The quest for mas­tery

Few peo­ple achieve true mas­tery of horses, but the process of work­ing to­ward it can not only im­prove your horse­man­ship but also en­hance your ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what’s im­por­tant in life.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Deb Ben­nett, PhD

Few peo­ple achieve true mas­tery of horses, but the process of work­ing to­ward it can not only im­prove your horse­man­ship but also en­hance your ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what’s im­por­tant in life.

The largest prob­lem that con­fronts ev­ery be­gin­ner in horse­man­ship is fig­ur­ing out what “mas­tery” means. The be­gin­ner may think that her big­gest prob­lem is how to stop dou­ble-bounc­ing at the post­ing trot, or maybe how to pick up the cor­rect lead or get her horse to go close to the rail---but her ex­pe­ri­enced teacher knows bet­ter. The be­gin­ner is the per­son most in need of ex­per­tise kindly and ju­di­ciously ap­plied, but she is un­for­tu­nately also the per­son least able to rec­og­nize real ex­per­tise even when it is stand­ing right in front of her.

What is a mas­ter horse­man? A tech­ni­cal ex­pert, cer­tainly. But mas­tery in­volves some­thing more. Web­ster’s gives “com­mand” as a syn­onym, and I think this is a good place to start. What does it mean to have com­mand over horses? Or over stu­dents?

It seems in ret­ro­spect that my own path has been one long quest af­ter mas­tery. I am a teacher of horse­man­ship, eques­trian his­tory, equine anatomy and biome­chan­ics---and in ad­di­tion to that, I some­times work at the in­tri­cate and mul­ti­fac­eted task of teach­ing peo­ple how to han­dle, ride and train horses. If mas­tery re­quires ex­per­tise, how does one gain ex­per­tise? Not by mere years in the in­dus­try, I think, nor by go­ing through a for­mal pro­gram, although those may help. Whether one earns an “eques­trian” col­lege de­gree or a rat­ing or cer­ti­fi­ca­tion by one or an­other of the na­tional or in­ter­na­tional eques­trian fed­er­a­tions is, I have found, much less im­por­tant than time spent learn­ing di­rectly from an older horse­man or horse­woman who thor­oughly knows the busi­ness. To achieve mas­tery, one must have met it face to face.

The prob­lem is where to find it. From my 20s on­ward I con­tin­u­ally sought out the best in­struc­tion that I could af­ford. Re­sults were mixed: Some self-ad­ver­tised “masters” turned out to be no bet­ter than ag­gres­sive, mean­spir­ited, greedy (and ex­pen­sive) frauds. Some were nar­cis­sists---peo­ple with no hu­mil­ity and a large need to con­trol--for whom tal­ent in a stu­dent con­sti­tuted a threat. Some meant well but were in var­i­ous ways in­com­pe­tent. Some were timid con­form­ists re­luc­tant to ques­tion the ethics and val­ues of the horse-show world. I be­lieve that, in many of them, a se­cret fear that their skills and ac­com­plish­ments were re­ally noth­ing to brag about drove them to re­gard them­selves

as De­fend­ers of the Sta­tus Quo. They would brook no dis­cus­sion and cer­tainly no crit­i­cism of a dis­ci­pline they “be­longed to” as if it were a re­li­gion. Ninety per­cent of them ap­plied, with re­mark­able dull­ness, the same pro­gram and tech­niques to all rid­ers and all horses.

By cir­cum­stances that I can only re­gard as prov­i­den­tial, dur­ing this same pe­riod I en­coun­tered a se­ries of teach­ers who re­ally were masters and who taught me by sheer ex­am­ple what mas­tery is. Not all whom I en­coun­tered were horsemen, be­cause mas­tery can, of course, show up in any walk of life. Robert S. Hoff­mann, PhD, a worl­drenowned mam­mal­o­gist and zoo­geog­ra­pher, was the first one that I knew. My fa­vorite pro­fes­sor in grad­u­ate school, he en­cour­aged me to­ward a unique and di­verse ca­reer in­volv­ing all as­pects of the species Equus ca­bal­lus and its rel­a­tives, fos­sil and liv­ing. An­other was Ellen B. Wells, who be­fore her un­timely death was head of the Dib­ner Li­brary of rare books at the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion. Ellen sparked my in­ter­est in the his­tory of eques­tri­an­ism and greatly helped me by im­mers­ing me in all the an­cient lit­er­a­ture. Still a third was Alexan­der Mackay-Smith, whose de­tailed re­search and un­matched grasp of the his­tory of breeds forms the ref­er­ence base for our re­cent se­ries on the his­tory of Amer­i­can horse breeds. The broad ba­sis sup­plied to me by these teach­ers un­der­pins and in­forms all my teach­ing, whether in writ­ing or in rid­ing.

