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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.

Good Rides and Bad Rides
- by Shana and Dr. Thomas Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

There are days when we feel we have forgotten completely how to ride, when we feel that we can't do anything at all. We have all had days like that, and I think that as long as we ride, we are never completely safe from experiences like this. Fortunately, the incidents seem to become fewer and farther in between, the more you learn. - Or maybe you just don't take bad rides as personally any more, because you know that you will have another good ride again soon. Just like you know after a good ride that there will be more difficult ones waiting for you in the future.

Riding is as much physical as it is emotional, mental, and psychological. To become a sensitive, effective, and tactful rider, one has so much to learn, and not just limited to the technical components of riding, but also how to deal with problems, difficulties, frustration, and all of the other challenges that await us on the path.

There will always be good rides and bad rides, and it is necessary to find a balance between the two. Sure, it would be NICE to have ALL good rides, but it is unlikely. We all go through the bad rides, or even worse: the bad spells, and when we persevere through them and learn the lessons they have to offer us, we become all the better for it.

The good rides are the ones that make us feel like we're flying on top of the world. Those are the rides that make you feel like you can RIDE, they give you confidence, and they give you hope. The bad rides make you feel like you are hopeless, they break apart the ego, and they show us that we still have so much more to learn.

Personally, although I really dislike the bad rides when they happen to me... in some respects, those rides are the most valuable because those are the rides that teach me so much. And it's often not what I learn IN that particular ride or lesson, but what I learn in the rides that follow. In the bad ride or lesson, you are made aware of all of your inadequacies. You become aware that what you thought was acceptable is not only NOT acceptable, it is terrible. You become aware of where all the holes are in either your own riding or the training of your horse. However, the beauty of it all is that you are also shown exactly what you need to work on. What better learning opportunity! So, in the rides that follow, you cannot help but address those things that were so unsettling in your bad ride. Whether you realize it or not, no matter how incompetent and hopeless you felt in your bad ride or lesson, you DID learn quite a bit, if you paid attention... and it often takes a few days or even weeks to mature.

I read something in a zen book somewhere that you can apply very well to riding. Just because you had a bad ride or made a mistake does not automatically make you an incompetent rider, a hopeless case. On the other hand, winning a prize and public acclaim does not automatically make someone a great rider, either. In the big scheme of things, these are all just small pieces of the puzzle that make up the totality of our experience, and we have to take them all in stride, without being affected too deeply by any one of them. It is easy to get wrapped up in a single event. A bad ride can leave us feeling devastated, ready to give up, whereas a good ride, or praise can overinflate our ego, leading us to think we are better than we actually are. That's why it is good to take a step back after an exceptionally good or bad experience alike, in order to put it into the proper perspective, without the momentary emotions attached.

Sometimes I think that the greatest masters are probably not necessarily the most gifted individuals, but the ones who went through the most difficult rides/lessons, and who had the inner strength to turn these (perceived) defeats and hurtful experiences into triumphs by learning the lessons they offer. Just as in Aikido each punch of an attacker is received as a gift, according to George Leonard (The way of Aikido. Life lessons from an American sensei, Plume 1999), we can actually try to see "bad rides" that leave us feeling defeated and incompetent as learning opportunities, whereas we don't learn nearly as much from fabulous, successful rides. They just make us feel good. For a balanced evolution we need both. Without the hard lessons, we would never get out of mediocrity, and without the elating, "perfect" rides, we would probably lose the courage to continue the journey.

It seems that in the course of training the horse, but also in learning how to ride, we go through cycles where we focus more on one aspect than others, not that the others are ignored, but one aspect takes precedence. As the level of acceptability of that one aspect improves, we become suddenly aware of all of the other things that suddenly need to be worked on. They were always there, but they had previously taken a back seat while we addressed something more important or more obvious. This is the prioritization within the training that has been mentioned before. As we cycle through the various elements, the overall quality level improves. The horse (or rider) becomes better and better. Our own learning is much like this, too. Sometimes when you focus on one thing for awhile (example: suppleness), in time, the quality of that aspect far surpasses the quality of the other aspects. Suddenly, everything else looks so much worse. It really isn't worse, but the contrast of that first aspect (in this example, suppleness) compared to everything else makes the differences in quality level all the more apparent. Your standards have been raised and the discrepancies suddenly bother you. This can cause such frustration. Without your realizing it, you HAVE improved, but now you are aware more so than before of what still needs to improve. In your mind, you will think that you are hopeless because... just look at all the things that need so much work. You have lost perspective on the situation. This is when photographs or videos of your riding can REALLY help. Sit down and compare your riding 6 months, a year, two years ago with your riding now. Often we have forgotten how much worse things really were. We have forgotten how far we have come.

There are also times when nothing seems to go right. Sometimes these are due to major reconstructive changes in our riding, and sometimes they are just a bad day. When we have built up years of bad habits, it is like layers of paint on a wall. First you have to peel back the layers so that you have a clean surface to start anew with. This process can be incredibly frustrating and so humbling. You are stripped of everything you thought you knew, even things you didn't realize you knew. Sometimes it means starting over at the longe-line. And, stripped down of all of your bad habits, bad excuses, and ego, it can be terribly frustrating. You thought you at least knew how to do "whatever" and now you're finding out that even THAT was wrong? You feel like you can't do anything right. But, once all of the "old paint" is gone, you can finally begin the process of building back up again. Hopefully this time with good habits in place of the bad habits.

Sometimes when you make changes in your position, they will become so disorienting that you feel like you can't do anything at all. You have become so accustomed to being crooked or whatever, that when you are straight, your body doesn't know how to use itself. This passes in time and with practice. But in the meantime, it makes you feel so hopeless.

Also, sometimes when you focus on one thing too much, you lose touch with all of the other elements. For example, the risk of focusing on impulsion can be a loss in relaxation. These are the balances we learn that we need to find. But, I think this is all in the course of learning. I think this is when you learn how things work together. For example, riders will struggle to get their leg stretched back, at the expense of their upper body tipping forward off of their seat bones. When they address their upper body and correct its position, the legs will tend to slide forward. This is a necessary process, and the balance between the two will continue to go back and forth until eventually the muscles surrounding the hip have stretched enough to accomodate both. In the end, you learn not only where the balance lies between the two, but also how the two work together and the influence each has on the other. This goes for MANY things in riding.

Just when you feel like you have a grasp on something, you discover there is a whole new layer there to discover. You realize that what you thought you knew was just the beginning.

These are the many frustrations we face, as riders learning how to ride. We all go through them. Some of us deal with them better than others. Some of us need to learn how to deal with them better... perhaps that is the lesson within it all?

I think you have to be a little crazy in order to really learn how to ride. Everyone I have met who really excelled in his field (whether it was an art, a science, or horsemanship) was more or less crazy in one way or another. It takes a certain one-track mind, a certain tenacity to solve the problem in front of you, instead of shrugging your shoulders and moving on to something else that is more entertaining.

Philip Kapleau describes in his book "The three pillars of zen" how students struggle with the zen koans. One of the masters tells a student that he has to "eat, sleep, and drink" the koan. He has to spend every waking minute thinking about it, absorbing himself in it, in order to solve it. It has to be the last thought on his mind when he goes to sleep at night and the first thought on his mind when he wakes up in the morning. There have been times in my riding experience that were just like that. I was faced with a problem that I could not solve, no matter how I tried to analyze it. Eventually the solution came to me, after I had obsessed about it and immersed myself in it long enough. I don't know about koans, but in riding the solution is always contained in the problem. The answer is always contained in the question. If you can see through the superficial symptoms and recognize the root, you have found the way (or at least ONE way) out of the dilemma! is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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