From the Classroom to the Arena: Using Lesson Plans in Dressage Teaching and Training

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By Ali Perkins

If I were asked what I loved more, kids or horses, it would be a hard question to answer. Throughout my college years, I divided my time in learning how to educate both of them. I attended the University of Maine at Farmington, commonly referred to as “Maine’s teaching college.” There, I learned how to teach middle school and the importance of lesson planning. I took the spring semesters off from college and worked for the Winter Intensive Program in Wellington, Florida. The WIT program is an opportunity for talented young riders to spend the winter training with two-time Olympian, Lendon Gray. At the WIT program, I was able to observe Lendon teach the kids daily, as well as attend lectures with the sport’s top athletes and educators.

After I graduated college, I spent two years teaching middle school in rural Maine. I continued to pursue my riding goals during this time. I was able to earn my USDF Silver and Gold medals and complete the USDF Instructor/Trainer program. By the end of my second year of teaching, I really missed the complete immersion of working around horses full time. That summer, I was offered a job with the LaTorres, a family that I had met during my last WIT program. They were opening Rouxtano Farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina and invited me to join in as their farm trainer. I jumped on the opportunity of opening my own business to teach dressage.

During my first few months of training and teaching full time, I came to the conclusion that besides the heated attitudes and questionable hygiene, teaching middle schoolers and training horses actually have a great deal in common. Teaching English in a classroom is very similar to teaching dressage in an arena. After making this connection, I began implementing some of the material from my education degree into my dressage teaching and training. In college, we were given a standard lesson plan format. Every lesson plan was exactly the same.

It included components that would help us to structure our classes and to make sure that all our lessons set our students up for success. I find the following components of the lesson plan essential in my teaching and training of horses.

Goals and Objectives

In education, we begin every lesson plan with a goal. This goal is what drives everything we do into our lesson. With keeping that goal in mind, we also create objectives. Objectives are what the students must do in order to achieve this goal. A goal for a riding lesson or training ride could be to ride a leg yield. In order to ride a correct leg yield, I would create objectives such as being able to ride a correct turn on the forehand as well as being able to ride with flexion and bend.

When we have a clear goal in mind for a lesson or ride, we can break that goal down into smaller parts making it feel obtainable and within reach. These broken-down objectives give us direction and clarity in the ride. They also give the horse or student a sense of progression in the training. It is also important to clearly state your goals with your students. Clients should be active in creating goals for themselves and their horses with your help.

Like horses, you never know what you are going to get with your students. Both horses and kids have good days and bad ones. It is important that trainers and teachers stay flexible in the goal planning. Goals can be looked at in long and short terms. It is essential that trainers take both types of goal planning into consideration. Lendon Gray has an excellent goal sheet that she distributes at all her EDAP clinics with kids. The first question on the sheet asks, “What have you been working on all year, and why are you still working on it?” So much of goal making is the breaking of habits. Whether it is riding with your head up or writing with correct punctuation, practicing the objectives with a goal in mind will lead to progression.

Integration of Other Content Areas and Subjects

The teachers that we remember best are the ones that made learning meaningful and fun. I still remember my math teacher, Mr. O’Brien, because instead of drilling us on worksheets and math facts, he took us outside and made the math applicable. He had us plot out the points of the school’s pond and collect data from the frogs living in it to learn how to graph. This isn’t to say that he wouldn’t sit us down in the classroom when teaching a new piece of content. He would. But our practice of the content was what made it fun. In lesson planning, we try to integrate many subjects across the curriculum. Integration is what Mr. O’Brien was using by combining the use of the pond with math and science. Integration makes the content seem applicable and useful in the real world.

Integration in the classroom is comparable to cross-training outside of the dressage arena. It is useful to keep our horses and riders motivated as well as improving. Every discipline has its own approach to strengthening the horses that can be useful in dressage. For example, working on three-day eventer’s trot sets, hunter/jumper’s precision, or even vaulter’s position exercises can really add a new element of technique into dressage. Plus, these disciplines are fun for the rider and the horses. The different disciplines get the horse and riders’ bodies working different muscle groups, making them stronger in their whole bodies.

Carl Hester speaks a great deal to Valegro’s success as to not having been drilled in the arena. Valegro hacked out, worked over poles, and lunged without a rider on his back. I think of the concentrated dressage work in the arena work as being Mr. O’Brien’s time in the classroom. This is where he would explain new concepts and have us practice on worksheets. This time is vitally important to improving and learning. The integration was used to off-set the learned concepts in practice. Using cross-training is a great way to keep training fun and exciting to the rider and horses.

Modifications and Accommodations

Every teacher has their own set of modifications and accommodations. The more you have, the better teacher you are. Accommodations are typically used with the students with special needs. For example, a student with a learning disability like dyslexia, might require a reader in a math test. Being a special education student myself, I know just how important accommodations are. Accommodations even out the playing ground. They make sure that every student is set up for success and ensure that every student has a chance to explain what they know and have learned. Modifications are the quick changes that a teacher will make in a lesson if something isn’t working. For example, if the entire class was reading the same book and a couple of students were struggling to keep up with the reading pace, the teacher might modify the amount that they need to read and let them listen to the rest on tape. Modifications are not only used for struggling students, they are also made for the students who are gifted and talented or ahead in their education as well.

