Teaching Tips: Social Skills

The next two presentations at the 2017 PATH Intl Virtual Conference had to do with social skills. Here are some take home points.

From “A Task Analysis Approach to Social Skills Teaching” by Melissa Abbey

Elements of Social Skills Acquisition

From various sources, all of these can be seen in therapeutic riding and interacting with horses!

  • Self awareness – recognizing moods and impact on others
  • Self regulation
  • Internal motivation
  • Empathy – understanding others’ emotions
  • Social skills
  • Assertiveness – say what you want without resorting to aggression
  • Problem solving skills
  • Self expression
  • Receptive communication (the speaker would add)
  • Play! – play is where we learn life and social skills


  • Dr Daniel Goldman “Emotional Intelligence”
  • Dr Roger Goddard’s “Building Social Skills”
  • Heidemann and Hewitt “PLAY: The Pathway from Theory to Practice”

Ideas how to incorporate Social Skills in the barn

  • Ask rider to stop and show you how she expresses that feeling. Discuss the horse’s reaction, and how other people might sense the feeling and respond.
  • Assertiveness vs. Aggression – really relates to horses, “mean what you say, without being mean about it”
  • Help them learn – add to your goals modifiers – “with coaching, when prompted, independently”
  • Use the Play Checklist in the handout, outlines the levels of play – help you see where they are developmentally, observe at the barn, and give direction for where to use play in lessons or even play goals to set (Play Checklist is from PLAY by Sandra Heidemann and Deborah Hewitt, 2010. Redleaf Press, wwwredleafpress.org)
  • Incorporate play in lessons:
  • ex) take animals to vet hospital in the bucket, then take to the woods
  • ex) go on a pretend camping trip and describe what you see and do
  • Model and coach, use the high ratio of adults to riders – built into what we do
  • Parallel play – play alone but watch others, allows them to watch and learn at a distance, good for those who get overwhelmed easily, for introverts – such as individual sports, on a team but in the end you are the main responsible one
  • Don’t demand perfection – if a rider says “excuse me, I just want to ride” and that’s the first full sentence they spoke, let them rider!
  • But maintain high expectations – make sure they say hello, goodbye, etc.
  • Self awareness – be aware of where you are going, soft eyes, chin up – whether you are riding, leading, or in life
  • Grooming
    • teach them to greet the horse appropriately and discuss how to greet people
    • teach horse’s space and sensitive area, and discuss people’s personal space
    • self-awareness – don’t get stepped on
    • negotiate – when grooming together take turns
  • Leading
    • Where they want to go
    • Respecting space, self awareness, pacing
    • Asking vs forcing
    • Assertiveness and problem solving – how to get the horse there, communicate clearly
  • Lesson Activities
    • Use stuffed animals to play social situations – put them in situations where their paths cross and their animals must introduce themselves to each other
    • Use volunteers to demo asking questions, then pass it on – when their paths cross, the volunteer asks the student a question, the student answers, then asks the other rider the same question

“Good horsemanship and good social skills go hand in hand.”

From “Our Love of Horses: Understanding the Therapeutic Value of Animals” by Dr. Aubrey Fine

Side note: I love that PATH Intl included someone from animal assisted interventions because it seems really closely related to what we do, and they have a lot of experience we can learn from!

The benefits of pet ownership 

(What a beautiful list!)

  • Pleasure
  • Affection received
  • Health benefits
  • Nonjudgmental acceptance
  • Love
  • Connection to the outside world
  • Reason to live

The roles of animals in animal-human bonding

Ways your riders may be using the horse in their lives.

  • Animals as social support – emotional support, feel cared for, happy place is going to the barn
  • Animals as attachment – attachment theory, substitute for absence of human attachment, or expand the range of social relationships, can fill emotional needs
  • Animal as Symbol/Metaphor – psychoanalysts note animals represent strong emotions or feelings that are hard to articulate or repressed
    • Creates many teachable moments
  • Biophilia – Theory that humans genetically are attracted by other living organisms and to focus on and attend to them
    • Ex) watching beauty of horses running through pasture

More Ideas

  • Many kids and adults relate to horses better than to other people. Use this bond to foster their relationships with people. Treat the horses like people in ways that the client can transfer to other people.
  • ex) throw the horses birthday parties! make horsie cakes and sing to them

I think that’s it for today! Hope you enjoyed it and see you tomorrow!


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 judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!


2 thoughts on “Teaching Tips: Social Skills

  1. You are incredible – to summarize well these sessions in such a short time! I am thankful & totally impressed at your editing skills. I have followed you since your Autism series and am never disappointed. Plus throughput all this you’ve had a child. Awesome.

    • Thank you Sue! It’s keeping me on my feet 🙂 I am loving this conference and take notes for myself anyway so might as well share!

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