The first rid­ing in­struc­tor I ever had was also a mas­ter, and more’s the pity that I---as a be­gin­ner---was un­able to rec­og­nize it at the time. A wiz­ened Kansas stock­man, Gale Mott was an old man when I knew him. As a teenager he’d been a stunt-rider with the 101 Wild West Show, and from the 1940s on­ward he ran rid­ing acad­e­mies in Topeka and Lawrence. Rid­ing lessons at Mr. Mott’s ranch were safe, fun and pro­duc­tive even though very in­for­mal. In­stead of be­ing drilled in steer­ing and longed to de­velop the seat, he had adult be­gin­ners play­ing a lot of “red rover, come on over” and “cap­ture the flag.” We had a great time with lots of laugh­ter and gained es­sen­tial skills in­volv­ing bal­ance, feel and tim­ing with­out even be­ing aware of it. We can­tered for the first time by do­ing a “slow” cav­alry charge, led by Mr. Mott, up­hill across the face of a slop­ing pas­ture. There were also long, re­laxed, but closely su­per­vised trail rides around the ranch. And as far as “com­mand” goes, it is still a leg­end around Lawrence that when Mr. Mott said “whoa,” ev­ery horse in the county stopped.

It would be eight years be­fore I met the next mas­ter: Franz Ro­chowan­sky, the leg­endary for­mer bere­iter from the Span­ish Rid­ing School. “Rock” was in his 80s when I knew him, but like Gale Mott’s, his ca­reer went back a long way: I have a film of him and two other bere­it­ers per­form­ing a pri­vate demon­stra­tion for Eva Braun dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Aus­tria in the 1940s. The film shows that the rid­ers were co­erced---but the horses, trained in the pre-War era, were ut­terly lovely. Mr. Ro­chowan­sky was an ab­so­lute mas­ter of tech­nique, and he hated force­ful aids or any form of co­er­cion (in­clud­ing es­pe­cially the pil­lars or any other form

We had a great time with lots of laugh­ter and gained es­sen­tial skills in­volv­ing bal­ance, feel and tim­ing with­out even be­ing aware of it.

of cross tie, tie-back, run­ning rein or head­set­ting de­vice). Known as the “mas­ter of pi­affe,” he could re­lieve a huge warm­blood of the panic it had learned to feel when the whips came out as it was pushed up against the wall with the de­mand for per­for­mance. Time and again, I saw Rock trans­form these horses into calm, will­ing per­form­ers with a few soft words and a touch. This re­in­forced for me an­other as­pect of mas­tery which I think is miss­ing from the dic­tio­nary def­i­ni­tion: It has some­thing to do with the heart. It in­volves con­vey­ing to the an­i­mal---and to the stu­dent--that they are safe and loved, val­ued for some­thing greater than merely their abil­ity to per­form.

I met Ro­chowan­sky by his ini­tia­tive. He had been in­vited to give a rid­ing clinic at the sta­ble where I was board­ing my palomino Quarab mare, Sadie, but I’d been told I could not en­roll in his clinic. Nonethe­less I had to work my horse, and I won’t say it was en­tirely by ac­ci­dent that I “hap­pened” to be longe­ing her at the ex­act time that Rock was teach­ing in the next arena. It was windy and hard to hear, and Rock’s English was none too good. But with only half my mind on my own horse, I strained my ears to catch any mote of his wis­dom. Pretty soon it was lunchtime and I saw the spec­ta­tors in the bleach­ers dis­pers­ing. I was star­tled when, a cou­ple of min­utes later, I felt a tap on my shoul­der.

I stopped my mare, reeled up the longe line, and turned to see an old man with a kindly face and big, bushy eyebrows. “Vaht is your mare?” said Rock. “She re­minds me of ein Lip­iz­zan!”

“Oh!” I said, taken aback. “Well, I guess she is kind of built that way, mus­cu­lar and with a big cresty neck, yes?”

“Vhy are you not in ze clinic?” asked Rock with a mild frown.

I replied, “Oh, well, sir---it was full. I couldn’t get in. I would have liked to.”

“Vehl,” said Rock, “you are in it now. I vahnt you to come zit in for the rest of ze time." With a twin­kle in his eye he added, “Be­cause of your very gute ‘Lip­iz­zan’ mare.”

