Praise vs. Acknowledgement

When learning to teach riding lessons I was told to include a lot of feedback, in the form of specific praise or correction. However, recently I’ve been discovering a third type of feedback: observation. Here is the difference.


(Also called “Evaluative Praise.”)

  • uses evaluative words (good, great)
  • judges what we see
  • attaches a characteristic to the person (helpful, hardworking)
  • puts more emphasis on the outcome
  • puts the focus on outside approval (which may cause the child to become dependent on others for their self-worth)
  • Examples:
    • “Good work keeping your horse on the rail.”
    • “That was a beautiful leg yield!”


(Also called “Descriptive Praise”, “Acknowledgement”, or “Broadcasting”)

  • uses descriptive words about what you see or what the child may be feeling
  • narrates what you see going on (called “Sportscasting” by Magda Gerber/RIE, for more click here).
  • does not judge, so the child can evaluate their own actions
  • puts more emphasis on the effort and process (not the accomplishment)
  • puts the focus on internal motivation and judgement, letting the child evaluate their own actions
  • is a supportive presence as the child works it out on their own
  • Examples:
    • “You are brushing that spot really hard. It looks like you are trying to get the horse really clean.”
    • “You are picking your hands up really high.”
    • “You did that on your own, you must be really pleased with yourself.”
    • “You are screaming very loudly. You seem frustrated.”

Both of these are valuable tools within instructing and the learning process.

Observation Applied to Riding Lessons

Observing what the rider is doing is a valuable tool for instruction.

  • By describing what you see, you act as a mirror for the rider (especially when the arena has no mirror so they can’t see what they look like!).
  • After teaching a skill and practicing it, you can remove prompts to the point of just describing what you see and giving the rider room to figure it out. (Ex: “Use your right hand to turn left at B” becomes “You are riding by B” and even “Hm, you rode by B” or “You turned at B!”
  • Obviously with therapeutic riding students safety comes first – if the rider cannot make a safe decision in response to your feedback, give them direction or use volunteer help

Observing what the rider is feeling is a valuable tool for behavior management.

  • By describing how the student is acting, you acknowledge their feelings are real, give them a name, accept them, and give them room to be felt – which fosters trust and connection, and can ease and diffuse emotions.
  • This is the theory of the RIE approach to respectful child raising, and there are many stories of children behaving better just because their parents began acknowledging their emotions.
  • Ex: “It upset you when the horse bumped you.”

Observing makes us meet the rider where they are at.

  • You state where they are that day, instead of where you want them to be.
  • You become more focused on the rider themself, instead of your lesson plan and the end goal you have.
  • You let the child lead the way, showing you where they’re at, and when they are ready you can give feedback or join in playful interactions.
  • The child feels seen and accepted, instead of just being told what to do. Then they are more likely to respond.

Observing makes us consider timing.

  • “One thing about offering acknowledgement to a child is timing. Often, we get excited about something our children are doing and want to immediately start talking about it. However our talking may interrupt or distract them from what they are doing. If you are carefully observing a child, he will give you a clue about when he is ready for your input. Often he will just glance up at you when he has finished covering his paper with paint. That may be an invitation to say something.” –

I have to thank the instructor at my baby’s tummy time class for bringing this up. I was talking with her about praising kids for hard work over talent since she helped in the research on this, and she mentioned how even just making observational statements can cause a huge change in how kids respond to activities. I also have to thank Janet Lansbury’s articles about RIE parenting for clarifying the concept.

Do you incorporate observation into your teaching methods? How has it gone?



Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgment!

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