Whats, Hows, Whys in the Arena

“Sit tall”….”Look up”….”Heels down”….”Change your posting diagonal”…”Turn to the right”….”Stop by the cone”….”Trot at letter A”…”Close your leg”……

Sound familiar?

All of the commands above are common WHATS that we all hear in both traditional and adaptive riding lessons. All of the commands above are statements you or I have probably made countless times (I know I’m guilty of only giving ‘lonely’ or ‘standalone’ HOWs like the ones listed above!)

But something VERY important is missing from the ‘Whats’ above. 

So….what exactly is  missing to actually make these effective cues? HOWs and WHYs

Whats, Hows, Whys, like Task Analysis, is most likely another teaching technique that you have heard about if you have spent time teaching in the adaptive (therapeutic) riding world or have received formal teacher or coach training (educator, yoga instructor, etc)

Whats, Hows, and Whys are yet another block to the solid foundation of a good instructor and should be weaved through our entire lesson (not just gone over once when talking about the main skill!)

So what exactly are Whats, Hows, Whys:

  • Whats– The skill you are teaching. What you are asking your student to do (the skill)
  • How-  How you do the skill. The steps your student will take to perform the skill (Task Analysis)
  • Why- Gives the reason behind the ‘what’ and/or ‘how’. Enables student to apply the What and How to later situations

When I teach Whats, Hows, Whys to instructors in training or work on fine tuning this technique with experienced instructors, I like to break them down in to two different categories. Breaking them down into two different categories helps instructors stay focused on their Main Skill during the lesson and organize their thoughts. By focusing on both categories below (not just the ‘one’ broad category of Whats, Hows, Whys) the instructor can better focus on not only incorporating Whats, Hows, Whys of the Main Skill but also realize that they have to consistently use supporting Whats, Hows, Whys. Usually the Whats, Hows, Whys of the main skill (or a skill) are heard during a lesson but there is lack of other necessary, supporting Whats, Hows, Whys.

The two Whats, Hows, Whys categories are:

  1. Main Skill Whats, Hows, Whys (Supporting WHWs)
  2. Supporting Whats, Hows, Whys (Supporting WHWs)

Note: What is addressed in this post not only applies to teaching riding lessons but also groundwork lessons, but for the sake of clarity I will be using the term ‘riding’ for the remainder of the post. But the term groundwork or horsemanship could be easily interchanged! Good teaching techniques do not change just because your student is on the ground instead of in the saddle.

Main Skill WHWs

When teaching an adaptive riding lesson the instructor should be focusing on teaching a riding skill. It is true that as as adaptive riding instructors, we need to adapt how we teach and some activities based on the physical, cognitive, or emotional needs of our students we should not be focusing on a ‘therapy’ type goal. Everything we are working on must relate back to a riding skill. 

A well structured lesson will have one, or possibly two main riding skills that will be focused on during that ride. These Main Skills are the heart of the lesson and will be the base for your Main Skill WHWs. Focusing on a main skill helps instructors have more focus and clarity when teaching, forces the instructor to think about skill progression of their students, and also helps the student know what they are working on/what is expected of them during the lesson.

A lesson often progresses through the following:

Warm up -> Skill Review (that applies to main skill) -> Teaching Main Skill -> practice of Main Skill -> Wrap up/Cool Down

Let’s pretend that the Main Skill for our student’s lesson today is “walk-trot-walk transitions”. 

The Main Skill WHWs breakdown may sound something like:

What: Today we are going to be practicing “walk-trot-walk transitions”…or asking our horse to change their gate from a walk, to trot, then back to a walk again.

Why: It is important for you to practice walk-trot-walk transitions so you can stay safe and balanced while you speed up and slow down and also having good, solid walk/trot transitions prepares you for more advanced riding skills such as (riding independently, cavalettis, cantering, etc)

How: How we will do the walk-trot-walk transitions comes in two parts because we have to go from walk to trot then from trot to walk. So Part 1-To go from the walk to the trot we will start by having our horse in a nice working walk on the rail. We will then ask our horse to trot by looking forward where we are going, keeping our hands in front of the pommel, rolling our shoulders back to our horse’s tail, and giving a gentle squeeze with both legs while saying “trot”. Remember to stop squeezing with your legs once your horse is trotting. Once your horse is trotting you will need to do Part 2- to transition back down from the trot to a walk you will first prepare your body then ask your horse to slow down. Before you walk you will want to look forward, tighten your core, and make sure your shoulders are tucked back into your pocket. When you are ready to walk you will tuck your bottom and gently sit down then ask your horse to “walk” with your voice. If needed, you can gently pull on both reins. (Your ‘How’ is your Task Analysis)

Note 1: The explanation above may vary depending on the physical and cognitive ability of the student…this is just a general explanation

Note 2: I personally do more of a What and a How/Why How/Why when explaining things. I will give one step of how we do something and then might follow with a why immediately instead of separating out all the whys to the end. How the Whats, Hows, Whys are verbalized depends on the topic and your student and there are many different techniques)

Once you have given the first explanation of your Main Skill and the WHWs, continue to keep reinforcing the WHWs of the main skill throughout the lesson. Each time your student does a walk/trot transition you will most likely be reviewing the Hows and Whys of your Main Skill and adding in some additional Supporting WHWs as needed.

