Horses and Zen
Riding my horse one day last week became a lot like riding my mountain bike. To clarify: it summoned the Zen state that arises from necessity when events get gnarly. In the case of mountain biking, this state of pure impenetrable focus comes when descending steep boulder-strewn trails beyond my skill level. My safety relies on monastic mind control and somehow there is a calm peacefulness that brackets the danger. In the case of riding Corazon, this state of mind arose unexpectedly, though quite necessarily, while working on flying changes.
Actually, to be accurate, we were not working on flying changes in that moment. The day before we had schooled a few, and evidently they were excitedly imprinted on Corazon’s mind. To that point, our ride had gone well. We enjoyed a long warm-up walking under skies filled with sunshine and puffy clouds. We both felt relaxed and ready to work. I gathered up my reins with just that plan.
As soon as Corazon felt the rein contact, he bounded from a casual saunter to an eruption of twisting leaps across the field. So certain that we were going to practice flying changes, he directed himself in airs above the ground that channeled his Spanish ancestors. Unprepared, I toppled sideways, lost both stirrups, and grabbed his mane to stay on. My chest clenched with adrenalin as I simultaneously tried to cue him to stop– the effect of which caused him to hump his back and leap higher–and prayed.
Right about then with my stirrups still flailing, my Zen state cultivated from the chaos. Everything inside me went quiet. I fixed my gaze on the horizon and regained my balance. My breathing came calm and centered. Blood kept pounding in my ears but it no longer felt fraught with disaster. I slung my feet back in the stirrups and piloted Corazon’s dance show towards a focal point. Somehow I kept my body loose, reeled him back to an appropriate version of trotting and immediately guided him through a sequence of trot-canter transitions to clarify that we were NOT schooling flying changes. What should have been quaky unsure aids fueled by self- survival came instead as clear and well timed, harmonious. In fact, I rode with a stillness and centeredness that, amusingly, sometimes eludes me on days when things go smoothly. But here in the face of pandemonium, I accessed it easily out of acute need.
In spite of my rambunctious horse underneath me, I felt almost rapturous in this state of pure focus. It’s the same state I feel on my mountain bike when I am teetering outside my skill and comfort levels down a scary section of trail. This feeling of calm responsiveness often passes as quickly as it arose, but it leaves an impression that lingers long afterwards. And it both keeps me committed to these risk-prone sports and reminds me what I’m capable of.
I won’t go as far as claiming these gnarly moments are desirable. But I do think direct interaction with these mind states reminds us that they can exist, lest we forget. They prove our own hyper minds can quell moments spiked with adrenalin and anxiety. To be clear, I’m not about to thank Corazon for this experiential opportunity last week, but I will concede that in comparison between my Andalusian and my mountain bike, I do feel more graceful aboard the horse where honestly the most negative outcome is excessive prancing.