learning relationships: making sense of a dressage clinic

I’d like to be more clever and elegant in this narrative. I would like to write up my experiences with dressage in a slightly coy way, drawing the reader in with some intrigue and mystery. I’ve had notions that I could craft descriptions and quotes in such a manner that the reader would never be able to guess that she’s witnessing the interaction between an instructor, a rider, and a horse. Clearly, with lines like these, I have some material to work with:

“not convincingly soft on the inside bend”

“a little bit more rounder in the transition”

“more throughness, more over the back”

“no resistance in the contact”

“push forward with that transition”

“challenge him a little bit in the corner”

“use more leg”

Generally, when I’m sitting in lectures and I hear phrasings that have multiple or obscure meanings cobbled from interesting words, I write them down under the heading, “Good Band Names.” The dressage clinic could produce a bountiful crop of these. More often, as I write these out, I start to wonder if publishing this to the internet will get it flagged for some second-rate erotica. What makes this more comical is that I hear all of lines clearly with their German accent, issued forth by a man named “Guenter.” Do a search for “dressage” and “Guenter” and you’ll see there is a serious resumé here, olympic medals and high regard in the American equestrian community.

As an outsider stepping into the dressage arena (both the literal and figurative), terms and phrases like these are fascinating, like some new cultural scene and all the unexpected that could come with it. There are questions and imaginings: what does it mean to “get in front of him” when the “him” being referred to is a horse that the rider is, presumably, atop? “In front of” means something, and as a rider would change how far front or back they were I could tell there was a difference. But they were also, always, on top of the horse — that’s where the rider is supposed to be, after all. There is the “rising trot” and “sitting trot” and “working canter” and “collected canter” and more, but most of this for a novice outsider is a blur of legs and hooves.

However, it’s not at all important what I did or did not understand in much of this. Clearly, others in the audience and in the arena were, in one way or another, making sense of instructions and terms and putting them to good use. And when there was confusion from one individual another could clear it up. I swear, during a break I heard one woman clarifying to another that a certain hand position was “like riding a bicycle” — not “like riding a bicycle” in the idiomatic way, but in the literal how-to-put-your-hands-on-the-rein way. This helped immensely, but there’s usually no efficiency in scaffolding with bike riding instructions during a dressage clinic.

In any case, I’m working on all of this, both understanding for myself and understanding how others are understanding and practicing dressage. I’ll start with what I know, with what I saw.

First of all, “dressage” is nominally about riding horses. But that isn’t what it’s about at all. It seems to me that it’s very rare that anyone fails to ride — no one goes to a dressage event to see if someone will fall. A disaster would be much more subtle. More important, the horses are willing collaborators in the partnership. To say that one is “riding” is to suggest that there’s a hierarchy in the relationship, as when we drive a car or (again) ride a bike. It’s more complicated, more inter-relational between the horse and supposed rider. Dressage, as it’s explained to me, is more like dancing, and it has its roots back in a time when maneuvering a horse into specific positions and with precise control was about the techniques of warfare. (Yes, dressage is about killing people on a battlefield. Why aren’t more people drawn to this?) When you watch a futuristic movie with specialized military equipment and how they can maneuver within a battle arena, I think it’s only a lame approximation of a skilled rider and horse. Watching dressage in person is mesmerizing, impressive, artful, and even beautiful. (And also, if they just kept the traditional sword, they could kill you.)

Second, and more to the point of my work and fascination, both the rider and the horse have to learn how to work with one another, differentiate between the “rising trot” and the “sitting trot,” find ways that a rider’s subtle movements with two legs can influence details of a horse’s four legs. Contrary to most of what I’d expect, most of what is communicating the most basic information from the rider to the horse is through the positioning of legs that most of us do not even notice. When I see a rider and horse do what is known as a “leg yield,” the horse continues a forward motion while simultaneously moving sideways, as if there’s a sideways slide while the pair continue along the same heading. This is a relatively simple, standard movement in dressage, but it’s always magical to me. It looks to happen through some extrasensory perception. Turns out, it’s just the inner thigh.

