(© Kip Mistral 2003. Two part interview article first published in California Riding Magazine. Detail from “The Prince Riding in the Moonlight” by John Bauer, 1914.)
“I remember one day after several years of study, during which I thought I was progressing quite nicely, my teacher said, ‘Riding dressage is not like playing tennis. You can make your body learn the techniques and make your head learn the movements, but the dressage comes from inside of you. You really need to develop your inner life.’ This was a turning point in my life, a quantum leap in my conscious process. I began to understand that people rode the way they were, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and that was why horses performed differently for different riders. As we open ourselves up to transformation, our riding improves.” ~ Dressage in the Fourth Dimension
Sherry Ackerman is a Mount Shasta, California based, European-trained classical rider and trainer who, incidentally, holds a PhD in Philosophy. Her fascinating book Dressage in the Fourth Dimension explores her ultimate ideal for riding and the horse/human relationship. She calls it the Fourth Dimension, essentially the merging of two entities in a higher plane of spirit that moves outside their individual existences.
KM: Many of us who ride have experienced a moment with a horse when we were so in harmony with him that it seemed the horse literally read our mind…or did we read his? It certainly seemed like a merging. It was, well, blissful. Was that the “fourth dimension”? Can we find that sense of peace, balance and harmony again?
SA: What keeps people from merging with horses in a spiritual dimension is their own body. The body stores the trauma of our lives, mental, emotional and physical. When people say a horse is stiff, the stiffness in the horse is mirroring the person’s body/mind issues. That isn’t to say the horse might not also have trauma stored in his body, too.
KM: What do you mean by body/mind issues?
SA: Mind issues begin with our super-beta brain wave activity. In America we think incessantly, and most culturally-conditioned American adult brains function between 12-150 hertz cycles per minute. This is incredibly active; it’s hyperactivity, a super-analytical brain. Compare that to the 8-12 hertz cycles per minute of the alpha state, where most super-learning takes place.
KM: How does this too-busy brain affect our body, and our riding? What does it mean to the horse?
SA: Most dressage riders are already in beta state before we get on and when we get on we go into super-beta! We micro-tighten our bodies; we stop breathing which also tightens the body. Fear of failure, fear of the horse, perhaps, are also thoughts which tighten the body. When the horse feels this super-beta, hyper-vigilant rider, he takes that tension into his body. Now his muscles tighten, and when 1,000-1,500 pounds stiffens, the bucking starts.
Then we have a scary ride, and a downward spiral begins. By using tactics of evasion, horses are trying to say something, like “I’m frightened of this bag of judgment and want it off my back!” So we call him a “bad” horse and we blame him.
I’ve noticed that when people have control agendas in their relationships with humans, that’s usually how they ride the horse. So a rider’s control agenda is the first dragon that needs to be slain. And often it takes a long time to get the message. Spirit looks down and says, “I’ve given them a breakup with a partner, a difficult relationship with a child or problems at work, and they’re not getting it. Hmm…I’ll give them the message in the form of a 1,400 pound wakeup call. Where we start with good intentions to perform well, we end up with oppositional behavior.
KM: Speaking of performing well, who is this person who wants to perform and win? Does the “spirit” of competition get in the way of attaining peace, balance and harmony with our horses? A lot of performance horses look very stressed.
SA: That’s a big question. Western culture views animals as being our property, as chattel. They’re not seen as having souls or rights. Today horses are seen as property, as objects in a sport. We own it, we don’t like it, we get rid of it. Western culture is commercial, and the same goes today with equestrian arts. We have to be more spectacular, faster. It is commercial horsemanship.
We rarely see true beauty or artistry in a ride performed under the typical ambience of tension. This is not truly classical riding. We have to learn to compete without being attached to the outcome, and a person has to be pretty evolved to do that. We might look at competition as a way to be social, and just enjoy having our horse seen by other people. Have a sense of humor. Be open to the idea of interdisciplinary equestrian arts. Competition can work for us and our horses too if we begin to change the agenda.
KM: Speaking of discipline, why ride dressage?
SA: For the horse. Dressage is the only equestrian discipline that makes the horse even on both sides from back to front, and is the best possible physical training when done right. Traditionally, the main goal for dressage is impulsion, which is essentially time spent in the air, and the significance of the piaffe and passage is that they are the end of the work on the ground, with the earth.
These movements are preparation for the airs above the ground, where we symbolically drop our baggage, lift up and into the air, becoming part of it, becoming spirit. When we attain personal balance, then we can harmonize with our horse. And only when we have transformed ourselves first can we transform our relationship with our horse and this dance can begin that takes us into the realm of spirit. The work starts with us.
KM: As the medieval alchemists sought the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone that would enable them to turn ordinary lead into gold, what lead in ourselves must we transform to enable us to find the Fourth Dimension with our horse?
