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Teacher becomes Student: Not too Old to Learn

Published: 2/2/2016
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Editor's Note: Remember the teacher in Peanuts cartoons? She of the trombone voice? Wahwahwahwah. Her lectures left some sleepy and others bewildered.

Consider the complexity of the teacher-student connection: the thought in the teacher’s brain, turned into words, then heard and interpreted by students. Is it any wonder Peppermint Patty was snoozing and Charlie Brown was bamboozled?

Add a horse to this equation. The horse receives cues from the rider (and sometimes the instructor) and may or may not understand the rider’s intentions. It’s a massive spaghetti plate of interpretation, full of possibilities and pitfalls. No wonder we struggle to improve and connect as a horse-rider pair!

As part of our continuing exploration of learning and communication, we visited with Rob Rowbottom and Debbie Hight. The Maine pair have worked together to retrain Maine’s winningest harness racing horse, Postcard Jack, in the popular NickerNews features, “Not too Old to Learn.” Read more here.

Here, they return to the topic of “Not too Old to Learn” with a new challenge: themselves.

Rowbottom is a consummate horsemanship student. He’s worked with Elijah Moore and studied Buck Brannaman, Aaron Ralston, and many others. Over the years, he’s successfully trained rescue horses and “problem” horses.

Hight, while less accomplished as a rider, has decades-long experience as a teacher.
What happens when the teacher becomes the student and vice versa?
In this newest installment of “Not too Old to Learn” they discuss the challenges of teaching, learning, and riding.

I asked Rob to help me with my horse, Roxy, after I had seen his remarkable progress with his horses. They were all beginning to achieve self carriage on a rope halter!  
Going to clinics was not helping either of us for whatever reason. Yet, here was a rider and friend in my very own barn who was achieving success. I thought I ought to tap that resource.
Rob definitely focuses on the horse. He is completely tuned into that horse, but perhaps not so much to the rider. Because of that, I like to relate teaching experiences to him.  Math and science had always come relatively easy to me, so when I first started teaching, I was frankly shocked when I could see that I was not reaching students, I mean, how simple is all of this? Now, if I see a student who looks like a deer in headlights, I back down until we have a common knowledge base.  Over a couple of tutoring sessions, you really begin to understand how the studen learns and what he or she is good at or needs help with.  That is when you really begin to make progress.  
I feel like Rob is beginning to understand what I know and is far better able to show me what I am doing and how to do it better.

Debbie is a communicator. She’s very smart and a good friend. She’s given me hell about communicating. I don’t have a method. I never went to college.  And I’m afraid to not give her good information.

But my observation is that people like praise. There has to be positive feedback on what riders are doing right or it can be frustrating for them.

I can only accept so much new information at once and admitting that has been helpful.  Riding without Rob gives me time to think for myself, riding with Rob gives me a chance to ask for help when I am stymied.  
Perhaps my biggest learning lately is to "slow down." I have always wanted to be the energetic cheerleader, but I have read that the Dorrances, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannaman, etc. have all learned from listening, watching, feeling their horses.  So, Rob's comment to me is to slowwww downnnnn … I'm pretty sure that I'll never be in Margaritaville, but a bit slower is a good thing.
When we work in the arena, I always think that I am doing exactly what Rob is telling me to do. But more often than not, I have something "wrong."  
Frankly, I realize that I am mechanically challenged and I also see different things in viewing Brannaman's DVDs than Rob sees.
During one of our arena sessions, I asked him to break down every movement of the horse's head, forelegs, hindquarters, my hands, seat, legs.  He needed to know that I thought I was doing what he was asking every time.  
It comes down to teaching method. When I first started teaching math and working with kids one on one, I could not understand why some of them could just not "get it." But tutoring one on one allowed me to peer into their thoughts and how to break each step down.  
We also had a conversation about how much bad news a student can take at once. I say one criticism to four attaboys. Others follow the Oreo Theory: sandwich criticism between two attaboys.
Now, Rob is breaking everything down better and I try to work on my lessons when he is not there.  You know how we always talk about horse "dwell time”? The same goes for people.  I’ll say, "wait a minute, I need some dwell time to get all of these pieces together."
I’ve also asked Rob to ride Roxy and demonstrate how to get a desired response.  Rob definitely has more "feel" than I have, but we have also learned that only the rider can determine the right time to release.  

We have developed pretty great communications.  My work on Roxy is improving and I know that I have a happier horse.  I am riding only in a rope halter now.

"Not too Old to Learn" extends far beyond the horse and rider, it involves the learner and the teacher.  I may be a boneheaded learner and Rob may be a rotten teacher, but I bet if you ask people, this is more common than not.  By working one-on-one, I’m becoming a better student and Rob is becoming a better teacher.

Rob does not consider himself an expert, but he knows what works for him. It’s probably how a lot clinicians feel - they might have a good sense for the horse, but little for the rider.  On the student side, we think we are doing what is asked. If we get no feedback, it must be right.
In the end, the student must have respect for the instructor, but the inverse must be true as well.  The student must never say "yeah, but…" or make excuses, but also communicate his or her confusion. The instructor must search for answers to why the student is not getting it.  The horse/rider/instructor relationship might be a dream team at times, but I bet that is rare.
I’ve gone to clinics. To me, they’re difficult environments to learn in and to retain the knowledge given the time and money involved. But when you’re one on one, you’re not worried about other people looking on and you can really focus.  

Just a note about the word "training".  Buck says the word is demeaning to the horse and I agree. The way I look at is we are trying to get our horses to do things they do with ease in the pasture. We're trying to use the methods of Ray Hunt and the Dorrances, to get with the horse and communicate through "feel."
I'm so excited to see it working for Roxy and Debbie.
It's gone well lately. Roxy is getting softer by the minute because Debbie’s hands, feet, and timing, or “feel” are improving. Things happen slowly, but you have to ask yourself, ‘where were we two weeks ago?’ It’s fun to watch the little improvements.

To read more from our Learning to Connect pages, click here.

Read about separating emotion from intellect in your horse work.

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"No horseman or horsewoman has ever finished learning" - Mary Gordon-Watson