Assertiveness comes naturally to some individuals while others must learn this helpful quality. What do you do with the student who just doesn’t seem to try very hard or gives up after one or two tries at getting a pony to trot? What about the student who tries, gets no result, and just looks your way with a sigh, expecting you to do something? Or how about the student who talks a good game but won’t leave a 20 meter circle when you take her for a cross country school? You long to see the child gallop through the field but she’s attached to you as if there’s a life line between the two of you. Or what about the rider I mentioned in Where’s the Love who wouldn’t make a single move unless she was given step by step instructions?
These riders, all real students, shared several traits. They all love horses. They are polite and well mannered and they are excellent students in school. And they all have at least one parent with strong opinions, who supported their riding.
Who could complain about even one of those traits? Gosh- we should live to have a barn full of smart, polite, horse loving students with parents who support what they do!
Unfortunately this is a profile for the passive, unassertive rider. This rider can cause some instructors to want to tear their own hair out searching for ways to motivate them. Frustrating? You bet, but while assertiveness isn’t an innate trait for some people, it’s also a skill that anyone can learn, if they choose.
Why a Lack of Assertiveness?
Lack of assertiveness has a lot to do with how you are raised and sadly it can be produced in families who have the best intentions.
The student who lacks assertiveness strives to do things right and usually has a fear of doing things wrong. Many times they accept correction, only because they view it as necessary in order to “get it right”. They spend their school life working to get good grades, handing in great papers, and passing the tests. If they don’t make it, they view themselves as failures. Their self esteem is tied to their success. They can’t and won’t think outside the box because they might be wrong. They would rather wait for instructions than try, make an error and have to be corrected.
Frequently these children have a lot of “stuff”. Mom and/or Dad make sure they have all of the latest in technology. They are usually the ones that end up owning a horse that is too much for them to handle, but they have great equipment. Lovingly, Mom (&/or Dad) just wants to make it easy for their child to succeed and in making it easy, they rob their kids of the character building steps to success.
The parents of these riders may be involved in their horse activities. They help by holding horses, helping to tack up, reminding their child to get their heels down, and making sure they get the most out of their lessons. Sometimes they get involved in horses by taking riding lessons. They’re the parents who get involved in organizing activities for the kids. They’re well intentioned but they don’t realize that by doing things for their kids that their kids should be doing themselves, they’re helping to develop a passive, non-assertive person.
The passive, submissive, non-asserting rider has a lot of fears. I’ve already mentioned the fear of failure. They also have a fear of not being pleasing. They have anxiety and stress because their parent has them on the fast track to succeeding.They are over powered by well intentioned adults and end up being over powered by the horse, and some become afraid of it. And even though they can be the kid who gets great grades in school, most children who are passive and non-assertive have low self esteem
The Bully Epidemic
You’re probably aware of all the media discussion about bullying. It’s almost an epidemic. Sadly it’s the quiet, passive,non-assertive, perhaps timid, well mannered, smart kid who is usually the bully’s target. They don’t even have to be the smart kid, as long as they’re willing to buckle, give in and give up in order not to experience the pain that’s directed toward them. But Good News! That’s the very kid who thrives from being involved with horses and riding.
That’s because horses are not judgmental. They don’t point out your mistakes, make fun of you, or purposely try to terrorize you. At least not the normal ones. Horses don’t care how popular you are or if you’re cool. Horses take kids for who they are faster than people do. And riding instructors can help turn passive, non-assertive riders into “rock stars.”
Model Assertiveness for Your Students
You can be the example of an assertive horseman for your students by showing them how to manage the horse without losing your patience or becoming overly aggressive. But in order to model assertiveness for your students, you must have a good grasp of it yourself. If you don’t- you need to get busy and work on it.
Students look up to their riding instructors. They want to please you. They want to do well. Get to know your students and develop a sense for when the time is right to apply pressure and when to back off.
