What makes a great teacher?
At a young age, I was fortunate enough to have a few great teachers. Some were great because they were knowledgeable and they could clearly explain their theory to a novice rider. Others were great riders, who had poor explanations that as a novice rider I could not comprehend. My family has owned a stable since I was very young, and when I graduated high school, my trainer left, and I had big shoes to fill. I will admit now, I was in way over my head. Over the past eleven years of teaching, I have learned a great deal through seeking the guidance of others and learning from mistakes. So now, I think what is it that makes a great teacher? I may not share the same philosophy as everyone, but through trial and error this is mine.
A great teacher inspires others. Like the old saying, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” As a teacher, the goal is to get people to think for themselves. Luckily, most of the people I teach are very passionate, sometimes they don't know it, but they are. They love horses and riding, that is why they are here. That is the beauty of the job, I am not teaching something that people have to show up for, they choose to be here. So what now? A teacher should give you tools and inspire you. A truly great teacher, teaches their students to be better than them. Everyday, I encounter the hard workers, the talented, and the few who just really want to be a part of it. And the reality is, all of them are capable of being great if they work at it.
I believe a great teacher must do the following things:
1. Explain things in a way that make sense to the individual
2. Train students to think for themselves
3. Instill passion and encourage students through moments of weakness
4. Keep students grounded in moments of success
5. Hope that one day, your students surpass you
1. Explain things in a way that makes sense to the individual
I have been lucky enough to have a few great trainers in my past. What I have failed to mention thus far, is that some of the trainers who have taught me the most, were not the best of riders or the most knowledgeable. And I have been taught by some of the best riders who could not explain things to me in a way I could comprehend. Some inspired me, others gave me tools and knowledge, and sometimes it was just time in the saddle that I needed. A great deal of riding well has to do with feeling and connecting with your horse.
I find the most difficult thing to teach a student is contact. Not pulling, not letting go, an elasticity and connection to the animal. As a teacher, you must connect with the rider and teach them to connect with their horse. I teach exercises that try to develop the feeling. Often times, I bring them into the middle and use my hands to teach them the feeling. I try many different approaches and exercises with the same objective because people learn in different ways. I give them simple exercises to practice on their own to try to help them develop the feel. Riding well, is not something that comes overnight; it requires a great amount of patience and practice. We come back every few days and discuss issues and work through it. Through this, I learn more about them as riders and can help them work through their issues. A great deal of riding is self-teaching. I give you the tools you need and make corrections along the way, but it is on the rider to do so. There must be an open ongoing discussion between rider and trainer in order to continue with positive results.
2. Train students to think for themselves
When students walk into the show ring, I don't want my students to rely on me. I want them to trust in what they know. Together, we develop a plan and go over areas that may be difficult. Before they enter the ring, we go over the plan in it's entirety. I make sure they are prepared. Overtime, the goal is for them to need me less and less. I want them to use me for guidance, not as a crutch.
I often ask students what was their exact plan going into an exercise and what do they feel they need to improve upon. It is important that they have an opinion about how they did and how to change the outcome of an exercise. If I over teach them, then I teach them to rely on me. We go through the exercises together, I ask them first what they thought before I give them my thoughts. It is important that they are thinking for themselves, and can plan and make adjustments.
I repeat myself a lot at work and recently I was told I have a mantra. I always tell my students to have a plan which sounds so simple but sometimes very difficult to accomplish. This is something I say constantly, and it is of the upmost importance, not just for riding but everything. Often times, things do not go according to plan. But if you have a good plan, then a misstep or moment of confusion is less dire.
For example, distance is something many riders struggle with. If I have good rhythm and the right track to the fence, I really cannot be that wrong. After all, it is a simple math problem. If my horse’s stride is twelve feet, then at the very worst I can be six feet off. Given, if I see my distance three strides out, I only need to condense my stride by two feet if I see the worst distance possible. My mind works in numbers. Often I see students change rhythms off the turn, sometimes more than fifteen strides out. If you take away from the rhythm that far out, you have changed the distance more than necessary and minimized the pace which makes the jump more difficult. At this point, you have also changed the horse’s balance, which in most instances is the most concerning. If you pull a horse hard the last few strides without balancing with leg, you have hollowed out your horse’s back and taken away from the stride making it much more difficult for the horse to jump the fence. Over time, I have learned to sit still when I do not see something and trust that it will come. This was very difficult and counterintuitive, but overtime and through practice I understood it.
