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.

Energy, Discipline, Spirit

Managing people, like training horses or parenting, is all about harnessing energy and teaching discipline, while preserving spirit. The best managers, like the best trainers, possess a remarkable capacity for empathy and their high expectations are never lowered by sympathy.

I have no doubt that there is a marvelous spirit resident within each and every person on earth, a spirit that must be properly clothed to highlight its finer qualities. The connection to spirit (not the spirit itself!) can be broken by overly severe discipline or conversely, by the absence of discipline.

A broken man, like a broken horse, has lost the connection to the spirit that animates him. The spirit is still there, as is the form until death, but the flow of life, energy and passion between the two is reduced to a trickle.

Nurturing or restoring that connection is my life’s work. Whether working with people or horses, my great hope is that the spirit of the one with whom I am privileged to associate at any given point in time is allowed to be magnified into dignified expression. Dignity requires control and restraint, both of which are the product of discipline.

The uncontrolled expression of spirit is doomed to burn out its vehicle expression. The overly-controlled expression of spirit is muted and impotent, dull and uninspiring. There is a golden mean in expression, a flowing state in which body, mind and heart are aligned and poised to give birth to brilliance. And that mean is available to every single person on earth.

Whether I’m managing, riding or simply being a father, inspiring that brilliance is one of my central concerns.

What about you? What concerns do you fill your heart with before you look into the eyes and thereby the soul of another, regardless of their individual story, of your history with them or with how you feel at the moment?