The only thing I know is that I don’t know!

For the past two winters in Wellington, Florida, I have had the privilege of studying under George Morris one or two days a week. Over this time, I have found myself consumed by the effort to understand what skills and philosophies lead those who are masters at their trade along the path to ‘enlightenment’. I use the term enlightenment cautiously, not in a Voodoo god-like way, but in the sense of a deeper awareness and understanding of the world as it exists. When I refer to masters, I mean those who are able to refine their craft beyond the basic level that is comprehensible to most others.

A typical day spent with George was as follows:

After he had worked out for an hour at a nearby gym, George and I met for breakfast at 7 am. From there we hit the road, venturing to many different barns where he would ride, educate, and mentor many of the top riders and horses at every level.  He usually started out by riding a few horses, then progress to teaching a few individual lessons, and finally wrap up his instruction with a clinic.  Following the morning’s work, we would head back to his house for a few hours – but only after his usual stop at Dunkin Donuts for a large hot chocolate with whipped cream! While George occupied himself with the editing of his autobiography, I was left to browse his library and read his books and the notes that he had jotted down on their pages. In the afternoon, we would head to the show grounds where I got to observe him as he walked and discussed the course with several riders, both those he was responsible for coaching and those he wasn’t. My favorite part of these afternoons was standing with him as his students rode.  He could see every mistake before it happened and every bad distance long before the horse took off. His understanding of the horse’s correctness to the jump was so well established by his years of riding and teaching that George knew what was going to happen before the horse ever did.

On one of the last days I spent with George during the winter season, he said something that had an enormous impact on my thinking. As usual, we met for breakfast, said our good mornings, and sat down. It was not uncharacteristic on such occasions for George to start the conversation by exhaling loudly and then delivering a simple but mind-blowing comment.  On this day his comment was, “You know what keeps me waking up every day?  The drive to continue to learn, the hunger to be better for the horse, the fact that the only thing that is confirmed every day is that I don’t know. The only thing I know is that I don’t know.” This is a classic example of George’s sage-like advice: spontaneous yet full of priceless wisdom.  Only after some time had passed and I had let his statement sink in did I realize how significant it was.

This statement of George’s that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” encapsulates much of what it takes to achieve self-mastery. This in itself is a complicated subject, but for now I will only discuss what the statement means to me.

Simply put, the day you stop learning is the day you think that you have ‘arrived’, that you have reached the pinnacle of your potential, that there is no need to continue studying, applying, and refining your skills. You have reached a state of stagnation from which there is no forward progress. There is no more desire to conduct experiments in hopes of bettering your understanding and improving your awareness. You have become mechanized and routine in your approach to dealing with all situations, and you have lost sensitivity for the moment at hand.  As a result, a person who has reached this ‘pinnacle’ tends to treat everyone as though they were machines, providing one-size-fits-all answers instead of tailoring his approach to any particular situation. A teacher who has himself ceased to learn will be unable to help others think, cultivate the desire to improve, and develop an awareness of their influence on their surroundings.

As George made clear in his statement, he has never stopped learning.  He often tells me during a phone conversation or breakfast that after a recent breakthrough with a horse, he realized that he has been doing something wrong his entire life. He laughs to think that for all that time he had been teaching it wrongly. He still has a hard time believing that others listen to him when he teaches because he has these seemingly constant breakthroughs, no matter how small they are, that revise his previous understanding of the horse.

Another thing that working with George brought to my attention is his voracious reading and his struggle to understand the many variations and details of classical horsemanship.  He will read a specific book many times over the years, whenever his mood or current interest inclines him toward it. Seeing some of the books he has gone through over and over again with countless underlines, side notes, and comments in different inks has led me to appreciate just how many times he has been through the same book with different insights resulting from his labors. Each time George rereads a book, he peels back another layer of the onion to reveal a new meaning.

Depending on where I am in my journey, George’s seemingly simple statement that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know” takes many different forms, always presenting itself in a new light to reflect my current circumstances.  The sentiment behind these simple words is one that is embraced by masters in all disciplines.  The details of the “not knowing” may have slight differences depending on who is professing their ignorance, but the meaning as a whole is applicable to all areas of study and life.

