What is it?

Teaching outside the box begins with thinking outside the box.

Merriam-Webster defines outside the box: to explore ideas that are creative and unusual and that are not limited or controlled by rules or tradition.

Cambridge Dictionary defines outside the box as: to think imaginatively using new ideas instead of traditional or expected ideas.

And Wikipedia says Thinking outside the box entails a thinking process, which comprehends the implementation of an unusual approach to the logical thinking structure. It’s a procedure which aims to escape relational reasoning and thinking.

I tend to lean toward Wikipedia’s idea that thinking outside the box is a process implementing an unusual approach. And I agree with Merriam-Webster that it’s creative and Cambridge that thinking outside the box is not what is normally expected.

Teaching outside the box is having the ability to reach goals with students and horses in a variety of ways.  Instructors and trainers deal with a variety of horses, riders, their  families and everybody’s different learning style which can require a tool box filled with many different ways to explain the same thing.

When Do You need to Think Outside the Box?

You need it when a student gets stuck

How many times have you had to sift though copious memory files of training methods and ideas to try to help a horse or rider understand what you are asking? You’ve tried a traditional method and are met with the deer in the headlights stare, or worse the repetition of the same old fault.

As an example there are multiple methods for teaching diagonals.  And there are many ways to teach heels down. We can tell students to  “Stretch down into your heels” “Pick your toes up” or “Press your knee down.” One direction may get an instant response while another reaps a blank stare. When you get the stare you need to dig into your tool box for other methods for explaining or showing

You need it when repetition gets boring

Riding is full of repetition. We say the same thing over and over, and have students practice over and over because it just takes a certain amount of time to learn to ride. Practice, practice, practice.  But let’s face it, doing the same thing the same way repeatedly is boring for everyone. Thinking outside the box pulls in interesting ways to do the same thing, again. Games, courses, gymnastics, switching horses, bareback riding, even having a dress up day in lessons are all ways to think outside the box.  The possibilities are endless.

The better the instructor or trainer the more tools they will have at their disposal to solve problems, give explanations and gain understanding.

Where do these tools come from?

Knowing the basics

Before you can teach outside the box you must learn to teach in the box. In other words you need to develop a rock solid understanding of foundation basics for good horsemanship. Otherwise teaching outside the box by-passes quality instruction.

When I work with instructors and potential instructors I use a barrage of questions to know whether my instructor students truly understand what they are doing on horseback before they teach it.  The last thing I want from a student instructor is to hear descriptions and reasons come parroting back to me in my own words.  I want to know they have understood and digested the information and are now able to explain it to me in their own words.

Studying theory

Read. With the availability of classics both in hard copy and online today, there is no excuse for not  educating yourself in theory and method except for laziness. Check the RI Library for lists of titles that I recommend for the disciplines. Check back frequently because the lists are growing. Let me know how many you have read.

Find a mentoroutside the box TheRidingInstructor.net

A mentor is an experienced, trusted advisor, somebody who knows the ropes, has experience and is willing to add to your education.  Over a period of years you might have multiple mentors in different areas. You might have one mentor in dressage, another in reining, and a third in natural horsemanship. Or more.

Study what is done in other types of riding.

Any instructor can benefit from volunteering as a side walker in a therapeutic riding program.  You’ll learn about being creative and thinking outside the box from people who work with riders with handicaps, and from the challenged riders themselves. Talk about needing to be innovative. Therapeutic programs almost write the book.

Or just step outside your own little box and do some time in another discipline or activity.


Watch warm up arenas, starting boxes, etc. You’ll recognize the trainers that know their stuff and the ones who don’t, and since they’re schooling to win you’ll pick up a few tips along the way.

Watch videos. There is no shortage for free on-line and no limit to the number you can buy or rent.

Observe other sports

Put in the time.

It takes time and practice to to be able to effectively teach outside the box. Beginner instructors should stick with the basics until they are successfully giving their riders a foundations.

Be Creative.

Your own creativity will help you develop courses, challenges, games and explanations for your students.

Be creative looking for other sources for teaching direction.  Get into conversation with a public school teacher about teaching methods. Visit web sites for education and web sites for coaches.

But Use Discernment 

Discernment is the ability to judge well.

Not everything you see and hear is appropriate for good teaching. Discernment is necessary to be able to choose the good and leave the bad.  Having an excellent foundation in the basics will help you pick the best teaching methods possible.

My Vote For The Most Outside the Box Horseman

Horsemanship has been an evolving process since the days of Xenephon. Theories evolve  via trial and error, and a lot of hot debate. Horsemen are nothing if not passionate.

When I picture an outside the box thinker, the first person who comes to my mind is Federico Caprilli, the man who took us from backseat jumping into the forward system. He changed the world of riding.

What do you do?

How do you teach? What are your ideas for teaching outside the box? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Be creative and ride on!

Barbara Ellin Fox


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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • All I know is outside the box. I’m excited to find this site to learn more about the basics abd reasources available. I wasn’t prepared to become a riding instructor but we moved to a remote and I’m the only person here with horses and some kind of equine qualifications. It’s so expensive to keep horses here that I decided to put them to work. I feel like I’m incredibly under qualified so I’m trying to learn as much as possible when our internet is working and I have the time.

    • Hi Cyndi
      I’m excited you’re here. I hope The Riding Instructor helps you in your teaching. Your situation sounds interesting. Do you mind sharing generally what remote means? Best of success in your teaching. Barbara Ellin Fox

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