In 1969, before there were certifications for riding instructors, I graduated from a riding program in Maryland, certified to teach riding and train horses. The program was tough, backed by the Maryland Department of Education and the British Horse Society. In my class were students taking their final exam for fifth and sixth times. People didn’t pass on the first try.
The program, Potomac Horse Center, was my first time away from home alone. And in my ignorance I signed on for a program based on eventing. Eventing is a riding sport that involves three different activities including galloping and jumping cross country. I was an equitation rider from New York. Comparing equitation to eventing is like comparing ballet to step dance.
I entered Potomac with strikes against me. Being a horse show rider was one. Being an American under the British System was another. And being on my own for the first time was a third. I lived my Dad’s adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Many years later my daughter, Alisha, distilled this to, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”
Amid riding accidents and other events, our numbers dwindled as people were driven away for not having what it took to become a good rider. If you fell off a horse, you paid a fee, except for the time I fell and smashed my face. I climbed back on and followed my instructor for the next hour and a half of what was known as a “Jolly.” Positioned behind the instructor, he got a full view of my bloody face and the blood streaming behind me every time he looked back to direct our class. The man had insulted me from the minute I arrived at school. After that, he never picked on me again.
A jolly was a full tilt ride in the country where you experienced slides, jumping into water, drop fences, and wild group gallops. Predictably, I always rode one of the school’s greenest horses.
When I left Potomac, I was a tough, take-no-prisoners riding instructor and trainer. A big Midwest riding and camp program hired me directly from school. I routinely made students cry.
Experience combined with the realization that American riders were not the stiff upper lip variety I encountered with instructors at school, I mellowed.
Then I got involved with United States Pony Clubs.
Oddly, the roots for USPC are also with the British Horse Society but with a different outlook. USPC was encouraged positive teaching as opposed to a negative style. In other words, for everything a rider did wrong, an instructor should try to find something they do well. Don’t kill the rider’s enthusiasm. And try to couch criticism in kindness.
This, and life experiences, changed my attitude toward teaching. I learned to give quality lessons and be kind at the same time. Children no longer cried and students returned years later to thank me for the instruction I’d given them. I love teaching and love to see students eyes glow when they finally own a concept, or make even the smallest achievement.
Problems with the Extreme
However, just as a negative system had flaws, so did positive teaching. There is danger in wanting so badly not to hurt a rider’s feelings (or not wanting to lose a paying client) instructors let riders believe they are stars, or naturals, or don’t have to work hard.
I recall talking to a pre-teen a few years ago who told me about her great riding skills. When she took a breath, I asked what her instructor said she need to work on improving. The child answered, “What? My instructor doesn’t criticize me!”
Not only does this lead to a less than mediocre rider, it leads to a less educated instructor. There must be encouragement but there also must be constructive criticism. And someone has to tell riders that learning to ride isn’t easy. It takes commitment and focus. It also takes pain and money.
It’s funny how the business of writing is the same. Much instruction in writing comes through critiques, whether they be from a critique partner, a contest, or an editor. Constant negatives wear a writer down and kill their enthusiasm. At the other extreme is the person who critiques and is more concerned about hurting the writer’s feelings than telling them the truth. This stalls a writer’s learning progress and can cause him to waste a lot of time.
The formula for a critique is like a sandwich. Start with a slice of yummy positive bread, fill it with gobs of rich meat and condiments, then slap on another good slice of bread.
Sometimes I get so enthusiastic about giving a critique that my bread is extremely thin. My condiments might even leak through. Then I worry that I’ve damaged someone’s feelings. So, I apologize knowing that some of the harshest critiques I’ve had have made the biggest difference in my writing.
Will I Change?
My conscience nags me if I don’t tell the truth with writers the same way it nags me if I don’t tell the truth with riders. I don’t think my personality and standards will change. The biggest difference is, by the grace of God, I’ve softened in my approach.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I passed my exam at Potomac. The first time. With the highest grade.
It’s Your Turn
What about you? Even if you don’t ride, teach, or write, I bet you’ve learned to use the sandwich method to help someone improve. It works with learning to tie shoes or learning the latest system on a computer. Care to share?
I included an eventing video in case you want to know more.
Thanks for joining me today,