On Education, Part III: Should We Use the Socratic Method to Train?

Ema Klugman & Bronte Beach Z. Photo by Abby Powell.

Did you miss Part I and Part II of this series? Click here to catch up. 

After my final exams had concluded last semester, I went through the backlog of documents open on my laptop. Among the practice exams and outlines and all sorts of other study materials, there was a word document with two lines. The first read:

“We should not teach our horses using the Socratic Method.”

I sort of laughed. This is how some of my articles start: I have an idea or I take a position, and then I put it somewhere to look at later. The funny thing about this very-empty document was that it had almost no explanation — a few lines later, there was a second line, which was a single hint:

“It is too frustrating!”

Clearly, I had started this document in irritation during or after one of my classes. I can imagine which class it was because although all of my law professors use the Socratic method, one of them last semester did so in a particularly infuriating way. He would ask the same question over and over for minutes, to dozens of students, usually without any hint, no matter how many people got it wrong. And once someone did finally get it right, he didn’t stop: his follow-up question was always, “why?”.

Obviously at the time I was not convinced that it was the best way to teach, or a suitable way to learn. But in hindsight I think that it is. The Socratic method is a conversation between teacher and student where the teacher leads the student to the correct answer through a series of pointed questions. The idea is that the student will better understand the material if she arrives at the answer on her own, using her own logic.

It is valuable for the students, and fun for the teacher. I imagine that it feels a little bit like guiding a blindfolded student toward the correct answer: “warmer, warmer… no, colder, colder… yes, warmer, hotter, there you go.” Taking wrong turns is part of the process, and the best teachers keep you nimble and curious and willing to keep trying, even if the process is frustrating.

Spending the last few months and preparing to spend the next two-and-a-half years working through the Socratic Method made me think: should we use it when we are training our horses and riders?

There are obviously some reasons not to use the Socratic method with horses:

The stakes are too high. The whole point of law professors asking us incessant questions is to allow us to make mistakes. We are wrong A LOT. But do we want our horses guessing the wrong answers? Maybe not. Not if it means putting them in dangerous situations or scaring them.

Confusion breeds frustration. Having been incredibly frustrated with the method myself, I am not sure that I would want my horses to feel that way. They might begin to despise me as their rider!

Some horses are better learners than others. Not every horse is super clever. Sometimes that is a blessing: you can keep things simple and basic, and they don’t overthink everything that you say. However, it is our responsibility to understand our horses and then to meet them halfway. If they aren’t getting to the answer on their own, the prudent thing to do is to make it very clear. Think of putting wings on a skinny jump, and guiding rails on the approach side — you want to make it as obvious as possible where the horse is supposed to jump, particularly if they are young.

But maybe the Socratic method with horses can make sense in some ways, if used prudently — after all, that “aha” moment tends to be more memorable than when the teacher just tells you the answer and you write it down. Take the example of teaching a horse to be careful in the show jumping: at home, if the rider is always placing them at a ‘gap’ distance and lifting their front end off the ground, they might be clearing the jump, but they aren’t learning the idea that the colored poles are something they are responsible for avoiding.

To learn that lesson, they need the freedom to jump without our help, even if that means that they make a mistake at home. And crucially, when they pick the right answer, they need lots of praise and to be told they are an absolute genius. Remember that if you don’t know you’ve gotten the answer right, you are probably going to keep guessing. Make it obvious when they are correct! If we want our horses to choose the right answer in competition, particularly when we make a mistake and they need to hold up their end of the bargain to pull through, having those teachable moments from the training makes a lot of sense.

The same ideas apply to teaching riders. My most memorable lessons came when I arrived at the answer on my own: by the feeling that my horse jumped much better when I rode a particular way, or the movement he gave me when I showed him how to be through. Your coach can explain things a thousand ways, but you only really learn to repeat them in competition when you have explained them to yourself through feel. You have to be convinced.

On the other hand, because riding horses is dangerous and difficult, coaches need to be mindful that their teaching methods are always putting safety and confidence first. This idea is particularly important when riders are lost or unsure about what they are doing and without further guidance would continue to make mistakes.

My best law professors (including the one about whom I was writing when I began this article, in honest frustration) did not send us blindly into the world to answer a legal question. They gave us a place to start, a framework to follow, and made us keep asking “why?” They walked the line between giving things away and hiding the ball so much that we would never find it. So, too, should we learn to be those kinds of coaches and riders — the kind that guides patiently. Because the reward when they pick the right answer on their own, whether they are a horse or a student, is both lasting and special.