So here’s the basic scene: At this particular clinic (subtitled as “classical dressage in the modern age”), there are two instructors, Guenter and Gary. Guenter is within a large arena, while Gary stands outside, but both are focused and attentive to a horse and its rider in that space. They provide two vantage points and two professional perspectives. Both ride and judge and teach, but Guenter often represents the perspective of the accomplished rider and Gary that of a respected judge. Guenter asks each rider/horse combination to go through specific drills that would be typical in a dressage competition.* At a basic level, it’s like a piano teacher asking the student to play some scales and then giving advice about the hand position or the turn of the thumb under the hand. Here, Guenter says to work on the rising trot in a circle of one size and placement or another, and he gives feedback — he is the most immediate director of the lesson. Gary can chime in from his vantage point at appropriate moments or to summarize a technique or even an entire session. But it’s not like piano lessons. Rather, there isn’t just advice, but directive. Try this; now try it this way; and again; “use more leg” and “challenge him a bit more in the corner” … whatever these mean.

Each rider has applied for and auditioned via a video of their riding. They are selected, privileged to be on the receiving end of this instruction. They have ideas of what they need to work on, levels that they’re at with a given horse, but when they’re in this arena they are dedicated to the directives of Guenter and Gary, and they accept this willingly, respectfully, and appreciatively.

As I watched, recorded phrases, and made notes, I also tried to jot down what I was seeing from a wider field of view. I think that there are no imperatives in teaching. There are no things that must be done by every teacher outside of doing no harm; but, there are clearly some nice principles and examples that I can take away from a clinic like this. Guenter and Gary were consistent in some very simple but effective practices, and I made room to compile these on an opposing page in my notebook:

  • Using the learner’s name and knowing them as they are: There was very little familiarity between the rider and instructor. They had to get to know one another quickly, and one of them was dancing around on a horse. There were simple, important things here like calling the learner by name, knowing something about what level they were at, what level the horse was at, what their experiences were, what they should be working on, etc. And, during the course of the interaction, Guenter adapted. The student might have thought she needed to work on the canter, but really she needed to do some more basic work with the horse.
  • Clarity and consistency of terms: I have only a vague understanding of what “use more leg” is supposed to mean in this context, but the rider and instructor do share that language. And, I can say, having come into this experience with one entire riding lesson myself, I had a feel for what the use of the leg could mean. Riders with more experience knew more than the terminology, but the action involved in these terms. They needed that kind of familiarity in order to get input and be responsive — and subsequently learn something from that whole experience.
  • Challenging, problem-based situations: Guenter suggested tasks that were likely to highlight not only a problem that the rider was working on, but the particular pieces that were involved with that problem. Many of these exercises weren’t exactly what that rider would be tasked with in a test, but they were fundamental in some way. It might have been a transition between two gaits, or a focus on some aspect of a rider’s hand position or weighting in the saddle. In so many ways, this is where the nuts and bolts of the clinic were very reflective of the kind of work we might engage in with students to help them solve physics problems. What’s interesting to me about the physics is that we do scaffold things, but we don’t necessarily see where the problems are in their answer — we would be wise to sit down with them and make them write out problems in front of us, and potentially an audience. (More on that component later.)
  • The expert/novice distinction and the trusting relationship between: One issue that I’d had no appreciation for before walking into the arena was how renowned these two individuals were in equestrian circles. I’m not sure I could make the correct parallel to other sports (because there are so many differences), but here are olympic caliber athletes with a track record and name recognition. In addition, they came across as friendly as well as incredibly knowledgable; they were prolific in their understanding of the sport and the skills therein. Additionally, they seemed to love working with the horses, the people, and the interaction — they volunteered as much when I talked to them after a long day of work. So, people listened attentively and trusted the advice. At the same time, these experts didn’t spoil the good graces that they were able to come in with. They maintained a trusting relationship; we all saw riders taking risks, trying new things, being vulnerable, and it was clear that it was in their best interest.**
  • Charm and attitude: When someone says that they like or love a teacher, it’s never really clear how effective this might be in helping someone to really learn something. Being likable can only take carry your teaching so far. On the other hand, being an ogre can ruin things right off the bat. In addition, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that we pick up on how someone thinks about their practice through their attitude. If they like something, clearly work hard at it, and set high standards for themselves, it’s fair to imagine that those attributes are on display and even offered as a model for the learner. Guenter and Gary were enthusiastic and encouraging, even when a rider was having a difficult time. Guenter, especially, could offer advice that had both a cutting edge and a charm at the same time. “It’s not a punishment, it’s a schooling;” and, “Don’t not do something; but do it the right way.” We laughed at directives like these, but we took them seriously as well.

