Teaching Techniques: Effective Feedback

Here’s some more notes on teaching techniques that I’ve given ITs (Instructor in Training). This time I rewrote much of it to make it better, and as usual am super breaking it down because that’s what I like to do… I remember teaching my first lesson and suddenly freezing up like a deer in the headlights with that one big question: “What do I say???”  This post attempts to help you figure out the answer 🙂

EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK

What is feedback?

Feedback is anything you tell the rider about what they are doing, usually in the form of praise or correction. We most often give riders feedback on the skill they are practicing, their posture, and arena safety. I think of it as: first we give the riders their initial directions and explanations, and then while they practice these we give them feedback on how they’re doing and how to improve. Instructors should also give feedback to the volunteers regarding how they are supporting the rider, where they are going, and tack safety.

Praise

Tells the rider what they are doing well.

  • is given when it’s really deserved (not just to say something)
  • uses evaluative words (good, great, excellent – for more ideas of words to use, see 99 Ways to Say “Good Job”)
  • is SPECIFIC (not just “good job”, but “Great job at keeping your hands above the pommel!”) – the student needs to know exactly what they’re doing right or they get nothing from it. It helps to add “at” after your evaluative word (“good work at…“) to make you be specific! Your mentor can stand beside you and prompt “at…” after every “good job!” that you say.
  • emphasize the action rather than the person (as in, you are such a harder worker, not you are so smart – see this post about praising kids for hard work over talent)
  • do praise imperfect attempts and effort! Recognize the realistic limitations of the rider at the time
  • do not refer to external factors (“Way to make me proud!”)

Correction

Tells the rider what they need to work on.

  • is given when they need to work on something
  • uses positive words when possible, with a voice that is kind and encouraging – harsh corrections halt the earning process
  • is SPECIFIC – only pick one or two things for the rider to work on at a time
  • focuses on the action not the person (as in, your hands were incorrect, not you as a person are incorrect)

How to deliver corrections:

  • Short & Sweet
    • “Heels down please!”
    • “Great steering hands! Remember heels down too!”
  • LOVE Sandwich
    • I’ve heard this technique in so many places and think it works well because it’s human nature to listen when it feels like someone is on your side.
    • 1) Give Praise – the positive, their improvement, an effort made (because it might have been really hard). I was told: “You can always find something – Well, at least they put their pants on today.”
    • 2) Give Correction – state it positively, include how to do it
    • 3) Give the Why – gives motivation and information
    • Some say to add a praise at the end, hence the “sandwich”.
    • Note: in emergencies you may need to address the situation and speak the love later
  • To the RIDER
    • It’s really important to give feedback to the RIDER, because that’s who you’re teaching! If you start giving instructions to the volunteers (perhaps because the rider has difficulty communicating), you end up ignoring the rider and talking like they’re not even there – it’s quite disrespectful. The correct respectful thing to do is to address the rider FIRST, and then talk to the volunteers THROUGH the rider. Example: “Stretch those heels to the ground, Nancy! Martha will put them in the right place for you.” or “Stretch those heels to the ground, Nancy! If you need help, Martha will put some gentle pressure at your heel.”
    • You can also give feedback to the TEAM as a whole, usually using the rider or horse’s name. For example: “Great job staying balanced during the trot, Team Dancer! Next time let’s keep Dancer’s head straight by keeping your outside rein a little tighter.”

How to know what to say

“Train your eye to look for the worst scenario, but train your mouth to speak the positive first.” -PATH Intl Workshop

I find a lot of Instructors in Training have a hard time knowing what to say for feedback when they first start teaching. They can tell the riders where to go and what to practice, but giving praise and correction is hard, perhaps because so much is going on at one time! Here are my suggestions:

  1. Prepare! Knowing what to say requires knowing what to look for, which means you need to know your sh*t. Before your lesson, research what you are teaching. Use task analysis to break it down into its components and steps. Understand which parts will probably be hardest for your riders and how to help them with it. Know it inside out.
  2. Observe. For a moment, or one wall, or one obstacle, watch each rider and notice both the good and the bad. Be objective, focus on the action not the person. Notice the pieces of the whole. Compare the rider to an imaginary model of how it should look. Remember to include the leader and volunteers in this.
    • Ex) For the sitting trot this might include: Alignment, Bracing on the stirrups, Pelvis relaxed, Heels down, Horse’s movement, Leader’s impact, etc.
  3. Identify something good and something to work on. What are the similarities and differences between your rider and the ideal? Pick 1-2 of the most important things to work on, that will have the most impact, because most riders can only focus on 1 thing at a time. As you get to know your riders, you will know how many things you can throw at them.
  4. Give feedback. Tell them what they’re doing well, what they need to work on, and how to work on it.
  5. Make sure they get it. Especially if they’re not improving. You may need to ask clarifying questions to make sure they understand. Or you may need to restate your feedback in a different way. Or you may need to bring them into the middle to give them feedback up close or hand over hand.