This was the first of a se­ries of ses­sions which I was priv­i­leged to have with Rock. I later found out that I was not the only per­son Rock per­son­ally picked out af­ter see­ing them demon­strate “some­thing” in their re­la­tion­ship with their horse which he was ap­par­ently look­ing for. My friend Ger­man Baca, a Peru­vian cha­lan who in the 1990s took a horse called Don Diego de la Vega to mul­ti­ple U.S. Na­tional Cham­pi­onships, was an­other who re­ceived Rock’s spe­cial help.

Un­for­tu­nately, I was able to have only a few meet­ings with Mr. Ro­chowan­sky be­fore he died. But those few were of cru­cial im­por­tance in pre­par­ing me to meet the next mas­ter horse­man. The en­counter was not long in com­ing.

Dur­ing the late 1980s I was in­vited to teach a se­ries of clin­ics in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Sherry, the very ac­com­plished rider in charge of that barn, was open to knowl­edge and had a num­ber of horses with in­ter­est­ing phys­i­cal prob­lems. The most vex­ing was a warm­blood geld­ing who could be a good per­former one minute but, with al­most no warn­ing, would sud­denly leap into a buck­ing fit so vi­o­lent that he twice broke Sherry’s thigh­bone.

Un­der­stand­ably, she was look­ing for so­lu­tions. I was able to lo­cate the prob­lem---the an­i­mal had a 19th rib on one side. Turn­ing in that di­rec­tion gave him knife­like stabs of pain that would set off the buck­ing fits. Although I could demon­strate the cause, I felt bad, be­cause I knew this was not enough: What good does it do to have a name for

a prob­lem that you have no power to fix? I re­turned from that clinic feel­ing very frus­trated and was re­lieved to get a call from Sherry a cou­ple of months later. “Deb,” she said, “the prob­lem is to­tally fixed! The horse doesn’t buck any­more.”

“Wow,” I replied, “that’s just won­der­ful! How did you fix it?”

“Well,” she said, “I didn’t fix it. I had help. Right af­ter you left, some peo­ple told me about this lit­tle old man up in Merced County who could do magic with horses. They put me in con­tact with him, and he in­vited me to come up there with the horse and ride with him for a few days.”

“So what was this old guy’s name?” I asked. “Tom Dor­rance,” she replied. Ex­pect­ing to hear the name of some fa­mous com­peti­tor, some well-known Olympic eques­trian or at the very least a high-pow­ered vet­eri­nar­ian, I had to ad­mit I’d never heard of this guy and was some­what skep­ti­cal. “And what did he ac­tu­ally do that fixed the horse?” I in­quired. “I---I’m not ac­tu­ally sure,” she ad­mit­ted.

Much later, I would learn that this was a very com­mon re­ac­tion to Tom’s min­is­tra­tions. Sherry’s re­port made me highly cu­ri­ous to say the least, so a few months later when I was again in Cal­i­for­nia, I called Tom and asked if he would per­mit me to in­ter­view him for EQUUS mag­a­zine. He and his wife Mar­garet wel­comed me warmly. In his 80s at the time, Tom’s weather-beaten face read­ily broke into a sym­pa­thetic smile, which brought up ap­ple cheeks and sparkling blue eyes. That first day, we be­gan a long-run­ning, rather deep con­ver­sa­tion about what it means to own, ride and train horses. I didn’t know it at the time, but our di­a­logue was des­tined to go on for an­other decade. It would probe me to my depths--an ef­fect that masters have on stu­dents which is quite char­ac­ter­is­tic. That first day, though, it took only 10 min­utes for me to re­al­ize that I would never write a fea­ture ar­ti­cle about Tom---to quote an­other writer who knew him: It would be im­pos­si­ble, be­cause to re­port on Tom would be like try­ing to sum­ma­rize God. And that’s an­other mas­tery char­ac­ter­is­tic: There is some­thing very deep about it, an elu­sive power that flees any at­tempt to grasp it, to own it, to make a grim com­pe­ti­tion out of it, or to mar­ket it. Faced with mas­tery, one must either laugh or die.

Four more years went by be­fore I ac­tu­ally rode a horse un­der Tom’s eye.

That first day, it took only 10 min­utes for me to re­al­ize that I would never write a fea­ture ar­ti­cle about Tom Dor­rance–to quote an­other writer who knew him: It would be im­pos­si­ble, be­cause to re­port on Tom would be like try­ing to sum­ma­rize God.

