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
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
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!