Any masters who have reached refinement to the degree of enlightenment have seemingly simple, short phrases that are so straightforward that they seem trite or untrue to those who hear them. On a lifelong journey of learning, however, the continuous breakdown of these sayings reveals the complexity and deeper truth behind the words. It is only with examination and explanation that these phrases can become accessible and helpful to students at all levels. I hope that I can build an awareness of these phrases in others by explaining my thought process as I myself try to understand the deeper meaning behind them by writing about them.

I feel so fortunate for the mentors and masters I have had and will have the pleasure to study under. It is hard to imagine a life without them.


Working the Youngsters!


Here I’m just doing a little work with some youngsters covering some of the basics!

Working towards lightness


Watching others ride, I often see people riding with pressure instead of lightness. This simply means that people think they need pressure for comfort and control, are unwilling to let go, and do not allow the horse to move as freely as they should. It seems that true lightness actually scares people; if they get lightness, then they will actually have to let go and trust in the horse. This is very tough at first for everyone, but if you’re able to break through this, the rewards are truly amazing and affect way more than your horsemanship.

First off, what does it mean to achieve lightness in horsemanship? Depending on your discipline it can mean 800 different things, but for me it means only one thing: the lack of visible pressure being put on the horse in order to achieve the desired reaction and maintain the horse’s balance at the same time. As far as measurable pressure, if anything it would be a couple of ounces or, at times, complete weightlessness to help your horse make the desired movement. There should be no stretching of the horse’s lips or spurs digging into the side of the horse to scare them into your desired action, throwing them way out of balance.

Depending on your journey in horsemanship, working towards lightness can take many different forms. For most, just taking their horse into a round pen and getting their horse to lope and stop on a loose rein may be it. For others it may be refining the movement to where your hands are only used to collect the horse and your legs or seat are used to direct your horse.

Please do not settle for pulling, kicking, or spurring on your horse. Put yourself in your horse’s position and imagine how you as a rider use the bit or your legs. Do you think that you would enjoy the way you use your aids if you were the horse? Are you getting a result that carries over to lightness? This is as much of a reminder to myself as it is a word of caution to all. Become aware of the way you ride, not only for your sake, but more importantly for your horse’s sanity. Are you working towards lightness or pressure?

A Herd Bound “Run Away” Part 2


The wrangle out was a success and gave me a great sense of where the horse was at so that we could continue progressing together. The next step, for the education of both of us, was to go out on a morning wrangle. Which was going to be a bit tougher for him with all the extra energy of the herd along with a frosty morning. This time I was not going to be caught up in the busyness of the day, I was going to properly prepare for the morning ahead.

Part of preparation might sometimes mean an early start to an already early day. To properly check out your horse before the morning wrangles could mean showing up at three or four in the morning. Most people might think that is a bit crazy, but to me it’s not about waking up early, its about preparing the horse best for success. I am not handy enough to just get on a horse and bombproof them for the eventual progression into the dude string, I heavily rely on groundwork.

The morning rolled around quickly and I was prepared for whatever the horse had to offer. I had prepared myself mentally and physically by visualizing the morning to come before I had went to bed the night prior. I went through the timing of the morning to give myself 45 to 60 minutes of work with the horse before ride time for the wrangle and had a plan of what I was going to work on with him. By plan I simply mean a rough draft, because based on where the horse is at the plan is continually changing.

I had my morning coffee, still visualizing the morning, and headed down to catch my steed. Caught him up, saddled him, and went straight to ground work 45 minutes before I had to go wrangle. Found a few issues on the ground that I was glad to work through before riding him. He was very braced up about backing, and working the straight line exercise on the ground. He wasn’t connecting his front because of the lack of hindquarters ahead of time. We worked on that for quite awhile till it smoothed out. The groundwork improved immensely so I went to riding him.

Once I mounted up, I then went straight to hindquarters and getting the head around working on perfect flexions laterally. Didn’t get them perfect, but got both sides a little bit better. When the hindquarters and the head shaped up together I would bring the front through. Finding the lateral flexion to be lost with the front, so I would give a release for the front step and go right back to flexion until it progressed. Hindquarters and front quarters were moving significantly better so I went to short serpentine from there.

