Sensitive Subjects

This is a subject I’m coming across more and more, as well as it increasingly coming to the forefront of coach training.

It’s a delicate subject, and I think one which is handled by many parents in such different ways, which I’ll explain in a moment. But I also think it’s important to see and understand a coach’s perspective. It’s taken me a few days to work out what the purpose of my blog is, and how best to phrase it.

Firstly, what on earth am I banging on about? I’m talking about riders with additional needs. Be it a physical limitation, a learning difficulty, dyspraxia, being on the autistic spectrum, etc etc. And the point that I’m trying to make is that a coach needs to be told of any additional needs so that they can create a safe teaching and riding environment, complete appropriate risk assessments, as well as planning appropriate lesson content. It’s a subject that should be talked about without the taboo or fear of stigma.

There are two extremes of parents that I come across on this subject. Those who will tell me before the first lesson an extensive list of difficulties their child encounters when being taught. And those who don’t admit that there are any differences in their child from society’s typical idea of “normal”. And no, we won’t go down the rabbit hole of what defines normal.

I think the reason some parents don’t tell about their child’s differences is because of the perceived stigma attached and they’re concerned that their child will be treated differently.

But, the thing is, that in order to teach a child with disabilities you do need to treat them differently. In the positive sense. A teacher may need to adapt their explanation, or allow more time, or use a different teaching method, to help that particular child understand. For example, a person who is wired slightly differently, needs a different sort of explanation to help them understand. In the same way a French speaker will understand an explanation in French far more than an explanation in English. And if you have a group of fluent English speakers, and one French speaker with limited understanding of English. It is a poor teaching approach to just teach in English, ostracising the French speaker; a good teacher will incorporate French in their teaching in order to be inclusive.

Teachers and coaches need to be multi lingual and be able to teach so that the different learning styles are accommodated. In which case, it’s helpful for a coach to have some inside information about any student with learning difficulties so that they can best plan and structure their lessons.

I`ve often had lessons where I`ve been trying to teach a concept, and ultimately failing, coming up with Plan B or racking my brains for alternative explanations. Then, at the end, I`m informed by the parent that the rider has a physical limitation, or doesn`t compute whatever approach I’m using. At which point I’m internally frustrated, and the rider showing signs that they’re equally frustrated. This is when it would be useful to have had insider knowledge so I could go straight to Plan C and get it right first time. There’s no judgement from my side as I want to be able to get my message across and help my rider improve from the off.

However… I do find that being told too much detail on the first lesson actually clouds my assessment of a rider. A few weeks ago I taught a one off lesson (long story), and was fully briefed by the Mum about the rider’s way of learning and processing information. I actually felt more pressure from all this insider knowledge that I overthought my lesson. Within minutes of meeting the rider and watching her ride, I disregarded most of the information from her Mum. Not because it was unimportant, but because I didn’t need to bear it in mind. Let me explain better. I was told that this rider struggled to retain lots of information and tended to switch off. Which is fine. But my teaching style is much more bitesize. Do an exercise or movement, talk about one part of it. Improve that. Do another exercise, focus on another area, be it improving the rider’s riding, or discussing the biomechanics and feel. I understand why the Mum wanted to tell me this nugget of information, because if I were a lecturing type of instructor, the rider would have struggled to retain the lesson.

So what’s the answer?

To be honest, I’m not sure, and I think it depends on the individual and what is being taught. Horse riding is physical, so actually it’s useful to know of any previous injuries, weaker limbs (from breaks etc), or poor core strength. Often I’ll make the observations, but equally it’s useful to know that there’s a reason for asymmetry, or if they’ll find it difficult to achieve my corrections, rather than bad habits.

In terms of the non physical differences, it can be harder for a coach to understand or identify them, which is where I think it’s down to the parent to inform the coach of anything on a need to know basis; whether it be a personal quirk, undiagnosed suspicion or a clinical diagnosis. I.e. In the stable management sessions, doing quizzes, it is relevant to know about them and their dyslexia. But it’s not as relevant in their ridden sessions. I also find it useful to know of any behavioural triggers when teaching. Firstly, so I can avoid triggering them, and secondly so that I’m not caught off guard, and thirdly so I’m not offended, or feel like I’ve failed in my teaching.

It’s a very sensitive subject which needs to have the stigma removed from it, and for everyone to understand that someone with additional learning, whether it has a label or diagnosis or is just their individuality, needs does need to be treated slightly differently in order to be able to learn. Sure, it’s discrimination, but it’s not exclusion. If anything, being ignorant to a person’s needs and being unable to help them leads to them being isolated and ultimately excluded from the main group.

I’d be interested to hear the viewpoints of parents on finding the balance of what to tell riding coaches about their child, and their experiences in this area, because it’s definitely an area which we can improve on, to better a rider’s experience of learning to ride and improving an instructor’s skill set.

One thought on “Sensitive Subjects

  1. thehorseylife Apr 15, 2021 / 4:32 pm

    Agreed!

    As a Therapeutic Riding Instructor, I got a pretty complete picture of the medical information and did a brief evaluation of physical or developmental challenges during the intake. I’m rather good at knowing the appropriate exercises, activities, etc., so I didn’t find that particularly challenging; however, I found the times when the parents or caregivers gave me every last detail could be very challenging.

    When the parent/caregiver stood at the fenceline and kept mentioning “issues” and “limitations”, it made it harder for me to evaluate the student. Often parents’ views are extremely protective, and rightly so, but I found that quite a number of students were able to perform beyond the level at which their parents thought they were capable. That was particularly rewarding because it gave the parents a reason to reevaluate their child’s situation and opened up more opportunities for the child.

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