Value in Being Forever a Beginner

The longer I stay in this profession, the more I value experiences that facilitate what Zen teachers call Beginner’s Mind, which recently took the form of an early morning listening to Corazon chew his hay.

Becoming an expert in any field often entails specializing your knowledge and skills to the point of abstraction. You end up operating on a level that is detached from those with whom you are trying to serve and relate. Beginner’s Mind tethers you to the openness and fascination, the receptivity, of beginners in a sport.

Remaining relatable may or may not be important to every trainer. For myself, though, I have discovered that staying able to truly relate to my students is crucial for longevity in this career with horses. Without it, I run the risk of impatience, poor communication, and misguided instruction.


Having a horse of my own helps preserve a little bit of feeling like a fun-struck amateur even though I am a six-days a week professional. Finding experiences with Corazon outside my daily routines help even more. These are the vital moments where I find Beginner’s Mind. And the more years I spend with horses, the more valuable these occasions feel. They simultaneously keep my spirits fresh while mooring me to a relatable place for my students.

I took a small group of students camping with their horses this week at Waddell Beach Campground, a coastal valley filled with wildflowers and cypress trees with ocean views. We spent two days riding shaded trails beside the creek and then sitting around the campfire watching our horses doze in their corrals. We said goodnight to them under a star-filled sky aglow with the Milky Way.

One of my fondest moments, admitted with a pang of naivety, was mucking out Corazon’s pen as the sun rose. I sipped from a mug of coffee balanced on a nearby truck bumper and marveled at the pink sky. I moved slowly and mindfully, without any demands to answer, and listened to him chewing his hay. My contentment bordered on giddiness.

andalusian horse dressage

In other words, I felt the fascination and joy that beckons beginners to these experiences. Believe me, I have mucked a corral umpteen times before. But in this moment, at this delightful campsite, the methodical chore, and the coffee, and my sweet horse colluded to make me feel like nothing else mattered. And I let myself absorb the moment just as it was, without trying to elevate it to an abstracted fraction of my professional life.

I embraced Beginner’s Mind. Corazon swatted his tail at a fly under his belly, a hawk twirled overhead in a thermal updraft of clouds. I filled up Corazon’s water tub and fetched my grooming brushes. As I embarked on this day filled with small chores and time with my horse, none of if felt new and yet all of it felt magical.

Recalling these moments does not just mitigate the possibility of burnout after being involved with something as long as I have been with horses. It forms part of the equation for relating to and reaching my students. Without sharing relatable experiences like this, my instruction would risk hitting its mark. Instead, I remain able to discern when a student is so entranced by an experience with her horse, by the sheer enjoyment of just being with her horse, that she cannot intake the minutia of instruction I am trying to impart. Rather than feel futile, I shift my delivery to accommodate her raw bliss while hopefully still imparting the lesson I want to offer.

Numerous occasions aside from sleeping beside your horse under a starry sky could infuse a professional’s life with the lessons of Beginner’s Mind. There might be a sliver of each day, or a simple routine, that does this for any given trainer. For many of us, those moments are worth respecting and valuing whether or not they seem naïve. Or maybe, better yet, it is the sense of naivety that keeps the magic alive.

The Downside of Good Training

Well, shoot. My previous argument might have lost its weight, literally. I used to spend a lot of time convincing my sporty but non-riding friends that horseback riding was indeed an athletic endeavor. They assured me otherwise, that my horse was doing all the effort and I was just along for the not-so-aerobic ride. It was a pleasant pastime, they debated. A worthwhile hobby, but definitely not a workout.

IMG_0077My other pleasant pastimes, however, did not leave me red-faced and wrung out. Many times I peeled myself off an obstinate youngster, sweaty and over-worked, and wondered why so many people kept gym memberships when they could just ride a couple ornery Warmbloods. In fact, many of my days as a young trainer were spent on the higher end of the aerobic zone. Quadriceps and hip flexors throbbed as I shoved horses away from my leg cues, back muscles clenched to balance myself during some topsy turvy movements in trot-canter transitions. By day’s end I was purely exhausted sitting over a plate of dinner with droopy eyelids pondering the likelihood of staying awake past 8pm.

And then my mentors’ teachings took firmer hold. Finally as a not-young-anymore trainer I became a lot pickier about my horses’ responsiveness. No excused accepted, I insisted they respond to my aids well beyond a kinda, sorta way. And they did. And then I started to lose the debate with my non-rider friends. Riding was no longer such punishing exercise. In fact, I dismounted after most riders feeling pretty fresh, no sweating or aching. After several months of this consistent state, it occurred to me that all this had a down-side: I now needed a gym membership. I now had another activity (working out) to add to my schedule and budget. Shoot.

One time while auditing a clinic with the late– and very frail– Hans von Blixen- Finecke (The Art of Riding) I heard him say of a rider using forceful effort: “If it took strength, I could not do it.” He urged the student to not accept that she was putting in such intense effort with such little response from her horse. To make his point, the old riding master asked for some assistance up from his chair so that he could mount the student’s horse and demonstrate. My breath caught in my throat. If he could not even lift himself from his chair without help, how was this weak octogenarian planning to ride this woman’s Warmblood mare? A tense silence fell over the auditors around me who were obviously worrying over the same question.

