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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

Goals and Mindfulness
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

I just found a paragraph in R.M.Pirsig, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance (1999, p. 204) that I liked and that can be applied to riding:

"Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here's where things grow.

"But of course, without the top you can't have any sides. It's the top that defines the sides."

It is especially the second half of the passage that I find appealing. It goes right to the core of Zen philosophy. A couple of years ago, there was an article, I believe in Dressage Today that discussed the relevance of goals in riding and how to establish long term and short term goals. Making a diagnosis and determining a course of action (i.e. picking a goal and pursuing it) was such an integral part of each and every lesson I had with my teachers that I cannot see how anybody could possibly ride any other way. So when I saw this article, I was very puzzled, to say the least, that anybody actually felt the need to point out the obvious: that you have to know where you are going.

To me, the greater danger lies not in a lack of orientation, but in a false ambition that is generated by our goals. It is a very human quality to live in the future (or in the past), instead of in the present. We constantly wish we could be somewhere other than where we are. We wish we could be better riders already. We wish our horses were more advanced, etc. We can't wait for these better times to happen, and as a result we miss out on the present. We don't enjoy where we are and what we are doing enough. This goes for all aspects of life, not just riding. This human weakness, if you want to call it that, was recognized by Zen masters a long time ago, and the concept of mindfulness and living in the present consequently became one of the most important principles of Zen, as far as I understand it.

This impatience and dissatisfaction with the present, this desire for the future to hurry up and arrive, causes stress and pressure we put on ourselves and our horses. If we put our long term goals on the back burner, without ever completely losing sight of them, we can rid ourselves of the stress and pressure. The longer I ride, the more I find out that the secret to good classical dressage is to ride completely in and for the moment, not for the distant future. If I take care to be mindful, to pay the closest attention to what my horse and I are doing right now, we progress much faster and much more smoothly than if I allow myself to be pressured by the future. Every day we have to master our impatience and try to do the best we can with the most simple basics every minute of every ride, and before we know it, the future is here, and our horses are performing at a much higher level. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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