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.
If we want to improve our riding, it will all start with awareness. Awareness of what you are thinking, feeling and doing while being up there on your horse and awareness of what your horse is doing, thinking, feeling underneath you. Are you aware of your one hip moving different then the other? Can you feel your breathing change when you transition up or down? How do you feel when your approach that jump, do you believe you will make it over or are you afraid your horse will take a bar down? Can you feel the tension or relaxation in your horses back?
It is important to observe your body and your thoughts while you ride. Quite often, rider’s are so busy doing things to their horses and giving aids, that they pay little to no attention to themselves. And if the attention gets turned towards themselves a little, it often focusses on what their body is doing wrong. Instead, I recommend to start feeling what your body is doing right and where you can feel movement in your body. Start by allowing each body part to be moved by your horse. Then observe your thoughts: what do you think about while riding? Are you distracted, thinking about your grocery shopping list or the incident you just had at work, or can you fully be in the ‘now’, together with your horse? Do you think more negative or more positive thoughts? Are these thoughts about your horse or about you?
Stop thinking anything negative about yourself or about your horse. Instead, focus on what goes right and what you and your horse are able to do together. Maybe you have to adjust your goals and be happy with smaller things.
A good way to start to feel what is happening and to connect with your horse is to do this very simple exercise: Ask someone to take your horse by the rein and walk it around the riding arena. Get out of your stirrups, let your legs just hang down and if you are comfortable; close your eyes. Don’t judge what you feel, and don’t do anything. Just be soft and passive and allow the horse to move you and allow your body to be moved. Feel what is there: can you feel your hips moving? Can you feel your legs swinging? Can you feel the movement travel up your spine and get out the top of your head? Can you feel your head moving? Can you feel your own and your horses breathing?
Can you feel your own body and the horses body move together?
Then open your eyes. Does that change anything? How does the visual part of your brain influence your feeling?
Our ultimate goal is to have this feeling of togetherness all the time. To have body and mind become one, and to have horse and rider become one. In the end, two minds and two bodies becoming as one. The ultimate Centaur.
The key to this togetherness is not technique. It is not about doing. It is about being in the here and now and allowing your body and mind and the body and mind of your horse to flow. Technique helps to direct that flow, body awareness and training will help refine it. The education and physical development of your horse and yourself will allow this togetherness to remain there on higher and higher levels. But without this awareness, without allowing, training of horse and rider can get on a high level in terms of exercises, but remain mechanical. The true harmony comes out of togetherness. This togetherness comes from a state of non-doing. Of simply allowing your body and your horse to move as one, directed from your intent, with your previously learned techniques as a background program to steer things in the right direction.
Is an accomplished rider, clinician and published author who combines her extensive knowledge in classical dressage, biomechanics, ethology, human anatomy and zen principles to guide riders on their journey to self-improvement. The goal: harmony & lightness in the cooperation between human and horse.