Lessons from the Dancing Horses

Visiting Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, I was struck by the many parallels between the training of the horses and good teaching practices of classical educators. Consider:

Ludwig Koch – “Courbette” – Public Domain – See more of Koch’s amazing horse paintings here: http://www.theequinest.com/ludwig-koch/
  • Training the horses takes many years. – Just so, we cannot rush our students through the learning process. If they have not mastered a skill this year, perhaps it will come more easily next year.
  • Horses and riders begin by mastering all of the basics. – While it is tempting for us to aim for breadth, mastery and depth build students’ confidence and lay necessary foundations for advanced skills. At the same time, there is a minimum expected level of knowledge without which students are unable to advance or to attain a judicious understanding of a subject.
  • Horses and riders are seen as individuals. Mature horses are solid white, and experienced riders wear the same brown coats and black bicorn hats; but their uniform appearance does not negate their individuality. – Similarly, study of the Western inheritance that has been cultivated, collected, and conveyed across the centuries in no way forces today’s students into a monolithic mold. Rather, it frees them to think, speak, create, and act, precisely because the Western inheritance emphasizes the growth of virtue alongside the protection of liberty.
  • Training is tailored to the horse’s own abilities each day and for the long term. – In the same way, we cannot always accomplish all the big plans we have for ourselves and our students; we have to be ready to slow down, take a break, modify expectations, or emphasize different skills according to students’ needs.
  • Each training session is one-to-one, and each rider trains only a handful of horses. – Education is largely about relationships between teachers and students, between parents and teachers, among students, among parents, and among teachers. We can help one another most precisely when we know more about those we are trying to help. Small class sizes and one-to-one tutoring allow teachers to give the most specific guidance to their students.
  • Training sessions begin with a review of the basics, continue with careful work on new or weak skills, and conclude with a relaxing walk. – In the same way, the best lessons begin with review, continue with presentation of new material, and conclude with a refreshing return to something the student has mastered.
  • Training sessions are punctuated by frequent praise. – While most students would prefer Hershey’s (or a favorable comment on an essay) to the plain sugar cubes the horses receive, good student work must be frequently rewarded.
  • Horses and riders are always surrounded by beauty; the architecture around them and the music they exercise to are superior; everything used by the horses and riders is of the highest quality. – Beauty and excellence are inspiring. If we want our students to rise above today’s culture of pervasive mediocrity, instant gratification, and expected ugliness, we need to surround them with things that encourage them to desire something better.
  • The entire process is based on respect for and love of the tradition of classical horsemanship going all the way back to ancient Greece. The Spanish Riding School exists because, for thousands of years, people have recognized the exquisite beauty of horse and rider in motion. The tradition continues because those who practice it love it, and their love leads them to train the next generation. – Just as the medieval monks painstakingly copied the Greek and Roman classics, we pass down our Western inheritance to our students because we recognize its exquisite beauty. We hope that our students will learn its lessons, love it themselves, and hand on their knowledge to the next generation.

Image: Exterior of the Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria