It was the kind of place where the rays of light catch in perpetual clouds of dust, illuminating the air, making the space feel even bigger. The movement of the horses keeps the “light clouds” in motion in the barn and arena.

The instructor in his cowboy hat watched the volunteer guide the student through tacking the horse. Sitting back watching, then stepping up and explaining how he’d do it, when the volunteer became confused and put the stirrups in backwards, careful to say that while there are many ways to get there, there is a clear right and wrong result. It’s his job to make sure the horse and rider are safe, but the exact steps to tack and how it is executed don’t really matter to him, careful to frame his process as his alone. “This is how I do it. It may look silly, but I know I’ve got it right,” he said as he mimicking riding the horse in order to ensure he had the stirrup facing the correct direction. They went on to chat about the incredible amount of information volunteers have to deal with when they are first starting and the value of reinforcing the learnings over time until it just comes natural.

Later, as we waited for another student rider to arrive, the instructor talked about a video he’d recently watched demonstrating what he called “the cue before the cue.” He explained to the volunteer that only asking a horse to “walk on” or “whoa” doesn’t give the sizable animal much warning to start or stop an action that can take a tremendous amount of effort. Instead, the rider can work to be more deliberate about their own patterns of behavior in order to provide a consistent cue, whether through body language or verbal command, that lets the horse anticipate what will happen next allowing them to mentally and physically prepare.

As I watched the lesson, I thought back to the earlier moments in the barn. The cowboy instructor has been riding and working with horses his entire very-long life, and yet, he was flexible and generous with the volunteers, admitting that you never know what someone else can teach you when you keep the process flexible but the outcome rigid. I was also struck by how open and willing he was to adjust his thinking about something as fundamental as how you communicate with the horse. His lifetime of experience was compounded by a lifetime of knowing how to learn.

In my professional role, I deal with many of the same issues: how to onboard, how to learn and reinforce, teaching best practices, autonomy vs. rigidity, and communication. I’ll be thinking about the cue before the cue.

Writer, researcher, observer