Teaching Techniques: Task Analysis

I’m back! Sorry that one month “maternity leave” from the blog turned into three! There’s definitely less free time available when you have a reflux baby AND a toddler. But I’m hoping to sneak in some blogging time now that things are settling down. I really want to finish up this teaching techniques series, so here’s next up. Enjoy!

Task Analysis

What is Task Analysis

Task analysis is when you break a complex skill or behavior down into smaller more teachable parts or steps. It often involves “chaining”, in which each step is taught, mastered, and then added to (so it is chained together), progressing either forward or backward in the steps. If the skill cannot be taught chronologically, then one or a few parts are worked on at a time.

The classic example of task analysis is the activity if which you tell someone to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but the person can only do exactly what you say. So instead of saying “get the peanut butter” you must say “open your hand, reach for the jar, close your fingers around the jar,” and so on. See this handout for more detail.

Why Use Task Analysis

For therapeutic horseback riding instructors, task analysis is helpful to:

Teach Skills

Use task analysis to break down skills/tasks into smaller parts so your students have an easier time learning it, as well as prepare yourself for any steps that may need extra time and assistance, and any particular prompts that would be best to use. This is particularly helpful for students with autism who find simple tasks to be rather complex, for students with physical disabilities that cannot coordinate many actions at once, and students who are unable to keep multiple instructions in their head at once, to name a few.

Identify & Correct Problem Areas

When the student is practicing the skill, task analysis helps you identify what they need to work on and what feedback (praise/correction) to give them. Similarly when a student is having an issue with a skill, task analysis helps you pinpoint the step within the skill that is causing the problem and what to do to correct it.

Create Goals & Objectives

The problem areas that you identified using talk analysis can be turned into objectives for lessons or even goals for the longer term.

Gain Independence

The end goal is that the rider be able to do the skill or task independently! Sometimes a person just needs the activity broken down into more manageable pieces in order to do it themselves.

How to Do Task Analysis

Here are some ways to break the skill/task down that you will teach in your lesson:

  • Do the skill yourself and record every step involved.
  • Consult a skilled professional – take a lesson and record how they break it down.
  • Observe a competent individual and record the steps they take.
    • Note that with horseback riding you will not see every step as there are minute movements and invisible weight shifts involved.
  • Research the skill in books or on the internet and record the steps someone else breaks it down into.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • How many steps you break it down into depends on the rider’s ability and cognition.
  • You may not know how many steps a particular rider needs the skill broken down into until after you first observe them.
  • I’d recommend preparing for more steps, and adapting to less if needed – it’s better to be over prepared than under prepared!
  • Steps should consist of specific observable behaviors, such as “grasp” the reins, instead of “get” the reins – it’s easier for them to understand, and easier for you to determine whether they correctly accomplish the action.


  1. Broad task analysis (would work well for a reminder):
  2. Pick up the reins.
  3. Hold the reins so they enter through the bottom of your hand and come out the top.
  4. Keep your thumbs on top.
  5. Keep your wrists straight.

Detailed task analysis (would work well for teaching it the first time):

  1. Identify the reins
  2. Extend your arm in front of your body
  3. Turn your hand palms down
  4. Lower your hand to the reins
  5. Put your fingers around the reins
  6. Bring your fingers together to hold reins
  7. Make sure the reins are enter between the pinkie and ring finger, and exit between the thumb and forefinger, which pinch the rein to keep it in place
  8. Bring your hands together, side by side about a banana width apart
  9. Turn your hands so your thumbs are on top
  10. Straighten your wrists so there is a straight line from thumb to elbow
  11. Raise your hands off the horse’s neck
  12. Lift your head and straighten up your torso

When to Use Task Analysis

To Prepare Your Lesson

Use task analysis to make these preparations before your lesson:

  • Learn the skill you will teach in detail
  • Prepare what you will say
  • Prepare your prompts (see below)
  • Customize how you will teach the skill to that particular rider’s abilities
  • Determine what components/steps to focus on to help that particular rider be successful

Note that “It is not necessary to write a task analysis for every riding skill, but essentially, instructors perform a task analysis in their heads every time they teach skills.” (5) When you are first starting out, you will probably want to prepare the skills and prompts for your riders before their lesson in your lesson plan. As you gain experience with practice, you will become so familiar with the basic skills and your riders that you may not need to do such detailed task analysis before every lesson, but rather move toward mentally reviewing it before the lesson or doing it in your head in the moment.

To Teach the Skill

Use task analysis to teach the skill in the lesson:

  • You should be overly prepared by using task analysis to prepare your lesson (per above)
  • Use broad task analysis to explain the skill
    • In real life you will not explain the skill in such detail – rather you will first introduce the skill in general terms, then as the riders practice use more detail for further instruction and feedback.
  • Use detailed task analysis to give feedback
    • Use task analysis to identify the parts of the skill the rider does well and praise them, and the parts the rider needs to work on and correct them.
    • Because you have used task analysis to figure out all the different parts, you can be very specific about this – instead of saying “turn tighter” you can say “make the turn tighter by bringing your right hand further back and the left hand slightly toward the horse’s neck”.
  • For riding skills the steps may not be sequential, as often several things are done at once (weight change, rein use, leg cue, etc.) – so you may be working on several “steps” at once.
    • Also, in riding, steps are often taught in order of importance rather than chronologically (balance and weight shifts before leg and rein aids) – so you may teach the same skill over and over while adding in different components.