Watch What You Say
Resist making comparisons between riders or between horses. Treat each person as a special and unique individual who has their own set of talents and good qualities.
Be careful how you phrase comments about horses. Never destroy a students excitement over their horse with your words. Don’t label one of your lesson horses as lazy or stubborn or spooky. Students can pick up your labels without understanding what you meant. Better to say, “He needs to be convinced. He’ll help you develop your legs.” “He doesn’t understand what you’re saying. He’ll help you refine your aids.” Or “Every horse spooks now and then. He’ll help you develop a deep seat.”
Get Kids Talking
Assertiveness is a skill that can be learned. The non-assertive child usually doesn’t like to speak up. Ask each student a question during your lesson and have your students speak loudly when they answer. It may take several tries for your student to speak up. Projecting the voice is an act of assertiveness because it implies confidence. And oddly enough, the more kids speak up, the more confident they become.
Ask one student a question and another if their answer was correct. For instance, “Annie, on which leg does Susie’s horse have a stocking?” Annie answers and you say “Susie, was she correct?” Susie wiggles around and looks at her horse’s legs and answers. This engages both girls with an easy question and they speak it out. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry I couldn’t HEAR you! Can you repeat that?” and smile.
Encourage students to ask questions during lessons, not just when the lesson is over. If they don’t ask you, you can ask them.
In a group lesson, have the leader say something to the person behind them and let them pass it along to the person behind them, sort of like the game “telephone”. Come to a halt before the last person answers and let her tell everyone what she heard. The act of calling back to the rider behind you while moving forward is assertive. And sometimes the end results are pretty funny! You can do this at all gaits.
Have students post trot poles and count them out loud as the horse steps over with the front leg. Have them do the same in 2 point. Your riders will be hesitant at first and you may have to count with them. Encourage them to count loudly.
An Example from United States Pony Clubs
United States Pony Clubs helps kids learn to be assertive. When members are examined for their proficiency certificates, a certain part of the test is oral. Pony Club kids practice orals on a regular basis. Most kids that have spent time with Pony Club can voice their opinions with authority and confidence.
Pony Club also teaches children to teach their peers by having them prepare a short 10-15 minute lesson starting with an unmounted topic. They prepare (using a lesson plan) and present the topic to their group. The kids learn to make their point and to speak clearly. Everyone knows they will have a turn, so the kids are very supportive of one another. Your riding program could use this method during a camp or an overnight.
Simple team games and relays will help a passive child assert herself. Make sure you rotate the captain so everyone has a turn. When kids are having fun and feel like they are part of a group, you’ll see them cheering for each other and encouraging their team mates.
Keep a variety of activities going for these smart children and don’t run in to help them the minute you see them struggle with a task. Encourage them and when they accomplish a task, praise them.
Develop Assertiveness and Kindness
Sometimes kids don’t want to swat a horse with a whip or kick it very hard because they perceive it as cruel. This requires a better explanation about the aids and maybe a demonstration from you. But sometimes they can not coordinate the actions that are required to kick, swat, steer, cluck and keep their seat all at the same time. In this case, you should consider switching your rider to a different horse for awhile. And speaking about horses, a child who is timid or non assertive should definitely be mounted on a size appropriate horse or pony.
And About the Parents…
And finally, if your student is the product of parents who like to “do” for her; if they interfere or if she is under stress for a good performance when her parents watch her ride, perhaps this is the time that you should ask the parent to sit out for a few lessons and allow you to work without distractions.
Riding Instructors Are Influencers
Once again I want to point out to riding instructors that the influence you have on your students can be significant. The self assurance and assertiveness that is learned in riding lessons will translate to all aspects of your students’ lives. You teach a lot more than riding.
And please – my disclaimer: I’m not in the mental health profession and am not advising you about raising children. I’m merely passing along my own experiences. You must be the one to choose what to do with them.
Thanks for reading!
Barbara Ellin Fox