Getting Students Over The Learning Hump

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If you are teaching riding at your farm or stable you will eventually have a student who quits progressing or just can't seem to get to that next level or master that next skill. It is up to you as the instructor to help the student overcome this problem (or set of problems) and continue advancing in their riding skills. Following are some insights to help you get that student back on track.

First try to determine what’s causing the problem. Is the student trying something that’s new and challenging? It can take a while to retrain the mind and body to adapt to the new activities. Moving up from hunters to jumpers, for instance, typically calls for faster physical and mental reaction times. The horse is likely to be an entirely different ride from what the student is used to. Then there’s the added complication of having to remember the course.

A hunter rider changing over to dressage might need a while to develop the core strength and muscle memory to adapt to a straighter, deeper seat. Then there is the coordination and mental focus of dressage—inside leg, outside rein, half-halt, outside seat bone all as the horse’s hind leg hits the ground. WHAT? Sometimes, simple reassurance that it takes time to adapt to new demands, and that everyone—even professionals—go through this periodically, is enough to help the student relax about the unaccustomed struggle and accept it as part of growth.

Personality

Consider the student’s personality. The super-driven, perfectionist student will learn differently, and experience different frustrations, than the more laid-back, relaxed student. You might need to adjust your teaching style accordingly.

Is the student an optimist or a pessimist? Stephanie McComiskey, who owns Shalimar Fields in Monroe, Connecticut, pays attention to this. “When a student gets into a rut, I ask myself whether it’s typical for them to be down or negative about themselves. If so, then I might try shaking things up a bit. I’ll also remind the student not to fall prey to his usual negative tendency. Or, I might just cheer him up a bit and remind him of all the good things he’s accomplished lately.

Positive thinking is a powerful tool when people start to get negative about themselves. So at this point, I’ll take a more empathic approach and remind students that learning is a process, and that plateaus are a normal stop-off along their road to advancement.”

Confidence

Ruts can sometimes result from a confidence problem. Leesa Martin, manager of Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Connecticut, is a life-long rider and teacher. “Taking the time to have a rider develop confidence can usually help them get out of a rut that might be deepening,” she said. “Sometimes this boils down to teaching the student simple skills and tools that they can use to improve their position or deal with behavioral issues. For instance, if the student is worried that the horse will take off, I tell her that she can always circle until she gets the horse back under control.

"I find that going back to the basics of flatwork and common sense serves the student well when they feel stuck," Martin continued. "If I have a rider who’s adding strides everywhere, I will set a gymnastic line that allows both horse and rider to regain the correct feel for the proper stride length. Once the rider is comfortable with that, I’ll add in single jumps around the ring and we’ll focus on maintaining the same pace and rhythm that we had in the gymnastic. If I have a rider who is bracing against her stirrups, I’ll take the stirrups away until her balance returns. These are the kinds of simple techniques that have served students well over the years.”

Observation

Another basic technique that can help students clamber out of a rut is observation. “I find that watching other riders really helps me progress,” explains international dressage rider and trainer, Lauren Sammis.

“The opportunity to watch a respected professional train offers a good example for the student to emulate," Sammis said. "It’s human nature to try and copy what we see. People tend to ride better when surrounded by good company!”

At Sammis Sales, based in Wellington, Florida, students are encouraged to watch other people’s lessons. 

“All riders, regardless of their level, can learn something from watching a lesson," said Sammis. "Perhaps the student is making the same mistakes that you are, or perhaps they are someone you aspire to ride like. It is always a great learning tool to watch training sessions.

“It can also be helpful to watch the trainer demonstrate on the student’s horse," she continued. "The trainer can tell the student what he or she is feeling during the ride. This can also help the horse become comfortable with whatever maneuver the student has been having trouble with.”

Consider also the pairing of horse and rider when a student is struggling to progress. As McComiskey said, “It’s important to remind students that we work with horses and sometimes we, or they, can have a bad day. Horses are certainly very humbling—you can feel you’ve had a great ride, and the next time out your horse will remind you that you’re not as great as you felt. This is true for students and trainers alike, so when things don’t go as planned, I remind students that tomorrow is another day.”

When progress has reached an impasse, having the student ride a different horse might help. A schoolmaster who knows the movements, for instance, will allow the student to focus on improving their feel, position, and aids more than they could with a less-experienced horse. Learning to ride a variety of horses is a great confidence builder, too.

When a student remains in a rut for a long time, or feels that she is not progressing satisfactorily, it might be time to consider trying another trainer at the barn, or changing trainers entirely. This might be temporary or long-term. As McComiskey said, “I tell my students that if they don't improve for a long time, then something is amiss with the program. The rider’s expectations may be unrealistic, she might not be committed enough to the training, or the horse might be too green or otherwise not well suited for the rider. Another possibility is that the student and I are a bad fit.”

All of these tools are relatively simple techniques you can use to dig the student out of a rut when learning has reached an impasse. While it might not seem so, ruts are an excellent opportunity to review the basics, improve rudimentary skills and learn from each other and our horses.