When to give feedback

You want to give feedback at the time the rider is most receptive and able to process it. Here are the most common options.

While riding or at the halt:

  • While riding
    • usually give feedback as the rider is riding, so they can still benefit from the horse’s movement
    • use for riders that need movement to pay attention and focus
    • use for riders that need feedback in the moment (short attention span, difficulty remembering, etc.)
  • Halt and chat
    • use for longer explanations
    • use for riders who need less stimulation to focus – they need to be standing with you to focus on your feedback, and they need you to not be talking while they practice in order to focus on what they’re doing
    • use for riders who (or one time events that) need some physical direction, such as showing them exactly what to do with their hands
    • use for teams that need more specific instructions, such as a physical example of how the sidewalker can best support the rider, or to discuss the plan moving forward which is the volunteer counts to 5 and then helps
    • use to let the rider go practice the skill on their own, then come back and chat about what to work on next, then send them off again (my jumping instructor did this a lot, it also works well for obstacle courses, and riders you are giving more independence)

To each rider or to the group:

  • To each rider
    • as they pass by or halt near you
    • less distracting to other riders since they can’t hear all the feedback given to each rider
    • make sure to call out each rider’s name as you address them so they know who you’re talking to
    • I really like this pattern: Rider 1’s name, praise, correction. Rider 2’s name, praise, correction. Rider 3’s name, praise, correction. Repeat.
  • To the whole group
    • use this to not single out any one individual
    • use this if there is a common issue for everyone to work on

Before, after, and during the practice:

  • During the practice
    • ex) in the middle of the obstacle give a praise and correction, or verbally walk them through it
  • After the practice
    • ex) after the obstacle say what they did well and what to work on next time (expecting them and/or their sidewalker to remember)
  • Before the practice
    • ex) before the obstacle remind them what to focus on and how to do it, if needed (perhaps referring back to what you told them after they did that obstacle last time!)
  • or, all three!
    • if you have more riders you may have to pick one of these times to give feedback – usually it’s easiest to give them immediate feedback during the practice
    • I find it easiest to start with giving each rider one praise and correction at a time as they practice, then working up from there. You will quickly see whether giving feedback while they are practicing is effective, and whether you need to add or change to “frontloading” them with a reminder before they practice the skill, or waiting to give feedback until after, or calling them in to the middle of the arena to discuss it.

When to give feedback to volunteers:

  • During the lesson
    • address it in a positive manner, include praise, and always explain why
    • always address safety issues during the lesson, when they occur – make it short and sweet, and I often add a “No big deal! We’ve all done it.”
    • other issues may need to wait until a more appropriate time in the lesson
    • giving a reminder to the whole group is a great way to address the issues but not single out one volunteer – all volunteers benefits from reminders!
  • or, After the lesson
    • if something isn’t urgent, it may be (and probably is) best to wait until after the lesson
    • if it will take up too much lesson time to address, an issue that needs a deeper discussion
    • if it’s something that may not be best to address in front of everyone (or the person gets easily embarrassed)
  • or, Before the lesson
    • if it’s an ongoing issue, it may be best to leave it to discuss with the volunteer before their next lesson so they can immediately make the change during the lesson (vs. being told after the lesson and having to wait until next time and possibly forgetting)

For more info about volunteer management, see the post on it.

Top things to look for when giving feedback

These are my recommendations for the first things to look for when giving feedback, so you have someplace to start.

  • Rider’s Posture – a rider can’t correctly apply the aids if they have poor posture
    1. pelvic tilt
    2. posture from the side
      • vertical line through head, hip, heels
      • line through elbows, wrist, to bit
      • looking where going
      • visual on localriding.com
    3. posture from the back
    4. hand position
      • straight wrist with thumbs up, not twisted in or out
      • visual on yourhorse.co.uk
  • Rider’s Aids
    1. correct application of the aids for the skill
      • position
      • timing
      • pressure
      • release
  • Arena Management
    1. order and location of the riders
      • you can see all the riders
      • riders are an appropriate distance apart
  • Volunteers – they affect the horse and rider so much!
    1. leader’s posture
      • next to the horse’s head
      • facing straight ahead
      • not leaning on the lead rope or horse
      • walking straight
      • walking energetically
      • in control – they set the pace vs. keeping up with the horse
    2. leader’s attention
      • on the horse, not the rider
    3. sidewalker’s position
      • by the rider’s leg, not falling behind
      • ready to catch if needed – close and hands out of pockets
    4. sidewalker’s attention
      • on the rider, not the horse

It Takes Practice

Giving effective feedback takes practice! You are training your eyes to see and your mouth to speak all while a million things are going on in the ring and you’re supposed to be keeping everyone safe, so go easy on yourself. You will get faster at spotting praises and corrections.

