Knowing Right From Left Is A Teaching Necessity

Jun 7, 2013 - 5:09 AM
Good teachers have patience, empathy, a belter voice, and the ability to tell right from left at any angle. Photo by Jeff Counterman.

Ask any horseman what it takes to be a good teacher or a good trainer, and you’ll get the usual soundbites: patience, creativity, a strong work ethic, great passion. Yeah yeah, sure sure. I’m coming up on my seventh year running my farm and teaching lessons for a living, and before that I rode with lots of great people, so I come from a place of experience when I say that, while yes, all that deep, profound stuff is true, what you really need to be good at this job is less like a Hallmark greeting card and more like Larry the Cable Guy. For example:

The ability to tell right from left, while facing someone. Seriously. When you have a student coming at you, and you need to tell her to take the inside rein, it can’t take you a minute to figure out whether that’s her right or her left. Timing is crucial, and if you’re saying, “Uh, wait,” and twisting around with your hands in L shapes to figure out which one is which, you’re too late. This, obviously, never happens to me. Ever.

An extensive vocabulary and a mental thesaurus of metaphors. Most of teaching a riding lesson, I’ve found, is the ability to say the same thing in about 30 different ways. If your student doesn’t grasp what you’re getting at your first way, change to your second, then your third, and on and on. “It’s like…,” “move your elbows like,” “think about doing it like…” will also quickly become your friends.

The cold read. This is especially important if you teach clinics, when you have 45 minutes to make a tangible change in a horse and rider you’ve never met before. Do they seem like the kind of people who will take a little butt kicking, or do they want to have their hands held? Is she the kind of student who wants to have a Serious Dressage Lesson, or is it OK to tell some jokes? Does she really want to get better at riding, or does she basically want to have a 45-minute chat on horseback? All of these things are totally fine, and you, as an instructor, need to be able to a) figure them out quickly, and b) adjust accordingly.

Vocal fortitude. Even when you’re so lucky, as I am, to teach all day in an arena with a sound system and a microphone, you’re still talking. all. day. And that can be hard on your voice. Last year, two consecutive weekends of horse showing with 10+ clients landed me with a node on my vocal cords. Eek.

I protect my voice whenever I can, bringing portable headsets with me to shows and, from now on (after going hoarse at a clinic late last year) to clinics I teach in the event that they don’t have a sound system. If I lose my voice for a day, I make no money that day. And that’s stinky. 

I’m also pretty good at training my clients to text and email instead of calling. Not only are they much more likely to get an answer from me that way, but it also saves my throat a few minutes of trouble every day.

Good shoes and a good chair. Some teachers like to stand in the ring while they teach; some like to stand or sit outside it. (I’m in the latter category. I can see better from outside, and I get dizzy when my students circle around me, which can be a little embarrassing!) Either way, you need a good pair of shoes and a good chair that won’t leave you crippled at the end of the day. 

I’ve recently started teaching from something like this, and my back is a MUCH happier camper. It took some adjusting to, but now I love it. And for shoes, as a barefoot runner, I’m a bit of a minimalist, but a wide footbed is way better for the days when I’m on my feet the whole time. 

Sunglasses, sunscreen, baseball cap, bug spray. No brainers. Pony Club tip: Put the bug spray under the brim of your baseball cap to keep the gnats out of your eyes. Genius!

Patience. Yeah, I know, this blog is supposed to be funny and not profound, but that one really is crucial. Everyone learns at their own rate and has their own goals. There are many, many riders out there who just like being on a horse, and they take lessons to make sure that a) they’re not doing anything overwhelmingly dumb, and b) to feel like part of a team, but not really c) because they want to make huge, sweeping progress and go to the Olympics. Not everyone wants to be Anky, and a lot of the ones that do want to be Anky don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell.

So much of this job is teaching the same lesson over and over again, certainly to lots of different people, but often times to the same person day in and day out. Keeping the joy up in moments like that can be hard for a lot of teachers. 

But oh, the joy of watching someone Get It for the first time, especially after days/weeks/months/years of Not Getting It! It’s like crack, but without the bad teeth and incarceration. It keeps you coming back for more!


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