A person hears things at horse shows. Perhaps especially if that person looks like a dad who isn’t quite sure what he’s doing there or where he’s supposed to be.
It’s almost like being invisible, I’ve found. Because, believe me, I’ve heard things. Parents saying things; judges saying things. One time I heard the mother of a well-known rider attempt to carry on a conversation with a judge while her child was riding in a hunter class being judged by that judge.
Let’s just say that analogous behavior in the legal system would be frowned upon. And that perhaps is a topic for a later post.
Among the many things I’ve heard, the thing I’ve probably heard more than any of the other things is yelling. The raised voice kind, for sure. But also the more insidious kind. The kind of comment that might not require a raised voice, though it can certainly involve one, but that’s clearly designed to cut uncomfortably close to the psychological bone.
Once at a show I was just sitting there minding my own business—because let me be clear that I don’t seek this stuff out so much as find a place to sit and wait for it to appear—when I found myself part of the audience to a conversation between a trainer and one of her students. The student had clearly just had a tough round, and the trainer was trying to build her back up. Saying nice things, being encouraging, and so on. So far, so good.
But then the girl started crying. Not little tears, but a full-on, shoulders-heaving cry.
The part I’ll never forget is that the trainer reacted to this by saying something along the lines of, “Are you crying because you can’t believe I’m being nice to you for once?” And then—and I won’t quote this part because this is a family blog—the trainer proceeded to colorfully outline how she could respond through yelling if that was what the girl preferred.
It was actually a pretty nice moment. But then I think about all of what went into setting that specific discussion up to be a nice moment. Well, then I guess I’m just not so sure about the entire situation.
I’ve been around the internet enough to sense that this is the point where some people are likely to stop reading what I’m actually saying and start reading what they think I’m going to say. So I’ll try to be clear. Don’t assume that what I’m doing here is advocating in favor of participation trophies, lowered expectations, and rainbows over every horse show. Horses are large and potentially dangerous, and students need to understand that they’ve got to be attentive to what they’re doing at all times. There’s a place for the raised voice.
But yelling’s effectiveness can be illusory, and its users are likely to be fooled into thinking it’s a more effective tool than it is. Here I’m drawing on an insight from the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. (It’s worth noting here that he got a Nobel Prize for this stuff, which I hope will lead you to at least pause to think before you take to the comments section to start yelling at me.)
Consider this: A trainer is most likely to yell after a student has done something abnormally poorly. Which means, because it was abnormal, that the student will almost certainly do it better the next time. By the same token, a trainer is most likely to give praise after a student has done something abnormally well. Which means the student will almost certainly do it less well the next time.
The punch line is that all of that would be true without either the yelling or the praise. A student who does abnormally poorly on try No. 1 is very likely to do better on try No. 2, even if the trainer isn’t paying attention at all. A student who does abnormally well on try No. 1 is very likely to do worse on try No. 2, even though the trainer has been giving her full attention and feedback. It’s simply the law of averages in action. But it’s very likely to create a false sense that the yelling worked (“it got better!”) while the praise did not (“it got worse!”).
An example might help. Imagine you are an OK-but-not-great dart player trying to hit the bullseye. Suppose that you’ll hit the bullseye once in every 20 throws and miss the board entirely just as often. The remaining 18 throws will end up somewhere in between.
You throw a dart and miss the board. Whether I yell at you or not, your next throw is almost certain to be better. Yet if I’ve yelled at you, I’m likely to imagine that your next throw was better because I yelled at you. But that’s an illusion.
Then you throw a dart and hit the bullseye. Here, your next throw is likely to be worse no matter what. But if I’ve praised you for your bullseye I’ll conclude that my praise didn’t work because you didn’t hit two in a row. Which is also, though less obviously, false.
There’s much, much more that could be said about this. I could write a book about it and feel that I had only started to scratch the surface, I’m sure. Humans are complex enough by themselves, and we’re talking about situations where there’s another creature with a mind of its own involved.
My point for now is simply that I’m uneasy with the need for and effectiveness of some of what I have heard as I’ve made my way around the horse show world. Raised voices are sometimes necessary—hurtful comments only rarely so. High expectations are great, but they don’t require either one.
I’ve spent lots of time around trainers who are vastly more positive than negative, and I’ve seen that it works. A lot of the rest of it just seems like unnecessary cruelty.
Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders and he’s going to take readers along on his horse show-parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him.