Here are some ways to practice giving feedback so you can get better at it:

  • Teaching – a lot. The more you teach, the better you’ll get at it. You will improve faster if you have a mentor giving suggestions during or after, rather than learning from your own trial and error.
  • Teaching “fake” lessons. Get some friends together and have them ride in a practice lesson for you to practice teaching in!
  • Practice teaching to videos. See this post. All in the safety and comfort and awkwardness of your own home.
  • Watch other instructors. Watch how/when/where they give feedback and how they say it. I started taking notes on ways people explained things so I had little scripts I could use ready in my head.
  • Research skills. Research the basic skills and know the how/what/whys for each. You’ll see how much overlaps with instructing them (aka posture and balance) and start training your eye by first training your brain.
  • Rehearse. Before your lesson, from your lesson plan practice out loud teaching the skill. Pretend that your riders are going around the room and what will happen and give them the feedback you think they’ll need.

Other Forms of Feedback

Although certification is mostly looking for verbal praise and correction in your oh-so-short lesson, there are some other techniques you can use in your daily lessons.

Observation

This is when you simple describe and narrate what you see going on. It does not judge but rather lets the recipient evaluate their own actions. By simply describing what you see, you act as a mirror for the rider. This is helpful when removing prompts for applying a skill and giving the rider room to figure it out. For more about observations, see the post Praise vs observation.

Physical Feedback

Riders who are more tactile learners may need some sort of physical feedback. A few examples:

  • bringing them to the center so you can physically show them where to put their leg, hand, etc.
  • instructing the volunteers to give physical feedback via hand over hand, or ankle hold
  • holding an aid that gives them immediate feedback about something – such as riding holding a crop between both hands

Visual Feedback

Riders who are more visual learners may need some sort of visual feedback. A few examples:

  • showing them yourself how to do it – pretend you’re on a horse and put your body in the right position
  • a demo rider to show them how to do it
  • a visual aid, such as a ribbon in the horse’s mane for where to put their hands, or a cone on the ground for where to halt

Example

For those of you who would like to imagine what this all looks like put together, here’s an example:

Instructor Mary has explained the skill (direct rein steering) and had her riders practice by circling on the rail 3x in each direction at the walk. She has them halt on the rail and explains that next they will practice their steering through a barrel pattern in which they circle one barrel on the wall, weave the barrels down the center line, then circle the other barrel on the wall, and that each rider will start when the rider in front of them has finished the first barrel. She adds, “You all have been doing a great job bringing your inside rein to your pocket to steer! Keep working on that, and remember to look where you are turning.” She asks them to start walking together because they are far enough apart they shouldn’t run into each other in the pattern, but keeps an eye on them in case she needs to tell someone to halt and wait (sometimes the leaders don’t realize when this is needed). Before the first rider starts to circle the barrel, Mary says, “Sam, here comes your turn, get ready to look and steer!” During his turn she adds, “Excellent job looking the direction of your turn. Keep your thumb up instead of twisting your hand, and your horse will feel your cue better.” (She visually shows him the correction with her own hands, as he is currently looking at her). He imitates her. “Good correction, I see your thumb is up! Now look ahead to the end of the arena before weaving the barrels. The next rider starts. “Ted, excellent job waiting until you pass the barrel to start your turn, that way you don’t run into it. Now keep your eyes up instead of looking at the barrel, this helps you sit up tall. Excellent, your posture is so much better now!” She sees Sam is now weaving the barrels. “Sam, good remembering to weave the barrels! Way to keep your thumbs up as you steer. Now let’s add turning your shoulders a little in the direction of the turn. Just like that, excellent.” She sees her third rider is now starting the pattern. “Joe, great work bringing your hand to your pocket. Next time let’s lean forward a little so your balance isn’t so far back, and your horse will turn more smoothly. If you need a reminder, your helper Julie will say “sit up” and touch your back.” Ted is now weaving the barrels and Sam is circling the last barrel. “Ted…Sam…” and so on. You get the point! She has to jump around from rider to rider, but for each one she gives a praise and correction and explanation, short and sweet.

The end.

Do you have anything to add? What do you look for first when giving feedback? Leave a comment below!

p.s. The LessonsInTR blog has 993 subscribers! Only 7 more to 1000, I’m so excited! Spread the word 🙂

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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 Techniques: Effective Feedback

  1. Hi!! This is sooooo useful… thank you. It is sometimes hard to find how reward, praise and encourage without using the same words/phrases all the time. This will be a great resource for me and my students. Thank you 🙂 P.S. I always recommend Lessons in Tr!!! Happy Riding!!!! & Teaching too. 😉

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