“They say Princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.” – Ben Johnson
Despite my best laid plans, I’ve often found myself bouncing along the path of life like a bad rider on a horse. And come to think of it, I’ve also been – in fact and not just simile – that bad rider! One of my more humbling life lessons on the back of a horse came early in my riding career (read: not too long ago).
I had not yet purchased my own horse, so I was riding by virtue of the generosity of others who stabled horses at the barn. One of my eventual mounts, Gabe, was a handsome, stout Hanoverian. He was the kindest of creatures when unmounted and performed beautifully for skilled riders, like my friend Kim.
Fortunately for me, he needed to be worked and his present owner lived out of state. Unfortunately for me and for Gabe, my bumbling inexperience and inability to convey clear messages through my riding aids provided sufficient confusion that day to pique his deepest fears and trigger an impressive display of his unbounded strength, agility and speed.
What ensued was the ride of my life. In retrospect, I consider myself doubly fortunate that morning as there was no one else in the ring with me but Jamie, one of the most poised, reassuring and competent trainers this side of the Renaissance. While Gabe thundered in full gallop around the ring, he darted several times toward the fence, turned on a dime just inches before crashing through it and then – I imagine in a desperate effort to unseat his maladroit rider – jumped in the wrong direction over two jumps (yes, gulp, these were the first two jumps of my riding career).
Amidst this chaotic stream of events I remained focused on two things: first, the voice of my trainer and second, keeping my wits (for pride was long gone) about me. The wind rushing past my ears carried Jamie’s soothing suggestions as to how to extricate myself from the volatile predicament without injuring myself or the horse and wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, I listened, obeyed and both Gabe and I survived unharmed!
I imagine I learned more than Gabe from the experience and he quickly returned to his usual gentle, quiet self once I dismounted. As for me, the moments of terror we shared together that sunny, otherwise peaceful morning were nothing short of transformative. Despite the cloudless sky, I was struck by lightning, borne on the shoulders of thunder, and though I did not fall literally, I fell figuratively deeply in love with the art and challenge of horsemanship.
What I learned from this is that although horse riding is arguably one of the most humbling of pastimes, it is also one of the most addictive and inspiriting. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted: “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/she will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.”
Judging from Jamie and Kim’s work with Gabe in the following months, I was relieved to see that my unintentional bungling did not obliterate his already tenuous faith in humanity or compromise his future as a competitive dressage horse. As for me, these unexpected yet highly instructive moments of sheer terror bumped me further along the path to understanding these magnificent beasts.
To date and upon much subsequent reflection, I realize that I learned a number of specific and valuable lessons on riding, if not life lessons:
1. If you find yourself in unfamiliar or tumultuous circumstances, relax. Tension neutralizes your capacity for creative thought and greatly reduces the chances of a positive outcome.
2. Listen to your elders…er, uh, sorry Jamie…the voice of experience, especially when your own vision or knowledge are limited.
3. Never abandon the fundamentals. A proper seat, for instance, is as important in a highly controlled, carefully orchestrated Grand Prix dressage performance as it is in a highly uncontrolled, haphazardly occurring ride on a runaway horse.
4. In the face of danger, if not in life in general, abandon pride and embrace dignity with all your might. With dignity comes poise; with poise, influence. You cannot bring order out of chaos if you, yourself, are in a frenzy.
5. In every misstep, imbalance or fiasco, examine your own performance before criticizing others’. In the case of horse riding, the horse is rarely at fault. The human factor in the equation almost always lies at the root of an ill-tempered, poor going or evasive horse.