from saddle to school: what riding reveals about teaching

I have had the soul-joy lately of reconnecting with my heart’s deepest passion: horses. For as long as I could remember, the mere glimpse of a horse brought my soul to its knees…a kind of divine whisper. Thanks to a God-placed friend, I have been partially leasing a tall and regal Saddlebred named Bruno. After I spend some time brushing the matted dirt out of his pinto coat, I lead him into the arena for some lunging and riding. For the first few times, I also received some training on how to best communicate with him; his owner, Nicole, would give me feedback as to how I was using my voice, my legs, my hands, and my seat. Every time I feel his nose at the end of the lunge line or his muscular back beneath me, or hear Nicole’s suggestions, I cannot help but think of teaching since the echoes resonate loudly between riding horses and teaching students. Here are those echoes.

  • Build the relationship. 

With Bruno, there was much time in the beginning of our riding dedicated to getting to know one another. How does he respond to the bit? How will I move in my seat? How will he tell me he’s confused? How will I ask for more, or less? What are the cues that work? What’s his favorite treat? How much do I like horse-snuggles? These questions and their answers are the foundation to how our time together will go. There can be no riding without relationship.

And so it goes with students. The foundation of my classroom must be asking and answering questions that build relationship. What are the students’ learning styles? What is my teaching approach? How will they tell me they’re confused? How will I ask for more, or less? What are the cues that work? There can be no learning without relationship.

  • Always know where you’re going.

With Bruno, what is in my head guides my body, and what guides my body guides the horse. It is subtle and nuanced. If I am planning on going left, I will think left. My hips and shoulders will shift. As will his feet and nose. If I am planning on cantering, I will think speed. My seat will change and my grip on the reins will shorten. And his feet will fly. However, if I am not thinking about where I’m going next, or if I’m not thinking, or if I’m thinking about something else, Bruno will walk right out of the arena towards the hay supply. There can be no riding without mindfulness and intention.

And so it goes with students. What is in my head guides my presence, and my presence guides the learning trajectory. It is subtle and nuanced. If I am planning on rigorous writing tasks that prepare my students for college, I will craft high-level prompts and writing instruction to support that. And the students will rise to meet that challenge. If I am planning on critical and analytical thinking, I will create a classroom filled with questions with no answers, or many answers. And the students will open their minds into greater cognitive capacities. However, if I am not thinking about the end goal, or if I’m not thinking, or if I’m thinking about something else, the students’ minds will walk right out towards the hay of distraction: side conversations, defiance, mere compliance, and/or average work. There can be no learning without a teacher’s mindfulness and intention.

  • Cue with the least amount of force.

I have learned with Bruno to ask with the least amount of force as possible. First voice. Then seat. Then legs. Then reins. Then crop. If I rely heavily on the reins, he will eventually ignore the reins (not to mention the seat and my voice). The more aggressive I am, the less sensitive he becomes. This goes back to the relationship. If he knows my voice, and he knows my seat, he is more likely to respond to those cues consistently–and willingly. Of course, this gentle cuing would not be possible were it not for the hours and hours of training Nicole has given Bruno: teaching him what she wanted, how to meet those expectations, and what the cues are for those intended outcomes.

And so it goes with students. Students must be given opportunities to respond with the least amount of “force” as possible. In the classroom, I cannot rely more on consequences than clear expectations and strong relationship. The more aggressive I am, the less sensitive the students become. The more I say “no,” the less weight that “no” carries. In the classroom, I cannot spend more time correcting a student on their misbehavior than I do training them on correct behavior. I need to invest time early on and consistently throughout the year explicitly teaching students what I want, how to meet those expectations, and what my cues are to remind them of those desired outcomes.

  • The horse’s choices are in direct correlation to my choices.

Bruno wants to please me. He wants to do his best. He wants to shine. Often, when he is not, it is not because of anything he is doing wrong, but rather because of my poor communication. The direction he turns, the speed he goes, the way he holds his head ultimately is not about him…it is about me and how I am riding.

And so it goes with students. Students want to please their teachers. They want to do their best. They want to shine. And when they are not, it reflects on what I’m doing as a teacher…or not doing. How students engage, or disengage, with the learning is correlated to how I craft the teaching.

As I sit in the saddle, I am overwhelmed by the responsibilities riding on my shoulders (pun intended). But, ultimately, I am also overwhelmed by the joy the relationship with him brings me. There is no greater feeling than being in sync with a glorious horse beneath me.

And so it goes with students. As I stand in my classroom, I am overwhelmed by the responsibilities riding on my shoulders. But, ultimately, I am also overwhelmed by the joy the relationships with students brings me. There is no greater feeling that being in sync with glorious students learning because of me.


towards peace



1000 silent sobs reverberate within those 4 letters. One word carries with it the sound of home.