In the mean­time, how­ever, I met one more mas­ter who greatly helped me: Ray Hunt, who was Tom’s friend and chief pro­tégé. Two men more dif­fer­ent in tem­per­a­ment could hardly be imag­ined: Tom the cre­ative vi­sion­ary with the cool­ness, depth, sub­tlety and pa­tience of an in­fi­nite ocean; Ray the spir­i­tual war­rior wield­ing con­trolled strength, blaz­ing pas­sion and fiery com­mit­ment. A broad-shoul­dered work­ing cow­boy, Ray’s teach­ing was of­ten con­veyed in witty, pithy Sten­ge­lese: “Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing dif­fi­cult” … “Al­ways reward the smallest change and the slight­est try” … “If it wasn’t ef­fec­tive, it wasn’t un­der­stood” … “It ain’t what hap­pens; it’s what hap­pens be­fore what hap­pens hap­pens.”

At Ray’s clin­ics, every­one was equally wel­come: horses of what­ever sort and stu­dents of ev­ery eco­nomic and skill level. How re­fresh­ing it was to be free of the ugly pol­i­tics, the false “lev­els” and the con­stant, grind­ing judg­men­tal­ism that I’d en­coun­tered in rid­ing clin­ics on the East Coast---and just go ride in a pas­ture with a teacher whose abil­ity I could to­tally trust. To ride in Ray’s horse­man­ship class was like work­ing with a strict old house­maid who turns ev­ery bol­ster wrong­side-out with a firm shake, and never thinks of quit­ting un­til ev­ery floor, car­pet and stick of fur­ni­ture in the house sparkles and ev­ery bit of brass is bur­nished to gold. More than any other horse­man or horse­woman I’ve ever met, Ray un­der­stood the value of prac­tic­ing es­sen­tial skills to re­ple­tion. He made this into a class pro­to­col that chal­lenged all stu­dents to build it into a life­style.

Back in the 1980s, dur­ing the same pe­riod that I be­gan rid­ing with Ray Hunt, an ex­pe­ri­enced martial arts teacher by the name of Ge­orge Leonard wrote the book Mas­tery: The Keys to Suc­cess and Long-Term Ful­fill­ment. The ques­tion he ad­dresses is one that I also heard Tom Dor­rance pose: Why is it that so few peo­ple who take up a sport, a pro­fes­sion, an art or in­deed any en­deavor ever mas­ter it?

Leonard ran an aikido dojo, and over a long span of years he saw stu­dents come and go: Few per­sisted de­spite a great place to prac­tice, rea­son­able fees, a wel­com­ing at­mos­phere, clear in­struc­tion and the great ex­per­tise of the teacher. I have to tell the truth and say that this is ex­actly what I no­ticed over the years I rode with Ray Hunt, and it’s what I still see at many clin­ics, in­clud­ing my own: Peo­ple come the first time, and then the next time I see them they have made no progress at all---in some cases, year af­ter year for years on end!

This con­cerns me, and I know it con­cerned Ray: I watched him just about bust a gut giv­ing spe­cial at­ten­tion, do­ing ex­tra demon­stra­tions, search­ing for more than one way to ex­plain some­thing in the ef­fort to try to help par­tic­u­lar stu­dents. All good teach­ers try as hard as they can to help stu­dents suc­ceed, but some­times we---both teach­ers and stu­dents---can be our own worst en­e­mies. Leonard’s book iden­ti­fies sev­eral

dif­fer­ent types of stu­dents, and that’s the ul­ti­mate rea­son for this ar­ti­cle: to help you iden­tify your “pat­tern,” and by that help you make changes that will put you on the path to mas­tery.

Ray Hunt said, “I hope you peo­ple are here to­day to suc­ceed with your horses. I hope you’re not just try­ing to get by. Be­cause if you do that, you cheat your­self, you cheat me and you cheat your horse.”


Leonard ob­serves, “Learn­ing any new skill in­volves rel­a­tively brief spurts of progress, each of which is fol­lowed by a slight de­cline to a plateau some­what higher in most cases than that which pre­ceded it. The curve is nec­es­sar­ily ide­al­ized. In the ac­tual learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, progress is less reg­u­lar; the up­ward spurts vary; the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way.

But the gen­eral pro­gres­sion is al­most al­ways the same. To take the mas­ter’s jour­ney, you have to prac­tice dili­gently. But while do­ing so---and this is the in­ex­orable fact of the jour­ney---you also have to be will­ing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep prac­tic­ing even when you seem to be get­ting nowhere.”

