Saturday, May 24, 2014


How a Horse Delivered Me From the Bondage of Self

By Tom Gumbrecht                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Originally published in Horse Directory,  June, 2014

There is a quotation penned on the whiteboard of our barn, or more accurately, a derivation of one written by someone named Lao Tzu that reads. “He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty.” I had read this before, but it took a long time for me to begin to understand it and I’m certain I still don’t, fully. When I began to understand it is when I put it up on the board, because of its importance to my training (and my life) and how my horses helped me to understand it.

The author with DannyBoy at Equus Valley Horse Trials
I first thought that conquering self was about only self-control, about discipline, about will power. For me, the idea developed further into being about the deconstruction of the image of self that I had created. That image existed in my mind and it was a handsome one, but not terribly accurate. It consisted mainly of who I thought I was, or who thought I could have been if not for the endless obstacles placed in my path by others. I worked on maintaining the image, and it could have possibly existed forever if I had never been exposed to a horse.

I was gifted not especially with talent, but with an almost insatiable appetite for learning when it came to my middle-aged introduction to horses.  I had two trainers at the same time (perhaps would not do that again), rode at literally every opportunity and bought and read every book from every horse trainer, rider, clinician, and horsey philosopher I could find. And still, excellence eluded me. What I became was confused.

In other areas of life, I had become a master of the concept of “fake it ‘til you make it.” In some pursuits, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Acquire some concepts, some jargon and some contacts, let that open a few doors, gain some exposure and acceptance and pick up knowledge through osmosis.  Not so with horses, I was to find out. You can’t fake it with a horse (unless, of course, the horse is in on it) and thereby lay the source of my frequent frustration.  I can present the best façade imaginable, one that may work wonders with some humans and yet the horse would see right past them. The horse, I was to find, responds only to the true self, the true me.  My hope for anything modestly resembling success on horseback required that I first acknowledge, accept, and become familiar with my true self.

I had to turn my gaze inward. Much of what I had yet to learn did not exist in books and found that I didn’t
The author with DannyBoy, leaning to let
go and let the horse do his job.
need to study and master the intellectual concepts of my lessons.  Rather I needed feel them in my fingertips, my calves, my heel, my seat.  My legs would remember what my brain could not comprehend.  It was a new way to learn, and at times frightening.  I had sought to master the horse, and now the horse was my teacher.  My ego, which I assumed had bolstered the little bit of professional recognition I had managed to acquire, was no longer an attribute.  In fact it was a liability, because the horse did not acknowledge or respond to it. The horse knew the real me, and was waiting for me to honestly present it. Perhaps that was the frightening part..

A point came where I found myself struggling with lessons from a teacher who challenged me as no other had. This teacher was a mare who had known nothing but the racetrack and the paddock in my backyard; I began to think that I would never have the level of expertise needed to be successful riding her. But expertise was not what she wanted. She wanted honesty. As she became more fit, I became more overwhelmed and fearful, and rode defensively.  The toughest thing was to admit that, but admitting it was the key.  My trainer had created an environment where it was safe to be 100% honest, and I felt no need to hide my fear. Once I did, we restructured and went back to the point where we had been successful and built from there yet again. Soon we were past the point at which we were once stuck, because someone was able to help me interpret what my horse needed of me.

This I know:  the process of knowing myself has been an incredible adventure, made possible by the many horses I have had the privilege of working with. They have all been my teachers; yet as valuable as it has been to have learned to know myself, I have been especially fortunate to have experienced glimpses of the next dimension:  overcoming myself.

It would not be honest to claim consistency in this concept, but I have tasted it and my appetite to pursue it has been whetted: to enter an arena and for a moment in time, totally and completely give myself over to my horse, to leave my ego at the gate, to trust completely. I have experienced that level of synergy if for a moment, and it has shown me what it is possible to achieve by a magnificent animal’s uncanny ability to remove me from the self which at a point only selves to inhibit and not propel.

Lola- learning partnership from a beautiful soul..
What lofty goals will I achieve, having learned these concepts? Well… the concepts are still for me somewhat elusive but in a way I may have already achieved my goals. I have learned that there are bigger things than the self, and the biggest rewards in life as in riding, come when the self is in the background rather than the foreground.  This is not a remarkable concept for many; it was for me, and it took a horse to teach it in a way that I could accept it.

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