Written by Jec Ballou
Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Zen monks for a week last fall made me believe that a rider’s ultimate responsibility is to give up her ego.
Human beings carry so much around—stress, thoughts, emotional pain, responsibilities—that we lose clarity in moment-to-moment living. This blocks our ability to genuinely “let go” in our lives, and on horseback, because we are accustomed to clinging to that load.
The key, according to Zen practice, is a vigilant study of the self in order to release our attachments. As we begin to study the self, we see that creativity is about forgetting the ego, getting out of our own way. So, a dance then dances itself through our bodies, or a painting paints itself through a paintbrush. In other words, you’re not getting in the way with your judgements or interpretations. When you find this intimacy on horseback, the effortless harmonious expression comes through you. The intent will be just to do what you’re doing, rather than becoming or achieving something.
At first, the students at Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskill Mountains thought it was a little strange when I showed up, having no background in Zen training. But I told them I wanted to stay there for a week with them because their teachings had insights to share with the equestrian world.
They took me in and let me watch their mastery of stillness, mental precision, and awareness. The tradition they studied easily could have been the same that has been handed down through generations of dressage masters.
Such diligent training of the mind made me remember the words of dressage great Franz Mairinger in his book Horses are Made to Be Horses: “To sit still, we must develop near perfect body control, as must the ballet dancer or the ice skater. This control is developed only through a relaxed and supple mind. The psychological approach must be correct … Be firm, still, and balanced in order to give consistent aids. Prepare yourself and be calm in mind and body.”
And then as it echoing the monks with their meditation, Mairinger writes: “It will take a long time before your body will submit easily to the commands from the brain to sit straight and still.”
The cornerstone of study at Zen Mountain Monastery (ZMM) is the practice of zazen. This is best described as doing nothing but holding yourself in absolute stillness for a set period of time. If your nose runs, let it run. If your knee hurts, let go of the pain. It’s about turning yourself off, so you can make your mind and body quiet. Every time a thought arises, let it go immediately. Interestingly, the sitting posture is much the same as a dressage seat (except for being cross-legged)—waist pulled toward your hands, straight spine and open upper body, chin tucked in, and symmetrical weight distribution through your legs and knees.
In my introductory instruction to zazen, senior monks told me that I would discover how much the human mind fights against stillness.
During my first session, my brain flew in rapid fire through every thought but staying in the moment. It seemed impossible to turn it off, and yet I had never before realized how subtly cloudy it could be! The monks showed me that this drastically affects our communication with horses. We are always doing too much. After the second session of zazen, it was clear to me that horses have probably been trying to tell us for centuries that we are not focused, or enough in the moment. But our minds aren’t clear enough to pick up those messages! I recalled a passage from one of Nuno Oliveira’s texts that showed how perceptive horses are to our mental states: “I remember that after my father’s funeral, I returned to school starting to work Corsario on the longe exactly as I always did. He stopped and put both ears forward, looking at me; an exceptionally sensitive horse, he felt that my state of mind was not as usual, although everything else was the same as it had always been.” Notes and Reminiscences of a Portuguese Dressage Rider, 1982.
Senior monk Mn. Hojin Kimmel acknowledged that the training of “letting go” is like holding a giant mirror to yourself. Zazen forces you to do that.
“You see how your mind wants to fight. You meet that face to face in zazen,” she said. Hojin explained that that is the reason for the posture of zazen. It was developed from ancient yoga practices and was determined to be the right way to arrange the body to come into complete stillness—and possibly enlightenment. By holding the posture in absolute immobility during zazen, the mind, too, will eventually become quiet.
My instincts trusted this wisdom and I let them pull me from bed at 4:30 a.m. every morning to meditate with 40 monks and students sitting on hard pillows until daylight arrived through the meditation hall windows.
