SPECIFIC Positive Praise- Is this unicorn in your lesson?

More often than not, Specific Positive Feedback or Praise is an underutilized teaching technique used in lessons. It’s like a unicorn….rarely found…or not really a unicorn. You get glimpse of what you thought was that illusive unicorn but it’s a goat with a horn….close…but not what you were really meant to find.

So often ‘praise’ is heard in the form of ‘good job’, ‘nice’, ‘great’, or any other version of a vague, nonspecific feedback . Sometimes a ‘specific’ praise is heard but it is false…like an instructor saying “Nice job sitting tall!” to a rider that is slouched over and sitting crooked in the saddle. Both vague and false praise frequently masquerade as the unicorn of Specific Positive Feedback/Praise but in reality it’s that pesky goat with one horn chewing up a potentially impactful part of your lesson.

So what exactly is Specific Positive Feedback and why is it so important? 

Well read on and we will hunt down this ‘unicorn’ together!

Specific Positive Feedback has been on my ‘to write’ list for a while now. The image to the right popped up recently and finally kicked me into gear about writing on this important topic. 

There are several different teaching techniques that make up the foundation of a good instructor. These techniques should be weaved throughout every lesson regardless of if we are teaching able bodied or special needs riders. Often one or more of these teaching techniques requires our conscious effort to incorporate and with practice, incorporating various techniques will become more second nature. However, we need to continually assess our teaching and see where our strengths and weaknesses are as we journey through growing as instructors.

Some examples of major teaching techniques that help instructors teach safe, quality lessons are listed below (note: other instructors may have different names for them, group one or two together, etc.). When skillfully incorporated, these techniques and other supporting pieces are what separate ‘good’ instructors from ‘great’ instructors. I say ‘major’ teaching techniques because there are a lot of other things that go into teaching such as flexibility, voice volume, etc….but I usually put them under a ‘main’ technique category for the sake of explanations

In this post, I am going to focus on the last technique listed: Specific Positive Feedback (Note: I use the terms feedback and praise interchangeably throughout this post)

I'm not sure who to credit for this image but it is a wonderful illustration of how to change the structure of your praise!

Specific Positive Feedback

What is Specific Positive Feedback? It is more than just a general ‘good job’ ‘great’ or ‘nice’. Specific Positive Feedback incorporates a praise with specific details about the exact thing(s) the rider did well. If you just say ‘good job’….there are countless things in the moments before your praise that your rider could be doing correct or trying to do. If you just say ‘good job’ without context, it could also leave the vague ‘praise’ open interpretation. Your rider may have done something incorrect that you may not have seen, you respond with the general ‘good job’, and inadvertently reinforce something that you don’t want to. Generic praises like ‘good job’ ‘great’ and ‘nice’ can also sound sound non genuine and empty of true praise. Read this article on helpful vs. harmful  praise by the author of Mindset,Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

NOTE: I’m not sure who to credit for this image but it is a wonderful illustration of how to change the structure of your praise!

Specific Positive Feedback Example 1: “I really like how you looked to your next corner before you asked your horse to turn using your reins.”

Specific Positive Feedback Example 2: “That was an excellent downward transition to the walk! I saw you engage your core and keep your shoulders over your hips.”

You can even take your Specific Positive Praise to the next level by tying in a WHY!

Specific Positive Praise With a WHY Example 1: “I really like how you looked to your next corner before you asked your horse to turn with your reins. Looking around to the next corner helps you prepare your body and your horse for the turn. It looked like you had to hardly use your reins in the corner and I’m sure your horse appreciated less of a pull on their mouth!”

Specific Positive Praise With a WHY Example 2“That was an excellent downward transition to the walk! I saw you engage your core and keep your shoulders over your hips. Doing that with your upper body during the transition helped you not fall forward as your horse slowed down.”

