The Elegant Solution

You know a book is going to be interesting when its preface is riveting. William Steinkraus’ prefatory comments to Lt. Col. A. L. D’Endrödy’s excellent work on equitation “Give Your Horse a Chance” provides powerful insight into how to be more effective in living. Steinkraus noted:

“It is ironic that so many of the people who have never studied the literature of riding – to which the present volume makes a significant addition – simply ‘can’t spare the time’ to do so. That they should cherish time is reasonable enough, for, after all, time is life; but they only way in which we can truly save time lies I borrowing from the experience (which is to say time) of others. Nothing is more wasteful than the tedious search for a solution to a problem which others have long since solved.”

This principle can be applied at any point in the learning curve of any challenge you face in life. Don’t be afraid to ask the experts who have gone before you, consult their notes if they are available and put their solutions to the test. Times change, of course, but to the degree that their solutions were applications of timeless principles, their relevance will hold no matter how many grains of sand have passed through the neck of the hourglass.

Steinkraus went on to describe that:

“Thus all of us who aspire, in our practice of riding, to something more than an interminable repetition of the same errors of technique or of understanding will find ourselves indebted to Colonel d’Endrödy, who has made it available to us in this volume the most precious gift a rider can pass on to his colleagues-his own experience and his understanding of it. His experience has been vast; he has probed it with an exceptionally keen analytical mind for the basic logical and consistent principles that are the only short cuts, and he has set forth these insights in an integrated, systematic form with the most painstaking thoroughness.”

In every field of human inquiry and activity, there are “basic logical and consistent principles that are the only shortcuts.” These are the principles of truth, which, when properly applied, constrain to the most efficient and consequently, elegant solution of any problem.

The masters in any field are those who have harmonized their function with its underlying logical and consistent principles.

Calm, Forward, Straight

As a living, breathing human being, you are an animate creature, capable of orienting in, being motivated by and coloring your expression with a wide variety of spirits. The spirit which compels or dominates your expression in any given moment gives evidence to the true centering of your heart, regardless of what you believe mentally to be your core concern. It is for this reason that it can rightly be said of most people that they worship they know not what.

Whether you claim to be (and may be in fact) more predominantly right or left-brained, the state of both heart and mind is a dominant factor in any deliberate, creative process. It matters not if you prefer a logical, sequential and rational approach or a random, intuitive and holistic approach if your heart and the cloud of emotions which clothe it, is troubled.

While I could and have provided many different examples of this principle over the years, I found another that may help drive the point home. The example is given in the context of training horses and riders, but it is easy to extrapolate the principle into specific application in any field of activity. General Decarpentry, in his fine book on classical horse training, Academic Equitation, writes:

And as for the “spirit” that should animate the student, the formula used by General L’Hotte to describe the spirit of dressage in the sequence of its aims can be applied to it: “Calm, Forward, Straight” (Calme, En Avant, Droit).

The most perfect calmness is essential in any dressage operation. However, despite its firmest determination, the rider will not always be able to avoid a shaking of his moral calm and he will never be able to recover instantly his physical calm once it has been ruffled by however slight and transient a loss of moral calm.

A flash of temper can be inwardly suppressed almost as soon as it is aroused, but its resulting effect on the rider’s nervous tension will persist for some time and, what is more important, for longer than the rider himself realizes. The horse, on the contrary, immediately feels this nervousness and immediately shares it, but needs a much longer time to forget than the rider. In this respect, the horse is gifted with an astonishingly delicate sensitivity, such that even the movements of his ears are a permanent indication of the “state of the horse’s soul” – if this expression can be allowed, which provide the rider with the means of perceiving a change in his own state of nerves, so slight that he may remain unaware of it, and even if the loss of calm is unrelated to the horse’s behavior.

Therefore, as soon as the rider feels any disturbance of his serenity, it is absolutely imperative to allow time for his own physical calm, which determines that of the horse, to be completely restored. A pause, a halt, provided that submission is not in question, is necessary before the lesson can be continued.