I never imagined sitting motionless like this could seem so impossible. We sat in meditative silence for 90 minutes until dawn filled the sky outside and two bells finally rang out, signaling the end of the period. While slowly regaining sensation in my legs, I could feel in my heart and body that to be good riders, we must make our minds quiet. Otherwise, the pursuit of physical stillness and harmony is futile. The monastery stresses how committed you must be in training yourself to be still and have a quiet, clear mind. In this pursuit, everything becomes your practice and your ego cannot interfere with judgement or getting attached to outcomes.
At the monastery, periods of zazen meditation are punctuated by mornings and afternoons full of simple work to help people focus. My job was to assist in the kitchen. I rinsed, peeled, and chopped vegetables for hours and hours.
At first, I found myself lost in thoughts as I sliced through carrots. I thought about what I was learning, I thought about a newspaper article assignment I needed to start, I thought about writing this article. Then, I remembered that my daily practices should quiet my mind, not provoke thought tangents. So, I kept letting go of inner chatter and daydreams as they arose and stayed focused on the sound of my knife on the chopping block, the feel of the carrot, the sight of slices rolling away. After four hours, I felt completely relaxed and quiet in mind and body. When thoughts did arise, like when I engaged in conversation with other students, they arose with tremendous clarity and precision. When I spoke, I found myself able to make my point efficiently and vividly. With such non-muddled communication, I could only imagine that giving riding aids to my horses would be tons more precise.
We went from these mindful work sessions (other students gardened, did housekeeping, light construction) to zazen sittings, which brought the body into stillness for 90 minutes at a time.
It amazed me how, even in this intensely focused and contemplative place, the human mind resists being completely quiet. I was instructed to count my breaths up to 10, then start over, and keep doing this during meditation. I thought it would be simple, but I found myself a few times counting my breaths 30,31,32 without realizing I’d passed 10! In one of his talks, the monastery’s head teacher, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei, said that humans condition themselves to make simple acts more difficult.
“It’s this great love we have to complicate what is so simple,” he told the students in a talk encouraging them to consider how every single action reflected the state of their minds.
Watching him in his daily life, I could see that he applied his commitment to and training in stillness to everything he did. He didn’t hurry when he walked, he didn’t rush when he ate, he listened fully focused to people talking. And most inspiring to me, he demonstrated a sense of awareness that seemed like every cell of his body was alive with sensation.
His feet seemed to feel every stride, his hands seemed to become everything they touched—a mug, book, cloth. I imagined that he would be an excellent dressage rider if he ever got on a horse.
I ate lunch one day with Shugen and told him how I thought Zen and dressage mirrored each other. He knew of the Spanish Riding School, but did not know a lot else about dressage. My discussion interested him, especially from the standpoint of being a teacher. He said that “teaching” something like dressage should be a process of skillfully guiding students to arrive at their own lessons. The teacher’s job is to take away everything the student holds on to.
People never genuinely learn something until it comes from within them, he explained. This was particularly the case with stillness and quieting the mind, he went on to say. I asked him how on earth he “taught” students to become so calm and unattached to their egos. He replied that, first, a student must wholeheartedly want to learn that lesson and see that he or she needs it. Once that is accomplished, the person’s ego will get out of the way and allow learning to take place.
Students must realize that their practice of dressage (or Zen) mirrors their entire lives. It is not an isolated activity, removed from the rest of someone’s lifestyle. It calls on the state of a person’s inner life, which in today’s world is often far from stillness. There’s job stress, family responsibilities, emotional scars, national tragedy, and the list goes on.
That is why Shugen puts so much importance on zazen and encourages people to apply that practice to their entire lives. If we learn to live moment to moment and do less with our thoughts and our bodies, we will express our horsemanship with less struggle and greater artistry. It will simply come through us from the horse, uninterrupted by our “great love” to complicate things.
Consider here the words of dressage legend Colonel Alois Podhajsky (The Complete Training of Horse and 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.” In the words of Rittmeister von Oeynhausen in 1845: “Man can only be master of his horse when he is master of his own deeds and actions.”