I want my students to come to me for guidance; I do not want them to rely on me. Eventually, I want them to trust in themselves and what they know. Riders need to be able to act on a whim and a feeling. I want them to have opinions; I want them to try different things, because in the big picture of riding this is how we learn.
3. Instill passion and encourage students through moments of weakness
Every rider has had that moment where they feel like they cannot get passed it. “I can't”, they exclaim. My students will tell you they are not allowed to utter those words. I can't means I gave up. As riders, we all have those days, where our horse let us down, or we let ourselves down. A good teacher, reminds you of the big picture. Those days happen to all of us and eventually make us stronger. It might not happen immediately, but we dust ourselves off and we work through it. My last blog was about my worst fall, it was the biggest moment of weakness I have had thus far, and eventually I overcame it. I did not do it alone; great riders and people who support me reminded me that I was capable. As a teacher you must support your students.
Back in 2012 one of my students was accepted into EAP Nationals. Two months before competing, he suffered a concussion and was unable to ride in the weeks leading up to it. He was very capable but in the moment, he had self-doubt. I went and supported him, and he rode great. Although he did not win, the clinician later reached out to him to recognize his achievements.
Walking into EAP Nationals without practice, he put his game face on and worked through difficult moments with an unknown horse. I came to watch him on the last day, he smirked at me when I walked in and continued on his course. As his trainer, this was one of the greatest moments. He did not win, but with all of the setbacks leading up to the event he was still a contender. I was overwhelmed with how he handled himself. I didn't need to say anything I became a spectator, and it was a wonderful feeling. I was there and he recognized it, but he did not need me. It was everything I hope for in my students.
4. Keep student’s grounded in moment of success
I don't know that I have felt this personally. But I will go to a moment that rings truest to me. I was sitting at a restaurant in Kentucky with one of the most winning hunter riders in the country and another young professional. He had just won his first $50,000 class, and was living in all of his glory. And she took her moment and without belittling him told him he needed to be humble because it can all go away as quickly as it comes. It took me a moment to realize someone as accomplished as one of the best hunter riders in the country, telling someone to be humble. But after millions of dollars of wins, she is still humble.
I teach little kids who think they are great, because they don’t understand what truly being great in this sport is. Seeing it on a higher level gave me an entirely different perspective. When you get to that high of a level and still stay grounded sheds light on how hard everyone else needs to work. I tell my students this story, in hopes they see it how I do. It is a noteworthy quote, “As quickly as you can rise to the top, you can fall to the bottom.”
5. Hope that one day, your students surpass you.
I am sad to say, that some trainers do not feel this way. If you need them, you employ them, and you keep the cycle going. For me, if I can enable someone to surpass me, I have succeeded in the best way. Years ago, I started a student who was scared to jump. She moved on and is now touring Internationally and riding with an Olympian. At sixteen she has surpassed the level I compete at now. Does this upset me? Absolutely not, I was apart of the process. It is a beautiful thing. To help others grow and be part of something I love is why I started doing this in the first place.
If your students outgrow you, then you have done well. Sure, I understand the other side; it is financially straining to loose a good client. But only for a short while, others will come who need your guidance. For me, it helps me always strive to be better and to want more. Everyday, I push myself to be better than the last. I want my students to succeed and flourish, and I want the same for myself. In some ways, my students have taught me more than my trainers ever have.
Teaching is a gift. It is a talent. But just like riding, you must constantly work at improving your plan and your knowledge. You must be able to describe and relate. You must be able instill confidence in each individual, to trust their judgment and ability. You must teach them to trust you through moments of weakness and to believe in the process. Through moments of success they must know to be humble. And if you are truly a great teacher, you must know when to let them go. If your student surpasses you, you have not failed; in fact you have had the ultimate success.