Writing the Letter ‘A’

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I had a pretty interesting lesson with my student last week. J is making great progress lately. She’s clicking well with Laredo, and also she’s now been riding with me long enough that at least a percentage of what we do has become habitual. This means we’re able to leave some of the basics and work on some new things lately.

Last week, I decided to reintroduce working a horse in a circle on the ground. I had tried this with J quite some time ago, but it had not gone well. I’d put it aside and focused instead on just teaching J to ask for the front and hind separately, back the horse out of her space, and (of course) lead with quality. Those things were challenge enough to start with.

But I thought we were ready to move back to circles, so I did my demonstration. With Steen standing in front of me, I held my get-down in my hand and pointed. He stepped over and away from me, to begin to walk around me in a circle. After a full rotation or so, I changed hands with the rope and asked him to change direction. He complied, went another half circle or so, and I asked him to stop and face me. Which he did. Of course, I explained what was going on and what I was doing throughout the demonstration. “Now you try,” I said.

Ten minutes later, I was in the midst of marveling at how something that seems so simple can be so hard to teach. Here are the things J was doing that were getting in the way:

  • moving herself instead of the horse to prepare for asking for the circle
  • stepping backwards when the horse came too close
  • not giving the horse time to go before she resorted to driving
  • continuing to point even once the horse had moved off
  • driving the horse even when he was going
  • sometimes driving without pointing

J was working with Laredo, who is pretty resilient as far as these things go, but what was getting to him was the way she kept pointing and driving even when he was in the circle. Seeing him start to get a little bothered by this brought to mind something Martin Black talked about during his clinic, about writing the letter A. To paraphrase, he said something like this:

“What would you do if someone gave you a pen and paper and told you to write the letter A? You’d write an A. But what if halfway through you writing the A, the  person said again, “Write the letter A.” You might write another A, or you might try a lower case A. But if you were in the middle of doing that, and the person said again, “Write the letter A,” and just kept saying that no matter how many A’s you wrote or how you wrote them, you’d get confused. You thought you were doing what you were asked to do, but you just kept getting the same instructions whether or not you complied. Inevitably, the command “Write the letter A” is going to cease to mean anything after a while. This is what people do to their horses.”

One thing I notice a lot with people who are less confident when moving a horse is they are a tad tentative in their body language. What would happen with Laredo is J would point, but she’d be a little hesitant. He’d look at her, working on it, trying to figure out if she really meant ‘go’ or not. Then she’d decide he wasn’t trying, and come in and drive him. He’d go (sometimes a little offended), and then she’d just keep driving him even when he was going.

This continued to happen even after I explained the problems in what J was doing. This is the other interesting thing about teaching. There is helping your student understand, and then there is helping your student succeed. I have discovered that J understands most of what I tell her perfectly well, but that doesn’t mean doing it is easy. If I set J onto a task that is too complex, she can get a little lost. She’ll focus on certain aspects and forget others.

So, I worked on breaking the exercise into more manageable pieces. The first thing we worked on was giving Laredo some time. I told J to point, and wait. Not to do anything else. I had to literally say, “Wait. Wait. Wait,” at first. But then, she pointed and waited. Laredo looked at her. She kept pointing. He went. Yay! Then, later, we worked on seeing the difference between when a horse is with you and trying (even if he is stuck or uncertain) and when he’s just checked out or off somewhere else mentally.

Of course, getting a good circle was still a ways off, but what started as a bit of a train wreck eventually formed into acceptable groundwork. After the lesson, J told me that this part of the lesson had blown her mind — the waiting on the horse in particular was something she’d never heard before, and the concept of giving the horse a job (walk around me in a circle) and leaving it up to him to get it done was also really transformative for her. I know I’d mentioned both of these things before, but I’d never managed a definitive demonstration of why they matter.

So, teaching continues to be both challenging and rewarding. It’s easy, when you’re doing this stuff, to forget how different it is. J is someone who grew up on a working ranch and has ridden her whole life. Yet, nearly every lesson she says to me, “Why hasn’t anyone ever told me this before?” Sometimes I feel like a bit of an impostor, since goodness knows I am still well on the student end of the spectrum as far as horsemanship goes. But on the other hand, there is no one else J has access to who does what we (try to) do. It seems to me even just getting a couple people turned on to this way of thinking is a good thing.

Plus, the lessons give Steen and Laredo something to gossip about:

Horseback Hours YTD: 96:50

Woh! Hey, look at you reading this entire post!

That's a bit of an accomplishment in our attention-deficient age. Kinda makes me wonder if you like to read things that are even longer than blog posts? Like ... books?

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~The South Dakota Cowgirl~EricaRobin Recent comment authors
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Teaching is a lot harder than most people think. I run into the problem of trying to explain things that are instinctive to me (and that I didn't struggle to learn) to students who just don't get it all the time. That's actually what I spend most of my time doing, come to think of it. It's definitely a challenge, and what makes teaching both fascinating and frustrating. I do find that the techniques that work for teaching horses are pretty useful when teaching people too. 🙂

~The South Dakota Cowgirl~

The better you get at something, the easier it becomes to teach, too. With our internship program here, we usually start with groundwork. We've not struggled at teaching that, because it's something that's so second nature to us now, we have a zillion ways to explain it, and it probably helps that we 25+ horses to use for the kids as well. I noticed this summer with our ranch intern, that it's taken me about 5 minutes to help her, as well as my 13yo niece, who is starting her first colt this summer. They can see the little tries… Read more »


"The better you get at something, the easier it becomes to teach" Interesting, I've found the exact opposite to be true. The better I am at something, (the longer I've done it or deeper my knowledge) the harder I find teaching it to a novice. I find it really hard to simplify things to a level that manageable for someone who doesn't have the same depth of understanding I do. The main thing I've found that makes teaching easier is, well, teaching. The more you teach, the more you start learning where the gaps in knowledge tend to be, and… Read more »