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Horses Made me a Better Teacher.

What do horses have to do with teaching?

A lot! I have learned SO much from my 60 years riding and working with horses that I have applied to my classroom.

In this picture I took a selfie of me and my best buddy. I got this horse when he was 6 years old and he had no training. He weighs about 1300 lbs., is very strong, and could squash me like a bug if he wanted to.

Fortunately he doesn't want to.

How did he and I become such solid partners?

Trust. I worked to gain his trust. I do my best to never lose that.

How does that apply to the classroom? While my students may not weigh 1300 lbs. I have worked with students that had guns (yes, unfortunately on them a few times), students that threatened me, and students that could harm me very easily.

What I learned from training horses (some of them completely wild and were roped and brought to me terrified) was how to develop and keep their trust.

Here are some concrete examples:

  1. Never back a horse or student into a corner, real or theoretical. I always give them an "out" option. (For a classroom example of this read Chapter 26: Don't Back Them into a Corner, in my book, Wait, Don't Quit). A horse backed into a tight situation will first try to run and that might be over the top of you or strike out or bite if running is not an option.

  2. Come bearing gifts. With a horse this might be a treat or a rub. For a student this might be sincere praise, bonus points, a choice of seating for respectful behavior, etc.

  3. Be clear with what you are asking. I do not want to confuse the horse or the student so I ensure that I am asking for something in a way that the horse or human understands.

  4. Be consistent with your rewards and consequences. I make sure that the rewards are frequent and the corrective consequences are brief, clear and fair. If there is confusion, I stop, find a way to make the situation clearer and try again.

  5. Do not rush training or go too slowly. I go at the pace that the particular individual can handle and build on previous skills learned. In the world of human education I am scaffolding. This is easier with one horse or student at a time but can be accomplished successfully with a large class through peer tutoring, team work, work at home and by developing curriculum that has multiple options for different skill levels.

  6. Allow "sink" time. This means that when a new behavior has just been learned I stop and let the horse's brain process that new learning before asking for something else. This is necessary for humans as well. This means a true full stop. With a horse this might mean a pause for at full minute. With students this could be a stop for a quick-write about the newly learned information or a partner-share.

  7. Balance the right amount of pressure. If you put too much pressure on a horse, they are so big it is obvious. They will raise their head and their tail, their eyes will widen and their nostrils will flare. If you are on their back they might tense up and go faster. This is a huge cue to the trainer to take the pressure off. Slow down, let the horse breathe (they will eventually let out a long exhale), and help them relax by slowing down your breathing. For students in the classroom, their stress and tension will show up in a variety of ways: acting out, complaining, refusing to do an assignment, etc.. Conversely, if there is too little pressure with a horse they won't pay attention, might wander off, or get distracted. That is pretty similar to a human student!!

  8. Connect before you direct. Before I ask a horse or human for anything, I give them eye contact, speak to them and make sure they are "with" me.

Final Thought: We can learn a lot about how to teach well from our animals. With a horse, they are so big that if we don't pay close attention we will get hurt. Should be safer with our students but gaining and keeping their trust and being fair and consistent is key.

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