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.

Learning Styles

I love getting inside a clients mind and getting to know how they learn, and what makes them tick. And how I can shape my lessons and teaching style to get the best out of them.

There are four main types of learner, according to Mumford and Honey anyway, but many people can identify with more than one style.

Activist learners like to keep moving. They’re the sort that whilst you’re explaining a new exercise they’re already starting to ride it. They like to keep busy and dabble in lots of different topics. They also have quite short attention spans so need short explanations of concepts.  Activist learners learn by doing; so they will learn the aids for canter, for example, by applying the aids and repeating the process. Even if they get it wrong the first time, they’re happy go keep trying until they get it right.

Pragmatic learners are similar to activists in that they like to learn on the move, however they like to focus on one area at a time. With pragmatic learners you have to give them the theory and then show them how to apply it to their riding. I think with these types of learners it’s important that they see the reason behind the exercise. For example, they would ask what is the reason behind working without stirrups? Even the youngest of children can understand that it’s important to learn to go without stirrups in case you accidentally lose one out riding. Pragmatic learners are also happy to repeat an exercise multiple times until they feel it is perfect, whilst an activist learner would get bored of focusing one aspect for more than a couple of goes.

Theorist learners are the ones who can be quite tricky to teach equitation to. They need to know all the theory, the little ins and outs. Which tests my knowledge and ability to explain everything in depth! Only once they have all the information then they feel confident to try it themselves.

The final type of learner in this model is the reflector. They learn by observing and reflecting on experiences. Watching other riders and videos of themselves will help this type of learner learn the correct movement. When teaching these types of learners it’s useful to discuss the exercise, have them ride it, and then discuss their performance before they try again.

There is also the VAK learning style model; some of which are related to the above styles. Visual learners like to watch, and observe others before trying out at exercise; akin to reflectors. Auditory learners learn by listening to explanations like theorist learners. Finally, kinaesthetic learners learn best by doing, in a similar way to activists.

In private lessons an instructor can adapt their teaching style to that of the client, but it’s far harder in group lessons when you have several styles of learner. So each exercise needs to be taught with an element of each learning style. 

I read somewhere that knowing your own learning style can help improve your way of coaching. So I had a bit of a think, but I’m not sure where I best fit. I often like to get involved with a job, or learning. But only when it’s something I’m familiar with, e.g. Horse riding. If I took up skiing lessons I wouldn’t feel confident enough to get stuck in, and would prefer to watch others first. Which is a reflector style of learning. Then I read that your learning style can evolve as you gain more knowledge, experience and I guess confidence. So perhaps I began life as a reflector, but then developed into an activist at some point. However I do like to learn the theory; but I think I like to learn the theory as I go along rather than at the beginning of a lesson… Really, I’m not sure where I fit in, but I think I can identify with each style. 

How do you think you learn best?

I know one of my young clients is definitely an activist learner – he’s the type that you have to say “do not start until I’ve finished telling you what to do”, or “shorten your reins!” As he kicks off into canter! 

Another young rider likes me to discuss what we’re going to focus on in each exercise before we set off. Making her a theorist learner. She also seems to absorb any titbits of information I give her, and she sussed her trot diagonals in ten minutes – and she’s only seven! She then has elements of a reflector, in that after a lesson she will go away and think about the content before practising it the next day.

I would describe one of my mature riders as an analyst; she tries to perfect everything at once, overanalyses why it didn’t happen, and then builds it up into a big issue when really she needs to forget about the tiny details until the exercise can be done by rote. I feel she’s a theorist learner, but has elements of a pragmatist and a reflector. She likes to know exactly what she should be doing, yet finds it hard to put everything in place. And then she picks herself apart afterwards. I try to get her to focus on the big picture initially and to stop overthinking the exercise and then I focus her attention on one element. I actually find this quite a tricky style to teach, and almost feel I have to formulate my lessons to influence her learning style (making her more of a pragmatic learner), rather than try to adapt to meet her complex mix of learning styles. But she thinks I’ve got it – she’s always saying that I seem to have got inside her brain when I teach her. Which means I’m doing a good job. Hopefully.