Last week, I visited the Horse World Expo, a local event that pulls in equine professionals from around the country. As I sat outside the various arenas listening and watching the different trainers, clinicians, and speakers teach riding and training exercises and horsemanship theories, I thought about the benefits of learning from different teachers, but also the difficulty in making sense of what can seem like conflicting messages.
Horse people, especially professionals, have a reputation for strong opinions and a “my way is best” attitude. Collaboration for open minded learning and growth can be rare. As a student, this can make learning more difficult as we try to reconcile the different messages we are taught.
One instructor says to keep the heel low, another to focus on pressure at the ball of the foot. One trainer advocates using phases of pressure, and another to focus on how that pressure is started. One talks about speaking the language of the horse and another on helping the horse understand the language of humans.
Are these conflicting messages or is there perhaps something important we can pull from each?
We can learn from anyone, if we keep an open mind and recognize that every different trainer or riding instructor is bringing a unique set of strengths, skills, knowledge, and life experience.
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Instead of passing judgements on the right or the wrong way to do something, instead we should look for what we can gain from a different point of view.
To learn effectively from different teachers, we need to also become a better student. We can do this by becoming careful observers to learn and find meaning even beyond an instructor’s words and explanations. We also need to be willing to re-examine our current beliefs when they are challenged and be an active participant in our learning.
How We Benefit in Learning From Many Teachers
Each person, including your trainer or instructor, is a melting pot of what they’ve been taught, what they’ve experienced, and how they use their knowledge and skills based on their own strengths.
There are both advantages and challenges to learning from different teachers, but here are three benefits to getting a varied education in horsemanship.
- Learn from Other’s Experiences
Unique learning opportunities and life experiences allow each person to put their own personal twist on a similar idea.
For example, if we were to discuss the best way to lead a horse, we would get different answers if talking to a breeder who works with mares and foals, an instructor at a large lesson barn, or a groom working on a racetrack.
But each of these responses could be valuable if we consider the context and then select what works best in our own situation.
- Gain New Insight on What You Already Know
Have you ever experienced a moment of insight when a new teacher said something that just clicks? It can be the language they used to describe that feeling you should have in your body at the canter, or a metaphor they shared, such as “think of a little string pulling you upward from your helmet to sit taller”, or even the way they asked you to pick up the canter that just finally made sense!
You know it’s the same thing you’ve been told a hundred times before, but this person – whether in a lesson, a demonstration, a lecture, video, or book, finally said it in a way that made sense to you!
Each teacher has unique ways of using language and describing ideas or movements. It often takes hearing something many times before it “clicks” and finally makes sense.
- Learn in a Way that Works for You
There are four main learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/ writing. Applied to riding and horsemanship, visual learning is learning through watching or looking at pictures. Auditory learning is from listening to someone, how we are often taught in riding lessons. Kinesthetic learning is doing and feeling – the kind of learning that takes place as you try out a new exercise or experience the moment of insight when an instructor moves your leg or hand into a new position. Learning by reading or writing is accomplished through reading books or articles, taking notes, and writing thoughts or insights in a journal.
We often have a preference for one style of learning, but will still learn most effectively when all four are used.
So here is another reason why learning from different teachers is beneficial. Just as students have learning styles, each instructor will have their strengths in teaching.
One instructor may be excellent at explaining the feelings of sitting in the saddle and riding movements correctly, while another may have a talent for creating exercises to help the student feel what they need to learn. Yet another teacher may be a gifted writer, able to describe clearly on paper what they struggle to convey in a lecture or lesson.
Beware: Too Much Information Too Soon = Confusion
We just discussed several benefits of working with different teachers, but there are drawbacks as well.
Hearing too many different theories and opinions before gaining a solid understanding of the basics can cause a lot of confusion, and even more importantly, if we don’t have enough base knowledge in a subject we won’t be able to detect the differences between good information and well, stuff that’s just not true.
I feel it is important for every rider to have a working knowledge in the science of horsemanship, meaning the facts that have been generally accepted by the scientific community.
Understand topics such as how horses learn, how they behave socially with other horses, what their behaviors mean (and don’t mean), and basic anatomy of horse and human.
Armed with this base knowledge, you can be what my friend and mentor Angelo Telatin calls a “conscious horseman” – able to understand the base principles of training and riding to discern good information from bad.
From here you can even look past a person’s words and still benefit from their unique art of riding or working with a horse, without needing to agree with everything they say.
Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of learning from different sources and the importance of base knowledge to detect the quality of what you’re being taught, let’s talk about how you can be a better student.
How to Be a Better Student
I have several tips for you on how to get the most from learning opportunities with different teachers, but first there are two thoughts you need to be careful not to say to yourself in the spirit of keeping an open mind for learning.
The first is “I already know this.”
Even when you do know a concept or an exercise there is always a deeper level of understanding to be attained. What is the person saying that you may have missed previously? What is new in this person’s message that you haven’t heard before?
The second is “I disagree.”
It’s fine to debate and argue. In fact, it is important to have our ideas challenged and to challenge the ideas of others. However, you must first make sure that you truly heard and understood what the other person said.
Before disagreeing ask questions to clarify. Also, continue to watch what the instructor does, not just what they say. If you hear a statement you don’t agree with and quickly dismiss the teacher, you may miss the underlying meaning or you won’t have the benefit of watching what they do, which may be different than what they are describing – not good on the part of the teacher, but still a potential learning opportunity for you.
Now that you know what to watch out for in your own thoughts, let’s take a look at a few more tips.
- Look deeper than the words
We all use different language to describe our thoughts, and sometimes we use different words or expressions but we mean the same thing.
As a teacher, I do believe that word choice matters, but you don’t want to pass up a learning opportunity simply because someone used a word that has a particular meaning or negative connotation for you.
- Remember each person has their own expertise
We don’t need to learn everything from one person. Each trainer or instructor has their strengths and expertise, so learn what you can from each. For example, one instructor may be great at teaching riding skills, but you may not agree with their training philosophy. That’s ok – learn what you can and be grateful for what they’ve given you.
- Be willing to second guess your own long standing beliefs
The longer we think something is true the more difficult it is to let go. But we can only make space for new ideas by being willing to challenge our current beliefs.
- Be an active student – how can you make this teacher’s message make sense to you?
Earlier in this article we talked about learning styles and how we often have an individual preference for learning a certain way.
If you are working with an instructor and they are teaching in a way that isn’t making sense to you, ask for the information in a different way. Say, “could I watch you so I can visualize what to do?” Or “could you move my leg exactly where you want it so I can feel the position?”
By simply asking for clarification or help understanding you can make progress more quickly which will make both you and your instructor happier!
Another way to be an active student is to take notes. Even if information from different instructors isn’t making sense to you right now, make notes on what they said or did. Write down your questions or uncertainties too. You may find that clarity on the information will come later.
I love collaboration and believe that working with and drawing on the knowledge of others is what moves us forward.
The problems and challenges we face are not unique. Someone has faced them before and likely found a solution.
By learning from different people, we can help ourselves work through challenges more quickly and avoid the pitfalls experienced by others.
[Tweet “Helen Keller said it best, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.””]
Now I want to hear from you. How have you learned from multiple teachers? What were the benefits of experiencing different teaching styles and points of view?
See you in the comments,