the benchmarks, but how you tell them is essential. I don’t even remember half of what I’ve said to students over the years, but those students can recite certain comments that stuck with them, the good and the bad, back to me. I am thrilled when the good comments resonated and embarrassed by some of the thoughtless remarks I’ve made. 

Instructors and trainers are the guardians of the hopes and dreams of their students. We have the power to teach so many wonderful things, like compassion for another living thing, accountability, hard work, and tenacity. We should be life-long learners ourselves and encourage our riders to become true students of their sport. Developing the next generation of kind, capable, knowledgeable equestrians starts with us. 

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