Living in-relation with horses: The impossibility of teaching

‘I can’t teach you anything. I can only help you learn.’ (Tom Dorrance, True Unity, 1987, P 49

Deep learning involves discovering an intuitive feel for a discipline or field, whatever it might be – maths, Italian, cricket, playing the piano, working with horses. Like all good teachers, Tom Dorrance was insistent that feel could not be acquired through instruction, the transfer of the teacher’s knowledge to the student – ‘it is not something that can be handed to someone – it has to be learned’ (Dorrance 6). While people might get something at a cognitive level, real learning only happens through full-bodied experience – ‘It’s experience, I guess’ was one of Tom’s constant refrains. Learning feel, then, is an organic process in which each student learns in their own way, at their own particular pace (6, 12, 18, 30). And, a good teacher will set aside any outcomes they might desire for a student in order to allow this learning to happen.

Clearly Tom had people coming to him with an instructional model of teaching in mind, expecting immediate solutions to problems, (usually mistakenly thought of as a problem with the horse):

Sometimes the riders will be so anxious to get going from where they are now to where they would like to be…. [they] might want to get an answer to their questions right early – on the surface. I want them to try to figure out something: I want them to work at figuring out the whole horse – his mind, body and spirit. (Dorrance 16).

Learning feel involves developing a capacity for being-with, in this case, the whole ‘horse’ with ‘our’ whole entwined horse-and-human being (see post on ‘feedback’). To help this learning process, the role of a teacher is to provide a trustworthy, supportive space where students can relax and have a curiosity about their field of interest. This is a non-judgemental space in which students feel safe to try things out without fear of failure, and to make mistakes from which they can learn. It is a space in which they can hold goals lightly, and open themselves to possibilities before them here, now.

In providing this supportive learning space, a good teacher participates with students in what Tom describes as ‘a shared experience, a willing communication’ (Dorrance 6). Rather than trying to influence or change students, such a teacher wholeheartedly shares with students their passion for their field and their love of learning. Fully present, alive and curious, they are in an entwined state of being teacher-and-student, simultaneously teaching-and-learning.

In this state of being teacher-and-student, teachers have a feel for where students are at in their learning process, and, importantly, for the right time to introduce a new challenge, or technical knowledge, which can only be absorbed when it connects with feel. Recognising the uniqueness of every student, Tom said ‘There is so much variation in the human individual that the approach has to be a little different in order to fit the person…. It depends on what the situation might be….’ (Dorrance 30):

I try to work with them just where they are, at their awareness level. Then we build from there. I want to help the person be able to approach his or her horse with acceptance, assurance and understanding…. And I try to offer the person the same (6-7).

That safe space that we are learning to offer our horses, then, has the same qualities as the trustworthy space which a teacher provides for us. Tom frequently spoke of the need to ‘think of where the horse is’ and ‘adjust to fit the situation’ (12, 30-31), and he said the same with regards to his helping people develop this capacity.

To reflect further on the complexity of this learning situation, I’ll turn now to Corey and his role as teacher of horses and people. Like Tom, Corey frequently uses the expressions ‘adjusting to fit the situation’ and ‘it depends’ when describing what is called for in being with a horse and/or being with a human who is learning how to be with horses. Look again at this photo of Corey and Dorothy calmly together in the grooming. As Dorothy easily gets distracted, it has taken time for her to learn to relax and enjoy the grooming space, but the connection established here has been a crucial building block for developing her confidence in other situations. If you look at the photo of Corey riding her, you’ll see that she is alert and relaxed at the same time, interested in her surroundings and their activities together.

Developing this trustworthy space and knowing what is called for in providing the right support at the right time takes considerable skill. If this cannot be taught, how then does Corey help us learn? When I’m having a lesson with him, I find Corey to be that calm, unobtrusive presence that he is with Dorothy. There is no rush. He helps me relax, as he does with horses, so that learning is possible. In offering us the support that we are learning to offer our horses, Corey has to have a feel for where the horse is, for where the human student is, for their relation, and for the whole environment on any particular day. In ‘adjusting to fit the situation’, Corey is, then, participating in complex feedback loops involving teacher-student-horse-environment.

In our lessons together, Corey will either be on his own, maybe sitting on the mounting block or setting up some challenge for me, or he’ll be working one of his horses. Either way, he’ll have an awareness of what is going on for me and my horse, without interfering, allowing me to get on with working out what is called for in developing a connection. He might remind me to breathe or ‘steady myself’, and then I need to notice the change that will immediately come about in my horse, the relaxation. He’ll encourage me to try things out myself, to play with possibilities, to extend myself a little, but is careful not to suggest something that might lead to a loss of confidence. With students, as with horses, he says that what he is trying to do is build confidence.

After I have been trying something out, we will pause and debrief. Usually, I’ll start by trying to work out what I think has been going on, and then Corey will offer his thoughts. Our discussions generally focus on the connection between myself and my horse, and, importantly, my state of being and leadership ability. I can rely upon Corey to be absolutely honest in his feedback, and not allow me to get away with any avoidance strategies. He is insistent that it doesn’t matter if things go well or not so well, because there is learning in it either way. And if I should start to go down the path of being hard on myself, he’ll help me lighten up and laugh and get out of myself. Then, he might make some suggestions as we head off again to either retry something, or, if necessary, return to some foundation. It depends on what is called for.

If, at any point, Corey did feel the need to step in, say if I were struggling, on the ground or in the saddle, he would not be doing so to ‘fix the problem’. Invariably, ‘the problem’ will be one of connection between horse and human, and consequently a relational issue on my part – for example, not being present, not listening to my horse, wilfully trying to make things happen. So, this can be a useful learning experience, if it is taken as an opportunity to reflect on how the situation came about, having awareness of my state of being, and being un-defensively open to learning from situations that haven’t gone so well (see Dorrance 12).

Furthermore, there can be learning, if, in watching Corey, I imagine, in a full-bodied way, the feel of his horse-and-human way of being in this situation. Indeed, sometimes Corey will think it appropriate to demonstrate something with either one of his horses or one of mine, so that I can then imagine his way of being, and, with practice, embody it in a similar situation. And, in those joyful moments when I do experience fluency, when it feels just right, he will say: ‘Did you feel that? Remember that feeling’. I need to take note and re-imagine the bodily experience of being in-tune with my horse in, for example, a forward relaxed walk, a balanced trot, a smooth trot-walk transition, walking side by side up a hill together. (See post on ‘imagination’.)

In summary, this way of teaching is all about encouraging the learning of feel with awareness, patience, and practice. I’ll return to these themes in the following posts.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey, Suzi, Vittoria.

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