Studying "The Box"... and Transcending "The Box"

When I started riding, it was at a typical local riding school with lesson horses, like so many kids of my generation. I was stuck in a group of kids, all the horses wore side reins or standing martingales, and we rode single file around the arena. The instructors were apprentices or young "Bereiter" who didn't ride especially well themselves, yet. Nobody really explained anything, but we were yelled at a lot when we did something wrong (which was all the time), and public humiliation was the favorite teaching tool. Instruction was highly simplified, there was only ONE RIGHT WAY, and everything else was WRONG.  

When I met my next set of teachers who were much better riders and were able to explain better, there was still the "only one way" mindset and a firm belief that in the past everything was better, that everything has gone downhill since the days of De La Guérinière - or at least since Steinbrecht's time. They instilled in us a sense of obligation to the old traditions and the school of our teachers.


The problem I found with this thinking...

is that there is often only one solution that is allowed for a certain problem, and if that solution doesn't work you get stuck very quickly. You keep trying that ONE "legal" solution over and over, hoping for a different outcome every time (insanity). It's like getting your car stuck in the mud and stepping on the gas pedal, because you were taught in driving school that that makes the car move forward. This becomes very stressful for both the horse and the rider because you feel incompetent and since you are not allowed an alternative method, all you can do is intensify the aids.

Then Shana and I started riding with another teacher who had a different approach, who broke many of the taboos or simplistic rules we had learned. His philosophy was that a good trainer should have at least 3 different solutions for each problem. It was an eye opening experience to find out that when you break some of the old rules that I had grown up with, nothing bad happens. The horse is not permanently ruined. On the contrary, problems often dissolved quickly, and we were able to progress in situations where we would have been stuck in earlier years.

Once you see that the rules you had learned don't always seem to apply, and that there are often alternative routes that lead to much better results you start questioning everything you ever learned and you start testing the rules by experimenting with alternatives.

Then you realise that the old absolute rules you learned are in reality only rules of thumb that work in a certain percentage of cases, but not always. I tell my students in lessons that the horses don't read our books. So they don't know that they are supposed to react a certain way, according to our theories.

Horse and rider are a complex system with very many moving parts and variables. That's why riding is not like math or physics where everything is very precise and laws are absolute, but it's more like a social science where rules reflect statistical frequencies more than anything. They apply only in a certain percentage of cases. And there are rules that interact or interfere with each other, which creates the so-called "exceptions" to the rule.

After a while it almost seems that there are no rules. Everything can be right, and everything can be wrong, depending on the situation. What is a brilliant therapy for one horse can be disastrous for another.

So after having studied "the box" for years, you start thinking outside the box, and finally you blow the box up because it no longer serves you. This is a very liberating experience, as it allows you to experiment freely and to find creative individual solutions to the problems you encounter. You start to see valuable information in all equestrian traditions. And you start working more and more from a set of biomechanical and psychological principles, instead of procedural rules.

These traditional procedural rules originated in the military where a large number of horses and riders had to be brought to a relatively low level in a short amount of time, and they all had to "function" the same way, in order to be exchangeable. Independent thought and action is not welcome in the military and is suppressed.

Nowadays, that is luckily no longer applicable. We have the luxury of being able to find individual solutions for ourselves and our horses. And that is what we want to teach to our students. We want to give them the tools and the understanding they need to make their own decisions and to find their own solutions that work for THEM and for THEIR horses, instead of blindly following a method or emulating someone else's personal style, which may or may not work for them and their horses.

We want to fit the method to the individual horse, not the horse to the method.