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.

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