April 20, 2017
It was only recently that I realized how much more I am able to care for and respect myself if I think of my life in terms of riding horses. One “me” is the voiceless horse who will only behave when treated in a certain way; and the other “me” is the (arguably) more controlling human counterpart. And to be clear from the onset, I just need to say that I will not be writing about how, after four years of intellectual and personal growth, Hamilton has somehow caused me to revert back to the imaginative state that I frequently succumbed to in my youth during which I attempted to, in action and behavior, become more Equus than Homo, because that would be fake news. My educators, parents and friends may draw a sigh of relief.
I am fortunate on two accounts. First, I don’t think much of Hamilton knows about my equine obsession, which is merely an inconsequential difference when compared to lower school. Secondly, and of much more significance, I have been able to keep up with show jumping in some capacity throughout my time in college. I rode at White Fox Farm in Clinton with the Hamilton Equestrian Team for five semesters and also trained individually at Fair Haven Farm in Canastota (I’m not getting paid to advertise, but this is truly the best place around for serious riding) for six semesters.
With each semester’s return to the barn, I have wondered if it’s ridiculous that I’m still doing it despite the associated financial and time-related costs. That doesn’t even begin to get in the many times that I sit back and think about the totally strange, objectively functionless endeavor that is riding horses so late into the Age of the Automobile.
Recently, however, I read an article entitled, “You Need Sports Amnesia: Day 2 At McLain Ward Clinic” by Tricia Conahan, a contributor to the equestrian magazine The Chronicle of the Horse (Google it and be absorbed by the microcosm that is horse sports). In the article, Ward branches off of the oft-quoted advice to “be present” by saying that we might need a more specific kind of presence called “sports amnesia.” The idea is, essentially, that if you make a mistake in the beginning of something, don’t allow it to tag along and negatively impact the future. Ward says,
“In show jumping, if you got deeper than you would have liked [and drop a rail], instead of thinking about it and making another mistake, put it behind you,” he explained. “You cannot combat the mistake by making another one. Stay focused in the present and make the round the best you can be.”
The article got me thinking about the philosophical aspects of riding that I feel have seeped into the rest of my life, and that’s what I really intend to share.
First of all, I think it’s necessary to say that you can read a bunch of books and articles and understand a concept or piece of advice in theory, but you can’t truly learn or implement ideas until you arrive at the conclusion on your own terms (which renders this piece of writing arguably fruitless in terms of trying to instruct, caution or otherwise influence anyone). The same thing happens with horses: you can poorly ask a horse to do something and they won’t do it, and then you have to patiently re-evaluate your approach. Or, you can correctly ask a horse to do something, but they won’t understand you until a week later, and then it’s total bliss. They’re all individuals – and vary among each other and within themselves day-to-day, just like us. Therefore, to ride truly successfully you need to be aware of the space your body and mind is occupying. You need to assess what’s going on with both bodies every stride and modify your actions in order to best suit the horse.
You have to be aware of both of your strengths and weaknesses always – it’s a humbling endeavor. Horses don’t do force, but they also don’t love weakness. You can’t really muscle a horse through anything, or try to make something happen without explaining it. They’ll also know if you’re afraid and they’ll take advantage of you or get injured if you’re too lax.
To train horses, you have to be creative but methodical, gentle but not weak, and you have to leave the horse on a positive note at the end of the day, because no matter how well the horse is taught, you are training a horse to do something – good or bad – with every ride.
AKA, we never grow up. None of us creatures. In this moment we’re just as wise as we’ve ever been, and we’re just as inexperienced and uncertain too. How many times have you looked at your lengthy, bulky to-do list at the end of the day and thought, “Well, shoot, I guess I did nothing today because I didn’t finish these 3 huge projects” even if you did actually make small strides towards a lot of things and just are valuable for existing in general?
There are no “bad” horses that are incapable of learning. You’re training yourself every day, and you’ll get nowhere trying to intimidate yourself into doing something. Nor will you get very far by not having standards, discipline or goals. Small praise (or large praise) is essential to life and horses. You have to be the person you are today and act accordingly, whether it’s a gentle trail ride day or you’re showing in a big competition.
Like any good or bad horse I, too, need to be schooled every day and reminded about what’s important to my self (with a capital S) and what needs to be worked on in the minutia.
There are, assuredly, a bucketful of people that have changed my life for the better during my time at Hamilton (you may or may not know who you are), and to you I am grateful and indebted. But I guess in this reflection, I just want to raise a glass of Andre to the dear influence of those pieces of our lives that may sometimes feel beside the [academic] point, but really have a lot to say and give us a lot to stick around for.