A habit is defined as an automatic response to something. Developing the right habits in our students is one of the goals of good riding instructors. Even though repetition can be boring, riding instructors should embrace repetition because correct repetition develops good habits.

According to Ann M. Graybiel in this MIT News article http://news.mit.edu/1999/habits “. . .learning a habit is very slow. It takes many repetitions, often reinforced with positive feedback, before an action or series of actions become a habit.”

Think about a baby learning to walk- according to this http://www.babycenter.com/0_toddler-milestone-walking_11739.bc article, a baby begins training to walk from the day it is born. The first 12 months are devoted to building strength and coordination as the baby progresses from rolling over to sitting up to pulling themselves up. By their first birthday babies usually take their first steps and then by 18 months they are pretty secure on their feet. Learning to walk requires a combination of physical and mental development and repetition over a period of time. Once you’ve learned to walk it becomes a habit that you no longer concentrate on and you’re able to move on to more creative things like, running, climbing trees or riding a trike.

Somewhere at about the end of 3rd grade or the beginning of 4th students in school begin to learn the Times Tables. I remember practicing the times over and over and not too long ago, listened to my granddaughter learn hers.  She has since moved on to spelling bee words. http://math.about.com/cs/arithmetic/a/timestables.htm  indicates that it’s possible to master times tables by practicing daily for 21 days. It’s considered an admirable achievement. Once you’ve learned your times tables you no longer need to count on your fingers, freeing up your mind for multiplication problems.

TheRidingInstructor.net embrace repetition
Abby Lee of Dance Moms

Who hasn’t grimaced as Abby, star of the TV show  Dance Moms, berates diminutive dancers and their mothers.Dance Moms is based on the dance program with Abby Lee Dance Company. And while Dance Moms show is designed to be harsh and extreme, the under lying value of the Abby Lee Dance Company teaching program is found on a few statements from their FAQ page – http://abbyleedancecompany.com/faq/  “Through proper training they (children) will develop good posture, poise, proper body alignment, and grace.” “Dancers are only made through hours of practicing technique to perfect control of every part of the mind and body.”To me, this describes good habits through repetition.

“We all live mostly by habit,” said Ann M. Graybiel, Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience at MIT. “Habits — and automatic learned responses such as those used in driving and bike-riding — may serve to free up the “thinking” parts of the brain for more creative purposes.”

In riding instructor terms – the more the riding basics become automatic the more our students’ brains are freed up to think about the bigger challenges such as, feeling how the horse uses its body, or influencing the movement of the horse laterally, or adjusting a stride to a fence. The correct automatic responses are crucial to rider safety. It’s one of the reasons that we teach “position”. If a body is trained to return to a balanced form based on certain criteria (position), the rider will automatically do so in times of emergency because it is a learned habit. Some people have better natural balance than others but all balance can be improved through correct practice and repetition.

It takes a creative instructor mind to devise ways to keep students enthused and interested through weeks and months of repetition and practice, especially if the rider has limited access to riding. This is why an instructor needs an arsenal of tools for teaching. Variety keeps minds sharp and students interested.

TheRidingiINstructor.net embrace repetitionThe equipment I keep on hand for teaching sometimes looks like a combination between a studio and a lumber yard. There are letters, markers, exercise balls, spoons, golf balls, pool toys, tarps, cones, standards, flowers, blox, hula hoops, jump standards, jumps, buckets, rocks, ropes, nerf balls, barrels, tennis balls, dressage tests, and notebook paper, to name a few things. My arena has a big chalk board for writing jump courses, obstacle courses, dressage tests, times, scores, team members, and even notes for the farrier. Somedays the chalk board’s value is in keeping little brothers quiet while sister has a lesson.

I love having dressage markers on the wall of my indoor because they make executing school figures so much easier. I use school figures during teaching because they give students the feeling of precision. And obviously markers are invaluable for practicing dressage tests. Depending on the age of the rider, I use games or challenges ranging from stopping at the letter and telling me a word that begins with the letter to  team games where riders hand off objects. I have categorized the games and exercises I use according to their benefits to students. When a student needs to work on a particular skill, I have a stockpile of activities to repeat the skill without boring the student. I use obstacle courses ranging from simple walk courses to intricate timed courses because when a rider has to concentrate a sequence of activities they engage their minds with bigger thoughts. Obstacle courses are fun and challenging. I teach jumping courses to students who aren’t ready to jump by using ground poles and numbers. I can adapt almost any activity or game to suit any level of rider, even using my iPhone in private lessons so students can beat themselves.

I’m not a games instructor or a trail horse trainer. I teach traditional English balanced seat and forward seat riding but I’m not afraid to steal an activity from the western world, the trail riding world, the horse whisperers, or even Octoberfest, because it all adds activity and interest to riding, particularly at the beginning stages. Being creative can go a long way toward making repetition seem challenging and new.

Repetition is necessary in teaching riding because it’s through repetition that students develop the automatic responses they need to become riders. Repetition begins with the first lesson and continues forever. Great riders and trainers are those who were willing to subject themselves to repetition and perhaps had imaginative instructors. Over time, the more they are able to commit to automatic response through repetition, the more their minds are freed up to become deep thinking riders and trainers – even the ones with oodles of talent.

Embrace Repetition!

May your instruction be creative!

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Barbara Ellin Fox



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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • I remember one particular student, a VERY enthusiastic 8 year old girl, coming in for her 3rd or 4th lesson. We began, as usual, with practicing riding without stirrups and two-point as well as other warm-up exercises that I typically do at the start of each lesson. This time, though, she exclaimed, “But I ALREADY KNOW THAT!” It was a reminder to me to explain things more and also change things up a bit, especially for children.

    • Cari
      I love this 8 year old. Not only was she a good reminder but she brings up an interesting topic. Does it seem like students believe they should learn something new at each lesson or they haven’t had a good lesson? My daughter (adult) says she learns something new each time she rides her horse but that’s a bit different because she’s taking him from OTTB to wonder horse. And a good horseman will learn something new from every animal,perhaps every ride but is learning something new at each lesson the measure of a good instructor? Barbara

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