Dressage and Learning

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole and once it has done so, he will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.”

I have blogged about the relationship of learning how to ride and learning in law school.

Dressage Test Videos!

The first time I parked my butt on a horse was in the summer of 2009 at the age of 55.  There is nothing that helps remind a teacher about learning like being a student.

There are two basic styles of riding, Western and English.  I chose to do English because somebody told me it was easier to go from English to Western if I decided later to change.  Within English, there are different disciplines, but the sport mainly divides between jumping horses over obstacles ("hunter-jumper”), dressage, which involves trying to exploit the natural athletic ability of the horse in various gaits and movements, and “eventing”, which combines jumping in an arena, dressage, and riding and jumping on a cross-country course.  After three years of riding, and concluding that I didn't need the thrill of jumping, I decided to concentrate on dressage.  (There's an adage that you aren't really a rider until you've fallen off X number of times, and that's true in dressage as well, so I don't need any additional exhilaration.)

You can practice and train without competing just like you can go out and hit tennis balls for the sheer pleasure of it without playing games.  If you "show," you do it at levels that proceed from what is called "training level" all the way up to Grand Prix and Olympic level competition.  The levels have to do with what the horse is capable of doing combined with what the rider is capable of asking the horse to do.  Very humbling to be taught by a 1,200 pound creature whose favorite thing in the world is to eat a treat out of my hand.

The horse in the top picture is Markie, a half-Arabian, half-Hackney who lives in Michigan.  He is mine, and I support his comfortable lifestyle at Torch Valley Farm in Ellsworth so that he is available to me the part of the year I’m in Michigan.  The bottom picture is of the late Angel, a wonderful and sadly missed horse whom I used to half-lease in Acton, MA (Shepley Hill Eventing at Liberty Tree Farm).  

Also a little disconcerting to read the naivete of my early posts about riding!

Is a Law Student Any Different Than a Horse? What If Buck Brannaman Were a Law Professor?

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I've been reflecting this summer on the student evaluations from my evening first-year contracts class, and the creation of learning environments.   Here's what the data tells me.   In my upper-level classes (securities regulation and unincorporated business entities), I get numerical evaluations that are substantially above the school's mean scores.  In my contracts class, however, the scores are below the mean, reflecting what I think is a fairly bi-modal distribution.  

There are lots of nice comments, but the negative ones about which I am most concerned are that I am not sufficiently kind to many student questions or discussion that I think are going to lead nowhere helpful.  (To be fair to myself, there are also students who are happy that I do this.)   My reasoned conclusion is that the upper-level classes are significantly more self-selecting.  The students who stay long enough to fill out evaluations like my style.  The first-year students have no choice in the matter.

I had already come up with a technical solution for next year.  I decided that I would institute a "question period" at the end of each class, and what I would call (taking a cue from something we used in the corporate world) the "parking lot" - i.e., interesting question or comments, but "may we place that in the parking lot so as not to lose the thread we are on now?"

Then I watched a movie the other night that my riding instructor, Nadine DeYoung, of Torch Valley Farms in Ellsworth, Michigan recommended to me.  Those of you who are already sick of my ad nauseam horseback riding learning metaphors can stop here, but it's my most intense ongoing learning experience, and it's hard not to see the application when I'm on the other side of the figurative podium.


The movie is Bucka documentary that won the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Festival.  It is about Buck Brannaman, who was the technical adviser on Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer.  Brannaman tours the country teaching his particular method of horsemanship.  I won't try to say much more about it, except that it is an inspirational story of someone who survived his own abusive father and appears, by sheer act of will, to have overcome blame.  He has a dual commitment to excellence and learning that, it seems to me, can only arise from both an unshakeable confidence and a concomitant humility.  

Where I have trained

My teachers have included Meg Howes, Danielle McNamara, Melissa Consalvo, Nadine DeYoung, Julie Van Zee, Cathy Russell, Lelo Reeves-Curtis, and Gianni and Cristina de Marchi at Il Paretaio in Barberino Val d’Elsa, Toscana, Italy. I participated in a John Zopatti clinic at Dry Water.  

I was awed by his technical riding and roping skills (he can rope a horse's back leg), but the law professor teaching insight I took from the film is that the solution to my issue is not merely technical.  There's a question of "feel" in both riding and teaching, and acquiring the feel is a matter of doing, not thinking.   (I should add that Nadine's best and most effective teaching statement to me this summer has been:  "Your problem is that you think too much and get in your own way.  Stop thinking.")

The scene I recommend to every teacher is the one in which Brannaman demonstrates to riders what it feels like to the horse to be yanked on with the reins and the bit.  The rider stands on the ground , holding the rope in front of him as though he were the horse.  Brannaman stands next to him, holding the ends of the rope as though they were reins.  Then he jerks them a couple times and the rider flinches.  After a couple instances of this, Brannaman only needs to move his hands (not the rope) to make the rider flinch.

The lesson is that horses, who are a lot dumber than humans (in some ways), learn to fear the very tools that the trainer is using as the means of teaching.  (A piece of wisdom from another of my trainers, Alyce McNeil, at Verrill Farm Stable in Concord, Massachusetts, along the same lines, when talking about a horse that bites while getting tacked up:  "We don't get bad horses; we make them.")  It doesn't mean being a spineless wimp either:  Brannaman's motto is "Gentle in what you do; firm in how you do it."

