Tips for Horse and Human Students

Published in the 2015 August-September edition of The Aiken Horse magazine.

Tips for Horse and Human Students

Some of us are naturally good students, some of us have to work hard to be good learners. If taking instruction doesn’t come easily for you, there is good news: 1.) you can get better at it 2.) you can empathize with your horse when he’s having trouble learning something new!

Here are some strategies for developing yourself as a great student, and for helping your horse become a super learner, too.


1.) Cultivate a learning mindset. Prepare yourself for a learning experience–whether a lesson or a work session with your horse–by putting away distractions (like your cell phone) and distracting thoughts (like what you’re going to make for dinner). Use your grooming and tacking up time to set your intention for your ride, and to connect with your horse.

2.) Erase the phrase “I know that” from your vocabulary! Assuming that you already know something shuts down learning. Much of horseback riding and horsemanship is gaining a deeper and deeper understanding of basic principles and ideas. The way you understand how to sit the trot, or to ride a balanced shoulder-in will be different in one year than it is today… if you’re progressing!

3.) Try to absorb without judging what is happening in the moment. You can analyze your ride from your couch at home afterwards. In the moment, try to listen, observe, and feel without thinking too hard. Overthinking can take you out of the present and block your ability to receive information from your instructor or your horse.

4.) The most helpful questions are “How do I…?” and “What if…?” because they provoke curiosity. Learning is all about doing something differently than you’ve done it in the past! Sometimes a playful inquisitive thought will open doors in ways you could never predict. This soft, open mindset is often felt and appreciated by your horse.

5.) Learning on a shoestring budget: when you can’t afford as many lessons as you’d like, or your preferred clinician is too expensive, audit! Watching clinics and lessons is a great way to learn and take new concepts, exercises, and techniques home to your horse. Read. Watch videos. Go watch the warm-up ring at shows (this is often free), and watch riders in disciplines other than your own. Great learners stretch out of their comfort zone, and they know that often the biggest investment in learning is in effort, time, and energy… not money.


1.) Prepare his mind for learning. Just like human students, horses often don’t show up for work in a learning mindset. Recognize his mental, emotional, and physical needs… does he need to burn off some energy before he can concentrate? Is he nervous in his environment? Is he feeling bored and cranky today? What can you do to help meet his needs so he can relax and focus and go to work for you?

2.) Do not punish your horse. Punishment inhibits learning and distracts the horse… now he is thinking more about how to avoid punishment than on how to solve the problem you have set for him! Do your best to make your requests clear; if the horse fails to respond correctly, seek to understand WHY rather than to punish his failure. Over time, the horse that is punished while he is learning becomes afraid to try, resentful and resistant, or shut down. The best corrections communicate to the horse that he has not done what you want without provoking an emotional or defensive response.

3.) Understand when you are teaching, and when you are maintaining, testing or advancing a lesson. Knowledge of where your horse is in the learning process is something every horseman should be keenly aware of. This tells you how much is fair to expect of your horse, how much to repeat, and how quickly to increase the difficulty of an exercise.

4.) Be encouraging! Notice the slightest try when your horse is learning and reward it. When your horse knows there is always a “right” answer and knows that you will help him find it, he will put more effort into finding solutions. If your horse becomes discouraged or stressed during the course of a lesson, be willing to make the lesson easier so he can be successful.

5.) Know when to stop a lesson. Often we do not repeat a lesson enough for a horse to truly understand it. But sometimes we drill too long! Part of the study of horsemanship is knowing when to quit at just the right time to accelerate your horse’s learning and keep him willing and eager to come out again tomorrow.

Being a great learner is your responsibility as a student. Helping your horse be a confident learner is the responsibility and privilege of a good horseman. Happy learning!

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