COTH Horse Show Dad: Some Thoughts On Teaching And Learning

Sep 6, 2017 - 11:50 AM

Like most horse parents without their own background in the horse world, I have to take a lot of what I encounter on faith. Even after 11 years of fairly intense involvement, my first impression of a horse tends not to be “good mover” or “nice bascule” or “hangs its legs” or the million other things that I’ve come to learn about. It tends instead to be something more basic. Like, “Look! A horse!”

I’m of course overstating things for possible comedic effect, but I can’t deny that my eye just isn’t that developed. I miss a lot from my spot at the corner of the ring, and not because I’ve got an obstructed view seat. It’s that there’s so much nuance. So many small things that have such a big effect.

Ada recently switched her focus to dressage, and my ignorance this has deepened. Just as I’ve gotten into the habit of seeing posture and heels and leg and hand position in the most basic sense, the action now seems to be taking place on a much smaller scale. I rarely see the adjustment, and only sometimes see the effect, even when I really try to focus.

The fact that I can’t see it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, of course. That’s where a trainer comes in.

Of course to have a trainer you’ve got to find a trainer, and that, too, can be a difficult thing. We parents find trainers by relying on word of mouth and various sorts of proxies, same as we do whenever we look for someone to do a job that we don’t have the expertise to do. Who has a good reputation? Do I know someone who says good things? Who has a track record of results? Does this feel right?

And it should feel right. Horse training, like lawyering, is ultimately a service profession. The most knowledgeable horse person in the world will not be a good trainer if she cannot effectively communicate her knowledge to others. It’s important to remember that the rider-horse connection isn’t the only one on display during a riding lesson. There’s also the connection between the trainer and the rider.

And here we’ve stumbled onto a piece of the puzzle that I can very much relate to and assess.

As a lawyer I figured out quickly that simply telling my clients that they should trust me because of the diploma that I never quite got around to putting on my wall was the strategy of the insecure professional. Better to show them that they should trust me by letting them see that I understand and appreciate where their questions and concerns are coming from, and explaining—patiently and as many times as necessary—why it makes sense to do things the way I’m advising.

Effective teaching—or so it seems to me as someone who spends a lot of time at the front of a classroom—requires something similar.

I’ll concede that the teaching I do doesn’t perfectly parallel what a trainer does. I’m often standing in front of 60 or 70 people at once, and even my smallest classes are well beyond the size of the largest group lessons I’ve seen. I am not able to give the sort of focused, individualized feedback that a riding instructor consistently provides.

But in a core sense the tasks are the same. The teacher, hopefully, has knowledge that the student does not. The job is to pass that knowledge along to the student so that the student understands it, and can put it to effective use.

Doing this well isn’t just about speaking clearly. It requires knowing one’s audience. And—this may be the hardest part—knowing oneself. Being able to communicate effectively to students requires putting yourself in their position. Which in turn requires remembering how much you once didn’t know.

And since those who become teachers tend to be those who were very good students, the need may run even deeper than that, because they have to imagine a version of themselves that had a different aptitude or interest level. It’s a really hard thing to get right.

Couple this with the fact that every student—every rider—is different. Each has different strengths and weaknesses. Some take in information very well when it’s delivered one way, and not so well when it comes in another form. Some have thick skins, others do better with a softer touch.

The existence of these differences can be a really hard thing to grasp on a basic intellectual level, and even harder to put into practice as a teacher. Each of us can see the world only through our own eyes, and each of us tends to imagine that everyone else is like we are. It seems relatively easy for the skilled horseperson to understand that every horse is different, that some are sensitive while others need tough love and so on. Only the very best consistently recognize and are able to act on the insight that the same is true of our fellow humans.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, of course, and I’m not making any claims to having found the key that unlocks every student’s understanding. A fellow named Karl Llewellyn, one of the brightest legal stars that ever burned, routinely cautioned incoming students that each of their professors would be “lopsided.”

This lopsidedness was, Llewellyn continued, both a bug and a feature. “We feel it well that you should be exposed to a series of lopsided men, to the end that you learn from each his virtues and see in each his defects. For you the balance, for you the rounding out, for you the building of a legal equipment better than that of any one of us.”

There are two things worth highlighting here. The first is that it’s unfortunate that exposure to different trainers and different disciplines isn’t more of a routine thing.

The second is that there’s a final piece of the puzzle. For real learning to take place the student has to do her job, too.

I once heard George Morris talking about some folks who had worked for him early in their careers, and who have since gone on to become prominent trainers in their own right. I don’t recall the specifics of the set-up, but I wrote down the punch line: “It’s what I didn’t teach them that they learned.” And so it is.

It’s a complicated business, this teaching and learning. I haven’t learned all that much about riding from watching lesson after lesson. But I have learned a lot about teaching.

A while back I wrote a post about how I concluded—because that’s what he said—that George Morris knows nothing about horses. That sort of fundamental humility in the face of complexity—of horses, of humans, of riding, of teaching, of learning—is, it seems to me, the absolute key to learning and growing, whether as a rider, as a teacher, or even as a dad sitting off in the corner of the ring.

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. 

Read all of Chad’s COTH Horse Show Dad blogs for the Chronicle.

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