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?

Horse Purity

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When I work with a horse I am always mentally preparing myself ahead of time.  Before I ever catch a horse, I am already creating a rough draft plan in my head of how I’m going to communicate openly with a horse.  Before I enter the corral I have everything set up ahead of time to where there will be no complications or issues caused while tying up, grooming, feeding, and saddling my horse.  When I enter the corral I have my halter prepped before hand to help support the horse if needed and make a smooth process of haltering, the whole time studying the horses and horse I’m about to catch.  This allows me to break down where I think the horse is at, helping form the rough draft of my interaction to come.  But with all horsemanship, it’s nearly a rough draft based on where the horse is at.

Based on where the horse is at, the plan is continually changing with him.  With that being said, one of the most important lessons a horse has to teach humans is the control of ones emotions.  For when you have definitive expectations for where you want the horse, you have only set yourself up to fail.  You have changed the agenda from what the horse needs to where you expect the horse to be based on your needs.  When this occurs one will lose control of their emotions because the horse is not properly prepared for their expectations or their expectations were met, but the horse was ready to progress further.  This ultimately changing the situation from feel to force.  I hope one day I truly have complete control over my emotions, but that’s not even close so I try to work on it every day through awareness.  Always being aware of my mental state, trying to hone in on how to best help the horse succeed.

Feel vs. Force; Feel meaning you are in a constant state of thought to help the horse succeed at the progression of the transformation of a green horse to a more refined horse.  Force simply meaning you have an idea of where you want the horse to be at, no matter the education level of the horse, and you will force the horse into doing what you want through fear and anger.  This creates a braced up, visually deceiving picture of a correctly balanced horse (if you succeed at what you think is correct) to the untrained eye or a horse that reacts strictly out of fear rather then choice and desire.  Force creates horses that have no life to them any more.  You may look into the horses eye and see no more twinkle for they have lost that special piece inside of them, never to be seen again.  Feel creates a horse that believes in the human and desires to “work” with us.  You can see these horses from a mile away because they just have a different energy to them that attracts people.  To me it’s similar to seeing someone who is miserable and hates their life, learning to except their situation, compared to a person who loves their life and is always smiling.

They still have the inner horse left in them, for they have always succeeded with the human.  The human has worked with the horse, as the horse has worked with the human, through the stages making it through seemingly troublesome spots over and over again with support combined with success.  Learning that they don’t have to be on guard as a species while they are with the human, for they have taken all the troubles away while the horse has given the human a sense of purity.  Purity through awareness.   For what horses have to offer us is so much more then anything the horse receives in return from the human.