The serpentine was very heavy, felt yucky to me so I went to working on that for some time. If the horse wouldn’t get off of the bit, I would stop the serpentine till he came off the pressure. I then went back to the serpentine until the head and front foot started to lighten up through connection and proper balance. Never did get it perfect, but made it better. After all of that started coming along nicely I went to stopping and backing circles, letting the front come through when the movement of the horse felt prepared. Worked quite awhile on getting that to shape up.

After getting all of these fundamental basics better, but not perfect, it was about time to ride. I went to set gates, continuously working on leg yielding with collection, along with everything else. I Had to really take my time collecting and offering the leg yield for I could feel the spot in him where he wants to check out by running off or rearing. In those moments with him I would just slow down and make sure I was doing what he needed, not getting frustrated because I wasn’t getting the gates shut. If he would get a little better about opening and closing gates I would just stop, release, and pet him for a second. He had been taught that gates where a spot of torture for him, instead of being encouraged to hang in there by rewarding the tries. Perhaps even for the horse to just get up to the gate and stand for a second would be all he could handle so I would release, pet, and step off to finish the gate. If he could handle more I would do just a bit more, until i knew I was reaching the tipping point. Little by little getting to the point to where he pretty much takes over and does the motions for you while you just hold the gate.

The gates where all set and the crew was ready to ride. We headed out to the pasture gates to start gathering the horses, when I just offered my horse a smooth trotting speed out there. He decided he wanted to go really fast instead and good thing I was prepared to go with. We took off like a bat out of hell and made about 20 solid circles in the same place I had the night before winding him down from the wrangle out. Making lead changes and cross firing through all 20 laps. After those twenty laps of free ride, he decided against the faster pace, slowly finding his own stop. From there we entered the pasture.

We entered the pasture, set up our game plan to gather the horses and took off. We all spread out and headed to the back of the pasture to start bringing in the herd. At this point everything was calm and cool, while I just let him move out. All the wranglers were in position and we proceeded to bring the horses in. That’s when I knew how the morning was going to play out, I let him go. Letting him go as in I was just along for the ride. I wanted him to be able to find his own stop away from all other horses, especially his girlfriend. This would have been equivalent to riding your horse in an indoor arena with out guiding him, except for legs to encourage movement, until the horse stopped away from all gates or other horses. Strictly breaking the bond the horse has with his kind, taking care of all herd bound issues over time. Which carries over to cure barn sour, gate sour, and many other issues you may come across in a horse.

Looking back at it now, the conditions were quite unfavorable for the task, but he was a very athletic horse that I trusted to take care of us both. The pasture was slightly flooded from the winter run off so the footing was a bit slick and sloppy. One wrong step could have put us both in a pile.

The wranglers and I were all in position and started to bring the herd in. The morning was a bit cooler and the horses were feeling pretty good, so they all took off. Once the herd started moving, I just let go of my horse to do what he needed to do. He saw his clique take off and we followed quickly. He caught up to them in seconds so I just asked for a little more life when I was with them to help discourage comfort among friends. In doing so the horses picked up the pace a little because he latched on to his girl, almost as if we were tracking her like a cow. That is the moment where the ride started to become quite uncomfortable due to the speed and footing.

She was trying to run away from the horse and I, while the horse I was on was trying to stay with her at all costs. For a couple of crazy minutes we were following her at a full lope going left and right through variations of flood water puddles, irrigation ditches, and mud. The horse I was on probably felt great for those minutes of craziness, for he was reunited with his gal running free through the open meadows. Meanwhile I was holding my breath, covered in mud, wondering if I was going to survive this madness. Mind you there were about five other horses following her at this point so just imagine the debris being tossed all over the place, mainly pelting me in the face. I wasn’t breathing the whole time either because I wasn’t sure if he was going to wipe out, leading to any unimaginable number of injuries if not death.

Amongst those minutes of pure chaos there was a moment when the horse I was on realized that he wasn’t just running with them as a horse. He came to the realization that they were running from him. This was one of the most intriguing moments I have ever witnessed in the mental state of the horse. He started to slowly lope behind her, calling out as if saying, why are you running from me? There was a moment of pure confusion to where the horse was trying to understand what was happening.

Shortly after following them at a much slower pace he started putting it together. As he slowed they slowed, they were starting to fend him away by kicking out or pinning their ears at him. Then there was one last whinny towards his girl as he stopped his feet and they kept running with out any signs of care. He stopped put his head down, understanding what just took place. Almost felt like he was in a state of depression from the realization they didn’t want him around. I absorbed the moment as did he, both breathing normal again. We trotted in before the herd and I tied him up to fully take in the event.