Here then is an­other as­pect of the true mas­ter: one who prac­tices dili­gently while be­ing free of am­bi­tion---in other words, not for the sake of a prize or a cham­pi­onship but pri­mar­ily for the sake of the prac­tice it­self. This is one of the great se­crets of mas­tery: Prize win­ning is not a goal but a side ef­fect of prac­tice. The penalty for try­ing to do it the other way around is steep, be­cause the ef­fort to gain new skills in­evitably in­volves fail­ing. I have no­ticed that many rid­ers con­fuse prac­tice with show­ing, so that they are try­ing to be “on show” at ev­ery mo­ment, or at least at any mo­ment when they think some­body is watch­ing them.

It is not pos­si­ble to “win” all the time, par­tic­u­larly in the be­gin­ning. But many rid­ers can­not ac­cept this idea. Thus, they either drop out or else they “stall out,” go­ing for years mak­ing al­most no progress.

Leonard cat­e­go­rizes the stu­dents who are most likely to miss their chance at mas­tery as Dab­blers, Ob­ses­sives and Hack­ers. He also ob­served the Fan­ta­sizer, a type I think is es­pe­cially com­mon among horse own­ers. Truth be told, there’s a lit­tle of each of these pat­terns in all of us. Can you rec­og­nize your­self in any of the fol­low­ing?


“The Dab­bler,” says Leonard, “ap­proaches each new sport, ca­reer op­por­tu­nity or re­la­tion­ship with enor­mous en­thu­si­asm. He or she loves the rit­u­als in­volved in get­ting started, the spiffy equip­ment, the lingo, the shine of new­ness”---and horsepeo­ple might add, “the fun of shop­ping at the tack store.”

Leonard con­tin­ues, “When he makes his first spurt of progress in a new sport … the Dab­bler is over­joyed. He demon­strates his form to fam­ily, friends and peo­ple he meets in the street. He can’t wait for the next les­son. The falloff from his first peak comes as a shock. The plateau that fol­lows is un­ac­cept­able if not in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. His en­thu­si­asm quickly wanes. He starts miss­ing lessons. His mind fills up with ra­tio­nal­iza­tions. This re­ally isn’t the right sport for him. It’s too com­pet­i­tive, too non­com­pet­i­tive, ag­gres­sive, non-ag­gres­sive, bor­ing, dan­ger­ous---what­ever. He tells every­one that it just doesn’t ful­fill his unique needs.”

So the Dab­bler starts an­other sport in or­der to give him­self the chance to re­play the en­er­giz­ing sce­nario of start­ing up. Or, he’ll “go shop­ping”: We horse­man­ship in­struc­tors no­tice that it’s the Dab­bler who is the first to change in­struc­tors or sam­ple the lat­est “hot” clin­i­cian who comes down

the road. The Dab­bler never finds a school that he is will­ing to call “home” be­cause to do that would re­quire that he fo­cus on the “bor­ing” process of hon­ing es­sen­tials.


We’ve all met this one---the “type A per­son­al­ity.” It’s the Ob­ses­sive who wants to get his post­ing down pat in the very first les­son and be go­ing over jumps within two weeks. More than other types, the Ob­ses­sive tends to treat his horse as a mere ve­hi­cle, and he wants---he de­mands---that the horse JUST DO IT. He doesn’t grasp---or pay much at­ten­tion to---all the talk about break­ing lessons down into lit­tle pieces and then giv­ing the horse (or him­self) what­ever time it is go­ing to take to mas­ter each chunk. He hears the in­struc­tor go on about sub­tleties---“feel, tim­ing and bal­ance”---but it goes in one ear and out the other.

Some­times it’s hard to fig­ure out what’s re­ally driv­ing the Ob­ses­sive. Of­ten it’s a de­sire to win at horse shows, but it can be other things: I know one whose se­cret de­sire was to get on TV (he did). I know sev­eral oth­ers whose se­cret de­sire is fame and hav­ing a large fol­low­ing of fans who adore them as mi­nor gods (some of them achieved this). All these in­di­vid­u­als pre­tend to teach, but I have yet to see any of them teach even one es­sen­tial cor­rectly. Be­cause the Ob­ses­sive is driven by am­bi­tion, com­pet­i­tive­ness and self-in­ter­est, he can­not “rightly” hear the mean­ing of the teach­ings of mas­ter horsemen, and thus is blind to the true sig­nif­i­cance to the horse of any ex­er­cise. He has no real in­ter­est in the “heart” as­pect of mas­tery; he ap­plies tech­niques with­out in­sight; he works en­tirely on the sur­face. As a re­sult, we have seen a num­ber of these false, self-pro­mot­ing “masters” lead thou­sands of stu­dents astray and dam­age hun­dreds of horses.

