THE TAO OF HORSEMANSHIP


Source:The Tao of Horsemanship

The respect for the laws of Nature have formed the backbone of classical horsemanship in all the countries that share the classical culture, from the beginnings of its documented history to the present day. Riders who lack these qualities cannot claim to be “classical.”

“The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao; that is what gives her her radiance.”~Tao

It may not appear immediately obvious, but these two lines from Lao tzu’s Tao te Ching describe the same mindset as the great European equestrian authors. We can easily make this quote relevant to the practice of dressage. The dressage artist rides and trains in harmony with Nature – at one with the Tao -, which gives his horses and his work radiance and expressiveness. The converse is equally true. Where the laws of Nature are violated, beauty is lost, and horse and rider become caricatures.

“Thus the Tao is the course, the flow, the drift, or the process of nature, and I call it the Watercourse Way because both Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu use the flow of water as its principal metaphor.”~Alan Watts

It is interesting that the flow of water is used as a metaphor for Nature in Taoist literature, because the old dressage masters taught that each exercise has to flow smoothly and harmoniously into the next one, like one river flows into the next one.

When the what becomes more important to the rider than the how, when riding advanced movements is valued more highly than the quality of the basic gaits, or when the training process is condensed and rushed, the rider has most definitely lost the Way, because the horses then have to go through the motions of dressage movements in spite of their lack of the strength, balance, agility, impulsion, straightness, and collection that are necessary prerequisites.

When the gymnastic foundation is missing, the exercises lose their value for the horse’s education. They can even become harmful, since a persistent lack of balance and suppleness throughout each work session causes unnecessary wear and tear for the horse’s body. The back, the hocks, the rear fetlocks, and the front navicular area are the most vulnerable body parts, which tend to break down first, if the rider does not take care to make balance and suppleness his highest priorities.

“Free from desire, you realize the mystery.” A deeper understanding of artistic horsemanship can develop when the rider’s thinking is not dominated by superficial trappings of success and progress, such as “levels”, shows, ribbons, and medals, when he no longer cares about how others view his work. The “mystery” of dressage reveals itself to those who are not driven by ambition, but who try to connect with the horse’s heart and mind, who lose themselves in the present moment. A truly classical rider seeks to deepen his understanding of the basic principles. He strives to improve his basic skills and chooses the exercises and movements he rides based on the horse’s current needs, instead of their entertainment value, or the prestige they bring him. In other words, he rides in accord with Nature and has left his attachment to ego and status behind. He does what he deems necessary for his horse, right here, right now. That is all that matters.

“Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.” As long as the rider is still driven by ambition, ego, and vanity, he will be forever stuck on the surface. Dressage movements are then viewed merely as prestige objects, while their gymnastic function is neglected. This mindset leads the rider on a path toward trick riding, where movements are produced as hollow gestures, devoid of gymnastic value, and the structure of the ride lacks inner logic. In other words, neither the choreography of the lesson as a whole nor the execution of each individual exercise contributes very much toward increasing the horse’s strength, suppleness, straightness, balance, impulsion, and collection.

“Yet mystery and manifestations
Arise from the same source.”

Both riders that I described in the two previous paragraphs are superficially connected. Both of them perform the same movements and patterns. They use the same terms – yet they live in parallel universes. The same words seem to have very different meaning for each of them. If you listen to a rider of the second variety, he may use all the right words. Yet if you watch him ride, the soundtrack does not seem to match the visual impression at all. His focus is too narrow and too undifferentiated. He is too preoccupied with superficial catchwords, while the deeper causalities completely elude him. He seems to view the horse as a commodity, rather than as a friend and partner.

2 Responses

  1. Marion,

    Essentially,it is developing a spiritual relationship with the horse all of which is so difficult with another human being…animals including pets offer us the opportunity to find our spiritual self…this can be seen in a child’s love for animals.

    Sid

  2. What a wonderful post. The true spirit of the horse, which is driven out of the horse or not discerned by many riders, is in harmony with TAO, I would go so far as to say the spirit of the horse is a reflection of TAO; it is up to the human to find TAO within themselves and then reflect it back to the horse. The horse will then know that you understand him/her. Thank you for the lovely reminder…marion

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