There is something transcendent and indescribable that draws us to horses. Perhaps it is their power, shown through their muscular bodies and thundering hooves, perhaps it is their gentleness in their soft muzzles and large eyes that look into our souls, perhaps it is their beauty in their flowing manes and glistening coats. Perhaps it is the wildness that can be willingly tamed into a relationship humans share with no other animal. Yes, we have dogs, cats, and other domestic animals that become like family, but there is something unique and deeply spiritual with the horse.
Personally, I think it is something raw, wild, and primal that draws us to the horse. Indeed, we share a unique neurological link with horses (check out this article for more information). In traditional beliefs, horses can carry the human spirit to enlightenment. I think there is something to that. It’s almost as if the relationship we can have with horses is a surviving scrap of the joy of Eden, where human and animal not only live in harmony but can better each other. Horses are some of the few “domesticated” animals that can become “wild” again. A dog cannot become a wolf again, but a horse has never become anything but a horse, even if selective breeding has influenced the physical appearance and character of the species. Like most animals, we can force the horse into subjugation, but that does not change what it is. A lion doesn’t cease to be a lion just because we trap it in a cage.
How does classical riding fit in?
When most think about a deep spiritual connection to a horse, they usually imagine something like Alec galloping The Black on the beach, wild and free with nothing between horse and rider. This becomes an archetypal image of the ultimate bond between horse and rider. We use the term “the horse whisperer” to describe the people with this kind of bond. Many put cowboys taming wild mustangs with gentle words in the same category. However, there are many paths for a spiritual connection to horses.
It is easy to put classical riding in an elite category, usually connecting it to the sport of dressage. Top hats and tailcoats with judges and Olympic medals often seem far away from a deep, spiritual connection. However, that is just the modern appearance of a centuries-old tradition. Remember, “dressage” just means “training.” The origins of dressage are ancient, dating back some 2400 years. What made dressage stand out was the emphasis on the kindness and relationship with the horse. It doesn’t stop there. Not only is the relationship vital, but also the development of the horse’s body.
“Equestrian art, perhaps more than any other, is closely related to the wisdom of life.”
– Col. Alois Podhajsky: former director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna
Classical riding came from a need for strong, obedient horses for war. Without this, there is little advantage to having horses in war. Obedience comes from trust and a solid relationship, and strength comes from physical training. We can find this emphasized in the works of medieval and renaissance manuals of training, emphasizing kindness and knightly behavior toward in the horse even as they talk about how to best an enemy in battle on the very next page. As many people find for themselves, spiritual and physical development are often closely connected. This makes the rider’s relationship very intimate with their horse; either they must force the horse to submit, or they must work with the horse without words to show it how to move. Every master of classical riding has held to the tenet set by Xenophon centuries ago:
“For what the horse does under compulsion…is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.”
Because of this, classical riding becomes a quiet, meditative discussion between horse and rider. The horse becomes more beautiful, but it also becomes more dignified and prouder of itself. Rather than denying the horse its wild nature, the art enhances it and channels it. None of the movements are artificial; you can find horses doing all of them in the field (especially as foals). What is even more special, however, is that over the centuries, riders have not been gifted with perfect horses.
Riders have had to take horses with substandard traits and make something of them. The techniques became rehabilitative as well as helping prevent injury. “Therapeutic riding… is that kind of training you do, where you take a handicapped horse, so to speak, and you improve this animal to such an extent that at the end of his training, it looks like a super horse… The entire training process has a healing effect on the animal, and this I consider the ultimate goal of horsemanship,” the late Karl Mikolka (former SRS Chief Rider) once said. It also applies to the mind and soul of the horse; classical horsemanship can have a powerful effect on the horse’s mind, creating trust where once there was fear, gentleness where there was once anger.
However, it is impossible for this work to happen without it reciprocating to the rider. “But there is one principle that should never be abandoned, namely, that the
rider must learn to control himself before he can control his horse. This is the basic, most important principle to be preserved in equitation.” (Col. Podhajsky). The rider is forced to have humility, self-awareness, and constant thirst for wisdom. The work is intimate and deep, drawing out all the parts of the soul that need to be healed. Thus, as much as the rider gives to the horse, the horse gives back tenfold.
Is this any different than being a “horse whisperer?” Perhaps it’s less dramatic and archetypal to modern eyes, but it is just as powerful and beautiful. It has hundreds if not thousands of years of tradition