Monday, November 29, 2010


In the other half of my life - the one where I make money to fund the furry money pit that makes up the horse half of my life... I work in the behavioral and social sciences and have recently been reviewing some work on communications. As I'd rather apply this research to something to benefit my riding, I've been thinking about communication between instructors and riders. In this "science" there is a lot of research about processes to be certain that experts understand what decision makers need and that decision makers understand what experts think they know. Enter the manipulation check (similar to reflective listening) - whereby the listener explains what they've heard the speaker say. This gives the original speaker the opportunity to correct inferences, assumptions, or understandings that might have been manipulated by the listener so that the original intent is not quite preserved. Kind of sounds like what should happen between an instructor and student, doesn't it? (cartoons by Custer Cassidy).

In 2000, I went on an amazing trip to Egypt with my Granny - who was one heck of an awesome traveling companion, until the pasteurized incident. Sitting in a cafe along the beautiful Red Sea, trying to order fruit smoothies with yogurt - my Granny asks the waiter, who speaks NO English, "is the yogurt pasteurized?" He looks at her. She says, louder and slower "PAS-TEUR-IZED" I try to interrupt, but again, even louder and slower... "PAAAASSSS-TEEEEUUURRR-IZED." oh boy. No matter how much louder or slower she was going to get - pasteurized wasn't suddenly going to appear in his lexicon. She was either going to have to use words they might have in common (milk, heat, kill bad things...), or resign to the fact that drink it or not - she was never going to know if the yogurt was pasteurized. So, what does this story have to do with horses? Because every time I hear a screaming instructor, getting louder and slower, I think of my pasteurized Granny! Screaming "ride better" louder and slower is not going to miraculously make me ride better!

A couple years ago, I was working with a dressage instructor who would scream at me - "right seat bone down!" And I would try and try - I would beat myself up during and after lessons, practically in tears - why was I such a failure for not being able to make this simple thing happen? In the midst of this, I read an article in the USDF magazine that said uneven seat bones are often the effect of one overactive (the raised seat bone) leg and one under active leg. Due to several horse-related injuries, my left side is weaker (and lazier). So the more I tried to force down my right seat bone, the higher it got, because in my fight to force it down, I was actually engaging it and making my already over-dominant right leg stronger. I figured out that when I heard "get your right seat bone down", if I would just relax my right leg and activate my left leg, the screaming stopped. This instructor was not wrong in what she saw - but she failed to communicate it to me in a way that facilitated understanding and improved my performance. And I was paying money for this. (Among other things) it was the start of the end of our instructor-student relationship.

After every speech (or lesson), we are taught to ask "any questions?". The answer is almost always "nope, I've got it." Yea, right. Ask them to explain to you exactly what they've learned in the lesson today, and I guarantee you'll find holes. I recently asked a student to relay something I thought ranked up there in difficulty with "what is your name?" But, the student had no answer. Whoa! Really? Seriously? Major communication breakdown! What I thought I'd said to her 100 times apparently didn't get through 100 times. Saying it a different way 1 time was all she needed. Sure am glad I asked that question - finally.

On Saturday, I spent the most wonderful day watching Silva Martin teach. Watching some of the upper level lessons was inspiring, and helped me focus in my own mind where Katchi is headed in his training (and me in my riding). But, I also had an incredible opportunity to watch Silva work with two of my students - Adrianne and Kerry. It was fascinating to hear how she corrected and explained the same things (I think) I've said, but in different words. For a German with an Australian accent - that girl communicates good!! I tell people that Jim Wofford has the most amazing communcation ability - he has a way of saying things so simply. Things you've spent months beating yourself up about suddenly click in your mind, and you start riding like you do in your dreams! And your horse says, geeze, what took you so long to figure that out? When you find an instructor that speaks your language - hold onto them!

And what about our horses? Isn't it the same thing with them? One day we're having a party because the little baby horse finally a managed (a terribly awkward 4 beat) canter! Then some other day down the road, you're asking for engagement from the inside hind, a relaxed topline, and soft connection! To them, you are the expert. Give them time to ask questions. Answer them thoughtfully and constructively. They will reward you 1000 times for it. Just as riding students do for their instructors.


  1. Excellent post! This made me think of a couple of my students who respond so much better to "toes up!" rather than "heels down!".

  2. Karen - EXACTLY! Glad you liked the post! You may have inspired a follow-up post "Communcation Too"! That will give me something to think about at work this week! :)

  3. I tried the "relax one leg and activate the other" (I am also right leg dominant) tonight and it really worked! AHAH! Thanks for that tip and for communicating it so clearly :))) Loved this post!