Over the last several months I’ve been working with a horse named Titan. Titan is a strapping young Thoroughbred cross who oozes athleticism. While he is generally a really sweet horse, he also has an insecure nature. I have worked with him for several months, focusing on building his confidence, but he rarely feels “let down” to me.
At this point in my riding career it takes a lot for a horse to make me nervous. Titan makes me nervous. Even when I can manage to get him more focused on me, he still has this edge, and we can sometimes very quickly end up at the other end of the arena or field regardless of what I do to try to stop him. Because of this I feel pretty anxious when I’m on him. I tense up sometimes in anticipation of acrobatics. That defensiveness certainly doesn’t make him any less nervous and generally makes it worse. Regardless of the tact I take, I end up fighting with him quite a bit, or if I commit to not fighting with him I don’t seem to get anything done.
Being stuck in this dichotomy had me feeling really down on myself. I couldn’t get out of this cycle where I could either fight and punish Titan for his behavior or simply ignore it altogether. In my heart I knew that Titan wasn’t behaving badly. He was simply doing what he thought he needed to do in the moment, and regardless I never have felt like punishing a horse solves anything. So I didn’t want to fight him or punish him. But I also know that ignoring the behavior wouldn’t get him or me out of this anxious defensive place either.
I often find myself stuck in similar situations outside the arena too. Fighting through problems might make me feel strong in the moment and like I’m really doing something and getting somewhere, but so often, in reality, I’m just using up a lot of energy and creating a fight when there didn’t need to be one. If I don’t do that, it seems like I just end up letting whatever’s going to happen, happen.
A Lesson From Another Sport
Thinking about how stuck I was and how I didn’t want to choose between riding like a bully or like a pushover reminded me of a lesson I watched my sensei teach some time ago at our karate school. I had forgotten about it until Titan helped me remember. Years ago my sensei had shown me a middle path.
Mr. C, as we call him, is the embodiment of calm, cool and collected. He has a lean build and is strong but not overly muscled. More like a palm than an oak. He has an affable demeanor and a light air about him. His emotional control is enviable. His students more often than not walk away from his lessons feeling more confident, even though he sometimes is addressing difficult issues with them. He inspires a lot of trust and has built up a large number of committed disciples.
On the day I got my first glimpse of this middle path, I remember walking into the karate studio a little earlier than normal, so I sat down in the corner and started to stretch and loosen up before my lesson. As I stretched, Mr. C was teaching another student, and I watched intently.
Mr. C and the student, Eric, were wearing traditional plain black gis, slightly faded through years of use. Besides the colored belts around their waists, their attire was austere, like the studio. Eric wore a new brown belt, and Mr. C wore a black belt that was so worn with age that the fraying of the belt was turning it white.
Eric was one of the most intimidating students at our school. He stood at about 6’2″, had tattoos up and down both arms, and had the kind of look about him that made you think he’d been through some tough situations. He was an imposing figure, and it seemed to me he carried a fairly large chip on his shoulder.
Whenever I had to spar with Eric I had one tactic and one tactic only: run away. Eric was aggressive, and if he thought you hit him a bit too hard, then a light sparring session would devolve into a one-sided war. So as he and Mr. C put their gloves on, I was more than interested to see how it would go. Mr. C obviously had way more experience than Eric, but Eric was bigger, stronger and was used to being able to dominate anyone brave enough or maybe stupid enough to stand in front of him.
The sparring session started out normal enough. Both men circled each other and threw some testing jabs and front kicks, but I could see the look in Eric’s eye. He wanted to show Mr. C and the other students in the school how dominant he was. When other people sparred with Eric this usually meant one of two things. If you’re me, you spent the whole match trying not to die by running away for as long as you could, which hopefully kept you safe until the end. Other students, who didn’t appreciate being pushed around or didn’t want to seem weak, would get sucked into Eric’s trap and try to stand up to him. This played right into Eric’s hands though, because he was in his happy place when someone reacted defensively to him and gave him the right, in his mind, to pummel them.
It didn’t take me long to recognize that Mr. C was doing something different. He wasn’t exactly running away, but he also wasn’t taking the bait and getting into a slugfest, which he would probably lose. He stayed engaged with Eric. Mr. C was just outside Eric’s range but close enough for Eric to think he could begin the pummeling.
Mr. C looked relaxed. His movements were fluid, more like that of a trained dancer than that of a fighter. It didn’t look like he was moving very fast, but he managed to constantly not be wherever Eric’s fist or foot was. Even though he was in constant movement, ducking and dodging, there was a stillness about him.
Eric, on the other hand, got more and more tense and frenetic as the match went on. As he realized he wasn’t capitalizing on his overwhelming strength he swung harder and harder. The look of frustration on his face grew with every missed attempt. It honestly looked more like Eric was fighting himself.