Did you know that specific positive feedback does not just have to be a rider doing something perfect? You can also praise the rider for a ‘try’. So many children and adults we work with in both traditional and adaptive riding are afraid to try because they are afraid of looking silly, not getting something right the first time, and a whole host of other reasons. As instructors, we should make the arena a safe space to try things and give specific praise and attention to not only success…but also the ‘trys’ of our students. Keeping in mind that we can give Specific Positive Feedback also helps us avoid giving false praise (see the end of the post for more on this).

Example of a Specific Positive Feedback for a Try: (Instructor asks for student to sit tall in the saddle) “That was a great attempt at sitting tall in your saddle. Thank you for listening and trying. ” And the instructor could follow up with something like “You are almost to the sitting tall position you need while walking. Let me come over there and make a minor adjustment to your shoulders to help you get the position 100%.”

Are you running out of ways to say ‘good job’? Check out 101 Ways to Say Good Job and link them with a Specific Positive Praise and a WHY for a powerful combination.

So why is Specific Positive Praise Important? 

Well…let me list a few reasons!

  1. Reinforces Correct Positions and Decisions: Specific Positive Praise is extremely important because it reinforces the correct things that your rider is doing. (I’ll bet that half the things your rider is doing ‘right’ they may not even be aware of as some things just come natural to them!). Praising riders for their position is important but don’t forget to praise their decisions as well! Learning critical thinking while riding, how to read horse behavior, etc is just as important as good riding position!
  2. Builds Self-esteem and Confidence: So often in riding and working with horses we get so stuck on everything we need to fix that we forget to acknowledge what is going right. If a person (of any ability level) only hears the things that they need to fix it takes a toll on their confidence and self-esteem. Now…I’m not saying that instructors should ignore things that need fixing…but we need to find the balance between praise and critiques. Also, for those of us that work with and individual with a disability, we may be one of the few activities in their life where they hear something positive about themselves. 
  3. Reinforces it is OK to Try: So often both the instructor and the student get stuck on what things are ‘supposed to look like’ in the end that we forget to recognize the ‘try’ that it takes to actually take steps to get to the end! There has never been a person that tried something like horseback riding, a musical instrument, math, etc. the first time and was automatically perfect. They had to practice….and try in practice….and fail during practice…and try again. 
  4. Another way to Incorporate WHYs In Your Lesson: We are limited in how much we can say during each moment of our lesson and we often focus our words on telling the rider what to do and (hopefully) how to do it. Just like Specific Positive Praise, the WHYs behind what we do while riding are often put on the back burner. Specific Positive Feedback is a perfect time to incorporate a Why because it gives even more substance to your praise and you have already got your student’s ears open by leading with a praise!
  5. Cues for Other Students to Fix Something: Specific Positive Feedback to a student that is heard by their peers riding with them is a great way to give a praise and possibly a hint to the other students on what they may need to fix. I guarantee if one student gets a praise about their hand position you will see the others check and adjust theirs! If you see a student adjust their position in response to a praise to another student’s positive feedback be sure to ‘catch them’ in the moment and give them Specific Positive Feedback as well! And guess what…you just made a correction without having to point out a critique!!! Of course be cautious of over praising one rider out of the group. Do your best to praise each student (yes…sometimes it is hard to find a specific praise but that is where we need to dig deep and have very watchful eyes to pick out something good or a ‘try’)
  6. It Can Be a Strong Motivator: There is mixed opinion of whether praise or criticism is the ‘strongest’ motivator. I think both are equally important and have a time and place in every lesson. I do think think that in general, we tend to fall into more criticism heavy lessons because, as mentioned above, we get stuck on what we need to fix and what our horse and student should be doing that we forget to find and reinforce the positives. Or…our student is doing wonderful motoring around the arena and seems to have put the pieces together that they have been working on so we think we can sit back and just relax (but what a perfect opportunity for Specific Positive Feedback!). Specific Positive Feedback is also a strong motivator if it is genuine and earned. Even if it is specific…a praise that is false does more harm than good.
Warning sign

False Praise Warning

So…I just spent a whole blog post telling you how important Specific Positive Feedback is and how it should be more frequent than Specific Constructive Feedback (aka: criticisms)….but be careful not to fall into ‘False Praise’ in the attempt to fit in more positives. 