To Identify Prerequisite Skills

For each step in the task analysis, ask yourself if your rider can do it and if not, what first must be learned – and then work on that! For example, in order to hold the reins the rider must be able to grasp something with their hand – if the rider cannot do this, then they need to work on grasping first or you need to make an adaptations like attaching a pool noodle or tennis ball to the reins.


  1. Identify the reins – be able to see well, be able to look for and find something
  2. Extend arm in front of body – be able to control and coordinate limbs, be able to reach for something, have enough hand-eye coordination, have enough balance to stay centered while reaching
  3. Turn hand palms down – be able to control and coordinate wrists and hands, be able to understand what “turn” means and what “palms” are
  4. …and so on. There are so many steps I won’t finish, but you get the idea.

To Consistently Prompt Each Step

For each step in the task analysis, add a cue/prompt.

  • Include all types of prompts – verbal, physical, gesture, etc.
  • Keep prompts short and concise – especially for those with difficulty with language and attention
  • Customize prompts to each student – depending on their amount of understanding, their attention span, their acceptance of physical touch, etc.
  • Use the same prompts for that rider every lesson, or you may confuse your rider.
  • However, if a prompt is not working, you may need to explore until you find one that does work. (For example, some students might not understand “sit up tall,” so instead use “straighten your back”).
  • Consult with their previous instructor how they taught the skill and what cue words they used.
  • Consider using “natural cues” that are built into the skill – such as using the horse’s body behavior or what the rider feels to cue a response. (For example, the horse’s head popping up cues them to pick up the reins slower.)


Using the same example above of detailed task analysis for holding the reins, here are some prompts you could use for each step.

  1. Identify the reins – verbal prompt, differentiate reins by color, hand tap, hand over hand
  2. Extend arm in front of body – verbal prompt, give visual to imitate, hand over hand or push on elbow (some find pushing the elbow forward offers less resistance from the rider vs. pulling the hand)
  3. Turn hand palms down – verbal prompt, visual to imitate, tap the palm, physically turn their hand for them
  4. …and so on. There are so many steps I won’t finish, but you get the idea.

To Create Visual Aids/Prompts

You can add a picture or visual prompt for each step of the task analysis to help the student understand and remember the cue. For example:

For more examples of this, see the Visual Schedules post here and the post on social stories here. Also, here is a good example for washing hands.

Use to Give Effective Feedback and Problem Solve Issues

After you have used task analysis to teach the skill in a few simple steps, while the rider practices you can use task analysis to identify what feedback to give them.

  1. Look at all the pieces of the whole skill as they practice, and notice the good and the bad. This includes the skill itself as well as posture and balance.
  2. Prioritize the things your noticed. AKA pick out the most important ones to praise/correct.
  3. Give a praise on something they’re doing well.
  4. Ask them to work on one or two of the most important fixes to make (along with telling them and their team how and a physical prompt if needed).
  5. Repeat and repeat and repeat as they practice. As they make corrections, work down your list of priorities of things to work on.

When a rider is having problems with a skill, you can use task analysis to help discover what’s causing the problem. Go through each of the steps/piece of the skill and analyze if it’s the one causing the roadblock.

For example, I had a rider who was learning to rate her horse’s speed but couldn’t keep her reins short enough and kept adjusting them all the time – when I analyzed her posture, I realized her hands looks correct but in reality she wasn’t pinching the reins with her thumb and forefinger, a rather minute detail, but she couldn’t keep the reins from sliding because nothing was holding them in place! Once I asked her to make this simple fix, her reins stayed in place, her hands stayed still, and she was able to maintain contact with her horse in order to work effectively rate her horse’s speed.

One final note: if something’s not working, break it down even further! This is helpful for both teaching skills and giving directions.

For example, if your riding is having problems picking up the reins as in the earlier examples, you may look at the list above and realize that the first step “identify the reins” can be further broken down into: “know what reins are, look for the reins, recognize the reins, see where the reins are in relation to yourself”, and so on – and you realize the rider needs help looking for the reins because their attention is all over the place. Or you realize there is a step before that which is “listen to the instructor and understand the instructions” and you realize the rider is having trouble listening.

Digression: sometimes we can break things down too much. I find that often able-bodied rider over analyze the details and get stuck on trying to remember all the difference pieces or fixated on a single step. In this case I find it helpful to ask the rider to not overthink it but just feel what they are doing, I point out to them when they are doing it right and ask them to recreate that feel again.

Use to Set Goals & Objectives

As mentioned earlier, use task analysis to identify difficulties a rider has with a skill and set it as a lesson objective or long term goal. For example, in one lesson you teach the posting trot and you notice the rider has difficulty keeping their hands steady, so you use that create an objective for the next lesson.

Use to Assess Progress

Reviewing goals and reassessing progress is a way to test the task analysis to make sure each step is producing results – because the steps you use should be making a difference in the rider’s improvement! If the rider is not improving, break it down further or analyze each step to determine where the roadblock is. Also consider external factors that may cause the rider’s lack of progress, such as age and disability (they may not be able to improve because their condition is degenerative).


Task analysis is one of the most fundamental parts of instructing well. With practice you will get better and better at it, and you won’t have to think so hard about breaking things down. Instead, it will become a natural way of seeing things and you won’t even notice you’re doing it. It will infiltrate the rest of your life – I cannot say how helpful task analysis has been in raising my toddler!

I hope this post has been helpful to you. Check out the Hoof Falls & Foot Falls post about task analysis for more great info. I was off in babyland and didn’t realize she had already written a post about task analysis when I started this one, so now you have this topic completely covered!



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!

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