It may seem obvious to you, but you can only ride NOW. That is: in the present moment. “You can not ride yesterday and you can not ride tomorrow” Bent Branderup, Grandmaster of the Academic Art of Riding, always says. He sees a lot of riders who try to ride the way they would like to ride in the future; over-asking their horses with exercises that are still to complicated for the rider, the horse or both. Instead, they should be aware of what they can ask of their horses in this moment, and of what they are capable of themselves, and slowly build up communication, coordination and muscles. You can only ride with what you’ve got. Meaning that you can only ask exercises on the level that the weakest link (rider or horse) can execute them with ease. From that level, things can be developed step by step, bringing horse-rider combinations to a higher and higher level over time.
My teacher Tom Nagel asks this question when he is teaching his Rider’s Seat clinics: “Can there be thoughts in the present moment?” This question often leads to a lot of confusion among the participants. First of all, what does a question about thoughts in the present moment have to do with horse riding? Then, people start to ponder the question until Tom helps them find the answer to this Zen-riddle: All thoughts are in the present moment, you can only think NOW. Every thought is born in the present moment. However, no thought is ABOUT the present moment, as while you formulate your thought, the present moment has already passed… Follow me one step further: if thoughts are never about the present moment, then they must aways be about something in the past, or about something yet to come. And that is exactly what thoughts are! In Zen, past and future are seen as concepts that exist only in our brain.
Now back to riding: Riding with thoughts about what happened before or what you want to happen in the future is taking you away from what is going on right NOW. Of course, after your ride or after an exercise, you can take time to reflect on what happened, what went well and how you want to change things for the next time. This is sensible and is called learning. Also, you are allowed to think ahead, as you must have some kind of a plan of when and where you will make your next transition. This is also sensible and is called “Clear Intent” in Centered Riding. However, you should limit your thoughts to these very practical, short thoughts that are appropriate for your riding in this present moment. Thinking about your upcoming competition, feeling disappointed or extremely proud about your last trot-halt transition half a long side ago, or fantasizing about what wonderful things you and your horse may do in the future is taking you out of the present moment. And the present moment is exactly where your horse is, always. The less you are in the now, the less you can be there for your horse and connect with him. The more you think over what just happened or what you would like in the future, the less your body and mind are receptive to what is going on right now. Your horse will feel it, respond to it and may seem less focussed or disconnected. And, you may not register some of the great things your horse is offering you!
The best way for me to get into the now is to apply Zen-meditation methods to my riding. An awareness on my breathing and posture quiets down all unnecessary thoughts and brings me in the NOW. My breathing and posture are always in the present moment. I can not use the breath I took a minute ago, and I can not ride with a posture that I may or may not have in the future. So being aware of my current breath and posture always brings me into the now. You can start with this awareness before you go and make contact with your horse, take a few breaths to clear your head. After you have mounted and start your warm up walk, take this time to check your body alignment, your movement and your breathing. Then take this with you into your ride.
Observe rather than judge. Things will be more in flow, your senses will heighten and your riding will improve. Leave each step that has been made behind you, don’t look back. Ride every stride as it comes, with your awareness on your body and the body of the horse and your minds connected. Don’t anticipate what may or may not happen, take everything as it comes, without judgment. It doesn’t matter if that exercise was good or bad, it is already in the past. Take what you need to learn from it and carry on. Don’t let judgment or anticipation get in the way. Your responsibility is to keep up with your horse, and he is in the now every step of his way. So don’t linger in the past and don’t get ahead of yourself thinking about the future.
Be in the now, so you can meet your horse where he is and you can move together from there.
I like to share my thoughts on the Art of Riding with you here. Topics related to training and keeping horses and reports of my own experiences you can find here. Enjoy!