Equestrian culture has changed drastically throughout the centuries, and it continues to change at a rapid pace. Many spend their time and energy bemoaning the loss of the bygone methods, culture, and ideology, and I, too, used to belong to that camp… the camp that idolises the old masters and thinks they and everything they did was infallible. But with age and experience come some hard-earned insights, and I no longer view the history with such rose-colored glasses. There was a lot of good then, indeed, but it was not all good. It was not perfect, and like all other arts, equestrian art is evolving. It continues to evolve. It flows through time, adopting some new values while relinquishing others. Equestrian art is, therefore, a dynamic art. It changes and it can be changed.
Much of what the old masters wrote and taught holds true today, and we should study and incorporate their insights and wisdom. But there are also some aspects which are no longer tenable and need to change. There have been advances made in the realms of biomechanics, much of which support the equestrian literature of the past, but some of which shed new light on what they tried to achieve and teach. Culturally, a great shift has been made away from a militaristic model, and with that, some approaches towards how instructors treat their students and how students can take personal responsibility for their own learning have opened up.
In the past, riding culture was predominantly male whereas now it is predominantly female. This is not a bad thing at all! However, it does introduce some other elements which do their part to affect the riding culture paradigm. As thinking, feeling, socially-conscious humans, we should make ourselves aware of these changing paradigms and take some moments to reflect on whether thingsthat ‘have always been done this way’ are still in keeping with our evolving philosophies towards how we communicate and treat our horses, as well as each other.
This reflects a new age in which we do not need to be held back by that which no longer serves us well. In this new era, you - the reader, the student - take an active role in your learning. You, in fact, are in charge of your learning. Your feelings, thoughts, and insights matter. Your dignity matters!
Learning is a creative process in which you are in control. It should not feel like punishment or humiliation. Creativity and curiosity cannot prosper in an environment of fear, bullying, shame, or performance pressure. Honor your creativity, your intuition, and the love for the horse in your journey.
Learning can happen anywhere along your journey. It can come from the traditional model of instructor-student relationship but there are many atypical arrangements and sources of inspiration which can illuminate your path and shed inspiration and invaluable clues. Your horse is probably your most noteworthy teacher.
Along the way, you will likely find many teachers in many forms who are able to help you. Some will be human, some will be equine. Some may be in the form of formal instruction, but not all will be. Don’t restrain your possibilities by limiting the sources of your inspiration and knowledge-acquisition. Be willing to think outside the box. Follow your curiosity and see where it leads. Taking a playful approach towards your learning enables you to see things that would be obscured by a narrow mindset.
Learning doesn’t just happen in the good moments. The plateaus and setbacks are just important as the phases of acceleration. The ability to learn from our failures and setbacks is not necessarily inborn. But you can develop this. Be kind to yourself on this journey. Learn to extract the valuable lessons from the rides that don’t go so well, and learn to discern the difference between the truthful information and the self-criticism which attaches your value and worthiness as a human being to the state of your last bad ride or moment.
To learn better, teach others. Help others. Share your discoveries, your process, and your understanding. If you want a compassionate community in which to grow as a rider, create it with your own actions, by the way you treat others on this journey.
Your experience on your journey is unique to you. We may all be on this journey and we will all similarly experience comparable lessons along the way but exactly HOW you experience that, and what you make of it, is unique to you. The insights you gain are uniquely yours and uniquely valuable. Share them with others.
In teaching others, we open to the possibility of learning even more. By teaching others what we know, putting our understanding into words in such a way that we can explain them to someone else, we discover the gaps or inconsistencies in our own understanding. These are places to return to later, and explore more deeply so that we gain a fuller understanding. Sometimes someone will ask a question that we have never considered before. It may initially be unsettling to realize what you don’t know, but don’t be rattled. You can’t ever know everything. In fact, this is wonderful! It is a wonderful stroke of luck to come across what you don’t yet know. This is a clue of where we can delve deeper. When someone shows us a direction in which we our curiosity can lead us, they’ve actually just done us a favor. They have, in their own way, facilitated our own learning.
“The patriarchy is dead. What we are witnessing in the world right now are the last throes of an ideology that institutionalized inequality and a system of supremacy based upon hierarchal modalities rather than holism, that codified prejudice and hatred and dismissed love and acceptance, that created unequal societies and a world of war and hid evidence of equality-based societies and a world of peace. This is the world of our lifetimes, the world that we chose to be born into, the world that we came here upon the earth, at this particular time, to change.” - Mark Rockeymoore
The phrase “Paradigm Shift” was coined by Thomas Kuhn, a physicist and author of The Structure of Scientific Revolution (1962). He introduced the concept that scientific advancement is not just an evolution but happens as a result of transformative agents of change. This concept has since been borrowed and applied to many other concepts.