After a few minutes of this, Eric started to waver. He hadn’t been able to land any significant strikes on our sensei. The air was all he managed to hit, and the air gave him no resistance to push back against. Eric’s strength and trust in his ability to dominate were betraying him. At one point Eric simply fell down. He hadn’t been hit. Mr. C actually didn’t throw many strikes the whole match. Eric was simply exhausted, and his legs could no longer support him. He looked defeated, something he wasn’t accustomed to having to deal with.
When it was clear Eric wouldn’t be able to continue, Mr. C helped him stand and said, “Sometimes in order to win a fight you have to fight less, and sometimes you have to be willing to lose in order to actually win.”
Eric nodded, but you could see the defeat had really gotten to him.
The next time I sparred with Eric he seemed to have taken his lesson with Mr. C to heart. We had a good give and take where our level of energy was more matched instead of one-sided. I’m sure he was still struggling to find his middle path, but he was becoming a good partner.
Had Mr. C won the match by beating Eric at his own game, even if he was successful, I don’t think Eric would have learned his lesson. He probably would’ve thought he needed to be stronger and more aggressive next time.
At the time what I took away from watching this exchange was, first, I want to be like Mr. C, and second, while having a lot of strength and the ability to physically dominate an opponent has its benefits, ultimately if you rely solely on those abilities you may not be able to answer all the problems in front of you. In contrast, if all you did was run away from big intimidating problems, as was my preferred technique, you may survive but not actually solve your problem. One approach can make you feel really strong and effective. The other can make you feel weak and ineffective.
Applying The Middle Path
Thinking about how Mr. C had successfully walked this middle path with Eric, I thought about a middle path with Titan.
I first thought about how relaxed Mr. C stayed, even in the face of an onslaught. So I made a conscious effort to relax while riding Titan in order to match the stillness I saw in Mr. C. I realized how much I had been unconsciously tight and holding onto Titan because when I fully relaxed he would automatically speed up slightly or go in a different direction than we had been traveling.
The second thing that was different about how Mr. C approached Eric was that he stayed engaged with Eric without forcing him to change his current behavior or directly opposing it. He waited for Eric to move and then moved accordingly. So it was actually Eric who was dictating the direction of the match.
I tried to stay engaged with Titan, without giving him any resistance where he might have the opportunity to fight against me. Although, I didn’t want to simply let him do whatever he wanted either. Instead of immediately opposing Titan when he offered to do something other than what I was asking, I would at first go with him and then figure out how to use what he was giving me to redirect him back towards what I wanted.
For example, I went back to the bottom of the training scale and focused on asking Titan to be in a particular rhythm. If he accelerated, instead of directly opposing him by asking him to slow down, I would gently guide him onto a circle until he decided to come back into rhythm.
At first taking this approach meant I had to let go of my desired outcome because I realized that in general, unless I used a lot of force, Titan was not listening to me. So at first he kind of went wherever he wanted. But in following him and trying to redirect him back towards what I wanted rather than opposing him directly, Titan started to listen to much smaller aids. We were much more in sync, and we were slowly but surely doing what I wanted more often, and Titan seemed happier for it.
Instead of increasing the force to convince Titan where to go and how to go there, I had to relax, see what he wanted to do, and use that instead of opposing it.
In the past I have tended to avoid specific problems in the horse if I thought it was going to create too much drama. I actually could get a lot out of a horse by simply avoiding problems. If I’m being honest, I tended to avoid any type of conflict in general, both in and out of the ring. But the thing with doing that is at some point those problems tend to come back and bite you.
By taking Mr. C’s example I have been reminded that there is a middle path. That sometimes going with a tough situation, instead of against it, can help you find ways of turning it to your advantage. Similarly, by sitting with your problems instead of avoiding them or running from them, you sometimes realize you already know how to solve the issue. This approach can help lead to better outcomes that build trust and stronger relationships. In addition, it makes it possible to actually enjoy the process.
In order to keep from getting stuck in my old cycle I have to remind myself often that sometimes weakness can seem more like strength, and strength can seem more like weakness.
Matt Brown has been a lifelong student of the sport of three-day eventing, studying under masters such as Derek di Grazia, Volker Brommann and Denny Emerson. He also credits horseman and rancher George Kahrl for helping him learn how to create a trusting relationship between horse and rider.
Matt has been named to the USEF High Performance Training Lists since 2013. In April of 2015, Matt and his wife Cecily moved from California to Cochranville, Pennsylvania, to continue chasing his dream of representing Team USA. He was named as a reserve for the U.S. team at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and finished the Rolex Kentucky CCI5*-L in sixth place in 2017.