Teaching Techniques: Communication Strategies

We are nearing the end of the teaching techniques series based on handouts that I’ve given Instructor in Training. This post is on the basic communication strategies you can use for most riders. These notes are compiled from various workshops and seminars. I don’t think it’s comprehensive, but it’s helpful! Enjoy!

Teaching Techniques: Communication Strategies

Here are some really simple notes on communication to keep in mind for all students.

To communicate well you must:

  • Observe & notice
  • Describe what you observed
  • Actively listen
  • Be nonjudgmental
  • Control your response

Communication Tools:

  • Voice – tone, inflection, volume
  • Words – concrete vs. abstract (if they don’t understand, change your word choice)
  • Consistency – use the same words
  • Number of words – don’t spend forever explaining
  • Body language
  • Gestures – must be clear
  • Position – where you stand in relation to the rider: center, in front of rider, to the side
  • Horse – horse’s movement can affect the rider’s level of alertness (ex: start with trotting to wake up)
  • Environment – calming or distracting environment can affect the rider’s ability to listen communicate
  • Routine – having a predictable lesson routine helps riders learn appropriate communication times and methods
  • Pictures – draw on a whiteboard, use picture cards, etc. – see Visual Schedules & PECS below

Use Active Listening

  • Use words and behaviors that indicate recognition (“I see”, eye contact, nodding, thoughtful pose)
  • Use silence as an invitation to continue
  • Restate/Summarize what they say
    • Ex) Client: “I can’t stand this horse! He won’t listen!” You: “You don’t like this horse when he doesn’t listen.”
  • Ask clarifying questions
    • “So you are saying that…?”
    • “Do you mean…?”
  • Be open
    • Hear their whole statement
  • Be empathetic
    • Try to identify with where they’re coming from and their feelings

Tips for Your Communication

  • Make statements based on observations
    • “I see you remembered how to…”
  • Be encouraging
    • “You’ve learned a new skill every time you’ve come here, you’ll learn this too, even though it’s hard right now”
  • Describe reality when their perceptions differ
    • “I see your horse is resting his leg to relax, not kick you.
  • Encourage them to verbalize
    • “What’s happening between you and your horse right now?”
    • “Tell me when you’re feeling anxious and together we can figure out how to help you relax”
  • Notice transference. Students may reflect their own feelings onto their horses. You can use this to open up conversation or pick up on things the client is not saying outright. Respond in a way that acknowledges their emotions but also teaches them about horse body language.
    • Ex) Rider says “She’s going to kick me!” Instead of just saying “No, she’s just resting” you could acknowledge it can be scary to be endangered without warning, and even ask if they’ve ever felt that way, then explain how to look for signs of what the horse is feeling.
  • Don’t fictionalize the horse to force a relationship
    • Ex) Instead of “Lucky loves you and waits here for you every week,” say: “Lucky is really enjoying your attention. Do you miss her when you leave the barn and go home?”

Give Processing time

  • Wait a good 10 seconds to 1 minute for the rider to comprehend, process, and respond.
  • Processing time may be different for receptive (understanding) and expressive (responding) communication.
  • Processing time may be affected by medication.
  • Riders who needs more time to process may benefit from going last, so they can watch others perform.
  • Ask volunteers to help prepare the rider well ahead of time.

Visual Schedules

A visual schedule is a step by step schedule using pictures and words to communicate the order of an activity and expectations. See the Visual Schedules post for more detail and examples.

  • Clarifies expectations and what happens in what order
  • Alerts the participant to any changes in routine
  • Help them transition in increase independently between activities and environment
  • Can increase motivation to complete less desirable tasks when it shows a preferred activity comes next
  • Promotes expressive communication – provides a starting point for talking

Social Stories

Similarly, a Social Story is a story used to model appropriate social interaction by describing a situation with relevant social cues, other’s perspectives, and a suggested appropriate response. It’s another good starting point for communicating. For more, see this post on Social Stories.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

PECS starts with the student using one picture card at a time to use to ask for the desired item. The picture cards can go on to be used to construct simple sentences, then advanced phrases, questions, and comments. You can use these pictures or objects on the saddle, on a board, on a bracelet, or any other safe method.

For examples of PECS, click here for a picture or browse this Google image search.


These days there are different electronic devices that students can use to communicate, often using something similar to the PECS system. If a rider uses these, here are some options:

  • Use the device a lot the first few lessons until you have established a routine and communication system the rider understands, and then use the device less if desired
  • Use the device at designated times. For example, if the rider understands you well and the parent wants you to work on their expressive communication, designate certain times of the lesson to stop and use the device to communicate (such as horse parts, or how their day is going).
  • Have a volunteer keep the device in their (preferably zippered) pocket, so it’s available to use when the rider needs it.
  • Keep the device on a barrel in the middle of the arena and when the rider needs it they can easily access it.

More Information

The above list is of the most basic communication strategies to be aware of when you start teaching. For more information and more detail, check out the following posts and web resources:

Again, that is the most basic list. Obviously each disability has its own specific strategies as well! Do you have anything to add? Please leave a comment!


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!

One thought on “Teaching Techniques: Communication Strategies

  1. Very informative! I like how you added referring articles that will further your understanding of the article. You’re great at pulling this together Cindy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *