Relax, I’m Just Trying to Praise You
September 1, 2015 by Jec Ballou
This particular student cooed “good boy” between a few slurping kiss noises for nearly half a circle before hearing my instruction to carry on with things. By carry on, I meant to get back to the point of what we were doing. The student had nearly achieved it when she folded over the horse’s neck and began praising him in a classic example of what I call the Praise-Flog Equation. This is where riders praise their horses, often without warrant, while constantly flogging themselves to higher standards. It makes for a tricky instructional setting.
When I tell these students they have done a nice job, they insist, no, it stunk. When I laud them “good, good” they grimace and insist it was not good. They maintain such unreachable standards for themselves that sometimes I can’t tell if they actually enjoy riding or not. And yet towards their horses they accept quite little effort for big praise. I have found myself wondering if they praise their children for the mere thought of going to school but not for actual attendance. But I digress.
Earlier in my career, it seemed like part of my job requirements as a teacher were to understand this incongruence of expectations for rider versus horse, to figure out these complex psychological riddles. I tried to puzzle through students’ disjointed, confusing mind states. I won’t claim I excelled, but I tried. It did not take long to admit that we horse trainers are not adapted for psychological ponderings. We are very ill-suited to getting inside—and understanding– other human beings.
Normally, I assume that since riders hire me to teach them certain things, they want to learn these things. But then right at the moment I am urging them towards a specific feeling or cue, a Praise-Flog student will abort a potential ahah! moment by throwing down her reins to praise her horse for something that might have, but did not, happen. Or as I am verifying the accuracy of her techniques with positive feedback, she will sputter and spew at me that she is not possibly getting things right. As I assure these riders prone to the Praise-Flog equation that, yes they are doing well, I am dismissed even more. As a young professional, I spent a good deal of time standing in the center of the arena confused. Why was this student harrumphing at me when I, the professional, told her something positive? And yet when I told her to expect a little more from her horse, she looked at me like I was a heartless ogre.
Trying to un-spool this incongruence of expectations can lead an instructor to consider a whole slush pile of inner workings. Is this student aiming some mis-placed frustrations at me from elsewhere in her life? Is she compensating for a feeling of inadequacy? As I said, entertaining these sorts of reflections sends a horse trainer in to realms that he or she is not meant for. We end up standing around confused quite a bit of the time. We are trying to read through a student’s scowl to determine if she is heeding our instruction or wishing we would go away. And, truth be told, we are trying to work our way in to that Praise-Flog equation to get ourselves a helping of gushing, satisfying praise each day. Now, if we can just figure out how to understand the inner workings of other humans.