Have you ever gotten unsolicited advice from a fellow horse person? Have you ever sat in the audience at a clinic or at a horse show and all you could hear was “arm chair quarter-backing” from your fellow spectators? Ever been on one of those horsey discussion groups and read pages and pages of “expert” advice? Ever heard an instructor lose their patience with a student?
We horse people (and other people, of course) have a problem that causes a lot of that stuff I just mentioned. This is the thing. We have a really hard time watching people learn. For some of us, it’s near to impossible for us to watch someone learn. For others of us, we are fascinated by the processes we see when we watch someone learn.
Years ago, when I was traveling with horseman Mark Rashid, we were in England, and a spectator raised her hand to ask a question while Mark was teaching a lesson. “Yes?” he said. “You know, of course,” the woman said, a bit impatiently, “that the rider is posting on the wrong diagonal.” I thought I could see Mark count to 10 or so in his head, and then he nicely said, “Yes, we can see that, but that’s not what we’re working on right now.”
That probably happened every weekend, every clinic, where someone had to point out something a rider was doing wrong and ask Mark about it to make sure he was aware of it. Or they’d ask why he wasn’t working on something yet. There are many versions of this question. The reason people ask these questions is the same reason why we all get so much unsolicited advice: it’s difficult for people to watch other people learn.
Now, of course, I have to say here that there are times when unsolicited advice is offered in the spirit of preserving life and limb, or from selfless, kind humility. There are times when unsolicited advice changes someone’s life for the better, and thank goodness for those times. But most unsolicited advice is offered for reasons more about the advice-giver rather than the advice-receiver. We offer advice often because we are impatiently watching someone make mistakes or otherwise flail around.
I think it’s interesting to study how watching someone struggle makes me feel. Do I feel empathy or sympathy? Does it make me remember the times when I struggled with similar things? Am I embarrassed, for them or for me? Does it make me feel stressed or impatient? Does it make me feed frustrated? Does it make me want to take some sort of action? Does it make me want to step in and take over? As a teacher, I have an additional question for myself. If I do start to feel impatient or frustrated with a student, can I master those emotions so they never make it past my own awareness of them? Can I keep them out of my voice and my body? Is my frustration not with the student but with myself?
The truth of the matter is, anyone who is TRYING is going to struggle and fall short. Anyone who is trying is going to make mistakes. This is a natural and essential part of the learning process. True learning is not painless to the student, and it’s not necessarily painless to the observer either. Another thing we need to understand is that a student can only keep track of a couple new ideas or movements at a time. This is a scientific fact. A lot of times, we will see a student working hard on some things, while other things are wrong or utterly neglected. I like to say, “There are no more brain cells available” at that point. It can be frustrating to watch, but every teacher knows that they must pick carefully how many things to offer a student at one time, and WHAT things to offer at any given time. An instructor may have to pick some things to neglect for a while, until the student has gained more competency with new information or skills. To use a string of clichés, we must “decide which mountain to die on” or we might have “bigger fish to fry.” I think it’s very informative to ask WHY an instructor is teaching things in the order they are (rather than why they’re not teaching something RIGHT NOW), because that will often reveal very important core principles at the heart of their philosophy. Some folks simply need to make mistakes (sometimes even create disasters) to own what they are learning.
We can be mindful observers. We could choose to study why, for us personally, it’s hard for us to watch people learn. We could figure out ways to support the learning process in others rather than offering criticism and unsolicited advice.
Yes, it can be difficult to watch people learn. But here’s the kicker. Is it hard to watch a horse learn? What’s the difference? Now, go back to the beginning of this blog, and insert “horse” every time the “student” is referenced. If it’s hard for us to watch people struggle and learn, it’s probably difficult for us to watch horses struggle and learn. That’s why we push and mash, look for shortcuts, use gadgets, bigger bits and bigger sticks and generally get frustrated. We just can’t be troubled to watch a horse learn. It’s a funny thing. I bet that the better we are at watching people learn, the better we’ll get at watching a horse learn. Heck, we could all use the practice, anyway.