After some strong vexation, even if it has nothing to do with the horse, the trainer must be sufficiently wise to put the lesson off until the next day, and be content with a quiet hack.

I find the last sentence ironic in that many people confess to riding horses as a means of soothing their own nerves, of taking their minds off of “life.” Such an approach is a disservice to the horse and must be avoided if there is a genuine concern for its welfare.

In any case, the same pattern holds true in any and every situation you face in life. Substitute the horse for a student, employee, friend, lover, parishioner or political constituent and the principle continues to have immediate, practical application. Notice that General Decarpentry, whose work and writings are considered by dressage experts to be amongst the most important contributions to classical training in the twentieth century, does not mince words. He says that it is “absolutely imperative to allow time” for calm to be restored before continuing on. This is not a suggestion, it is an order! Anything less is the genesis of frenzy.

Many wonderful things in life have been destroyed by acting with a troubled heart. A troubled heart clouds the mind and therefore suppresses wisdom. It has a narcotic-like affect on consciousness, limiting both vision and perspective. A troubled heart focuses on and magnifies the limitations or blockages present and downplays and undervalues the means by which those limitations can be successfully and sustainably overcome.

“Mind over matter” is possible, but only with a cooperating heart.

The Spirit of the Method

The old and familiar maxim: “Knowledge is Power” shapes the way we look at education, marketing, politics, religion and many other areas of human activity. The idea that knowledge begets power is based on the limited view that humanity is meant to dominate his environment, rather than have dominion over it.

Domination is established through strength and power. It is the product of forced compliance and it is unsustainable because of its disconnection from the larger creative context of which it is a part. Dominion, on the other hand, manifests through agility and suppleness. It inspires a willing submission and compels agreement because of its synchronicity with the unifying pattern of truth.

Whereas domination divides, dominion divides but also connects. Domination coerces control by introducing an arbitrary and inflexible restraint on true creative expression, while dominion extends control in lockstep with the wheels within wheels of creation. A horse, for example, can be held artificially in a desirable frame or he can be brought progressively into a state of fitness and understanding which allows him to hold that frame willingly and even proudly, if that can be said.

Likewise, a child can be educated in one of two ways. The first, and most prevalent is based on the notion that knowledge is power. To that aim, facts and figures are pasted on from the outside, typically with complete disregard to the inner wisdom of the child. The second, yet more desirable sees knowledge as the means of unlocking the true creative expression already resident in the child. Knowledge in the former is an end and in the latter is a means to an end.

Knowledge is not power, but the agility and suppleness that attend a well-organized system of knowledge do allow for a safe and contained increase in the expression of power. Loosely arranged or poorly organized knowledge is dangerous in that it does not provide a safe container for power. Power inevitably leaks through holes in understanding.

I have found this distinction to be an important one in every field of human activity I’ve explored. While there are many examples that could be given in support of it, I am privileged to share an example that comes from the field of classical equitation. General Decarpentry, a distinguished scholar of artistic equitation who served in the venerable Cadre Noir from 1904 to 1913 and again from 1925 to 1931 as the school’s second-in-command, provided a useful explanation of how dominion can be established in the field of equitation in his book Academic Equitation, A training system based on the methods of D’Aure, Baucher and L’Hotte:

The methods employed in Academic Equitation are in no way different from the ones used ever since the beginning of training, and they are in fact the only means man disposes of to train any kind of animal.

They consist of progressively developing applications of the principle of submission, by substituting for the means primitively employed to obtain it, other more convenient means that give scope for wider and more subtle applications.

The conventional language which has been thus gradually established between rider and mount becomes enriched with new signs. The understanding of the horse develops. The combined use of the signs, the isolated meaning of which has been established separately, allows the rider to enlarge the scope of his teaching, which always proceeds from the known to the unknown.

This is the spirit of the method. It uses conventional language to apply to the body of the horse the gymnastic progression of a series of movements intended to develop his agility rather than his strength, and his suppleness rather than his power.


