Yes, perfection is an impossible goal, we all know this, but that is irrelevant to the search for it. In this article I hope to layout the guidelines I follow in my own quest for perfection.
My personal view of the best approach to the study of classical riding–or more simply–the study of horsemanship in general, can be summed up in an overly simplistic manner: Read, Observe, Listen, Practice, Feel, and Recognize.
“The student ecuyer has to ensure as extensive as possible a cultivation of equestrian culture by fully studying works left by the Masters of the Art.” General Albert Decarpentry (1878-1956)
First on this list is Read, something I think is very important and often neglected by many. As a student of ‘Classical Riding’ I have done a great deal of reading of treatises on horsemanship penned by masters of the art dating back to the Ancient Greeks, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, on into the Napoleonic Period, right up to works of the riding masters alive today. From this study I believe I have gained a great deal of insight into the varying and evolving methods employed by horseman for more than 2000 years. I recommend such reading to everyone. This being said, all this reading of differing views, abstract theory and varying philosophies, while fascinating, has very real limits when it actually comes to learning to ride. The greatest of these limits is language.
The study of classical riding can be seen as a journey to discover the true meaning of words like Light, Flexible, Feel, Contact, Connection, Firm, Relaxed, Wiling, etc. We all use these sorts of words as we discuss riding, but very seldom are they used exactly the same way by everyone involved in the discussion. When addressing the written works of historical masters of horsemanship we can also add to this difficulty, the fact that most of them did not speak or write in English. Unless we are fortunate enough to speak multiple languages, most notably French and German, we are relying on someone else to translate the words before we tackle the task of deciphering what was meant by them. Add to this the evolution of language over time, and making sense of these works of antiquity becomes even more difficult.
There is certain factual information that can be acquired from reading alone. For instance, the bio-mechanics of the horse and how the added burden of the rider affects them, is a vital area of study for anyone seriously interested in seeking to master the art of horsemanship. As this is almost a purely scientific aspect of riding and training, it is somewhat less dependent on interpretation, but even here the mutability of words can get in the way of understanding.
“The study of the laws of movement is, without a doubt, what has to occupy first and foremost everyone who plans to further horsemanship and who does not want to wander aimlessly by himself in a sterile landscape.” Dupaty de Clam (1744-1782)
While the broader concepts of the art may be expressed adequately in spoken or written word, and careful observation can yield valuable insight, the obscurity of language is the greatest challenge to the teaching or learning the subtle nuances of classical riding and is wholly inadequate unless paired with a practical application. Even as he watches them being done, without the ability to perform what are essentially tactile dependent actions, the student is still guessing to a point. As techniques are explained and demonstrated by an instructor, the riding student is left searching about in a fog for the meaning of things he is told he should be feeling. No matter how masterfully expressed, one can not advance steadily in the art of riding from watching, reading or listening, without also applying what one sees, reads, or hears; all this under guidance and in front of the critical eye of someone who already knows.
“In equitation what the eyes see only the hand knows…” Master João Branco Núncio
Thus, the wise rider seeks out the help of an instructor whose goals and methods appear to match the needs of the student. Taking advantage of learning from someone who is further along on the endless journey that is horsemanship, the student gets to avoid mistakes that lead down dead end paths, but more importantly, they get an outside perspective on their riding. There is nothing more important to successfully learning to ride than a critical observer with the knowledge and experience to spot the errors impossible for the rider himself to be aware of. For certainly we are unlikely tofeel when we have it right, without first applying–consistently and correctly–the techniques we are attempting to learn.
However, it is vital that we never abdicate the final judgment of what is right and true to others. The teacher may guide us, but to learn the truth of a thing the student must also feel it. Never allow strong statement of certitude to convince you of something your instincts warn you are simply wrong. Obviously, no instructor thinks their understanding is wrong, but some have to be, what with so many diametrically opposing training methods being taught. Even an instructor who IS well down the same path as you, may have reached faulty conclusions as some point. The wise students listens carefully, asks many questions, and once certain of the lesson being taught, weighs it against his own instinct.
“Nature is the foremost teacher. Its book is the most correct and wisest of all books, the most useful when you need advice. From the effects that are recorded on its pages it leads us to their causes. It explains to us in our activities better than the most convincing theories and most brilliant treatises.” General Alexis L´Hotte (1825-1904)
So my advice is:
- Read the written works of the Masters which have stood the test of time.
- Watch the riders whose skills you would most like to emulate.
- Listen to those more experienced and knowledgeable than yourself.
- Practice diligently under the critical eye of a good instructor.
- Try to feel when the connection and partnership is improving.
- Recognize the Truth in what you are doing and discard anything that is not.
And no matter how skillful you become, continue doing all these things for the rest of your riding career.