Two assistants helped settle Mr. Blixen-Finecke in the saddle and threaded the double bridle reins through his clawed fingers. The old master wobbled around in the saddle as though he had no bones inside to hold him up. Nonetheless, he urged the mare forward past those of us still holding our breath, clasping the reins the best he could in his arthritic hands. Then with an expert timing of his frail leg and very weak hands, he aided the big horse sideways in a nicely angled and marching half-pass. Given that he was incapable of shoving of working too hard, the mare moved from appeared to be totally effortless guidance, just correct and insistently timed cues.

That episode obviously left a lasting impression on me, a standard for myself as a trainer. If a nearly crippled guy could get so much responsiveness from a horse, why was I using all my youthful vigor to get less results? Why not join my non-riding friends at the gym and adopt their view that horseback riding is a pleasant pastime rather than a dose of exhaustion? Of course this paradigm is one that requires constant honing, one that comes in to sharper focus each week. But in memory of the late Hans von Blixen-Finecke, I would like to say thank you for inspiring me to get my horses to do all the effort and sweating.

The Secret Ingredient of Success in Dressage

Ready, Set…. Hold On!  Full of eagerness and ready to charge for an Olympic medal, American runner Galen Rupp started to make a move with a few laps left in the 10,000 meter race last Saturday. What happened next became one of the most extraordinary moments in these 2012 games. The young Rupp, who nobody considered a serious contender, felt like he had the strength in his legs to open a gap in the tight pack of elite runners and maybe sneak his way into the history books.

Then a beautiful and pivotal exchange happened. British Somali runner Mo Farah, the man absolutely everyone predicted to win and also the runner with whom Rupp shared a coach for the past year, saw the kid getting ready to take off. The more seasoned Farah, current world champion, looked towards his training partner who in this race was now also his rival and told him to wait. Farah recognized that Rupp was about to make a rookie’s error, an eager miscalculation that he could never undo. While moving at speeds defying human ability, he found the oxygen to tell the youngster: be patient.

What Rupp’s relative inexperience prevented him from realizing was that the next few laps around the track in this lung-scorching event did not require more speed or strength or a lead on the other runners. They required a calm steady mind that could wait for the right moment, and this was not it.

So Rupp checked his pace and held steady. A moment later, when the timing was right, he followed Farah in a sprint down the final stretch. Shocking not only himself but every analyst and coach in the sport, Rupp crossed the line in second place right behind the man he owed the race to—Farah. Spectators could feel his surprise and elation. Cameras panned to his splotchy face staring open-mouthed and bug-eyed at the race clock. There was his name in second place! He had done it! He stared, disbelieving. The gangly kid whose biggest hope was to be an also-ran in a marquee event just won an Olympic silver medal.

In the post-race interview, Rupp credited his training partner fully for the outcome. He recalled how Farah saw him gathering his energy and told him not to blow it. Had he not listened, he would have gone ahead and sprinted too early, flamed out, and staggered to a disappointing finish. After all the years of training and sacrifice and planning, the race came down to one exceptional and hard-to-trust element: patience. A calm, steady mind.

For the rest of the day, I thought about that race and how an experienced training partner helped the younger one reach an elation he otherwise would have missed. I reflected how this applies to training horses, especially for dressage, when we are quick to mess things up with eagerness and our hurry to get the next result. When a moment is going well, our human nature is to push harder, work stronger, expect even more. More often than not, this is where we go wrong. We treat dressage education like a buffet line where can quickly sample our way through exercises.

More often than not, we need to recognize when things are good and then sit still and breathe and allow them to unfold as they are meant. Patience. Admittedly, this plan of action does not thrill students. In lessons, many will tackle an exercise quickly and then look up with eyes that say what now? What next? To their disappointment, my reply is often that they need to continue what they are doing. That’s it. Carry on. Both they and their horses need the time to integrate the changes throughout their bodies and balance based on exercises we’re undertaking in that moment. This involves that hard-to-trust element of patience. In order to get to the next step we often needed to wait right where we were.

I have watched numerous young horses’ training get derailed by eagerness and expectation. Especially when a horse demonstrates talent and willingness, our tendency is to adjust the training to a faster timeline. Riders prefer to speed up the necessary years of solidifying basics before getting to more interesting or exciting kinds of riding. Of course, horses and riders then end up with big gaps in their knowledge and physical abilities. Their performance reflects an incomplete education and a noted lack of the harmony dressage for which dressage once aimed.

A trainer of mine used to watch me accomplish something difficult with my horse and then say “now don’t get greedy.” He meant that I shouldn’t just keep pushing my horse to the next challenge and then the next and so on. Usually his advice irked me. If things were good right now, then surely with more effort they could be exceptional five minutes from now, no?

Another trainer would watch me struggling and frustrated. Before I could try to force something to happen, she would tell me, “Many times, it is just a matter of waiting. You’re doing the right thing. Now just wait.” Wait? Wait? It was one of those instructions that always seemed the most senseless in that moment but proved invaluable a few moments down the road. Learning to follow this advice always presents more challenges than mastering the skill or exercise in question.

When I watched young Rupp step aboard the Olympic medal stand, I applauded his ability to listen to good advice. Indeed, he had posted a blazing time in the race but it wasn’t those results that most impressed me. In the right moment, he chose a calm steady mind over more speed. And that made all the difference.