The Ride of My Life: Life Lessons Learned on Horseback

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.

Moral Collection

My wonderful horse, a large and long Hanoverian named Leo, has taught and continues to teach me a great many lessons about life. One of the latest centers around a concept which is just beginning to germinate in the soil of my mind, one that the classical riding masters called rassembler.

Rassembler or “collection” as we typically refer to it nowadays, was defined by Francois Baucher in his work entitled “Méthode d’Equitation sur des nouveaux principes” as being the process of “collecting the forces of the horse in his center in order to ease his extremities, and give them up completely to the disposition of the rider.” As a result of this collection, Baucher notes that “The animal thus finds himself transformed into a kind of balance, of which the rider is the centerpiece.”

For those of you who don’t ride or train horses, it takes time to learn to collect a horse and it takes time for a horse to become sufficiently supple, balanced and strong to come to the point of collection. Many horseman use shortcuts to give the appearance of collection – apparently even in high levels of international competition – but true collection can neither be rushed nor faked.

The same process works out in human beings relative to their moral development. Each time that you successfully handle the inevitable tests of character that come up in circumstance (e.g. temptations, high pressure situations, competition, unfamiliar territory, etc.) your forces are collected, thereby disposing your body, mind and heart to the highest impulses of which we are aware as a species.

Just as with horses, moral collection begins with assouplissement or “suppling.” You are made supple when you learn to relax into, rather than react against, pressure. Many fail to get very far in relation to this. They blow it in when the demands are low, evading the inner calls to higher function. The evasions exacerbate the imbalances and heighten the tension, making them less flexible over time and as a result, less capable of handling the times of high demand.

Again, you are made supple when you relax into, rather than react against, the pressure. Physical, mental and emotional suppleness allows you to gather your forces into your center and brings the outer you into a state of being that is light and available to the subtlest wishes of the inner you.

The next time you face a difficult situation, something that requires you to stretch a little, remember my horse, Leo. Stay supple when you would normally become tense. Gather and collect when you would typically blow apart and fall to pieces. Horses are remarkable creatures whose willingness to yield to the will of an educated rider serves as a remarkable example of the process by which we can more consistently give ourselves to the higher impulses that can and should govern our every move.

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!

A Better Way

“Playing both ends against the middle” is an old saying that means trying to get opposing people or groups to fight or disagree so that you will get an advantage from them. It is a way of distracting the attention of others so that the one playing the ends can swoop in and take what he or she wants from the situation. Though this tactic is frequently employed, there is as is so often the case, a better way.

Life is not a zero-sum game. Despite popular opinion, you can live impeccably, free from the social traps that are set by such approaches as “playing both ends against the middle” so that life becomes a win-win situation more often than not.

One such way is opened when you learn to work both sides toward the middle. This is an easy concept once you get the hang of it, one that I have had thrown in my face time and time again while training my horse, Galileo’s Star, or as he is called by those who know him, “Leo.”

Straightness is one of the goals in various disciplines of horseback riding and achieving straightness is harder than you might imagine. Horses, like humans, tend to be stronger on one side or prefer one side over another. Horses move beautifully and efficiently on their own, but adding the weight of a rider to their backs alters their balances significantly. To complicate things even further, the horse’s natural balances don’t tend to provide the smoothest and most controllable ride for the rider.

So one of the keys to good horsemanship is learning to work both sides toward the middle. When moving in a turn or a circle, one flank of the horse is considered the inside and the other, the outside. When turning to the left, it might seem that inputs to the inside would yield the most control but ironically, the outside is more often than not the most “important” or perhaps most frequently overlooked side.

When both sides are worked with effectively, the rider gradually encourages his horse to straightness. When the balances are correct and the horse is no longer leaning or twisted in various ways and directions, the rider is lifted higher and the ride becomes smoother. And to top it off, the horse relaxes in the new and balanced movement, even though it is likely not how he would move had he his druthers!

So it is in life.

The situations you encounter will likely be polarized and both sides will tend to work against the middle, rather than toward it. As you may have found, the truth is typically found somewhere in the middle. Knowing that it is there is the easy part, leading others there can be the hard part.

More often than not, getting there requires a deliberate, gentle and sensitive shift in the rider’s attention from one side of the horse to the other. Care must be taken not to intensify or exacerbate the opposing forces, for the horse’s superior size and strength are best cooperated with and not competed against. The goal of all of this is the reduction of tension, an increase in flexibility and a general and specific agreement on the balance point in truth.

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.