Automatic for the people

Lately, I’ve found myself asking my students, “did you expect this to be easy?” when they discover a barrier to their progress.  They often don’t answer – and the question is, after all, rhetorical – but I can tell that they want to say “yes, I did”.

The fact is that learning a new skill is difficult, and the perceived difficulty increases with age – your enhanced motor and intellectual skills as you get older lead you to believe that learning something new should be easier, but among my students and fellow learners, I’ve found the opposite to be true.

I had riding lessons with some adults during my teens, and found their understanding marred by previous life experiences: many of them tried to manoeuvre a horse as they would a car, giving the animal little notice prior to turning or stopping, and expecting the animal to respond with the speed of ceramic brakes.  Although there is a clear similarity between cars and horses – they are built with or trained to understand the same controls – another similarity – that which means that each is also built in a slightly different way – which must be borne in mind.

Children, on the other hand, just expect it to be simple – that they swing into the saddle and the horse can read their mind.  It would be easy to blame this on a generation which can make efficient use of touch screens and lightning-fast technology before they can write their own name, but I have memories of the same sentiment being shared by my own teachers.  Children just have an expectation that they will succeed, and that success will come quickly, perhaps because they are accustomed to receiving a great deal of assistance when in uncharted territory.

The truth is this: horses are highly-trained and do have the ability to assist their rider… but only if they want to.  Horses have brains.  They are much larger than us and require a different type of manipulation.  Horses cannot talk – whether they can understand human language is a different question – and tell us that they feel tired or sick today, or that they just aren’t sure what you want.  In time, however, riders are able to speak to their horses, especially as a relationship between horse and rider builds and you become attuned to the ways in which they choose to communicate with you.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for me as a teacher is that riding can be straightforward if my students listen, and if they tell me when they themselves don’t understand, for I too am not a mind-reader.  It will always take practice – lots of it – and certain elements involve a development of physical feel for what you’re trying to achieve.  Easy it isn’t; worth it, it is.


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