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.

Indispensable Self-Control

It takes time to develop proficiency and even more time to come to the point of mastery in any field of activity. That said, the more perfect the practice and the more consistent the progression, the less time is spent retracing steps and rebuilding foundational elements that have eroded with the passage of time spent away from the task.

The equestrian arts are no exception to this rule. The late Egon von Neindorff, a classical riding master from Germany, pointed to this fact in his fabulous book entitled The Art of Classical Horsemanship. He wrote:

For this reason, many horse enthusiasts share a motto that is highly fashionable these days: don’t let yourself be rushed! But is that what they really want? I can only say, allow enough time for you and your horse’s mutual physical and mental development. This should be printed in the rules and regulations of our current riding manuals. How can a horse possibly be light, soft and develop a desirable direction, perhaps even maturing into a specialist in its field, unless the rider exercises patience, allowing it time and sufficient schooling, instead of requiring in the first year that it prove its worth and perform profitably. (Instead of being subjected to premature use as a riding lesson or competition horse before it is adequately prepared?) This will certainly constitute the most expensive conceivable path that one could ever follow!

It is one thing to undertake the practice and mastery of an inanimate object, such as shooting clays or flying an airplane, but quite another when the object is a living one. The relationship is much more dynamic and the goal of forming a living, synchronized unit is much more elusive.

Though I am relatively new to the sport, I’ve come to realize that the development of a good seat and good hand on the part of the rider and the systematic and progressive gymnastic preparation and schooling of a horse from “the lunge line to the levade” as it is put requires a well-conceived and carefully executed training program. Both horse and rider must develop physically, mentally and even emotionally, for all three are tested in the process.

When the horse reaches a crossroads in its development, the utmost steadiness, reassurance and focus is required of the rider to move swiftly through the limitation. Unfortunately, for the new rider the crossroads in the horse tend to coincide with the limitations in his [read my!] technical ability. These nexus points are the greatest determinant of the rate of progress in the education of both horse and rider. Well handled, usually with the assistance of a savvy trainer, and the pace of growth accelerates; bungled, forward movement is retarded if not stopped altogether.

The importance of the rider maintaining emotional equilibrium cannot be underestimated at these critical junctures. Emotional ease leads to mental keenness which in turn allows for rapid physical development. Conversely, emotional tension – be it fear, anger, anxiety or arrogance – clouds the thinking process and stunts physical conformation to the new need.

Tension, especially unrelieved tension, is the enemy of progress in any undertaking. Harsh inputs on the part of the rider will typically incite equally unnecessary and damaging reactions from the horse, leading to confusion or frustration in both. It’s easy to see, even for the non-rider, that one of the greatest lessons horses can teach humans is the need for bombproof self-control.

Mastery of any outer activity requires self-mastery. There are no new tricks that allow you to bypass this fact of life in any sphere of activity whatsoever. So, don’t waste any time trying them! Allow enough time to master the basics – elementary schooling is necessary for the advancement of every horse and rider – and don’t let yourself be rushed!