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 the Youngsters!

 

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

Lateral Flexions

Here is a video going over some bits and pieces of later flexion.

It’s my first attempt at it so keep that in mind as your watching.

Hope you enjoy it!

Are Disciplines Getting Too Focused?

 

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Today there are so many different variations of disciplines within disciplines that “Good Horsemanship” is being skipped over in hopes of reaching the highest level within a specific discipline sooner.   In my journey of horsemanship, I find myself being asked what discipline I do. It is a question I couldn’t answer at first and kind of despised because people just categorized me under “western”. Actually, I am working towards making a very well-rounded and versatile classical dressage horse that could be taken into any other discipline out there.  People are getting too caught up in the appearance, style, or status behind certain disciplines.  Every horse should be given the respect and dignity of being started with the basics then improved through the continual development towards classical dressage, while also having their perspective and education level taken into account during every single ride. The rider should allow the horse to be at ease no matter what discipline he or she is pursuing, all the while never dropping the basics or flat work along the way to focus solely on the desired end result.

Without the basics, you shouldn’t be allowed to do anything else with your horse.  As long as you have the basics working for you, if anything happens along your journey, you can always come back to the basics to fix your mistakes and ask your horse for forgiveness.   So many horses are so specialized that you can’t do anything outside that particular horse’s and rider’s comfort zones.  For instance, take a dressage pony that does “great” in the arena but as soon as you try to leave the arena it looks like someone gave the horse a shot of pure adrenaline. It shies at everything and freaks out because it has never been exposed to anything else.  As another example, consider a rodeo horse taken into a dressage ring to do flat work. It looks like a llama on speed because there are no basic horsemanship skills put into the horse.  Not all are this way, just using examples, but imagine if you had the basics in the horse to be able to do all disciplines?

Whether it be western, dressage, jumper, polo, rodeo, or any other discipline, neither your attire nor the name behind what you do should matter.  What does matter to me is that you could take a jumper and go rope a cow off of them, or a western horse and go into the dressage ring without people judging your tack, or a barrel racer into the jumping arena and have collection without the horse running off like an antelope on red bull, or take a dressage pony and be able to gather horses with them without ever noticing a difference in the relaxed demeanor of the horse.  Most of all, the horse should respectfully enjoy every bit of what they do, no matter what it is!

Recently I took a trip to Florida and was able to take a jumping lesson on a beautifully huge horse!  The horse was great at its job, but there were no foundation in the horse.  I tried taking the same horse around the property and found the lack of foundation pretty quick.  It was a one dimensional horse, which ultimately there is nothing wrong with, but imagine the fun in being able to take that same horse to show in classical dressage, or go rope a cow, or enjoy a ride around the property without any fear.  I then rode my horse that day, roped some horses, did some classical dressage work to warm him up, jumped some small jumps, tried to pull a golf cart out of the mud with my rope, and then used him to show groundwork and saddle work in a lesson.  Point being, the fun of taking my horse to do all those jobs without ever having any fear along the way is based on the foundation that the horse was started with and still working at!

On a funny note, I felt and sure I looked like a rookie in an English saddle with the stirrups put way up in the lesson.  Note that I learned a ton from that lesson and it moved me forward significantly in my journey, which I will touch on in the future!

Imagine the fun you and your horse could have just by having the basics from the start.  All horses should have the right to being brought up with the basics to enjoy a life of peace and not live a life in fear.   All riders should know the basics to give that respect to the horse!  You should know where each foot is at all times, you should know your horse’s mental state, and most of all, if you put yourself in your horses position throughout his entire life, would you have been able to learn and would you have enjoyed the journey along the way?

I know that my greatest struggle as I am progressing is taking into account if the horse enjoys it or if he feels like it’s a dictatorship in which he reacts but doesn’t necessarily enjoy.  When I am working at something I tend to get result focused.  While I can get a horse to look pretty, how does the horse feel about me after I get there?

I hope you take away from this the feeling that it doesn’t matter what the label behind what you do is but more importantly that you have the foundation put in your horse to safely pursue and excel at any discipline while continuing your education on the basics and flat work of classical dressage!  All along the journey, try to put yourself in your horses position to see if the journey would be enjoyable to you.

Application to Daily Life:

Now imagine a child being raised from the young age of 4 years old to reach the highest level of a discipline without ever going through the basics. Imagine he is pushed to reach the top tier of a discipline through coaches yelling, screaming, and demanding that the child reaches perfection within the discipline from the very first day of practice.  Now compile 4, 6, 10, or even 20 years on top of that without the demand for perfection decreasing, or if anything increasing over the years.  Now imagine that child was you?  How would you have responded to this?  Would you have lasted more than a couple of years?  Say you did and reached the top level of competition. Would you be happy once you reached that level?  Would you have enjoyed the journey?  Would you even enjoy your life looking back on any of it?

Now imagine replacing the child with your horse and imagine that horse is you,  Would that have changed anything you have done in the past or will do in the future of your journey?

 

 

 

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?

