Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Writerly Advice "Show, Don't Tell" For Trainers

by Lisa Trovillion

I read a post today from a Grand Prix trainer talking about teaching the student how to balance a horse in a methodical, systematic way rather than just telling her to execute a half-halt. I've synthesized down the content of the post, which was much more complex and nuanced, but I believe this was the gist of it. Or, this is what I took away from it. See, this is the problem. We as human beings rely heavily on words alone to convey our thoughts and emotions. The thing is, a word can mean various things to different people the same way as a color may look to be a different shade to different individuals. Having worked for years as a linguist/translator I'm acutely away of the micro-layers of meaning behind many words and expressions. In preparing or correcting translations from one language to another, fierce debates had been known to break out and carry on for days over the meaning of one little expression.

So, getting back to riding and the meaning of half-halt--a word that doesn't even exist in the dictionary by the way--what do we do when all we have is our very anemic and flat language to use when describing the dynamic, shifting and subtle art of riding? We try to give the feelings names and to codify this terminology into the lexicon of horsemanship so everyone will be on the same page and know what we are talking about...but we still have trouble. Debates still rage over what really is connection, on-the-bit, half-halt and a dictionary of other terms. Are we seeing or feeling the same thing as the horse person standing next to us when we call it by a certain term? The more I ride and train, the more I realize I had no idea what a half-halt really was. We humans are blessed with the gift of speech, but it is still an imperfect form of communication. We want to communicate with horses, but our language is of little to no use there. We have to translate our intentions into their language. When we become expert at doing so, it seems it is very hard to translate horse language back into human in order to teach others.

How good are we communicating with others? Not very, it seems, on too many occasions. The word is our building block to form sentences, paint images, share emotion, impart information, convince or coerce others. Words are powerful, but their meanings are at times obscure. In writing, we often are told to "show, not tell" because I think it's felt on some level that words are not as clear as action. Although I believe that piece of advice is sometimes overused (I've read stunning novels from authors who "tell" almost the whole story), the point is well taken. Words can let us down. The same in the world of riding. If our instructor stands in the arena shouting "half-halt!" and we think we are doing one, but are instead stopping the forward action with too much hand and not a re-balancing through the horse's body, can we really say we have learned anything? Can we instead have more instructors who, like writers, are warned "show, don't tell" and coach us into accomplishing the desired action without every putting a name to it. Perhaps then we will be freed from the tyranny of the horse terminology and further on the path towards becoming communicative riders.

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