In the Saddle, In the World

“No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.” – Winston Churchill

The greatest challenge is not in learning lessons, but in applying them in as many other areas of your life as you can in the few precious years you have on earth. Some of my most important lessons have come to me while in the saddle on Leo, my kind-hearted Hanoverian.

The last few weeks of lessons have proven to be particularly generative, as I’m finally learning to approach canter transitions with sufficient correctness and refinement to properly influence Leo to obey my will. As with any horse or human, Leo has his preferences, difficulties and bad habits, but as his rider I am constantly concerned to help him overcome his difficulties, correct his mistakes and overcome any opposition he presents in as graceful, economical and constructive manner as possible.

I’ve found one particular principle of successful canter transitions to be broadly applicable in life: the strike-off. Executed properly, striking off into canter is an elegant transition that allows the horse to maintain its proper position without any particular influence from the rider for several strides. As riding master Col. d’Endrödy noted: “There is only one rule, but it is most important: the horse must be struck off into canter, and not driven into it!”

This principle is as invaluable off the saddle as it is in it. If you ever find yourself forcing something to move, you’re likely “driving” rather than “striking off.” When on the saddle, this means that you’ve not yet placed the horse in the proper position for him to fulfill your wishes freely (he must be straight or bent slightly in the correct direction and the lateral mobility of his shoulders must be unobstructed). When off, the same thinking applies, that is, the factors of circumstance must be aligned properly before you signal for the action you desire.

Absent this, you’ll perpetually suffer from a common yet under-diagnosed condition called “premature evocation.” You’ll summons action before the time is right and you’ll forever feel like the world is against you. It’s not that they’re against you; they just weren’t yet in position to fulfill your wishes. Fortunately, there is remedy for this malady and as a result, an easier way to live.

Like good riding, mastery of this skill takes time. You must acquaint yourself with the theoretical framework of the problem and avail yourself of every opportunity to put the theory you’ve attained into practice. You must develop the right manner of thinking that allows you to cultivate – over time – the sensitivity and uncommon sense we call wisdom.

The next time you find yourself driving your world crazy, think about how you might better position things so that you can strike-off in a way that an uninitiated spectator on the sidelines might say: “He/she made that look effortless!”

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.

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.

Forward-Upward!

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!

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.

Volition and Spirit

The pace of personal growth is directly related to the ability to apply lessons learned in one area of living to as many others as fitting and as time permits. These are the “aha” moments or personal victories, the magical moments where an area of limitation is overcoming, where frustration gives way to satisfaction.

I’ve been pouring over an insightful and well-written book on horseback riding called Reflections on Riding and Jumping by William Steinkraus and I cannot help but mark the passages that stand out to me most in this reading, while zooming out and drawing parallels to other fields of activity in which I feel privileged to work.

Today’s realization applies neatly to the business of management, particularly human resources, though I am sure you’ll see other applications in your field of responsibility that are equally if not more valuable and meaningful. Steinkraus advises that horsemen must never forget the fact that horses are always bigger and more powerful than we are (as is the larger team in relation to its manager). As such, we must find subtle and creative ways to gain dominion over its strength and might, lest we succumb to the temptation to dominate it through force or coarser strategies.

Steinkraus describes this beautifully in chapter five:

In all of this, you must remember that the horse is your partner. Of course, there are all sorts of partnerships, some quite equal, others involving a considerable degree of domination by one of the partners. But it is important for the horse to always retain a sense of its own volition and spirit; if you dominate it to the point that it becomes only a prisoner, and cannot freely give itself to you, you will never get the best of which it is capable. In other words, if you can’t get the horse to accept and enjoy its relationship with you, and to accept the mechanisms through which you communicate with it, then those measures aren’t any good in the final analysis, no matter how effective they may seem for a while. I’ve seen a lot of horses that have been bullied by their riders and made to do everything through strength, coercion and the threat of pain. Their riders often brag about their accomplishments and all the things they can make their horses do. In the end, however, if the horse can’t learn to like it, their riders’ accomplishments are illusory and temporary, because the horse will always get the last word. Sometimes the word is funny, sometimes tragic (some riders aren’t aware of what they’ve done until the horse “comes up empty,” if then); but the horse will get the last word, even so.

This approach applies as much in the boardroom and classroom as it does the riding ring. Sure you can gain a measure of control by forced compliance, but if those for whom you are responsible do not share their powers with you out of love and respect, the relationship will be neither lasting nor satisfying.