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I had my first horseback riding lesson today.  I learned a valuable lesson without ever touching a saddle.  Even though the whole week has been sunny and warm, I got to do my lesson while threats of rain darkened the sky and the temperatures dropped to a chilly, damp 50 degrees. But I was excited to learn.  I don’t have the natural instincts and passion for horses my daughter does, but I am enjoying this new opportunity.  Not just for the precious time it gives me with my daughter, but for the lessons it teaches.

I’ve gone on trail rides and helped to take care of my daughter’s horse for the past year, but I’m still as green as my newly budding trees and garden.  Part of my lesson felt much like a scene from Karate Kid as I practiced walking a horse, tying knots and grooming.  Certainly not the thrill of jumping on a horse and riding off into the sunset.  But to be honest, I was excited to learn these skills.  These are the foundational skills I need to be able to handle horses.  I know what a halter is and how to put it on.  Tying a slip knot so the horse cannot pull away but you can quick release it in an emergency is also an essential skill.  Until now I’ve watched my daughter do these things as if they were as natural as breathing.  For me, it is a little more like riding a bike.  Wobbly at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ve got it.

I also learned to walk a horse and correct it when it didn’t follow my directions.  Sounds easy right?  Well, let me ask you, how do you get a 1,000 pound animal to walk along with you and stop when you stop, without it understanding your language or using treats or gimmicks?  It turns out, it is a lot about being sure about what you want to do and taking a commanding presence.  You ask the horse and then apply or release pressure based on his response. When a horse will yield its back legs to you by walking in the direction you are asking, you are beginning to establish respect.  It’s only one small step in the trust that must be built between horse and rider, but it’s a start.

One of the things I got to watch in my lesson was a trust exercise where the trainer works on guiding the horse around the arena until the horse basically gives in and is ready to respect the trainer.  Sometimes this process happens quickly, but other times it takes a while.  Patience and consistency is critical as you continue to build respect in the relationship.

Watching, learning and participating in these training exercises pushed me to reflect on how respect is built in the classroom.  Some teachers have a confidence and poise that is immediately felt by students.  They are often able to walk into a classroom and shift it in any direction they choose.  They respect their students and the power they have over whether or not they will engage and gain the students’ respect in return.  Even though they often make it seem easy, it is much like trying to move a 1,000 pound animal.  It works great if he cooperates, if he chooses not to, there’s trouble.  Most teachers new and veteran alike struggle at some point in their career with classroom management or a challenging student.  It is during these times it is important to remember respect can’t be taken, it must be given.

Here are a few things from my lesson that I think apply to gaining respect in the classroom:

  1. Ask, tell, command. So often we begin our interactions with students by commanding them to do something and correcting them without even giving them an opportunity to respond to our request.  With horses, you ask first.  If they don’t respond, you increase the pressure.  How are you asking your students?  Are you giving them an opportunity to respond before you apply pressure?  Do they understand what you are asking or do you have additional training to do before you can ask?

  2. Approach slowly from the side. Horses can’t see directly in front of them or behind them and can be spooked by quick sudden movements.  Students also benefit from being approached from the side.  Working elbow to elbow with a student often works better than confronting them from the front or yelling at them from behind.

  3. Grooming takes time but is essential. Grooming a horse takes time, but not only does it let you get to know every inch of the horse, it lets him know what to expect of you too.  The same is true for working with students.  They need teachers to spend time with them one-on-one and in small groups away from the regular instruction where the teacher is just focused on getting to know them and responding to their needs.

  4. Know what you want and where you are going. It is easier to lead a horse if you are intentional about where you are asking it to go.  The same is true for teaching.  If you don’t know where you are going, it’s difficult for students to follow you there.

  5. Practice makes permanent. What you practice is what sticks, so errors need to be corrected quickly.  Students often spend a lot of time practicing with little to no feedback.  It can sometimes be more difficult to help them unlearn, than to make sure they get feedback as they are practicing.

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