Monday, July 26, 2010

Teaching: The Art of Allowing Failure

Horses are some of the best teachers. They seem to have an innate ability to understand what it takes to learn.

Way back when, I had a teacher (of the human persuasion) who was enamored of that well know, oft used phrase attributed to Vince Lombardi: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."

Wow. I challenge you to think of a better way to discourage anyone from trying to improve. He certainly scared the desire right out of me at the time.

When I defied his particular lack of inspiration and became a teacher I noticed a couple of things right off the bat (pardon the almost-pun). One, people learn when they're actually ready for the information, and two, I learned more from my students than they did from me--neither are unusual epiphanies.

Then one day I noticed something else. My students' horses consistently provided the lesson plan. Not only did each horse perform to the exact level of the rider, but they did exactly the things wrong that were my students key issues. Bless their hearts, they were showing me what needed to be taught.

But could I teach it? Sure I could talk my students through the steps to correct the problems, but that's not teaching. The real question was, could I impart an understanding of the process well enough for them to handle it on their own when they practiced between lessons?

And right about here is where that old saying falls flat on its pompous tutu.

Pretending to be perfect, so one can practice perfect generally ends up with the grand delusion disintegrating into a million depressing pieces. One needs to know as clearly as possible what the goal is, sure, but to get there one must seek out the problems and be determined to fail as many times as it takes in order to get it right. When I see a student let go of their insistence to avoid failure and accept and embrace that fact, progress follows. Always. And each time I've seen one of my students make a little progress I've seen their horses respond precisely to that improvement, even when it's serendipitous. Their consistent, accurate feedback makes horses wonderful teachers. And there's rarely one that won't generously allow his rider to make mistakes over and over in their quest to get it right. My job, as the human side of the teaching team, is to prevent mistakes from being too grievous and set up the goals. Then I must make sure my student understands it's okay to try and fail repeatedly. If I can do that, the horse can do his job. And he will. Every time. No matter how long it takes.

It's unflagging patience, accurate feedback and forgiveness of failure that are qualities the best teachers share. Horses have it in spades.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Talking Horses

When my kids were toddlers they would go to the barn with me in the morning to feed the horses. My son (who is going to hate me for telling this story), although insisting on going, didn't like all the whinnying that greeted us despite my reassurances that it was happy noise. He'd cling to my leg and wail, "Mommy, horsies talk, horsies talk!"

Horses are chatty things. Bless their hearts, they don't seem to be without something to say--ever. Most of their language is body language, of course, but hey, most of ours is, too. Ninety-three percent of what we communicate is non-verbal (so I've heard). That should make it a slam-dunk to communicate with a horse, right?

Not exactly.

We don't speak the same body language, so we have to reach a compromise. That's what training is all about--teaching a language that is native to neither the horse or rider. When we ride we make use of our hands, legs, seat and voice--the natural aids--to mean specific things. Each of our aids has two functions; either work in harmony with the horse or step out of harmony. When we function in harmony with the horse we're like the "yes-man." When we use our aids out of harmony it's because something needs to be changed either by restraining or driving--our only two choices.

It seems so simple. Yet for an animal who can react when a fly lights on him, every breath the rider takes is capable of carrying meaning. That's why riding is hard. We can be communicating without even realizing it. And the horse will be commenting on what he thinks we're saying.

When they can't figure out what we want, they'll guess--some of them anyway. Others will tune us out, since it's obvious to them we have nothing important to say. Still others will overreact, bluster against us and argue.

Sounds like daily living with a completely human cast of characters, doesn't it? People and horses will tell us what they understand of the current situation by demonstrating it through their actions. Any way you cut it, it takes practice to communicate effectively.

Oh, and it doesn't bother my son anymore when horses whinny for their food. He can relate to their eagerness for a meal (and I'm going to hear about that comment, too!).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hey, Mom and Dad, Look at Me!

Every three or four months I ride my horse Eddie in a dressage clinic. I love it. We get cleaned up, dressed up, and chase improvement like it was a year-end award. Henrik Johansen, the clinician and the man whose picture is in the dictionary next to the word "patient," does his magic and viola! Eddie and I have refined our skills, and added to our knowledge. It's a great confidence boost to be challenged and at the same time make positive strides toward my goals. Except this time....