Supporting WHWs

The WHWs of the Main Skill alone will not be enough to help your student successfully progress. 

During the lesson you will not only have to continually reinforce the Main Skill WHWs but you will also need to incorporate several Supporting WHWs as your student works with their horse. There are many different times that you can incorporate Supporting WHWs. 

Let’s go back to a general lesson progression and see how Supporting WHWs can be incorporated:

  • Warm Up: WHWs of the basics such as looking where you are going, riding position/alignment, etc. can be reviewed at this time (and also throughout the lesson if your student needs a reminder on one of these basic skills during the lesson)
  • Skill Review: During this part of the lesson your student will be reviewing skills that they will need to focus on and carry over into the main part of the lesson to help them successfully execute the Main Skill. If the Main Skill is “walk-trot-walk transitions”, we may do Skill Reviews of walk-halt-walk transitions. WHWs of the transitions would be incorporated at this time and it would be a great time to really dig into and/or review the the Whys behind what we do in any transition (like not falling forward, sitting even on seat bones when slowing/stopping, verbal commands first, etc). During the Skill Review the instructor could also start talking a little bit about what the Main Skill will be that day and point out similarities between the skill that is being reviewed and the Main Skill (example: when you ask your horse to go from a halt to a walk you use both legs to squeeze and you stop squeezing once he is walking. What you do when going from halt to walk also applies when you go from walk to trot. When you go from a walk to a trot you will squeeze with both legs then stop squeezing once he is trotting so he does not keep going faster than what you want).
  • Teaching the Main Skill: During this time you will teach the WHWs of the Main Skill. If your student has questions you may need to throw in some supporting WHWs as needed. Your teaching and explanation of the Main Skill should be fairly brief at this time and should just cover the necessary Hows and Whys. As your student goes out and practices the Main Skill you can then incorporate more WHWs to beef up the explanation.
  • Practicing the Main Skill: Even though this time is spent practicing the Main Skill, there should still be multiple Supporting WHWs…well ‘supporting’….your student as they practice the main skill. As your student does an upward transition from the walk to trot you will likely have to again reinforce and repeat the Main Skill WHWs and also add in some Supporting WHWs depending on what you see in the moment. For example your student may be trying to post while their horse is still walking so you may need to go over What they need to do: Sit even on both seat bones until the horse trots then they can post How: Keep sitting until you feel your horse trot and their stride pushes you up into a post Why: So they can use their seat bones to stay balanced during the transition and help push their horse from a walk to a trot. During this time you can also incorporate more Hows and Whys of the Main Skill (you can and should only fit so much into your first general explanation of the Main Skill)
  • Wrap Up/Cool Down– just because this is cool down time does not mean that it can’t be a learning time! WHWs can still be incorporated depending on what you see your student doing during this time. You could also spend this time talking about the WHWs of the Main Skill and some of the Supporting WHWs…give your student a What (like walk-trot transition, looking where you are going, etc) and see if they can verbalize the How and/or Whys.

WHWs in a Nutshell & 4 Tips to Incorporate Them in Lessons

Simply stated- if you tell your student WHAT to do you should follow it with a HOW and/or WHY. If you focus on not having ‘lonely’ or ‘stand alone’ Whats like the ones in the opening line, you can greatly improve your incorporation of WHWs in your lesson. 

4 Tips to improve your WHWs:

  1. Make it a point to listen for WHATS in your lesson and catch yourself if they are not followed by a HOW and WHY (no ‘lonely’ or ‘stand alone’ Whys!). At first you may have a what…then you catch yourself and you add in a HOW and/or WHY later. Better late than never for adding in a how and a why…smoothness of incorporating Whats, Hows, Whys comes with practice!
  2. Record your lesson using a phone and review yourself (once you get over the initial awkwardness of watching yourself on camera it gets much easier). Specifically listen for Whats, Hows, Whys (Bonus if you categorize them into Main Skill or Supporting WHWs)
  3. Ask a fellow instructor listen (and even write down) the Whats, Hows, Whys as they hear them in your lesson
  4. Ask your student to give you three WHATs that they worked on during the lesson and the HOWs and WHYs.

Additional Resources:

You can also check out the blog post “Teaching the Skill 2.0: What, How, Why, Where” by Lessons in TR for another explanation of Whats, Hows, Whys.

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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