Circumstances have a wonderful way of letting you know if you’re on the right or the wrong track. They provide useful feedback that, thoughtfully reviewed, compels changes in approach or direction and occasionally in underlying orientation.

Those in the habit of bemoaning their circumstances often miss these cues as they are so busy reacting to their appearance. “Why me?” or “Aaargh, not this again…I thought we took care of it last time!” rolls off their tongues rather than “Thank goodness I recognized the signs!” or “I am so thankful to have had the vision to see that a change was needed!” Circumstances are always neutral; it is what you do with them that counts.

One of Germany’s many great horseman, Egon von Neindorff, offered this wise advice in his book The Art of Classical Horsemanship:

The rider should be more grateful when the horse’s natural reactions point out and repeatedly remind him of his shortcomings while simultaneously requiring his further advancement and issuing a warning. In this way, horse and rider are unremittingly educating one another – which is certainly to the advantage of both of them and far better than the other option of continual conflict. So the old motto: “Forward-upward!” will apply doubly on their journey together. And the rider’s acquisition of a proper education that promotes a consequent and consistent love for creation remains all the more valuable – bringing him joy and benefiting the horse!

When you approach the more difficult challenges in life in the attitude of appreciation (even if the only thing for which you can be thankful is that a master in living aka “you” was plunked down in the middle of it), you retain your capacity for critical analysis and creative tinkering. You eliminate the beast that comes roaring out of the sea – your untempered emotions – from the equation and you find yourself remarkably, yet repeatedly in position to bring creative solutions to bear on the problem…no matter how difficult, convoluted or chronic the problem may be.

This approach works with horses, but it just so happens that it works with everything else as well. Give it a try! Oh yes, and don’t forget to let me know how it goes. Forward-upward!

Kronos and Kairos

Kronos (Κρόνος) is an ancient Greek word meaning chronological or sequential time. It is measured by clocks, we tend to race against it and somewhere along the way we began to equate it with money. While virtually everything in modern civilization hangs upon this word, there is another type of time that is often overlooked, kairos (καιρός).

Kairos signifies the “right,” “opportune” or “supreme” moment. It is the perfect time in which the archer must release his arrow to hit his desired mark, the ideal moment in which a weaver passes the shuttle through the shed on his loom or even the educated rider’s ability to make best use of the constantly changing forces he encounters while training his horse.

Kairos cannot be measured as can kronos, yet it intersects the linear path of time we are so familiar with in our daily routines. One way of looking at it is this: kairos is to kronos as wisdom is to intelligence. Those sensitive to kairos develop an uncommon sense of the fitness of things, or as Isocrates wrote, it is seen by those “who manage well the circumstances which they encounter day by day, and who possess a judgment which is accurate in meeting occasions as they arise and rarely misses the expedient course of action.”

François Baucher was a nineteenth century French horseman of great merit. Baucher developed a system of schooling horses based largely on principles articulated in classical equitation that had as its goal the total disposition of the horse’s strength, making the horse “a docile instrument, submissive to all the impulses of his will.” Count Antoine Cartier D’Aure was a similarly talented rider who preferred the modernist (at the time) approach, which was more or less in direct opposition that of Baucher. D’Aure sought a more natural balance and he summarized his method as going “forward! always forward! and once again forward!”

As you can imagine, the friction between these two men was the source of significant controversy in French equitation, at a time when the entire French nation was moving through a crucible of ideas and movements that were redefining its national character. While I do not claim to know whose method was more correct, it is interesting to me that in kronos these two men represented opposing forces but in kairos they were united. Both were not only able to take into account the contingencies of the forces at work in and on the horse while considering the opportunities to counteract the bad distribution of those forces and the stiffness caused by bad conformation in a way that compels the horse to greater lightness and equilibrium, they were able to do this – which incidentally sounds much easier in theory than it is in practice – with sprezzatura.

Sprezzatura in its purest form is the spark which flies from the flint of kairos as it is struck upon the cold and steely march of kronos. It is the quality which leads men to say, “he made that look so easy.”