The moment of change and realization was something I will never forget. Not only did he change, but we both changed together. There was a moment that I felt his confusion and sadness. He just wanted to be with his friends, but the more he tried the more they pushed him away. He needed to find that himself, for imagine if you tried to force that to happen.

Imagine if someone forced you away from your family and friends saying you will never be able to be with them again. Would you ever stop trying to get back to them? Now imagine for the first time trying to separate your horse from other horses by forcing him away from them. Say you get about 10 feet behind a group of horses and your horse tries to speed up to catch them. You as a rider do everything in your power to keep that horse from getting back to them. I have seen many people, myself included, force the horse away from other horses thinking it will help; pulling back on the reins, turning circles, hind quarters, front quarters, turn and go the opposite direction, go sideways, and many other useless forces. Realistically making the situation at hand even worse. When a rider does this they only encourage the horse to want to be with their friends because every time they get a little ways away from the horses the human is starts pulling, yanking, or kicking them. This is what makes the horse real uncomfortable, forcing him to try and find comfort where he knows he will receive it. Most people will ensure that the support they need will be given by other horses and the least amount of support they will be getting is from the human rider.

On the flip side, picture a person that you thought was really cool and you wanted to be associated with. This person, for a lack of a better phrase, not necessarily a good role model for anyone. No matter what bad things other people have told you about that person, it only made you want to be around them more, exerting tons of effort to associate with them.

After some time of putting all the effort in to being with this person you come to realize the situation at hand. While you put 110% into them, they care nothing for you, probably treating you badly and abusing your loyalty. Due to your ignorance and stubbornness, you forced yourself into their life and they took advantage of it. Using you for the bettering of their situation. One day you have an epiphany, on your own, that you don’t like or want to ever be around that person again because of how badly they mistreated you. Sometimes people, as well as horses, just need to be allotted time and patience to figure things out for themselves with encouragement along the way to find the correct solution.

Now imagine this approach to a horse who has never been separated from other horses before. Say you stepped off to adjust your stirrups and the group kept going out in front of you. Chances are the horse your on will want to catch up once your mounted. Instead of forcing the horse back you let the horse catch up safely. But once the horse catches up, you do something to make your horse exert extra effort when around other horses. After exerting the extra effort the horse is 5 feet behind again. Let them run up if necessary, always offering a nice walk, but make them exert a little extra effort. If your consistent, in a short period of time your horse would be able to keep some spacing away from the others. Realizing that every time he is around other horses he has to work slightly harder.

You keep building the gap as long as it is done incrementally. The whole time getting to work on your front quarters, hind quarters, stopping, backing, and many other movements based on your horses energy with out drilling/training on them. You just need to put that to good use to benefit the both of you.

In that situation you are making it harder for the horse to be around other horses and easier to be away from them. Allowing the horse the time to figure it out for themselves and using their energy to get better at areas that probably need work anyways. This is how you positively encourage the horse, through support, to build the gap from the other horses. Allowing the horse the time to figure it out on his own. This takes patience and practice from the human to help support the horse to find what the human wants. Ultimately creating a sense of communication for your horse where he is always allotted time to think things through with out punishment. Creating a mutual relationship where he forgives you for your mistakes, teaching you patience and awareness, knowing that you will allow him the time and support to work through situations.

Try to set yourself up for success by only doing what your horse can handle by reading the horse and where he is at in each moment. Always offering support to your horse by thinking of how he might think or see a situation rather than forcing your way through because you expect the horse to be at a higher level through your own selfishness. Only saying this for I know I am guilty of the very selfishness in which I speak. Now I will leave you with a question I ask myself daily with every horse I ride. What do I need to do to best support the horse through this moment?

I have found it applicable in every moment of every ride. Say I’m working on the hindquarters and the horse isn’t quite ready for the correct head position while the feet are moving. I would then slow it down and just work on the lateral flexions, rather then forcing the horse to do more and really creating an issue. Making the head position slightly better then possibly trying it with movement again or doing something else to help the horse best with the little that I know. Always open to learning from the horse through personally controlled emotions. Which I am always working on every moment of every day.