Remember that we can not only give Specific Positive Feedback for our riders doing something completely correct but we can also give Specific Positive Feedback and praise our riders for attempting, or ‘trying’, to do something. If you praise your rider for a ‘try’ be sure to follow up with some additional information on WHAT they need to do different, HOW they need to do the WHAT, and WHY you are having them make that change. Then, when the rider truly does accomplish what was asked make sure your Specific Positive Feedback is well timed, genuine, and celebrates the accomplishment. 

So you may be asking “What about the riders that really are not doing very much…how am I supposed to avoid false praise or find a specific positive feedback to give? ” or “My student is advanced and already know what they are doing right. I don’t need to waste my breath on praises”. 

So I will admit that on each end of the spectrum, working with lower functioning riders and those that are more advanced, are probably the more challenging cases when it comes incorporating Specific Positive Feedback in your lessons 

  • For those of us that teach lower functioning riders in adaptive riding lessons– Praise them for eye contact, a smile, making a finger motion towards the reins, holding the reins, sitting quiet, using a multiple word phrase, a brief shift of their eyes towards the obstacle they are walking towards, etc. Avoid false praise like “good job sitting in the middle” if they really are not sitting in the middle. Our praises reinforce the action…so if we reinforce sitting off center with a praise just to make the rider feel good…did we really do right by the rider? No.
  • For those of us that teach more advanced riders in traditional or adaptive riding lessons– Praise is still a good motivator for riders at the higher level. Also remember that you never know who you are teaching! You may be teaching an up and coming instructor so modeling verbalizing Specific Positive Feedback and incorporating the WHYs of what they are doing is important is crucial (to change it up you can also try giving Specific Positive Feedback and have them verbalize back WHY it is important). With more advanced riders you may be giving praise more on the attempts and the ‘try’ than actually succeeding at the end goal but praising the effort is important to help avoid someone from shutting down when push comes to shove and giving that little bit of motivation it may take to overcome a plateau. Don’t forget to go back and praise them for things they ‘should know’ and that should be second nature by now (heel position, hand position, grip on the reins, etc). Specific Positive Feedback is a great way to keep all the foundational things that eventually become second nature fresh in someone’s mind because again….you never know who you are teaching. Keep the ‘basics’ fresh in your student’s mind so they can work with green horses or beginner riders and not loose that fundamental knowledge under the years of living and breathing advanced skills. 

You can still include ample Specific Positive Feedback in a lesson without giving false praise and while still making riders earn praise….and this applies to all ability riders. It takes practice and conscious effort but I promise it is possible!

So how much Specific Positive Feedback Should You Incorporate? You might be surprised!

According to articles by Harvard Business Review and The Gottman Institute recent findings following people in the workplace as well in their personal lives found that the ratio should be 5 POSITIVES to 1 NEGATIVE! There are some other articles out there that say that the ratio should be 3:1 or 7:1 and perhaps the ratio is different depending on the person and the situation. I think that whatever the ratio everyone finally agrees upon, the main takeaway is that positive praise should outweigh criticisms

I will be the first one to admit that most of my lessons don’t reach the 5:1 ratio all the time however, Specific Positive Feedback has definitely been more in the forefront of my brain recently as I am working with more and more children and adults that have anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. 

Specific Positive Feedback Challenge

I challenge you to go out and have a parent, volunteer, or fellow instructor record 5 minutes of a lesson that you teach (audio only or video also) without you knowing when they are recording. Replay your recording and count how many praises you gave your students during that time. Now…out of the praises that you heard (if any)…how many were specific

Did the unicorn of Specific Positive Praise make an appearance in your lesson or was it the pesky one horned goat of vague or false praise?

Written by Saebra Pipoly. Learn more about the author by clicking here.

Send Saebra an email at saebra.p@hooffallsandfootfalls.comsubscribe to the Hoof Falls & Footfalls newsletter, follow on instagram, and subscribe to the YouTube channel!

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