Teaching Riding With Empathy

I’ve been asked to answer this question “How do you teach riders the difference between riding with empathy and pseudo empathy : where the rider is just placing their emotional needs on the horse.” Thank you for the question it’s deep and thoughtful and I love this kind of thinking.

We all have emotional needs so when we are questioning the emotional feelings that are showing up in a lesson we might assume that the rider hasn’t yet reached a mature state of thinking or being. The assumption may be the truth, but it might not be the truth. Mature as described in Merriam-Webster is: having or showing the mental and emotional qualities of an adult. And the word adult means: mature and sensible : not childish.

I have been guilty of assuming that all people think as I do, have the same experiences as I do, have the same values as I do, have the same ethics as I do or the same goals with horses as I do. I have also been guilty of assuming that all people have been taught how to get their emotional needs meet in an adult/mature way. The longer I have the privilege of being a riding instructor the more I know for sure those assumptions are not the truth. And with no judgement of right or wrong I also believe the rider is sometimes not capable of riding with empathy because they don’t yet have that particular strength, talent or skill. Notice I used the word “yet” here, it’s very important that a riding instructor keeps that word in their thoughts. I believe empathy is a strength some people have and some people lack. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be discussed, learned and applied.

The question was how do you teach riders the difference between riding with empathy and pseudo empathy. First and foremost you do have to recognize what the emotional need of this rider is, address it and give them a plan/goal for meeting it. The emotional need may be causing fear. Remember how it feels to be scared of the unknown? The rider may only be trying to say I’m scared, I don’t like feeling scared or i’m feeling scared and uncomfortable. But they do this by not telling you the truth, they do this by getting defensive with their horses, losing focus, blaming, abusive behavior and many more ways. After all these years of teaching it’s been my experience that people don’t really use a mature method of communicating what’s up. They dance around it with all sorts of behavior. Putting the attention anywhere but on the real problem.

This is where you, the riding instructor, needs to become the detective, watch and listen with empathy to what the student maybe wants to say but for some reason can’t put into words or feels they have to hide from people. Let’s use hidden fears for our example. This thought/feeling needs to be addressed, neither horse or person can perform when they are fearful.  You must find a way for the student to listen to themselves with empathy and identify that their behavior is caused by their hidden fear. They must become aware of what they are really feeling and if that feeling is somehow unpleasant or embarrassing allow them to trust you enough to ask for help in a mature way “I’m really scared right now, any suggestions?”. Having a safe space for students to learn in is essential to getting them to tell the truth about what they are feeling and their reaction to that feeling. Don’t judge their intentions instead start asking questions, ask if they have any questions once you’ve explained something, use humor, step it down a notch, ask them what they think.

Confidence is sometimes built with knowledge. Go ahead and assume they don’t have the knowledge to problem solve what is happening to them and offer up the solution. Or ask them how they have solved it in the past, then tell them how you have solved it. Some riders just need to feel safe, find out what makes them feel safe. Find out what they are afraid to let others know. Have compassion for their emotional needs. Have compassion for them, you never really know what people are going through. If you want to assume, assume they need someone to listen to them with empathy, someone to help them see something positive about the moment or themselves.

Or you can always old school it and just keep them so busy doing what you tell them to do that they forget about their fears. Sometimes just the action of learning how to do something will give the student the knowledge they need to really listen to the horse with empathy. Knowledge is power don’t forget to answer question and teach the student how to read the horses body language and to some extent think like a trainer.

Thanks for reading and see you next month, Anne.