Horses and humans do not speak the same languages, so modifications and accommodations are endless in dressage training! As trainers, we are constantly asking the horses and riders different questions and looking for the correct reactions. Like school teachers, the best dressage trainers have a bag full of tricks to try when something isn’t working. One example is teaching a horse the flying change. There is no correct way to teach a change, you do whatever works best. Teaching a flying change becomes an experiment with using different techniques to create the correct reaction. If you are trying the change one way and it is not working, you use a modification to the ride and a different approach.

Many students use physical tools for accommodations. For example, the student who is struggling to read may use the book on tape or a student lacking fine motor skills might use a pencil grip. Trainers have a great deal of tools to use to teach as well. To teach the flying change, a trainer could use a pole to change over as a tool. Tools can be used to help the rider too. Lendon has a pair of weighted ankle weights that she puts on riders that clamp their heels up. These accommodation tools are best used as teaching aids and to create muscle memory. The amount they are used is completely dependent on the horse or student’s needs. Students enrolled in special education have an IEP, an Individualized Education Plan. This plan writes out specific needs and accommodations that the child needs in order to learn successfully. I strongly believe that every horse needs its own IEP that can be implemented into its personalized training system.

Learning Environment/Stereotypes

One of the most personalized sections of the lesson plan is the learning environment that the teacher creates for its students. Many teachers are remembered by their students for the classroom climate that they create. A positive work environment is the most important factor in any student’s success. If students feel uncomfortable or anxious in the classroom, they are unable to learn. School teachers have no control over the types of students that enter their classrooms. Students come from all social, economic, and intellectual backgrounds. Good teachers embrace and appreciate all of the different student’s backgrounds. Great teachers use the diversity in the classroom to encourage learning and integration between the students.

Unlike school teachers, dressage trainers do have some control over their student body and the horses that they train, although most instructors are open to working with whatever type of clientele they can get. Creating a positive atmosphere in the stable and arena environments is key to both the horse and the rider’s success. Horses are hypersensitive to what is around them, similar to children. The lifestyle provided to the horse outside of the training is just as important as the training itself. Trainers need to design their facility to create an atmosphere that meets the needs of the clients and encourages them to train and learn best. Once that atmosphere is created, the trainer needs to protect that place and keep it positive.

Stereotypes appear in both stables and in classrooms. Stereotypes can often be the source of drama and disagreement. They can also kill people’s confidence. As school teachers or dressage trainers, it is important to deflate the tension caused by stereotyping. Economic status seems to play a great part in generalizing. In dressage, the adult amateurs tend to be classified as being rich and therefore dependent. It is assumed that because of this dependence, that adult amateurs are not serious or driven with their training. I have observed many trainers hold this stereotype against adult amateurs and lose. Keeping the students in mind as students and not as stereotypes will help create a stable with an inclusive learning environment that will put positive learning as a priority.

Assessment

Assessments are used by teachers to check the student’s understanding of the material. Assessments should not drive the lesson plan. They should be used to show evidence of the student’s learning and to give the student feedback on what they are doing well and where they need to improve. Assessments should be included in every single lesson. The common assessments used are tests, quizzes, papers, and projects. There are actually many more assessment types. You wouldn’t want to give your students a test or project every day. Useful “check-in” assessments could be as simple as asking the student a question to check for understanding, or having the students fill out an exit slip at the end of class where they respond to one question related to the class’s content.

In dressage, assessments need to be used for both the horses and the riders. Horse shows and dressage tests are equivalent to the classroom’s tests and paper assignments. Dressage tests bring all of the content together and give the horse and rider a chance to prove what they have been learning and working on. Many trainers rely on only competitions as assessments in the training. This approach puts a great amount of pressure on the test and its performance. Check-in assessments used in daily training for the rider and the horse could include getting the rides on video for the rider to watch and review, putting a different rider on the horse and seeing how it reacts to the aids, or even asking simple questions to check for understanding (a verbal question to the rider or a physical question to the horse). Students should also be given the opportunity to assess the teacher, as well. Instruction assessments such as an anonymous online survey are quick and easy for the student and will give the instructor feedback on how to teach best.

A topic that was taught in my education degree and implemented into all of my lessons plans was Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory. This theory states that we are all intelligent, just in different ways. There are eight different intelligence types: interpersonal, intra-personal, musical, visual, kinesthetic, musical, natural, and logical. We all contain a different percentage of each type. These intelligence types are also how we learn best. It is important for students and their teachers to know their personal learning styles and to implement them into their education. There are thousands of quick and free learning style quizzes online that students can take to determine these. These learning styles are applicable in dressage teaching and training as well. Horses learn in different ways, just like humans do. When a trainer is having difficulty getting a concept across to a client, it is helpful to keep re-approach the lesson with a different style. For example, many beginner students really struggle with learning to post. The typical approach to teaching posting is almost complete verbal. What if the student only learns 10% verbally? Approach the lesson with the other learning styles such as having the musical learner post to a song, or the visual learner use a mirror. Learning styles are also best implemented in the student, horse, and rider’s assessments as well.

About the Certified Instructor

Ali Perkins teaches and trains out of Hillsborough, North Carolina. She is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist, Pony Club HB, and USDF Certified Instructor through First Level. She has Elementary Education and Art degrees from the University of Maine at Farmington, and a Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurial Business from Stanford University. She is a longtime student of Lendon Gray and active with the Dressage4Kids programs.

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