Leonard points out that the path to mas­tery makes the same de­mands of all. So the Ob­ses­sive, like ev­ery­body else, in­evitably finds him­self on the plateau; but when that oc­curs, “he sim­ply won’t ac­cept it. He re­dou­bles his ef­fort. He pushes him­self mer­ci­lessly. He re­fuses to ac­cept his in­struc­tor’s coun­sel of mod­er­a­tion. He’s tempted to take short­cuts for the sake of quick re­sults…. It’s a jagged upand-down ride to­ward a sure fall.” No­tice that, apart from the Ob­ses­sive’s will­ing­ness to force re­sults, his pat­tern---ini­tial progress, fol­lowed by plateau, fol­lowed by crash---is re­ally no dif­fer­ent from the Dab­bler’s. More se­ri­ously, we should rec­og­nize that these pat­terns aren’t con­fined to the rid­ing arena or the martial arts dojo, be­cause “get­ting high, flat­ten­ing out, crash­ing” is also the pat­tern of the drug ad­dict and the al­co­holic.


“Af­ter sort of get­ting the hang of a thing,” says Leonard, the Hacker “is will­ing to stay on the plateau in­def­i­nitely. He doesn’t mind skip­ping stages es­sen­tial to the de­vel­op­ment of mas­tery if he can just go out and hack around with fel­low hack­ers.”

To put this in horse­man­ship con­text, it’s easy to think of the Flat­bot­tom Horse and Pony Show (these go on reg­u­larly in ev­ery town dur­ing the sum­mer months, and there’s sure to be one by some sim­i­lar name wher­ever you live). If you sit in the stands at one of these shows, you will be lucky if in an en­tire day you see one sin­gle horse who moves straight, round and soft; who has no dif­fi­culty pick­ing up either lead; who can lengthen the stride at a trot in­stead of just speed­ing up; who can func­tion in a crowd of horses with­out get­ting up­set; who doesn’t spook when spec­ta­tors ap­plaud; who can be rid­den with pre­ci­sion from marker to marker; who can safely help his rider open and close a gate; who can be moved onto or off of the rail with ease; who loads and un­loads from the trailer with quiet con­fi­dence … and on, and on.

The lack of horse­man­ship seen at horse shows un­cov­ers the fact that many “show” horse own­ers do not prac­tice es­sen­tials at home.

Many stu­dents throw all the re­spon­si­bil­ity onto the in­struc­tor, whom they re­fer to as their “trainer.” Be­cause they don’t con­sider them­selves re­spon­si­ble, they don’t work at un­der­stand­ing what they are be­ing taught in lessons or clin­ics, so when they get home they can’t build on it. By con­trast, Ray Hunt de­scribed the pro­found and mov­ing ef­fects of his first en­coun­ters with Tom: “I went to bed thinkin’ about it---and I got up thinkin’ about it.” Hear­ing Ray say this taught me to look for a prime char­ac­ter­is­tic of the su­pe­rior stu­dent: the abil­ity to grasp the essence of a les­son (which might have oc­curred in the in­door arena) and cre­atively mod­ify it to suit new cir­cum­stances (say, the stu­dent and his horse find them­selves in the round pen, a field, the out­door arena, or on a trail ride). The fu­ture mas­ter is one who doesn’t just ex­e­cute tech­niques like a brain­less ro­bot, but who grasps the un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ple and who is thus able to cre­atively mod­ify the par­tic­u­lars as cir­cum­stances seem to dic­tate.

The Hacker, on the other hand, is spe­cially dis­tin­guished by the dull­ness and same­ness of his rides, which tend to re­main on the rail: few changes of di­rec­tion, few tran­si­tions, no fig­ures, un­even rhythm, lack­lus­ter walk. Or, if they are so-called “dres­sage rid­ers,” we are ap­palled to no­tice them com­pletely fall asleep in their head, like a trav­eller tired af­ter hours of driv­ing. On nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions I have ob­served such rid­ers spend 20 or 30 min­utes at a time rid­ing on one 20-me­ter cir­cle at a trot or in one di­rec­tion along the arena track: no set­ting the horse up for cor­ners, no changes of tempo or en­ergy level, no con­cern for mak­ing straight, no un­der­stand­ing of free for­ward flow or of play­ing with “the life in the body.” As for “arena toys” and the cru­cially im­por­tant “trick” train­ing: In a burst of en­thu­si­asm, the Hacker may ac­tu­ally build a plat­form or a grid of cav­al­letti, but af­ter the first month they get over­grown with weeds. It is the Hacker who will spend (and who will WANT to spend) 50 per­cent or more of the les­son time sit­ting on the horse talking (or, a vari­ant, ar­gu­ing) with the in­struc­tor, rather than work­ing.


