The Ascending Spiral

There exists a remarkable parallel between raising children and schooling horses. Both horses and people move through a period of intense physical development in their youth, followed by mental and emotional growth and maturation.

Handled rightly, this process oscillates back and forth between tension and relaxation. In the moment it might feel like you are going back and forth, but getting nowhere. Zoom back sufficiently, however, and you will see that the overall movement, despite the oscillations, is ever onward upward like an ascending spiral. Conversely, if it is mishandled, growth in any one or all three of the areas is stunted, at times temporarily and occasionally permanently. These stunted areas form “cysts” which typically come to the surface at the most inopportune times.

Classical horseman Egon von Neindorff astutely observed in his excellent book The Art of Classical Horsemanship that:

The horse’s obedience can only develop from trust and understanding but its continuance depends on the horse and the rider’s combined discipline. The rider’s mistaken leniency with the horse or himself will not be without side effects. Only the rider’s patience and knowledge combined with methodical and simultaneously individual increases in demands, accomplished without haste, will protect the horse from being overtaxed. This approach will prevent the many battles and facilitate solving unavoidable problems that may arrive.

You’ve no doubt heard a parent talk about the “terrible twos” or roll their eyes when talking about their unruly teenager, but the fact is that had the foundation been better laid in the “wonderful ones” in the first place and the pre-teen years in the second, it is very likely that the weeds would not have taken over the garden of the child’s expression. It is almost never the horse’s fault. He may have unwittingly become part of the problem, but trace it back and you will see an error in development. Look carefully and you will see that something was glossed over, improperly set or missed along the way.

When these flat spots in development are revealed, it is best to look first at yourself as a parent to find the causes of a child’s disobedience. A basic, foundational element of parenting was likely missed and must be addressed, healed or repaired if there is to be further sound and sustainable development of the child.

The same principles applies in riding. When you increase your demands and receive an evasion or a disruptive reaction of some type instead cooperation and progress, you must take the time to analyze and discover exactly where the fault lies in the foundation. The answer will likely be something more basic that you would like to admit to yourself, so be prepared to address it humbly, carefully, respectfully and completely before expecting much more from the horse…or the child!

One final point: never discipline a horse or a child in anger. To do so is an absolute violation of the sacred responsibility entrusted to both parents and riders. Discipline is of course necessary, but a parent or rider who poisons the tip of the arrow of correction with anger will invariably do more harm than good. Trust built up over years can be violated by one false move in this regard, so please, take note.

6 thoughts on “The Ascending Spiral

  1. Joshua

    Agreed, right parenting skills are greatly needed.
    Taking advantage of this opportunity and carefully handling this great privilege should not be, and will not be taken lightly. Reproving and repaving the way, is why we are here.
    Thanks Gregg!


  2. Colin

    I think there is a lot to be said for looking at yourself for both the causes of trouble in your own life and the ones you are responsible for before blame is assigned. I find even if there are things at work that you are not directly responsible for, there is often plenty in ourselves that can be improved or healed. What you say about never correcting in anger really rings true as well. If that is done the person acting in anger is really showing a weakness in themselves rather than correcting a problem observed in another person.


  3. In thinking how to master the aspects internal to oneself I can see that overloading one’s physical capacities, be overly harsh with one’s emotions and overly strict with one’s mind can all prevent a creative and generative expression. Your post makes me ponder the external and internal aspects of mastery.


  4. Vincent

    The process of maturation is complexs and multi-dimensional, and yet with the understanding and application of a few simple principles it can work so naturally and easily. Unfortunately we tend to visit the limitations of our own limited or interrupted maturity on our children, but if we are observant and honest about those tendencies in ourselves, the future can be changed. Actually, some of the most freeing fulfilments can be known as errors in a parent’s growth and development are corrected in a child!


  5. Strawberryfield

    My Grandmother’s comment was frequently “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree”. When you’re responsible for people or animals this is good to remember. It may answer the question, what happened to that person or give you the reason to guide with love. The other admonition is ” children (or pets) learn what they live”. …then you’ll live with what they learned. Thanks for your thoughtful words.


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