In the safe echo of my sister’s pet greeting, I unraveled.

As I reflect, I realize I have been unraveling for a while. I just didn’t bother stopping–or stopping long enough–to pay attention to it. But as I confessed to my sister–the remnant of home–that I was feeling depressed, a moon’s tide was released.

Waves of grief washed over me. I miss my Mom. I miss my Dad. I witness them everywhere. In my dreams, on my commute, in my laughter, in the stories around me.

1374253_10151934452287813_971881631_nAnd yet it intertwines

forever, I perceive, your life and mine.

From time to time, a heart-shaped leaf will turn

yellow and fall–in falling a leaf torn

out of your life again,

the story I must constantly revive.

from “Dead Letters” by Mary Jo Salter

Winds of a hectic schedule pulled me under. I am overwhelmed with the honor and responsibility of being a “light worker” at school. Trying to provide for both students and staff leaves me wonderfully depleted, but depleted nonetheless. Striving to be a force for positive adult culture is a constant shift of mindset.

The current of change tugged at me. I miss tacos. And easy food that someone else prepares and cleans up. This cleanse business has been so good, but it is a new expenditure of energy with which I am not familiar nor comfortable. It is exhausting to be so healthy!

The sand shifted beneath me. I am getting regular chiropractic and massage treatments to heal after the accident. My body just feels worn down and not up to par with healing itself while simultaneously living.

Foamy sea salt stung my eyes. Dave and I have been off, trying to figure out our re-choreographed dance as he settles into a new, demanding role at work. We have sore toes and heavy smiles from not getting the steps right.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

And in the end, I come back to the notion once again of self-care. When was the last time I went to yoga? When was the last time I opened my Bible and read and prayed? When was the last time I paused long enough to be honest and raw with myself?

At the heart of the matter is that I think I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. Rather than being my own merciless taskmaster ever striving towards the illusive ideal of effective, I need to let go, to surrender, to breath, to error, to say no. In my activist’s frenzy, I have been violent to myself. And this is moon’s pull.

Tried and True Teaching Tools

writing into meaning


"To sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth."

Escaping Bars

Writings on Love, Pain, Overcoming, Hope, Longing, Justice, and Injustice

Strength \ Vision \ Service \ Exploration

A Tree On Fire With Love

But it's still scary sometimes because most people think love only looks like one thing, instead of the whole world

teaching With "Ang-sigh-eh-tea"

The life of a teacher who struggles with anxiety and depression.

Sampa Sympatico

A Yankee Teacher's Experience of Sao Paulo, Brazil

Once Upon a Time in México

Living my dream of teaching, traveling, and discovering culture

Teach. Travel. Taste.

A peek into the life of an American teacher in Colombia


Adventures in Globetrotting

Nomad Notions

Tales of Expat Living, Teaching, and Tramping in Taiwan and Beyond.

Sojourners' Journal

“Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people." —Albert Einstein

Pacific East by Middle East by Midwest

Observations and Experiences of Bahrain and Japan

Ex(pat) and the City

The life of a twenty-something Canadian living & teaching in Korea.

ISR Discussion Boards

ISR Discussion Boards are open to site Members & visitors alike. Your Voice Counts!

Teaching & Traveling

The Life of An International Teacher




Teaching in Brooklyn in Spite of Everything

Actively Dying

by Peter Fall Ranger


by Aleya Kassam

Words Half Heard

writing into meaning


A snapshot of my journey to living each day with gratitude and striving to be full of greatness


"I'm too old to live my life in fear of dumb people." - Charlie Skinner, The Newsroom

Cultivate Clarity

creative writing and mindfulness-based coaching, workshops, and retreats

Crawling Out of the Classroom

In everything that my students and I do together, we strive to find ways to use reading and writing to make the world outside of our classroom a better place for all of us to be


writing into meaning

Chase Mielke

Author. Speaker. Well-Being Expert.


Taking the journey, bumps and all

jenny's lark

the beauty of an ordinary life

Nonlinear Compilations

Parenting, teaching, writing, and learning to find beauty in the present

talk from chalk

What I've learned while teaching

Thoughtful teaching

Thoughts on teaching in the modern world.

Hope, Honor, and Happiness

A blog for the book “Kingdom of the Sun” and discussions on finding the Hope, Honor, and Happiness in education, life, and the seemingly impossible.

Secret Teacher

Life inside the primary classroom

A Confederacy of Spinsters

Sex, Dating, and Surviving Your Twenties

Miss Four Eyes

Seeing twice as much absolutely counts as a super power.


writing into meaning

Love, laugh, be light

"Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul." ― Walt Whitman