Marginal gains

Throughout the summer, I often found myself discussing horsemanship classes with other staff at the barn: when we all arrived, it emerged that I wasn’t the only one who was interested in the idea, and that two of the new staff actually had a lot of experience with it.  I was intimidated at first, but as I was the one scheduled to teach the classes, I just had to get on with it.

The other instructors were mostly busy with other classes whilst I was teaching horsemanship, but they were sometimes available to drop in and either assist or work with their own horses alongside the kids.  It was always a comfortable atmosphere of everyone learning from each other, with no real hierarchy.

Towards the end of the summer, I sought advice from the others more frequently, as the kids were progressing and I again began to feel a little out of my depth.  One of my colleagues watched one of my classes and came away impressed by how far the kids had come.  She asked me how I’d done it and my initial reaction was to laugh and tell her it had been an accident.  She pushed me to think about my process a little more and here’s what I told her…

  • Safety comes first. It has to.  I establish rules at the very beginning – they’re not written down, they aren’t commandments, and there aren’t loads, but they are clear: no horses or people are to get harmed physically; listen to me and ask questions; other than that, use your imagination
  • Once the kids have the basics, I rarely step into the bubble they have with the horse. I teach from a physical distance: normally, I’m working in a small arena anyway, so I’m never far away if I need to step in, but the horse has to see the person holding the rope as the leader and their partner, it’s disruptive for me to be too close.  So I lean on the fence and watch, sometimes not even saying much…
  • This is where it starts to sound a little hippy-ish to some: I’m not teaching the kids a physical skill, I’m teaching them to think. I go over the basics of biology and psychology – what horses do and why; how we impact upon that; how to observe the horse and look for the smallest of changes.  They learn how to set up their session and judge when they and the horse are ready for the next activity.  They have to be able to go it alone, I help them to arrive at the answer, rather than giving it to them…
  • I give them stuff they can do, then feed them the next thing they can do. The kids have to succeed, otherwise they lose motivation.  It’s also a way of giving the horse confidence, as they’re feeding off their human partner.  In addition, this is a way of controlling the situation and keeping it at a manageable pace for all of us
  • I don’t seek perfection. For me, there’s sometimes a bit of smoke and mirrors involved in teaching: I want my students to enjoy the experience and learn something new; I’m not an expert in this, I don’t feel qualified to tell them firmly that what they’re doing is absolutely wrong, so if the result is right and they’ve stuck to my rules, I’m not bothered if the journey wasn’t perfect.  It’s ego again – everyone needs to feel good about themselves

When I’d finished explaining, my colleague thought for a second before announcing that my strategy was “clever” and giving me a pat on the back.  I was flattered, of course.  I’m not sure for how much longer I’ll continue with exactly the same ideas, how long it’ll be before they grow and change, but for now I’ll take it, and be pleased with what I’ve done.  It’s a start, at least.


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