I de­fine fan­tasy, in the con­text of suc­cess on horse­back, this way: “De­sire mag­i­cally ful­filled with­out prac­tice.”

In his book, Leonard ex­presses the opin­ion that our cul­ture is en­gaged in an all-out war on mas­tery. He sug­gests that you “try pay­ing close at­ten­tion to tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials…. Men are shown work­ing at their jobs for all of a sec­ond and a half, then it’s Miller time. [There is] an un­der­ly­ing pat­tern…. [Many] com­mer­cials … are based on a cli­mac­tic mo­ment…. The race is run and won; beau­ti­ful young peo­ple jump up and down in ec­stasy as they reach for frosted cans of diet cola. Life at its best, these com­mer­cials teach, is an end­less se­ries of cli­mac­tic mo­ments”.

I think the most im­por­tant ob­ser­va­tion Leonard makes is that, “In all of this, the spe­cific con­tent isn’t nearly as de­struc­tive to mas­tery as is the rhythm. One epiphany fol­lows an­other. The present fan­tasy is crowded out by the next. Bot­tom line … there is no plateau.” His in­sight here echoes one of my fa­vorite ob­ser­va­tions of the hu­man con­di­tion, also in the book, “The essence of bore­dom is rooted in the de­mand for

end­less nov­elty.” The de­mand for end­less “highs” is not the pat­tern of the mas­ter, but of the ad­dict!

Novice horse own­ers are es­pe­cially prone to this fan­tasy. The point is that it is a fan­tasy: “Horse whis­per­ing” is not ESP or some kind of spe­cial tal­ent; Sil­ver doesn’t re­ally come at call be­cause the Lone Ranger has “hero power”---it just looked that way to you when you saw it on TV as a wide-eyed 5-year-old. Trig­ger came when Roy Rogers called, though---be­cause of hours of prac­tice off-screen. Me­lanie Smith Tay­lor’s jumper won at Aachen and Los An­ge­les be­cause they had an­a­lyzed and mas­tered ev­ery jump be­fore ever go­ing to the con­test. Me­lanie, of course, is a pro­tégé of both the great Ge­orge Mor­ris and of Ray Hunt. Jim Hicks has earned Sil­ver medal sta­tus from the U.S. Dres­sage Fed­er­a­tion by school­ing his horses in the es­sen­tials taught by Ray Hunt. Buck Bran­na­man’s horses are ex­em­plars of pre­ci­sion, power and el­e­gance---he can do things on horse­back that al­most no­body else in our time can do---be­cause Buck learned from Ray to prac­tice es­sen­tials to re­ple­tion and to make this the ba­sis for life­time horse­man­ship.

Your horse will come to you out of a field full of his bud­dies, or cre­ate for

you any type of per­for­mance you de­sire, once you learn how to cause him to de­sire to be with you more than he de­sires any­thing else. This can hap­pen only when you awaken from fan­tasy. When that hap­pens, you will stop pre­tend­ing that he al­ready knows how to do it, and thus you will stop de­mand­ing that he just do it.


The Olympic Games, so easy to view nowa­days on cable TV, bring Leonard’s next ob­ser­va­tion into sharp fo­cus. He says, “Sports pho­tog­ra­phy … has been cap­tured by the ‘thrill of vic­tory/ agony of de­feat’ school. Again and again we’re shown cli­mac­tic mo­ments (prodi­gious ex­er­tion, faces con­torted with pain or tri­umph)…. But it seems to me that mas­tery’s true face is re­laxed and serene, some­times faintly smil­ing. In fact, those we most ad­mire in sports seem at times to en­ter an­other di­men­sion. Be­sieged by op­pos­ing play­ers, bat­tered by the screams of the crowd, they make the dif­fi­cult, even the su­per­nat­u­ral, seem easy, and man­age some­how to cre­ate har­mony.”

