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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

Riding Hurts
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©1999 - All Rights Reserved

On our Classical Dressage Discussion List I seem to have started a little controversy with my remarks that riding hurts sometimes. Some of you, especially those of you who ride with me, understood what I meant. Others misunderstood me, so I will try to clarify.

First of all, when I say that riding hurts, I don't mean that it hurts all the time, obviously, but that occasional (physical as well as mental) growing pains are an integral part of growth. (Cf. Sherry Ackerman, Dressage in the 4th Dimension, p. 28: "There is no gnosis without pain").

Nobody can have good performances all the time. Each high quality performance has to be earned by many practice sessions that bring us face to face with our limits and our current shortcomings. C.A.Huang & J.Lynch quote the Buddhist proverb "The arrow that hits the bull's eye is the result of a hundred misses" in their book "Thinking body, dancing mind" (1992, 93). This captures very well the essence of what I am trying to say. Every correctly executed half halt, e.g. is the result of many others in which the timing, coordination, and intensity of the aids was incorrect, which led to completely different results than we had intended."

P.T. SUDO talks about the same phenomenon in his book "Zen Guitar", 1998, 44: "Frustration results when the body will not perform as the mind directs, or the mind becomes confused about what it wants the body to do. These confrontations are an integral part of training. They bring us face to face with our motivations and limitations: Why are we putting in all these hours of practice? Why do we desire what we desire? Are we willing to make the sacrifice necessary to progress? Are we asking more of our body than it can do?"

These two quotes make it clear that the mental anguish I was referring to has little, if anything, to do with the teacher, nor is it unique to riding. It arises from our caring, our passion about what we do, in our particular case: riding. Serious riders, and I am only talking about those who want to learn to ride in a narrower sense of the word, have to compare themselves all the time with the ideal they strive for - and that is often frustrating.

My own most humbling, even humiliating, moments were always brought about by horses, not people. Sitting on a correctly trained Grand Prix horse, and realizing that one has no control over the horse, is painfully embarrassing. Understanding just how difficult it is to ride something as simple as a correct (my teachers use "correct" synonymously with "perfect") corner, circle, volte, or transition, is humbling. This frustration comes not from being, unable to do something difficult, being overfaced. It arises from the realization that, no matter how advanced we thought we were, we still have not truly mastered the basics (Once we have mastered the basics, we are masters of the equestrian art). Every time this realization hits home, we become a little more humble, by catching a glimpse of how much farther we still have to go.

The emotional pain comes from wanting to ride well, so much so that it becomes the most important thing in one's life. In this quest, we reach ceilings in our progress, plateaus that seem to stretch on forever (even if they only last for a few days or weeks). The only way to improve is to re-examine (and question!) everything we do, keep the good things, discard the bad things, and replace them with a better way. The reason for this is that anytime we encounter a problem, whether we are unable to ride our horse on the bit, or whether our horse raises one diagonal higher than the other in the piaffe, the underlying cause is always somewhere in the basics, the training pyramid, and beyond that, in our seat, and the timing, coordination, and intensity of our aids. If we find the mistake we are making in our riding, which causes the flaw in the training pyramid, the original problem will disappear. Finding this mistake requires some serious soul-searching. It has to begin with the admission to ourselves that we are not nearly as good as we may have thought we were. We have to be willing to question everything we have accomplished, everything we thought we knew. And the pain that is caused by this process, and the honesty which is indispensable for it, is probably greater than the pain any trainer can inflict. Sherry Ackerman (1997, 28) puts it very well: "The pain of destroying personal ego cannot be imagined or described: it is beyond words."

On the other hand, since we have to earn each little bit of progress with so much effort, we treasure even the smallest success. It is something that nobody can take from us. We have earned it, and these moments in which we accomplish a breakthrough and experience the harmony and balance that we dream of, carry us through the moments in which we cannot seem to find the right way. There is nothing like the sense of accomplishment and inner peace that is created by a breakthrough in our riding.

The plateaus have a habit of re-occurring periodically, and they bring the need for a thorough re-evaluation with them each time. Initially, the necessary adjustments can be quite dramatic. The more we progress, the more subtle they can hopefully become. Since we are trying to do something that does not come naturally or easily to most of us, we may get worse in the beginning - until we become comfortable with the new way (of sitting, e.g.). In the long run, the new way will take us beyond the last plateau (if we are on the right track). In time, we will reach a new plateau, and the cycle begins anew. Just like Sisyphus, we go back down to the foot of the mountain in order to start rolling the boulder up the hill again. As soon as we think we have reached the top of the mountain, the rock rolls down, and we realize we have to start over. I don't believe that this cycle ever ends, no matter how accomplished we may become. The difference between the cycles is that each time we are a little more accomplished, a little more knowledgeable, and hopefully a little wiser than the previous time. P.T.Sudo (1998, 155) describes it this way: "The first rule of mastery is this: Those who think themselves masters are not masters. There can be no letup of your study, no matter how far you've come. Even the highest priests of zen say to themselves, mi zai: "Not yet." You have not yet learned all you can know. You have not given all you can give. You have not yet reached the summit. Empty your cup and keep going. Same mountain, farther up."

Put differently, each time we reach a goal, we realize that there are other goals behind it, and yet others behind those, without end. Probably all of us have had "bad" rides after which we thought we would never learn how to ride, because things just did not work. At first, we cannot see the reasons why. But if we continue to analyze and to rethink these bad rides, we will eventually figure it out. This is terrible, and it is wonderful at the same time. It is terrible, because there is no quick fix, no shortcut, no easy way, only diligent practice of the correct (!) basics. It is also wonderful, because correct diligent practice will always bring success in the long run. Riding is very democratic that way. We cannot buy a good seat, tact, understanding, and knowledge. We have to earn them.

