There are two basic types of riding students; the ones who have riding experience and the ones who do not. When I make the commitment to teach a student in either category, I have a system of questions based on tell me what you know that come up according to the timing of teaching. On the surface this might seem odd since people are coming to me to be taught. Shouldn’t I impart wisdom so they can take home something new from my vast depths of knowledge?

My goal in teaching riding is to develop horsemen that are competent; capable of riding horses and thinking through problems wherever they ride. Wherever ranges from the show ring to the event course to the hunting field, the trail, or their own back yard, as well as anything that falls in between and beyond. And guess what? I’m not going to be with them all the time so I want to make certain they know what to do and why they should do it.  It’s why I teach.

Tell Me What You Know

When I say to a student “Tell me what you know….” (You fill in the last part) I’m digging into their mind to find out what they need from me; what I can give them. Lately I’ve been disturbed by what I’m finding out.

In the summer we have students who are either in between semesters or who have recently graduated from a well known college that claims to be a leader in the equestrian education movement. My first lesson with a student who has riding experience begins with short period of observation during which time I find one or two things to begin a discussion. I always warn them that I’ll be asking lots of questions.

A particular young lady, a graduate of the mentioned college program, came to ride early this summer. Her riding focus at school had been dressage as she’d gone through 2 semesters, but her experiences in her pre-college years had been western riding and hunt seat. She wanted to teach riding as her source of income. I asked her to warm up the lesson horse with her normal procedure, evaluating her as she progressed. Her overall “look” was lovely; she sat up well, had the long legs most of us envy, and her hands were gentle.

Once I know a rider’s attitude toward the horse and have a general idea of their ability I focus on the base of support. I build from the rider’s foot up just like a building is constructed from the foundation upwards. Standing on the rail as this rider came towards me, I could see sunshine between her knee and the saddle. My first request was, “Tell me what you know about the rider’s leg.” Admittedly that’s a broad request, but it’s one that allows the rider to think thru what they know and hand me bits and pieces. I wasn’t surprised that she hesitantly told me about the heels and the line of alignment and stopped. So I said, “Think about what you tell your students about legs…” She didn’t have a lot more to add. I went over the basics of the base of support and how the leg should feel around the horse, strengthening and position all the way from the hip. We talked about why she needed a strong leg in a good position and what the benefits were long term.

Tell me what you know about the seat,” I said next and again I found the same parroting of the points of position without understanding why they were important. By this time she told me that at college riding classes did not go into theory, they were just lessons. Classroom courses talked about important issues in the horse industry. I asked about her text books. There were none.

Since she wanted to learn more about teaching, particularly hunt seat, my goal was to have her work over trot poles beginning with one and building to five but first I needed to find out what she knew about training. She had warmed up with the horse traveling quietly but not forward. I said, “Tell me what you know about the training scale.” As she stared at me I realized she had not been taught a training scale.

By asking the young lady what she knew about basic topics I found out that she’d not been given a good foundation or even the skills to continue searching and learning. I’ve used this girl as an example but I can tell you that in my experience, she is representative of students I’ve worked with who have been through the college programs in my area.

Accidents That Should Not Happen

tell me what you know
It’s never too early for fundamentals

A few weeks ago I visited with a mother and two girls who were 10 and 12 years old. They ride at another stable but the mom felt the 10 year old was shutting down during the lessons. I asked the girl to tell me about her riding experiences. Both girls had been riding for 3 years mostly with one instructor but the 10 year old had several falls that resulted in a broken arm and a broken wrist, on separate occasions. The first break came from a fall from her own horse, a small mare that had been purchased in the barn. The mare was good at jumping but had very little show ring experience. For some reason that I was unable to discern, for the child’s second horse show the instructor chose a show in a big venue about 500 miles from home AND had her move up from cross rails to higher division with verticals. I can’t tell you how many alarms on how many levels were going off in my mind as I listened to this story. The result was that the horse put in a big jump, jumped the girl out of the tack and she fell breaking her upper arm. She was about 8 1/2 years old.  After some time when the arm healed, the instructor had the girl school a green pony that was owned by the instructor. The pony took off out of the arena across the field with the saddle having slipped forward onto the pony’s neck. The girl came off and broke her wrist. Healed once more, the instructor is pushing her to jump higher and the 10 year old is shutting down in her lessons. The instructor gets so upset that she sends the child back to the barn before her lesson is completed.

At this point in our conversation I have my own internal war going on and I want to drive to the other stable to ask this instructor what she was thinking.  I said to the 10 year old, “Tell me what you want to do.” She said, “I just want to jump 18 inches until I’m really good at it.” We discussed a few more of my tell me what you know questions, including tell me what you read. The conclusion was the same as for the college graduate; the children were not being given a foundation. They weren’t being taught the basics. They were living the instructor’s agenda.

Who Teaches the Basics?

tell me what you know
Vince Lombardi knew a little bit about teaching fundamentals.

In my mind, anyone who is interested in teaching riding would teach the basics, after all if a rider has a good foundation everything else will be far more successful. Who doesn’t want success? In the past I’ve mentioned  Vince Lombardi, the famous Green Bay Packers football coach from 1959-1967. I’m not a football fan but anyone who can coach a team to 5 NFL championships including Super Bowls I & II must know something. He was legendary for methodically covering the fundamentals. Concentrating on the fundamentals has been the hallmark of may successful coaches. Studying the simple fundamentals and knowing them in depth will result in success.

