Confessions of an Equestrian Instructor in the Pursuit of Excellence

By Jane Jackson, Level 3 TAGteacher

In my pursuit of excellence (for myself and my students) I discovered TAGteach. This teaching approach has added many effective new tools to my tool box and has provided me with ways of becoming a better instructor. The first three (of many) things which pop into my head when I think about how TAGteach has helped me are: 

  1. observation
  2. breaking things down and; 
  3. reinforcing successes.  

I tend to prefer the term instructor over the term trainer when talking about teaching people to ride. For the purpose of this article, I’ll use “instructor” when talking about teaching people, and “trainer” when talking about teaching horses. 

Observation Skills are Critical

We all have favorite exercises we use when we teach, but a canned approach only takes you so far. We also have to watch the student and see what needs help: position, confidence, comprehension, something different? We may start with an exercise such as riding a square by halting in each corner and doing a partial turn on the forehand to line up with the next side of the square. Observation comes in if the horse and rider pair do not execute the exercise correctly. Why not? Is the rider’s leg in the correct position? Is she using her seat correctly? Does she understand how to use her aids to ask for the turn? Does the horse understand the leg aid? Maybe all of those things are in need of help! 

Breaking it Down

That brings us to breaking it down. As trainers, we know that the aids must be correct in order for the horse to understand what we are asking. We naturally want to make all of it correct so the tendency is to say, “next time slide your leg back and don’t lean over and make sure you maintain the bend but don’t pull on the inside rein….”. As instructors, we’ve also been in the saddle when someone else was barking orders at us (and boy do we have stories to tell about how rough WE had it when we were learning). So in order to make it easier on our students and to help them be successful- which of course helps us look good-, we can use TAGteach. We can break it down and only work on one of those skills at a time. “But!”, you say, “you have to have all those things in order to get it right”. Well, yes, but does anyone do it correctly the first time? Or even the tenth time? Better to break it down and make progress in one aspect of the skill, than to keep repeating yourself while your student gets frustrated trying to remember all the different things at once and still not getting it right. You can even take it out of the context of the turn. Focus on the leg position while she’s riding down the long side and have the student practice putting it in the correct place and back until she feels confident and can easily put her leg where you want it repeatedly. Tag each time she correctly places her leg.  Then you can focus on the seat while leaving the leg out of the picture for a bit. Focusing on each component individually allows to the student to feel and experience each before trying to put them together.

Reinforcing Success

Finally, reinforcing the student’s successes helps nail the skill down. A reinforcer is defined as something which will make the behavior more likely to happen in the future. While training animals, food is a great reinforcer because most animals like food. My young students are reinforced by receiving stickers or little plastic ponies for their efforts (we keep track of each tag and they barter them for prizes afterward). For many riders, simply being able to execute the skill correctly is reinforcement enough. That is, after all, why they are taking lessons- they want to become better riders! Being able to ride away from a lesson and say, “I can ask for and get a turn on the forehand” for the first time is sweet! But we want to help our student get to that point. So little reinforcers along the way, for each step of that process, is what I have learned is invaluable. First, you have to mark that correct performance of the skill. While a clicker is best for the accuracy and non-judgmental tone, you can also use your voice: “there!” when the rider gets the leg in the right place. Repeating the skill so that the affirming marker is heard repeatedly is what will create an easier and easier performance. So whether you have students pull down beads on a tagulator for each successful repetition or they simply get to hear and feel the little successes, keep that “rate of reinforcement” high.

An Example

Here is an example. In the first photo the rider has her heels down properly, but her leg is too far forward. When I ask her to move her foot more to the back, she moves it too far and now her heel has come up into the wrong position (see photo 2). So we have two things to fix: the position of the heel (should be down below the stirrup) and the position of the heel relative to the hip (should be aligned). Deciding to work on only one aspect (the heel/hip alignment), I put a piece of purple tape on the hip and the heel and give the tag point “tape to tape”. The rider will get a tag when she lines up the tape horizontally. Success!

Video Examples from Webinar with Jane

The Bonus?

