Teaching Tips: Coaching Your Riders Through Their Big Emotions

Today I listened to a 3 in 30 podcast episode called “How to Coach Your Children Through Their Big Emotions” and it had some simple takeaways that I thought applied well to instructing adaptive/therapeutic riding. I hope you find it helpful and think about these concepts throughout your next week of teaching! Enjoy!

Coaching Your Riders Through Their Big Emotions

Guest Georgia Anderson of knowhowmom.com offers the following three steps to be an “emotions coach” when a child (or rider) is having “big emotions”:

1) Start noticing emotions when they are small.

Undesirable behaviors can often be avoided if you notice the driving emotion when it starts small. It could be a small expression of emotion, or it could be a comment that shows concern, or anything really, depending on the person. Try to catch the warning signs early!

It makes me think of horses and how, for example, a riding instructor who has worked with horses a lot in a listening way will be able to notice the start of behavior long before the rider or volunteer – you notice a slight raise of the head or flick of the ear, immediately know what caused it, and can address the cause before it becomes an issue for the lesson.

It may be harder to do this for your riders, who you do not spend as much daily time with as your horses. This was a good reminder to me to pay as close attention to the little signs from my riders (and kids!) as I do to my horse!

2) Name their emotions, tentatively

Name their emotions, but in a tentative way that gives them the option to correct you and take ownership of the emotion. For example, “It seems like you are concerned that…is that correct?”

Little kids are often not able to connect their emotion to a word, so we must teach them. Georgia says something to the effect that “[when you verbalize the feeling it lowers the physiological response, oxygen can go forward into the brain and they can actually start to problem solve. Children aren’t good at this, their brain is not fully developed yet. Every time you do this for a child you are connecting those synapses and coaching their brain.”

Some riders with cognitive disabilities will also not be able to connect their emotions to their words and your coaching will be greatly helpful. Other riders may not be able to be coached in this way. It depends on the rider, but I think this is a great place to start.

She also suggests using more descriptive words for emotions than just the same 5 (happy, sad, angry, etc.) – which can be hard but increases the kid’s “emotional vocabulary”!

3) Set limits and problem solve.

Georgia says, “All feelings are acceptable, but not all behaviors are acceptable.” You can explain this to the rider along with the limit or boundary on the behavior. A simple way to say it is, “It’s okay to be … but it’s not okay to …” for example, “It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hit your horse.” I would add redirect them to a more appropriate behavior, or if they are able, problem solve about a better way to handle the big emotion.

By the way, I love the term “big emotion” – it’s a nice broad term that you can use instead of naming a specific emotion which often comes with a lot of other ideas/connotations, for example, instead of saying, “Wow, you are feeling so angry right now” you could say “Wow, you are feeling a really big emotion right now.” I think it works well with little kids.

That’s it, short and sweet 🙂 Obviously this isn’t all there is to managing big emotions, but it’s a great place to start!

I hope you have a great week!


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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