In hindsight, I think I learned the most from my worst rides, because they challenged me to be brutally honest with myself, and to change the way I thought and the way I rode. As long as I tried to fight the plateau, avoiding to face the necessity of a fundamental re-evaluation, the slump continued. As soon as I admitted to myself that I knew nothing, I was enabled to make progress again. In that sense, the frustration and pain that arise out of mistakes are not only inevitable, they are catalysts in our learning. They are opportunities that we must take advantage of.

What is important here is that the teacher gives the students confidence. No matter how badly I rode, no matter how much I struggled with my own incompetence, my teachers always believed that I could overcome the difficulties, that it was just a matter of time and diligent practice. I try to do the same for my students. When you believe deep down inside that you can do it, and you keep searching honestly, you will always progress.

The teacher has an important function in showing the student the discrepancy between their actual performance and the ideal we are all striving for, which creates frustration. But the teacher also has to instill the confidence in the student that the difficulties can and will be overcome - if the student is willing to do what it takes. This is one of the differences with the Old Masters and many modern trainers. The masters never compromised their standards. They demanded perfect executions of the simple things, and over time, the more advanced work grew out of this.

This takes a lot of patience on the teacher's part. It means reminding the student of the same things over and over, until he has gained sufficient control over his body to be able to sit correctly and to give correct aids. This kind of work is often tedious, it takes a long time, but once it takes root, the progress is phenomenal. Today many riders and trainers don't want to subject themselves to this discipline. They skip ahead to the "fun part" without ever mastering the basics, with the result that the more advanced work is fundamentally flawed.

Somebody said the teacher should be an inspiration to the student. Probably the most inspiring teacher I have had is Thomas Faltejsek. He was able to motivate me like nobody else, by conjuring up a vision of perfection and making it seem to be within my reach (in addition to providing us with a shining example of what horse and rider should look like together). On the other hand, he demanded every ounce of effort I could muster, and more (there is no such thing as "good enough" when it comes to the rider). He told me more than once (only half jokingly): "I don't care if you die trying, but first you WILL RIDE. Then you can die." I remember one lesson in particular, many years ago, where I thought I was giving everything I had. Then he screamed at me at the top of his lungs (which was quite rare, by the way) - and I discovered that I still had some energy left, after all. It carried the horse across the threshold, and we outgrew ourselves at that moment. If he had been less demanding, I would never have had this experience of success and accomplishment. Thomas Faltejsek has the power to make students ride a couple of levels above their normal ability, because of this mixture of encouragement and strictness.

However, not every student wants to learn how to ride. He also complained to me that people had approached him saying they wanted to learn how to ride. When he presented them with the opportunity to learn, they were unwilling to make the necessary effort. So he felt betrayed and lied to.

This is at the heart of the anecdotes Jessica and Annette related of Dr. Klimke. There are many riders who want a babysitter, someone who cuddles them verbally, and holds their hands while they are going through a number of tricks. These students will never learn how to ride, even though some of them may be able to perform some upper level movements with certain horses.

As far as the physical pain is concerned, I was thinking of my own experiences. Many years ago I went through a phase in which riding without stirrups at the walk and the trot was excruciatingly painful, because the sheer weight of my legs stretched my stiff adductor muscles to such an extent that it sometimes felt as if someone were tearing my legs off. That was just from the weight of the leg itself, without even trying to stretch it actively. Over time, the muscles became more flexible, and the pain went away. I may very well be an extreme case, but I think that everyone who rides seriously has experienced some discomfort and muscle soreness at some point. I don't believe that there is any top athlete or ballet dancer who reached the top without ever becoming muscle sore, without ever experiencing discomfort or even pain. Progress is only possible by stretching one's limits, by leaving one's comfort zone.

One of the attitudes that one encounters more and more often these days is that "riding is supposed to be FUN", and easy, without discomfort or pain, without frustration. This attitude originates in the myth that there can be mastery without effort. P.T. SUDO addresses this very issue in a completely different context, i.e. playing guitar (1998, 75): "Too many of us today want instant gratification . We want reward without work. We want the thinking done for us. We want to understand something right away or we can't be bothered. This attitude demeans the accomplishments of those who are true masters."

Mastering a skill cannot be accomplished with complacency and superficial thrill seeking, but only with serious studying for a period of many years. This is something many riders don't realize or refuse to acknowledge. Richard Waetjen, one of Egon von Neindorff's two principal teachers, puts it this way (Dressurreiten, 6th ed. 1989, 19): "It is only the love for the work itself that can help the rider get through the many years with many disappointments and give him the strength not to despair but to continue to strive. The crown of the art of riding can be attained only through decades' worth of work and experience, and with great patience that precludes temper tantrums and any violence."

If even a great master like Richard Waetjen experienced the frustration and the emotional pain of learning how to ride, it would be unrealistic of us to think we could find an easier way. Two expressions in Waetjen's quote probably hold the key to the discussion: "the love for the work itself" and "the crown of the art of riding". Those people who emphasize the importance of having fun are usually not interested in achieving the classical ideal, nor do they really love the work process.

Rather than looking for "fun" in riding, the rider should enjoy the process of learning (P.T. SUDO, 1998, 39f."There is joy in the struggle"), including all the ups and downs. When we are trying to accomplish something meaningful in any aspect of life, an art, a sport, a science, it is impossible to do it without a certain share of pain and frustration. The negative experiences are the ones that give meaning and importance to the positive ones. They are the ones that keep us searching for a better way. Success rarely does that (if it ain't broke, ...) Without the struggle we would not value our progress the same way. There always has to be a balance. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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