Yes, I said “we.” This is the other major feature of the dressage clinic. I rode the coattails of my daughter to have a ticket into this culture, since she was there with our friend, her own instructor, to audit the course. I, also, was an auditor. In fact, most of the people there — enough to fill the rows of chairs lining one whole side of the arena — were paying $125 each not to ride. Instead, they watched the teaching and learning from, quite literally, the sideline. Like me, people took notes, paid careful attention, stayed hushed as they listened and watched the interaction between rider, horse, and instructors. Between sessions they had the chance to ask questions, and the instructors often addressed certain issues as teachable moments to the entire audience.

This is the especially bizarre and fascinating dynamic in this mode of teaching and learning. There are multiple people learning lots of different things, and there are multiple perspectives. These include the rider, the auditors, and (let’s not forget) the horse, who should be learning something from the rider as the rider is learning something new from the instructor, and then there’s subsequent feedback from horse to rider as well. And the auditors stare on in amazement and try to put themselves in the rider’s stirrups.

With one riding lesson on my record, I can affirm that you can’t learn to ride a horse without trying to ride a horse. This is obvious and similar to other things we learn, from piano to ping pong. But I think it’s fair to say that you can’t learn to ride a horse well without listening to the horse, watching others ride horses, engaging with an instructor, and on and on and round and round. There are multiple dimensions and multiple exchanges taking place here. And, even those who are giving lessons are also taking lessons from another instructor, who is taking lessons from another instructor, and on and on.

For me, there’s a richness to dressage in how all of those relationships and modes of learning are happening at the same time. Perhaps there are things to be mined from this (e.g., like my idea to have expert physics problem solvers work through a problem while getting instruction, but also while in front of an audience of students), but dressage and its many enigmatic traits in teaching and learning seem well outside of any other model (in the ways I describe, as well as many others, ranging from the judging to the relationships people develop with horses). Maybe it shouldn’t be that way; maybe there should be more that we take away from the dressage tradition.

Months after the clinic, I was telling my friend John about all this. We happened to be sitting on a remote sandstone ledge in Canyonlands National Park. We were eating cheese and crackers, maybe some trail mix, and overlooking millions of years of erosion splayed out in front of us. This is where good ideas often take shape, if you’re willing succumb to the quiet and geological patience. I had just finished telling John about the interesting interaction between horse, rider, instructor, and auditors, and followed with something like, “There’s no other teaching and learning context like this.”

Like me, John is a science teacher educator, and as soon as I said this out loud in front of him and the rim of slickrock shading us, I realized an amendment that I could tell he had thought of immediately. We work with science teachers, who are learning to create and implement their own lessons, in the context of classrooms and labs full of students. I’ve always claimed that this is the most bizarre educational context I know of. I have to teach teachers how to teach, but they have a completely different relationship with a completely different group of students than me. So how does that work? Well … it’s a long story. I’m always messing with different models for courses like this.

But now I have yet another model: I see those teachers as being like the rider, and their students are like the horse. Don’t take the analogy too far astray, but it is genuine. The important facet is in the relationship between the horse and rider, the students and teacher. They have to learn from and interact with one another. And then, in the best situations, we have other riders/teachers who can observe other classroom situations and learn from them. This is something that I could actually implement more explicitly in my science teaching methods class. It’s what I’m working on as I get ready to start a new semester in a month.

And me? Well, I get to be Guenter. I will guide, and mentor, and perhaps if I have the wherewithal, I’ll impart wisdom like, “Don’t not do something; but do it the right way.”


*I’ve been fortunate to have been at a couple of these as well, and I’m confident there’s a whole other chapter that could be written about those experiences as well.

** My friend and colleague, Eric Amsel, has recently been making the case of how it’s the relationship between student and teacher that’s really important — rather than any of the specifics of what we do. Those relationships take different forms for different purposes. In his model, there are sages, guides, and mentors. I’d have to work on this harder, but I’ll posit that the dressage instructor is closest to a trusted guide, but blended with mentorship and a dash of sage. He doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. This is just to say that I’m long overdue for a lunch conversation with Eric.