Letting Go of the Notion of Control: Understanding

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With horses, I am constantly reaching new barriers that I don’t understand, and I’m always working towards breaking them down in order to get to the next barrier.  For me right now, that barrier is lead changes.  I have been working towards understanding how to do them when I want to do them, but I have been continually building my horse up just to break him down through failed experiments.  In my need for control, I try to force the changes to happen, taking about ten metaphorical steps backwards in order to control the lead changes on my terms.  This only reassures me that that approach doesn’t work, so I keep working towards understanding them through experiments and rebuilding.  Over time I will make the breakthrough, and I can’t wait for that day.

When I run across certain people, I try to understand why they do or say the things they do.  If those people do things I don’t understand, I can’t stand not knowing.  I need the control of trying to understand what is going on in that persons head.  I would start to study them and run scenarios until one day it would all come together.  Once I understand them in my mind I can become sympathetic to them or at least understand why they do what they do.  This can be a major control issue if you’re not able to figure them out because sometimes you can’t let it go. It can control your mental state until something changes in the situation with the result that they are not in your life any more.

When the attempt to understand takes control over me, I tend to do too much, finding the boundaries that I know not to try to cross ever again.  The issues always develop from my inappropriate expectations, lack of patience, or a wrong perspective.  Over time I am learning to overcome these challenges associated with my lack of understanding so that I can learn from others without pushing too hard to achieve a better understanding of them. I sit back and listening to what they are telling me through their actions, but at the same time I am able to let go of it at the end of the day.

 

Application to Daily Life: 

Do you ever find that you push yourself or others too far in order to understand something better?  Do you become frustrated because you had certain expectations you failed to reach in a given time period?  In these situations, if your patience, expectations, or perspective are tested, your mind will to turn to trying to understand why you failed.  In these vulnerable moments, do you have control over yourself enough let go of these thoughts, or do you start looking into why the failure occurred?  Do you start to look at your teammates or yourself with blame for in order for you to understand why you all failed?  Can you catch yourself next time before you regret taking your lack of understanding out on others or yourself and let go of the need for an immediate understanding?

 

Letting Go of the Notion of Control: Perfectionism

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Perfectionism (term from Merriam-Webster Dictionary):

: a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially : the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.

After reading the definition of Perfectionism it kind of makes you wonder why anyone would do something like this to themselves.  In trying to be a leader, I held myself to the unrealistic goal of being perfect at whatever I did!  Young and dumb I guess, but I always thought of it in the way that if I were willingly going to follow a leader, that is how I pictured them being.  At the time, I believed that all the mentors I looked up to while growing up were standards of Perfectionism, or at least I thought they were.  I figured that the only way I could get others’ respect was to be perfect at everything in which I was trying to lead others.  It became a standard of accountability I put on myself based on my perception of being a leader.

An example of this in my young life was my sporting career.  In high school, I was a mental wreck inside, even though I had an aura of confidence or arrogance suggesting that I believed in myself.  All through my young sports career, I kept excelling and excelling until I got to about the 10th grade in high school.  I hit a major brick wall in that I was trying to become perfect at everything.  Ultimately, this limited my progression due to my major fear of failure, screwing up, or making a wrong decision, and this in turn caused an overwhelming sensation of pressure.  This pressure plagued my sports life for at least the next 4 – 6 years both into college and into my professional career with horses and people.

The second example is from after college while I was working at C Lazy U seasonally and later full time.  Not only did I run into some huge issues with the horses, but, based on the standards to which I held myself, I just assumed everyone else had the same standards.  Talk about trying to micromanage and control the way people and horses are – almost as difficult as trying to mold a soldier to the point where you tell him not to be himself anymore.  As you can imagine, the learning curve was quite steep in my progression in both leadership and horsemanship.  I was butting heads with all the horses and people I worked with.  I look back and laugh about it now, but back then I was determined to make some huge positive changes in everything by means of Perfectionism.  The difference between my sports career and my professional career was that I at least invited failure in the latter.

Finally, I started to listen to where people and horses were coming from in order to move forward together towards the greater goals.  I learned to spend the most time with people who were interested in the bigger picture and allowed those who were there to enjoy the experience of a summer to take it all in for what it is worth in that sense too.  I can’t express the joy I had the last few years spent there based on just understanding where people and horses were at and where they were looking to go!  Little by little, I let go of my need for complete perfection and control over everything.

I still battle Perfectionism every day, but I am more aware of the consequences derived from it and know when Perfectionism wants to creep back into my life and try to take control of me again.  It is important to think on the other end of the spectrum too some people deal with not being aware of the finer details or not holding their standards high enough for themselves and others.  That, too, can be a difficult task to overcome.

Here is a quote from Edwin Bliss brought to my attention by a great mentor and friend:

The pursuit of excellence is gratifying and healthy. The pursuit of perfection is frustrating and neurotic. It’s also a terrible waste of time.

 

Application to Daily Life:

Go back through your past or current life to see if you have had any moments where Perfectionism controlled your life and how it affected everything.  Did your Perfectionism cause you to be too hard on yourself and others?  Did you expect too much in an unreasonable time period?  Based on your perception of what you desired the outcome to be, did you push others too far instead of being ok with the progression that others could make in a specific time period?  These are just a few questions that come to my mind about Perfectionism, but there are countless others too.  I would love to hear some examples of how Perfectionism or the lack thereof has affected your life, how you have learned to let go or get past these problems, and/or how you’re currently dealing with these issues.  Please leave comments or stories below!