So why aren’t the fundamentals taught? Is it because riders and their teachers think that success has more to do with sitting pretty on a quality horse in a quality saddle? Or is it because a person can’t teach what they don’t know? Whoever taught the college graduate I mentioned earlier didn’t teach her the fundamentals. Consequently not only did the college student not understand them herself, she was not able to pass fundamentals on to her students. Without intervention the result will be an inevitable downward spiral of knowledge in horsemanship.

Learn More With Tell Me What You Know

I’ve already written how this question helps me produce a plan for my students; but what about reading? The response I receive to  tell me what you read shows me that few people are reading books on the fundamentals. That’s mind boggling for this instructor. How can anyone be ignorant of the fundamentals of riding with so many books on the market? I really take exception with whoever stated that reading does not make you a better rider. That’s just plain wrong. If reading is your only source of education it will not make you a very good rider but reading about the theory of horsemanship and the principals of riding will certainly help you understand what you are trying to do. Riding instructors who don’t read and recommend books are robbing themselves and their students of another way to develop knowledge.

I’ve alluded to something else that I learn when I use the tell me what you know questions. I learn about other instructors and about the horse business in my area. If I teach one of your students I can ascertain certain things about your teaching ability and your knowledge. Scary, isn’t it? The proof is in the knowledge you pass to your students. But try the tell me what you know approach with your own students; I promise it will be educational.

Students Without Previous Riding Experience

At the beginning I mentioned two types of students and I’ve spent a lot of time on the student with experience because I use the tell me what you know statements a bit differently with the uninitiated rider. I use this kind of questioning to find out how well they listen, to ascertain what they hear in my teaching, to understand their personalities, to teach confidence, and to get them to think about what they are doing. When I ask, I’m looking for a particular answer. For instance, after several lessons, I’ll say, “Tell me what keeps you on the horse”. The most common answer (from kids) is “the saddle?”, with a question in their voice. I’ll agree with them, “Yes the saddle helps and that was a good answer but what if you don’t have a saddle, what else keeps you on the horse?” I’ll hear different things such as the stirrups, the neck strap, your heels, or the reins. Rarely do I get the answer I’m seeking right off the bat which proves to me that beginning students don’t think in terms of muscle strength and balance. A few weeks ago I finally had a little girl say, “Yourself?”, which was knocking at the door of the answer I wanted –  seat, legs and balance.

If students answer me with my own words, I know they are listening but I ask more because I want to hear their words. If they don’t answer at all they either didn’t understand me, weren’t listening, or are afraid of giving the wrong answer. If they give me an answer with some elements of correctness but other parts that are far fetched, I know they have a piece of something and are trying to put it together.

In all cases, using the tell me what you know statement creates an opportunity to go over fundamentals and to engage your students. Engaging your students causes them to think and problem solve. It reveals lots to the instructor about what their students are learning and it’s a good personal check to find out how well you are teaching.

Thanks for reading this post at The Riding Instructor.  I’d love to hear how you communicate with your students and how you feel about teaching fundamentals.

Barbara E. Fox

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • I am new to this blog and new to horses but I was wondering…as an avid reader what book(s) would you recommend for a beginner? Your articles are fascinating! THANK YOU.

    • Hi Kelly,
      Welcome to the Riding Instructor! I’m glad you’re here. You don’t mention the type of riding or horses you are involved in but I would generally recommend the United States Pony Club Manuals of Horsemanship beginning with the D level (green color) and then move to the purple colored one (C level).United States Pony Club has recently come out with new revised editions but I have not read them at this point so wouldn’t recommend them over the older ones. The British Horse Society Manual of Horsemanship is also always a safe choice. These books are pretty basic but thorough. Best of luck to you with horses and riding. Barbara

  • Hi, love this article. I have just started teaching, and I am always looking for different way of imparting knowledge. The question is a simple one but I never really thought about asking it! Thank you so much! I will be asking this question from now on. What a great way to set up lesson plans too! Thank you!

    • Kim,
      Thanks. I’m glad you like the post and am very happy that it is helpful. Having students tell you what they know not only answers the obvious question of what they know – it’s also very enlightening to watch the process a student works through when they search their memory for the answer. Anytime a student can talk through a process they are closer to the goal of owning it. Barbara

    • Greta,

      Thanks for your comment and for reading The Riding Instructor. I’m always looking for people who would like to contribute their knowledge too! Barbara

  • My frustration is finding that I cannot create enough enthusiasm to get my students to look further and delve deeper. Adults and children alike. I send emails, Facebook posts, you tube videos, etc. and get very little feedback. It seems like I want it for them more than they want it for them. So frustrating!!

    • Hi Rita,

      I feel your pain on the enthusiasm thing. I don’t think we can create enthusiasm in other people. The passion has to come from within them. It sounds like you’re trying to do some good things for your students. You could try to draw them in through a different kind of participation like make a you tube video together or run a contest on your Facebook page. Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. Barbara

  • This is a great tool to add to my box. I teach balance right from the beginning. Many of my students come to me for increased confidence (which stems from good balance, seat, and posture). I ask lots of questions but not this one. I’m going to try this tomorrow night. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • Dear Virginia I’m happy to know that I could give you something new to try. Best wishes to you in your teaching. Barbara

  • If I might add an appendix Barbara —- “When you have left your instructor, for the next fifty years that you are riding, every time you ride, keep asking yourself those questions. You will never stop learning”.

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