I am convinced that life is meant to be filled with such moments. We are not here to bide out time until the bitter end, to march through the minutes, days and years with our heads down and our spirits low, rather, we are here to bring the spark of life to bear upon the tinder of the world around us. If we are living correctly, we are motivating, compelling, entreating and assisting the world around us to rise up and refine. Every thought, word and deed can be harnessed to this aim and it can be done without sacrificing the joy of living.

Why not see your world as a green and young horse who longs to be mastered and to serve with you, to be brought into communion with you in the accomplishment of higher purposes than either of you could achieve on your own? Kairos is withheld from no one, but you must do the preparatory work to be in position to perceive it.

Why not start now?

Facing the Mistakes of Life IX

Right principles are vital and primary. They bring the maximum of profit from mistakes, reduce the loss to a minimum. False pride perpetuates our mistakes, deters us from confessing them, debars us from repairing them and ceasing them.

Man’s attitude towards his mistakes is various and peculiar; some do not see them; some will not see them; some see without changing; some see and deplore, but keep on; some make the same mistakes over and over again, in principle not in form; some blame others for their own mistakes; some condemn others for mistakes seemingly unconscious that they themselves are committing similar ones; some excuse their mistakes by saying that others do the same things, as though a disease were less dangerous when it becomes— epidemic in a community.” William George Jordan

As we’ve considered through this series of posts, your attitude toward the mistakes you make determines in large measure the nature of your tomorrows. If you are prone to repeating mistakes – bad relationships, poor money choices, frequent traffic accidents – you have likely failed at some level to make the necessary adjustments in orientation that underlie all thought, words and deeds. If, however, you are the type who has developed a habit of never making the same mistake twice, you know what it takes to make the changes at the depth necessary to ensure a permanent correction.

I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon in the equestrian arts that serves as a useful symbol for what is required from an individual who seeks to improve upon the way he handles mistakes in life. Horses in their natural setting, undisturbed by human intervention, tend to move in ways that are not ideal when a rider is upon the horse’s back. The balances are just off. They lean where they shouldn’t, hollow their backs to the discomfort of their rider and so on.

Those skilled in the art of horsemanship can get the the horse to move in a new way quickly and with as little stress as possible. There is always going to be some stress or pressure involved, as new muscle must be built and exits must be closed off to prevent the horse form reverting to his natural way of going. But done artfully, tension, struggle and opposition are artfully dodged.

To get to this point as a rider you must typically have hundreds if not thousands of hours in the saddle. You must recognize and develop a feel for the many ways a horse uses to avoid the desired balances and then you learn how to block those exits. Newton’s Third Law comes into play for as with so many things in life, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Horses are by nature very intelligent creatures but they, like us, tend to be creatures of habit.

Once you learn a horse’s preferred modes of evasion and gain experience with respect to those leaks in the structure you are seeking to build, you can move quite quickly in the establishment of new levels of control, lightness, suppleness and balance. But you have to keep your head in the game! And to keep your mind focused and present you must have a clear and untroubled heart. Wisdom – the sense of the fitness of things – cannot manifest unless body, mind and heart are in alignment.

If you think of yourself as the horse and the rider your higher self, you can look at the challenge of handling mistakes more gracefully in a new way. You have been programmed – genetically, socially, through your life experiences to date – to handle mistakes in a certain likely predictable way. The fabulous Mr. Jordan mentioned a number of the most common evasions in the opening quote above, and there are certainly many others that come into play depending on how creative the individual proves himself to be. But why not listen more carefully to the spirit of wisdom that is present within you?

Your body, mind and heart are but the vehicle for the expression of the individual focus of creative brilliance within you. They are the horse and you are the rider. Your mind is not the rider, your body is not the rider and your heart is most certainly not the rider. You are the rider. The rest is the horse and the horse is here to provide the means by which your expression can be grounded into the earth of your circumstances.

At first the relationship is awkward. Like the untrained horse, your body, mind and heart do not tend to jibe with the winds of creative expression that blow from the particular focus of life that you are. But learn to apply Newton’s Third Law and your progress will blow you away! Learn to rise up to the inner call to greatness and meet it with sufficient opposing force in your heart and your mind and the actions you take with your body have no choice but to come into alignment.

