Be Like Water. Pivot.

Shana’s business coach James Wedmore recently suggested to his students to “be like water” and to “pivot”, meaning to change tactics when whatever they are doing isn’t working.

The first part of his advice is a reference to a famous Bruce Lee quote, which is in turn inspired by the Tao te Qing: “Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

This is very relevant to riding as well, of course. Traditional riding instruction was often very rigid and inflexible. Disharmony or disagreements with the horse were usually framed as discipline and respect issues. That’s why you were told to prevail and insist that the horse carry out your orders at all costs - which can very quickly lead to fighting with the horse. The possibility that the horse was unable to comply due to a misunderstanding, a lack of balance, a lack of body awareness, a lack of suppleness, a lack of strength, or due to pain was rarely considered.

There was also a prevailing mindset that there is only ONE right way of doing things, ONE correct way of structuring the training. This quickly leads to a one size fits all approach, where the rider does the same movements in the same location and the same sequence with every horse in every training session. It does not take the vast differences between horses into consideration, and it takes away the rider’s possibility to respond with flexibility to the individual horse’s strengths and weaknesses and needs.

When there is only one permitted way of doing things, and when you have only one tool, it is very tempting to resort to force if this ONE tool and ONE way of training isn’t working. Then it is easy for the rider to shift the blame to the horse for being “disobedient” and “disrespectful”. The trainers often used to put the blame on the student for “not doing it right”, suggesting that if the rider wasn’t so incompetent in the saddle, the ONE Way would work perfectly.

In order to break out of this unhealthy and counter productive dynamic and to become more like water we need a shift in our thinking in several fundamental ways.

There are four basic principles that come to mind right away:

  1. You don’t have to stick to one single approach or to see what you started through to the bitter end because problems are usually not caused by a lack of obedience.
  2. Take a step back and look at the big picture.
  3. There is more than one right way.
  4. There are many gymnastic tools.

When issues arise and something isn’t going the way you had planned, check your seat and aids. Are you being clear? Are you not only asking the horse what to do, but are you also allowing the horse to do it? Or are you inadvertently interfering with the horse’s execution? Does the horse have the balance he needs for whatever it is that you want to ride? Does he have the necessary body awareness, coordination, suppleness, and strength? If he doesn’t possess the necessary prerequisites,  teach them to him with explanatory and preparatory exercises. You may also have to check if there could be a pain issue.

Dressage is a very detail oriented activity, and it’s very easy to get lost in the technical minutiae. James Wedmore compares this to mopping the deck of a ship instead of steering the ship. That’s why it’s important to take a step back and look at the big picture regularly. Look at the horse’s conformation, personality, and his development over several days, weeks, and months in order to recognize the long term developments and trends. So, in addition to keeping track of all the tiny little details, you also have to put them into the proper context and interpret them as parts of the big picture in order to understand their true significance, because some details are more relevant than others.

Try to find the approach that works best for your horse. Don’t be afraid to change your approach, when the current one isn’t working. This is the second part of James Wedmore’s advice: pivot. The old Spanish Riding School liked to say that you have to write a different book for each horse, as opposed to training every horse by the same book. Don’t be afraid to try something new (to you) or unusual. Don’t expect a different outcome when you keep repeating the same aids or exercises. Evaluate what you are doing after three repetitions in order to find out whether it is leading in the right direction or not. If no clear picture has emerged after three repetitions, ride three more. Or gather more data by riding a contrasting exercises that sheds light onto the same issue from a different angle.

Be creative. Try different techniques, different exercises. Incorporate longeing, double longeing, work in hand, or long reining into your training. Not every problem can be solved by riding alone. Or even if it can be solved in the saddle, one of the other techniques might be faster, smoother, or more horse friendly. Incorporate trail riding, cavaletti work or gymnastic jumping, if it helps.

Not every problem can be solved by one person alone. Every horse goes through training stages in which two or three people need to work together in order to progress most effectively. Every rider needs the assistance of someone else from time to time.

The more different techniques, approaches, and exercises you know, the less likely you are to get stuck. The more you adopt the attitude that you are trying to help the horse, the less likely it is that your ego gets involved. The ego leads to confrontations because it likes to frame problems in terms of obedience and respect.