Observing, breaking things down and reinforcing successes are three critical components of using TAGteach and as such, they are some of the initial skills taught at a TAGteach Seminar or the online course.  The bonus? I feel I have become a better trainer and rider myself through this process of careful examination. 

Webinar with Jane

The recording of this webinar will be available from the same link as the live event

Do you see promise and potential in your students, but wish they would progress faster? This webinar will show you how to boost your student’s performance. You’ll learn how to make simple changes to your teaching approach. You’ll learn how to talk less, say more and motivate your students to do their very best. You’ll learn about a powerful new approach to giving structured, perfectly timed positive reinforcement. This is a practical webinar that will show you exactly how to use TAGteach. TAGteach is teaching method that uses the principles of behavior science for precise, efficient, effective teaching. Elite orthopedic surgeons are trained this way as reported in Scientific American. Your students will be thrilled to know that they are being taught like surgeons!

Raise the bar for your teaching and for your student’s performance.

In this webinar you’ll see creative ideas for removing the horse (and his stress) from the picture and using just a few minutes on the ground before the lesson to minimize unnecessary errors.

More About Jane

For more information about Jane, visit BookendsFarm.com and check out her blog at bookendsfarm.blogspot.com

Read a TAGteacher Spotlight article about Jane

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How to Use Behavior Science to Get What You Want

By Joan Orr MSc and Anne Wormald M.ADS BCBA

She never listens! He’s lazy. She’s not smart enough. He has ADD. She’s from a single parent family. He’s stubborn. She’s a Libra. He’s got special needs. She’s too smart. His dad’s a lawyer. Her mom is a feminist. He’s from Boston.

There are lots of labels and excuses to explain why people don’t do what you want or why they behave in certain ways. Let’s just put all those aside for now and think about the most important thing. Which of course is you getting what you want. Sometimes you need others to act in order for you to get what you want and sometimes it is you who needs to act.

The internet knows that the way to get stuff done is to set goals and work on one small thing at a time. Look it up. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and all that other irrefutable wisdom. Productivity experts agree that we need to break big tasks into smaller ones. Ironically the instruction “break it down” is itself ill-defined. It is particularly vexing for people with no training in behavior analysis to come up with goals that are easily achievable and upon success can be reinforced. This is the reason that most New Year’s resolutions have failed by the end of January (if not sooner). Most people want to do too much at once in order to save time, but the result is that everything takes longer, seems increasingly impossible and is more frustrating for all involved.

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Do you want your teaching to result in success the first time? Here’s how to do it: Set a learning goal that the learner can already do. It’s that simple. Start every new lesson with success and then keep building on this to get more success.

What is the Point of Success?

The point of success is something the learner can already do and where he is guaranteed to earn a tag. For example a kindergarten student can certainly pick up a pencil with her writing hand. The first tag point in teaching letter formation could be “pencil in writing hand”. Starting with the point of success ensures success on the first try and provides a rewarding introduction to the lesson. The point of success will gradually change as the learner gains competency. The point of success is a place to return to if the learner is having trouble with more difficult tag points.

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How do you feel when you try something and make mistakes over and over? How do you feel when it seems that you are disappointing the person trying to teach you? Do you feel energized and excited to be “learning from your mistakes” or do you feel frustrated and discouraged? For most people, repeated failure and “just one more”s make them anxious, frustrated and wanting to escape to do something less stressful. Sometimes the result of too much pressure to try something too hard results in a full-on meltdown. Once this happens, there is no more learning.

This is why we suggest the three try rule. If a learner fails three times (or fewer) to meet the specific learning goal (the tag point), go to a past point of success and move forward in smaller increments. A point of success is something earlier in the learning process that you are 100% sure the learner can get right. By starting at a point of success and moving forward in small steps you build on existing success instead of searching blindly for a good starting point. Of course the ‘three try rule’ isn’t really a rule. The learner doesn’t HAVE to fail three times. If it is clear the learner will not likely achieve the tag point criterion after the first failure, or the learner is very sensitive to failure, jump right in and clarify or break the skill down further and change the tag point.

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