Consciously, deliberately block the exits, the bad habits, and you will form a container that will allow for buildup of pressure necessary to move forward. It does not matter if you do this in relation to a new and fresh opportunity or in the face of the most chronic of your mistaken ways, the principle will work if given sufficient time and consistent attention.

Watching an accomplished rider work with a well-trained horse and you see a magical interplay that defies description and seems divinely inspired. The two become one. There is union. The same can happen to you in relation to your body, mind and heart. The inner qualities of you that relate to the particular focus of life that you are can mesh seamlessly with the outer capacities of body, mind and heart that you have, producing a magical display worthy of note.

It’s about time…

Pope Gregory XIII
Pope Gregory XIII
A friend of mine sent me a short email yesterday about the origin of April Fools’ Day.  Apparently Pope Gregory XIII signed a papal bull on February 4, 1582 declaring a shift from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.  

 The Gregorian Calendar, which is the calendar we use today, corrected an error in the previous Julian Calendar.  The error accumulated over time and made the Julian Calendar gradually more inaccurate to the point that it no longer correctly determined the date of Easter, as it was out of sync with the equinoxes and solstices. 

Pope Gregory declared that the Thursday, October 4, 1582 would be Friday, October 15, 1582 so that Easter would once again fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the Vernal Equinox.  The Catholic countries in Europe immediately adopted the changes, but the Protestant-dominated countries refused to change for almost 200 years given that the reform was authored by a Catholic Pope.  An interesting local note, the Spanish colonies adopted the change in 1584 while the British colonies waited until September 2, 1752 to reform the calendar.  Alaska the last state to adopt the change, waited until October 5, 1867! 

Back to the email I received, the theory is that April Fools’ Day began when those who chose not to reform their calendars continued to ring in the New Year on April 1st, as had been practiced for centuries, rather than shifting it to the new date of the New Year, January 1st.  Only “fools” would continue to be so old-fashioned!  And now they have their day. 

This tidbit of history makes me think of how transitory human understanding is, especially when viewed in the context of centuries or even millenia, instead of generations.  Every generation gets so caught up in the fixed nature of the social customs and mores, the dominant worldview and even larger, the cosmology of its era that the sense of connection to the past and to a different frame of reference is often the last thing on anyone’s mind.  For whatever reason, the human race tends to be myopic in both vision and consciousness. 

I was speaking to a horse trainer friend of mine today and he made an interesting observation about the evolution of horsemanship in the United States.  Much of the equestrian tradition in our country traces its roots to the Old West, a do or die environment where only the strong and often severe survived.  The European tradition, however, went through a period of meticulous refinement during the Renaissance and through the work of the various European military cavalry schools, much of it prior to the birth of the United States. 

Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere
Many of the problems any horse rider experiences due to the difference between how a horse naturally moves and how we as riders like him to move were resolved hundreds of years ago, using systems that were comparably kinder, gentler and more durable than the approaches taken in the “Wild” West.  In our current era, there has been a resurgence of interest in the “classical” methods established by the early European masters of horsemanship in the United States and a movement toward establishing new standards that would benefit the more modernly developed systems presently in use. 

I hope that the interest continues, as more often than not I find that in virtually every sphere of human activity there are successes established in the past that were forgotten about and yet are worth including in our current approach.  It isn’t a question of who is better, rather, it is a question of how best can we achieve the desired result, on a sustainable basis.  

Every sustainable construction begins with a well-planned and executed foundation.  Whether you are building a house, a business or training a horse, the wise course is to begin with a firm foundation.  One of the signature qualities of our modern era is a refinement of the art of the short-cut.  Short-cuts in the establishment of a foundation are always ill advised.       

As you can tell, my thoughts on this subject are rather raw and uncoordinated, but I look forward to developing a deeper understanding of the importance of a broad vision and a consciousness as unbound by artificial constraints as possible.  

Have a great day!