The non-technical or "affective" lesson is that students (horses and humans) are not objects, but subjects.  There needs to be an empathetic "aha" moment of "otherness" even to understand that there's a problem in the first place.  Some students, like some horses, don't mind you jerking on the reins.  But some do, and the question is whether that means something.

The First Day of Law School - From My Side of the Podium

By Jeff Lipshaw

During the summers, I usually spend a lot more time around horses and dogs than I do around students.  About this time of year, probably because of the impending transition back to the classroom and dealing with humans, it seems like I always go back to one of my favorite movies, Buck, about the horse trainer Buck Brannaman.  

Five minutes into the movie, he's beginning a "colt starting" class, in which horse owners are learning how to get horses who've never been saddled, much less ridden, to accept the rider.  He narrates:  "Colt starting is always interesting because most of the youngsters never been saddled, never had anyone on their back, or a bit in their mouth, so there’s a lot of fear in both the horse and the human."  

Then the film cuts to his opening remarks to the owners who are themselves going to have to teach their horses:

“The way I do these colt classes, you guys, you’ll have to get ’em exposed to a lot of things that seem perfectly normal to you but it doesn’t seem normal to the horse.

“You walk up to ’em smelling like a Big Mac, you know, or somethin.’ Your diet is gonna make you smell different to the horse.

 “And then you’re gonna tell the horse, ‘don’t worry, I want to crawl on you’ … in a similar posture to how a lion would attack and kill a horse. They jump right up in the middle of them and they reach their front claws around and as they’re biting down on their spine they’re cutting their throat with their claws. You’re asking the horse to let you be in that posture and crawl on him.

"And then about the time he says, ‘Alright, maybe,’ and then you say, ‘Oh one more thing. I want to strap some hides of other dead animals around you before I crawl on you.’

"Damn sure have to have some trust. He’s got to believe in you to let you do that. And amazingly enough, they’ll let you do it.”

I'm pretty sure there's a lesson there for all teachers, but particularly law professors facing a class of 1Ls on the first day. 

Fear and Learning - Cantering and Law School

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

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As those of you who tune in for what the ABA Journal quaintly refers to as my "off-topic" posts may be aware, I decided this summer to learn English style riding (horse, that is).  Let me make this clear.  Other than perhaps a ride on a carnival pony when I was little, my backside and a saddle had never been in any kind of intimate contact.  (If you have spent much time in Ann Arbor, you'll appreciate the following Carnak style joke from one of our Christmas skits in the Dykema office.  Answer divined by Carnak (waiving sealed envelope near forehead):  "Gallup Park."  Question (upon the opening of the envelope):  "What does Jeff think are the gear shifting markings on a horse?") [Joke explanation for the uninitiated:  Gallup Park is a municipal park that follows along the Huron River near the University of Michigan Medical Center.]

There are all sorts of analogies I could make here in terms of the learning process, but here I am about 17 lessons into this, and skiing is perhaps the best one.  Just as you progress in the mechanics of skiing from snowplow to stem christie to parallel turns (at least the way we used to get taught), and accordingly gain the ability to ski steeper slopes (from green to blue to black), in riding you progress "walk-trot-canter" (that oversimplifies it, but not unduly so).  It's hard to get too scared in a walk, but when a perky horse starts to trot for the first time, and you need to steer, control the pace, sit correctly, keep your heels down, keep your hands down and quiet, squeeze your upper legs, and keep your knees relaxed and your lower legs still, a certain panic may set in.  It's like pointing your skis down the fall line the first time, and then losing it as you begin to pick up speed and panic.

So today was a watershed because I cantered for the first time.  It's a little faster than a fast trot, but that's not the issue.  It just feels really different.  I was taught to get into the canter from a "two-point" position, which means that I'm trotting around the outside of the ring with my butt off the saddle, my back flat and looking up and outward (sort of leading with the chest, as it were), and my hands holding both the reins and the horse's mane.  I then give the horse a kick aftwards (to the back) with the outside leg (which I understand is telling the horse to lead with the inside leg, which is correct), and then . . . holy moses (or words to that effect) - I AM GOING TO FALL OFF THE FREAKING HORSE!  The natural tendency, akin to the fall line panic, is to curl forward which is exactly the wrong thing to do.  If you relax, look up, and get "taller", it feels pretty smooth and controlled.  The problem the first time is you don't know what it is going to feel like.  I can report success, however.  I did a nice canter down the long side of the ring, and then when I was later trotting in a two point (tapering off at the end of the lesson), the horse started to canter and I actually laughed as I brought her back to a trot and to a walk. 

One of my rationalizations for spending all this time and money (other than the fact that I really enjoy it) was better to understand learning from a student's perspective.  What really jumped out at me today was the relationship between fear and learning.  Often what you need to do is counter-intuitive, or counter to natural self-preservation instincts.  The first time is the hardest because you don't know what to expect, and the unknown is the most fearsome.  This takes me back over thirty-three years, but I can recall just how terrified I was of getting called on in John Kaplan's criminal law class (I had never before spoken aloud in class among all these incredible smart fellow students and the professor who seemed to be able to tie minds in knots), or the fear before taking the first set of exams in the first semester (which, by the way, were after the holidays just to make it worse). 

The fear sits out front like a barrier.  (Think of the vibrations Chuck Yeager experienced before getting to Mach 1.)  I don't think there is a significant difference between fear of physical injury and fear of embarrassment or public failure.   I am far and widely known as a physical coward (think Woody Allen).  You must push through it, because control, calmness, and the ability to function return on the other side.

© Jeffrey Lipshaw 2013