It was a breezeless, 90+ degree, July day. At 4 o'clock I was wringing wet and the lesson had just started. Ten minutes into our session Eddie was radiating heat like my husband's barbecue grill turned up to burn-the-gunk-off level. Even worse, instead of showing Henrik how much we'd improved, I showed him how really awful we could be. Eddie lugged on my hands and was dead to my aids. In essence, we were barely speaking.

I was not looking forward to the second day of the clinic. But lucky me, Henrik rode Eddie first. Good, I thought, he can fix my horse. Instead, he showed me how easy my horse was to ride. Hmm.... Okay. I needed to work harder. I could do that, even in the heat.

Apparently not.

I pondered this on the way home, which is to say I thought up all kinds of excuses why Eddie worked so well for Henrik and so poorly for me. Hey, I tried really really hard, and I toughed out the near-heat-stroke conditions. I deserved something for all my sweat, didn't I? Did Eddie just like Henrik better than me?
(Yes, I was feeling pretty darned sorry for myself) Then I looked at all the pictures my friend took. Eddie looked fairly decent when I was on him, but surely I looked better than that. Why did I look like a boneless bag of lumpy Jell-O? Appalled doesn't even begin to cover my reaction.

Further reflection had me wondering why the things Eddie and I did at home worked well, but fell apart at the clinic. I neatly ignored how well Eddie worked with Henrik and blamed the heat. Had to be the heat. We'd come far in the last four months, and I'd wanted to demonstrate it. I whined to my friend the picture-taker, fellow clinic-rider, and heat-sufferer. She shook her head.

"You were trying too hard to be perfect," she said.

Easy for her to say. Her rides were amazing. But she was right. I should have realized. And I should have listened to Eddie. He was doing exactly what I was telling him to do--all the disjointed, unbalanced stuff I was doing. I'd lost touch with him because I wanted to prove how good I was. I rode him differently than I did at home and lost the focused communication I usually shared with him. Then when things went badly, I just made them worse. I didn't stop to think, I just reacted.

Next time I'll pay closer attention to all the skills I skipped past while trying to prove how close to perfect I was, and less attention to trying to impress. I guess I learned something after all. I hope.

Monday, July 5, 2010

If It Wasn't For My Horse, I Wouldn't Have Understood Hegel

(Or, The Walk Can Fix The Canter)

One of the things I noticed early on in my riding career was that if I had problems getting the canter I magically knew it before hand at the walk. Using that ah-ha, I started paying more attention to my horse's walk asking myself, "if I want to canter right now, could I do it?" Through trail, error, and success I developed a feel for a walk that was sufficiently balanced for the horse to produce an obedient transition into canter. Problem I thought.

Then I started paying attention to the canter--mostly after seeing other people doing lovely canters on their horses and beating me at horse shows. With a better picture in my mind of what I was trying to achieve, I set to work to improve my horse's canter. This wasn't easy. Rocketing around the arena is not as conducive to thinking and analyzing as is the more sedate pace of the walk. Repeated efforts brought little improvement. Besides, it's freaking scary.

To preserve my life, I decided to shorten the duration of each foray into canter. Better--but not great. I shortened the duration further, with some slight improvement. Then I noticed the transition itself. If my horse tossed his head up for the transition, the canter and subsequent downward transition to walk was mediocre at best. Instead, if he raised his shoulders in the transition the canter was soft and lovely and the downward transition effortless. The solution was to have my horse raise his shoulders in the transition...but how could I make it consistent? I tried to keep his head down, hoping the shoulder would rise. Are you surprised things got worse? I didn't think so.

One day I happened to be reading a reference to a German philosopher by the name of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Besides being touted as the last man on earth to know everything (I seriously doubt that particular boast), and quoted as saying something like, the lesson of history is that man learns nothing from history (what a card), he (reportedly) said something I found useful. Paraphrased, for my use, it goes something like: You can't achieve a goal by doing the goal. I ruminated on this for a bit. Could it be I was trying to fix my horse's canter with the wrong approach? Next time I saddled up, I brought along my powers of observation. Within my fumbling around I noticed my horse's balance, straightness, and acknowledgement of each of my aids. When I addressed each of these items at the walk, and saw that my horse understood what I expected, the canter transformed.


Hegel was right. You CAN fix the canter by improving the walk.