It is apparent that dressage has undergone several significant paradigm shifts throughout its history. We are in the midst of one of those paradigm shifts now. It is no coincidence that this is happening at the same time as many other significant shifts in societal attitudes, gender roles, spirituality, and human experience, as well as the shifting role of the horse in modern life.
Concurrently, there exists an underlying paradigm shift in the patriarchal roles of teacher-student. Authority and autonomy are returning to the student, and the relationship is shifting to one of ultimate collaboration in which each learns from the other and each honors and respects the other’s input. It is a partnership. The rider is the leader. The trainer may be a guide, but ultimately the rider has authority to accept or decline the trainer’s input and to make her own decisions about how she will proceed with incorporating the trainer’s input. The student’s voice, perspective, intuition, and input have merit and should be honored.
The trainer theoretically has more technical and academic knowledge, and in that way, acts as a consultant to the student on her journey. The trainer can shed light for the student on how to proceed, work through problems encountered on the way, help prioritize the training strategy, and advise on how to incorporate different exercises and approaches into the training for a particular horse. The instructor can provide invaluable input to help the student to artfully develop her seat, for example, in a way that diminishes the rider’s weaknesses and expands her capabilities and confidence. This can be done with a playful, inquisitive approach which simultaneously instructs as it listens and observes.
An excellent, knowledgeable teacher is invaluable, but not every rider has access on a daily basis to such a teacher, and even if they did, this does not absolve the rider of personal responsibility to take her riding learning into her own hands and become her own teacher.
As a rider who embraces your personal responsibility, you acknowledge that no one else can do the work for you and no one else can make it easier for you. You have to do the work. You need to cultivate your trust in yourself and your judgement. You also need to cultivate the inner commitment and conviction to push yourself when it would be easier to make excuses or hide behind your fears and insecurities. You’re not afraid to ask yourself the hard questions about how you’re getting not only in your own way of progress, but in your horse’s, and you’re not afraid to make the changes that will create lasting changes in your riding and your horse’s training.
You, dear reader, are in charge of your learning. You are both responsible for it and the ultimate authority over it. Do not hand your authority over to anyone. Along the way hire those who you resonate with as consultants. Good eyes on the ground are invaluable in this whole process of learning how to ride. Good teachers are like the best tour guides - they have been there before so they can point out what to look for, but if what they teach or how they teach hardens your heart or conflicts with what feels right, you have an obligation to listen to that, heed that warning, and steer your course into a different direction. If something doesn’t feel right, listen to your intuition. Do not override it in an effort to obey or be a “good little student.” You have an obligation to protect your spirit and your horse. You have an obligation to protect yourself and your gentle heart.
This doesn’t mean it doesn’t get difficult and that you should not persevere through the difficulties. Absolutely, you should! Difficulties are an inevitable part of the terrain of learning anything of value, and learning to ride is definitely not spared in that. There are times for pushing through. But not everything is worth pushing through. Sometimes resistance (in yourself, in the horse, in the process) is a sign that you are heading down a wrong path or not taking in all of the data. It is a sign you need to step back and take a look. Perhaps ask different questions. Perhaps re-align yourself with your values, intentions, and long-range goals. I mean, at the end of the day, impressing the people standing on the sidelines, or making it to such-and-such level by such-and-such date are not worth it if that means sacrificing your horse’s well-being or damaging the level of trust/respect in your relationship with your horse. But it is easy to get distracted by the short-term goals. It is up to you, as the one in charge of your learning, your process, and your relationship with your horse to regularly take a look at what you are doing. Ask the important (sometimes hard) questions to check if what you are doing is in alignment with your core beliefs. In that process, perhaps you find you need to adjust your path and process. Or perhaps you find that your beliefs have changed and evolved. This happens, too. No one is going to remind you of these. Well, someone might, but you can’t wait for them to do so. Don’t relinquish your responsibility to someone else. It is up to you to periodically recheck your path and make sure it is really heading in the direction you have chosen. In the end, you are responsible for your path. You are not always responsible for everything that happens to you along that path, but you ARE responsible for what you do about it.
It is a new era where the rider is no longer just a soldier. We take into account so much more in the process. It complicates things in some ways, perhaps. But it also adds deeper layers of value. There is so much more to riding than just riding.