Going Back To School Makes Us Better Teachers

Jul 12, 2013 - 3:26 PM
Helping Kristin and Bellinger prepare for Lendon's Youth Dressage Festival sent Lauren back to school. Photo by Jeff Counterman.

This weekend, Billy and his own personal 12-year-old, Kristin, are off to Lendon’s Youth Dressage Festival, a phenomenal show that Lendon Gray first developed more than 10 years ago. The show, like any normal dressage show, has kids ride their choice of dressage test, but that’s where the similarities end.

The show offers help from “roving trainers,” including some big name folks and rising stars; prix caprilli and trail classes; educational opportunities and special awards. And in addition to the dressage test, riders must also complete an equitation class and a written exam, based off books that are assigned and changed annually.

When we trainers get together, we talk a lot about learning styles. Some of my students really Get Stuff when they feel it on more experienced horses; some learn a ton by watching other riders at clinics or in lessons; still others learn by reading articles or books. I think everyone benefits from a combination of learning techniques. 

But one of the greatest things I’ve found for my own learning isn’t reading, writing or even doing – it’s teaching. 

Between the kids of ours going to the Youth Dressage Festival and the kids we’ve helped get through their Pony Club ratings – including Allison, my assistant trainer, who was definitely not a kid when she aced her Pony Club Dressage A rating last year – we’ve spent a lot of time having to give serious thought to why we do even the most basic stuff we do. There are the obvious absolutes: never give Banamine IM; seat, then hand; always wear gloves when longeing.

But when Kristin texted Allison and I tonight, before sitting down for the written test, with a question, Allison and I disagreed, and it wasn’t the first time. (Question: Do you have more contact in the piaffe or in the passage? Allison says more in passage than piaffe, I say the same in both. And let’s remind everyone that Kristin is 12. And amazing.)

Having to explain things like throughness, or on-the-bit, or the half-halt makes me better at riding them. Having to verbalize what I do when I sit the trot, or what I feel when I go to give an IV shot, or what I’m thinking about as I’m adjusting a double bridle or debating what bit to put on a new horse in training; all of these things, which seem so organic to me, are brand new to many of my students, and their own personal riding manifesto is formulated, at least at first, around the words I use to explain myself. What a huge responsibility!

And other than those absolutes, none of us have all the right answers all of the time. Allison and I have an uncanny ability to give the Exact Same Riding Lesson, down to the exercises, to students we share without having discussed said student, but every now and then we confuse the heck out of a student by saying something exactly the opposite from the other. And then we stress them out further by neither of us being wrong – just approaching something from two different ways.

That in and of itself is a huge lesson to learn – there’s no RIGHT or WRONG way, just lots of different approaches, when it comes to training horses. When you do it long enough, you develop your own way, and then recognize patterns in horses (Fender reminds me of Ella! I’m going to apply what I learned on Ella to Fender, etc.) that guide what system you apply, what exercises you use.

And explaining all this, especially to KIDS, reinforces it for me and helps me remember what’s really important in the day-to-day training. 

(All that said, I’m glad I don’t have to take a written test about it tonight!)



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