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.

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Working towards lightness

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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?

Leading trail rides with your troubled horse

Question:

Hi Tyler: The Problem I have is that my horse does not like to lead when we go on trail rides. All she wants to do is follow the lead mare.

Answer:

First off, thank you for your question, I really appreciate it.  As I have thought through this question, I have realized how difficult this is going to be to explain what I would do with your horse through words alone so bare with me.

Based on the question and how it was stated, the simple comical answer would be to get rid of the lead mare, but we both know that wouldn’t solve any of the real issues at hand.  In theory all you need to do is get to the horses feet.  Meaning that you have to get your reins and body connected to your horses feet as if they were your own.  Once you are able to get to the feet, your horse would become completely oblivious to everything else, but you.

The next question then, is how do you get to the feet.  There are countless ways to accomplish this, but I will try to suit a more specific way to get your horse connected to you.  My first issue to resolve would be unquestioned forward movement from you to your horse.  If you can get your horse to move out exactly when you want, then all you need to do is help your horse find straightness by staying in your rectangle.  Chances are your horse balks when spooked or due to being herd bound the horse lacks forward movement.  If you are able to get your horse freed up through ground work before you get on, you should be able to offer forward motion with out trouble.  Always offering a good deal by first rolling your hips slightly forward while simultaneously lifting your legs off the side of your horse to position yourself best if your horse doesn’t respond to the good deal.  Give a slight waving motion with your legs offering the horse yet another good deal.  If you get a lazy response or no response you should follow through, with tempo, to do whats necessary to get a positive change in the forward life.  If you are consistent and firm when needed, it should take no time at all to get a change leading to a responsive soft response in which kicking should become obsolete.

Now you have forward motion, the next step is getting your horse to go straight.  A trail ride is a great opportunity to constantly correct your horses straightness.  Just today I whipped out a good horse, but didn’t have time to check him out much so did what I could leading a trail ride.  By the end of it, he was back to being light and correct.  Along the way I am sure I made thousands of adjustments, but the better he got the more release he received.

To obtain straightness on the trail every time your horse steps off your line you must adjust by correcting the off step.  Meaning that if your horse drops his shoulder to the right off of your line, then you simply collect him, leg yield him over accordingly based on the infraction.  If it was only one step, I would simply pick him up move him one to two steps opposite the infraction.  If he would take 4 or 5 steps off, well that’s terrible timing on my part, and I would have to go atleast 5 to 20 steps the opposite direction with collection.  Leg Yielding is only done with proper collection.

Do not try this if you are unable to free your horse up before hand for when you firm up, you may get a bit more then you bargained for.  Judge your situation accordingly and if you have questions on anything just let me know.  To break down other movements I will have to make separate postings on them.  These movements are very simple in theory, but figuring out how to achieve the movements with different horses is a lifetime study in itself.