21 November 2010

Becoming a Centaur

In competitive, individualistic America this headline from Chakra might surprise more than a few people: "Buddhist Monk Horse Rider Wins Gold at Asian Games" It shouldn't. Buddhism, as I understand it, is about becoming one with the universe. In many ways, so is riding.

The linkages to dressage riding and strains of Buddhism are strong. My favorite American and European dressage authorities all stress the connection between horse and rider, ribbons and trophies are rarely the goal. Although this is the first time I've read about Buddhism in connection with jumping, I've found similar expressions of the need for connection in works by some of the best authorities on jumping. In fact, I think I first read about show results being at best secondary to horse-rider team performance in Riding and Jumping by William Steinkraus, a book I need to reread.

A happy effect of globalization is that more than a handful of American riders and trainers now use meditation and martial arts training to advance their riding skills. Here, for example, is a line from American dressage master Paul Belasik's Exploring Dressage Technique: "All the best riders have tried to exalt the horse, to ride it carefully, as a reverent thank you for the gift of travel--real travel towards enlightenment."

One such brief moment of enlightenment was caught on tape appears in the 1963 Disney movie The Miracle of the White Stallions. Watch for the pirouettes in the performance before Patton. Alois Podhajsky, doubling for actor Robert Taylor who portrayed him in the movie, said those pirouettes were what every horseman hopes to experience a few times, a moment of effortless oneness, a glimpse of nirvana.

I've had a few moments like that just jogging down a trail or riding twenty meter circles. Suddenly there was no horse, no rider; there was just inner peace. My horse had to have felt it too or the moments would never have happened.

I've long held that learning to ride a horse is about introspection, calmness, empathy, and erasure of the self. In the article, Buddhist monk Kenki Sato said his "special life path" was to "become one" with his horse. I suspect my fascination with the partnership started when, as a small child, I saw depictions of centaurs. Whatever our inspiration, for some of us, working with horses is a never-ending path, a pursuit of happiness and self-discovery, perhaps even enlightenment and bliss. It's a good path.