Leonard is here de­scrib­ing “the zone” that sports psy­chol­o­gists talk about. In horse­man­ship, we say that the goal is to be able to ride “in a bub­ble of OK-ness.” This is de­vel­oped by ded­i­cated, cre­ative prac­tice of es­sen­tials AT HOME. Once the “bub­ble” starts to reg­u­larly ap­pear---and only then---can you safely take your horse off your own grounds, whether that be for the pur­pose of novel ex­pe­ri­ences in trail-rid­ing or to the horse show. In or­der for you and your horse to be safe, and par­tic­u­larly, in or­der for your horse to be safe around you, you have to be able to bring that “bub­ble of OK-ness” with you wher­ever you go.

In terms of horse com­pe­ti­tion, the fact that most peo­ple are Dab­blers, Ob­ses­sives, Hack­ers or Fan­ta­siz­ers has led to ter­ri­ble things. Say­ing that most com­peti­tors never achieve mas­tery is ex­actly the same as notic­ing that they are will­ing to set­tle for very lit­tle. This is what Ray Hunt meant by, “You’re cheat­ing your horse and you’re cheat­ing your­self.” One form this takes at horse shows and train­ing barns is the use of all the quick-fix stuff---tiedowns, mar­tin­gales, draw reins, weighted shoes, patent bits, longe­ing “de­vel­op­ers,” etc. An­other form it takes is crop-and-tip photo ma­nip­u­la­tion. This has for al­most a cen­tury been char­ac­ter­is­tic of the sad­dle-seat world, but we now see it in dres­sage, too. The tech­nique is to ro­tate the photo so that the horse ap­pears to be go­ing up­hill, then crop the mar­gins to the new, false ver­ti­cal, and then frame the pic­ture. Crop-and-tip sends the happy rib­bon-win­ner home with a photo she can stare at---or run in a mag­a­zine ad---that makes her horse look lighter and more “on the haunches”

than he ever re­ally was. “Set­tling for very lit­tle” also man­i­fests in the obliv­i­ous­ness of most com­peti­tors to the crooked­ness of their horse, his lack of prompt and will­ing obe­di­ence to the aids, and the gen­eral slop­pi­ness and im­pre­ci­sion of the ride.

Peo­ple hear me speak crit­i­cally of horse show­ing and then some­times feel an urge to ex­plain that they do in­tend to keep go­ing to horse shows, but I am not to worry---be­cause they don’t go with any “se­ri­ous” de­sire to win. What these folks are try­ing to do is have their cake and eat it, too. Be­cause the truth ac­tu­ally is that no­body who goes to the horse show and wins a rib­bon is go­ing to march right back to the show of­fice and say, “Here, take this rib­bon back be­cause I don’t de­serve it! To win it I put my horse in a sit­u­a­tion he was only half-pre­pared for---one that stressed and prob­a­bly fright­ened him some--and be­cause of that, even though we won, we made only a fuzzy sketch of the ac­tual ma­neu­vers or tran­si­tions called for in the class.”

There is only one way that any­body can go to a horse show and be fair to both him­self and his horse, and that is to go fully pre­pared, and fully in­tend­ing, to win ev­ery class en­tered. This im­plies that:

(1) The stu­dent will thor­oughly study the rule­book, which gives all the re­quire­ments for each class, months be­fore go­ing to the show.

(2) The stu­dent and his horse will have un­der­stood and prac­ticed each and ev­ery par­tic­u­lar re­quire­ment at home and mas­tered each one to a level in ex­cess of that an­tic­i­pated at the show, be­fore en­ter­ing the show.

(3) The stu­dent will also have taken care to ex­pose his horse to all of the con­di­tions found at the horse show grounds that do not usu­ally oc­cur at home. This would in­clude bunt­ing and bal­loons, pop­corn thrown at the horse, crowds of strange horses in the same arena en­clo­sure, hoses mak­ing fizzing noises, pud­dles of wa­ter in the arena, the judge’s box or the open horse trailer where the judge sits half in the dark, crack­ling noises as well as speech com­ing over a loud­speaker sys­tem, and bursts of ap­plause. Some of this can be ar­ranged as prac­tice ses­sions at home, while some can and should be part of a “field trip” where the per­son takes his horse to the show­grounds at the time when there is a show on the grounds, but does not en­ter that par­tic­u­lar show, us­ing it merely as an op­por­tu­nity to ed­u­cate the horse.

If your horse could talk, and you asked him, “What time is it?” he would re­ply, “Why—it’s right now. That’s what time it is: It’s now.”

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