SA: I try to teach people to ride with their hearts, and I have seen years of armor drop away because of peoples’ desire to dance with their horse. In that sense, I am the midwife of someone’s desire to transformed, to be born through the love of the horse.
To recapitulate Part I, for any number of reasons, the melding we felt at one time with horses or a particular horse (that Ackerman describes as the Fourth Dimension, a merging of two entities in a higher plane of spirit that moves outside their individual existences), may be now a distant memory. The grace and beauty are gone from a precious bond that at one time gave us deep companionship, a sense of peace and fulfillment. We are looking for a way to transform our relationship with our horse.
KM: So, whoa. How do we get out of our head and into the Fourth Dimension with our horse, back to where we belong? Can we reason our way out of these doubts and this unhappy situation? How can we understand our horses better, to begin with?
SA: It takes a lot of courage. The first thing is learn to not judge. Here we are in this moment and what we do now can be a different thing than we’ve ever done before. Horses have nothing but the moment; they don’t hang on to yesterday, which is something that we can learn from.
On the other hand, that’s why their training often doesn’t progress the way we expect since we humans usually have a linear perspective. We expect a concrete, accumulative effect from education. Each day’s lessons are mastered and the next day, they have been retained perfectly so we can add another block on top of the previous day, without losing an inch of ground. But, if you have children, when your children went to school, did they all learn the same thing in a time frame of thirty days, let’s say in first grade? Probably not—they were all different, not to mention having different teachers. It just doesn’t work that way, with horses or humans.
KM: We do expect so much of them; but let’s turn it around. What do horses get out of being with people?
SA: Horses are really individualistic, like people. Some possess a strong sense of trust and willingness, and don’t carry too much baggage. They develop a sense of companionship with a certain person and really seem to enjoy being with that person. Some horses prefer the herd. Some prefer solitude, just like kids. Some kids go to school and want to join everything; some kids hide in the corner of the playground or read books in the library. It’s a matter of personality.
So, one of the issues is to be very aware when you are choosing your horse, for both your horse’s sake and yours. A rider who wants to ride like the wind all day long needs a strong horse who wants to run like the wind all day. A timid or inexperienced rider needs a quiet horse. That’s one of the first cuts in responsible decision-making.
KM: But, if I love my horse, won’t that eventually help me fix whatever differences or issues exist? Won’t time and love, and maybe a trainer, solve the problem?
SA: Ah. Well, remember at the end of the day the trainer has gone home, and you and the horse are alone, looking at each other. What then?
And here we have to come to terms philosophically with the meaning of love. As Americans, we are not schooled as a people in the art of relating, in the art of Eros. Eros means “to bind together that which was taken apart.” But Americans so misunderstand the nature of nature. Nature is very powerful and for that reason there is an erotica around nature, when we wake up to it.
Then, we have to decide how to relate, how to proceed, how to actually hold this sense of eroticism (not to be confused with sexuality) and understand it and use it to empower our relationship with our horse. At this point, however, we often get caught in a problem of dualism surrounding our concept of love.
KM: I’m not sure what you mean by dualism…
SA: In America we indulge ourselves in a great deal of sentimentality in matters of “love.” We often see love as being all the good things–partnership, companionship, and harmony—and as being mutually exclusive to setting boundaries and expecting discipline. The core problem is our divorce from the reality of nature, which can lead to great problems in our relationship with horses, let alone our human relationships.
To many of us, if we love our horse that means we treat it like we would treat a human. We keep it in a box stall, dress it up with leg wraps, sheets and blankets and never let it out of the stall to get dirty. That philosophy doesn’t even work with kids. Horses and kids need a parental kind of authority. It is a relationship of some inequality, but the inequality is necessary and it works if it is consistent and just.
Somebody has to be the guide. We have to develop a hierarchy of priorities; we decide that safety is first. That means, stand when I say stand, when I’m mounting. The horse learns self-control. Our agreement about who has authority to decide these things sets up the foundation for the partnership in work later on. Love means being consistent.
KM: Call me sentimental, but I really want to understand my horse’s nature. I’m a compassionate person; I certainly want to feel that I’m being kind to my own horse.
SA: You have to understand the species. When you first start a horse, he’s usually quite childlike and submissive once he understands what you want him to do. He wants to please. But, as the work takes form he becomes adolescent–he slams on the brakes or bolts one day to see what’s going to happen. He goes through a lot of stages. How he’s handled determines how he will flow through the training. And keep in mind the horse is different every day, like humans are. The idea of incremental progress being locked in is not realistic and it is not just.
KM: You mean I have to honor the particular, individual nature of my horse at the same time I am shaping it, and treat him like a horse too?
SA: Even your little child who worships and adores you will become an adolescent! They’ll challenge you—‘Who are you?!’ And what will you do with that? In loving horses, as with your child, there also has to be room for that question. No doubt, they have free will; they challenge you and it will not always be a smooth ride. But horses do come to a place of happiness with conscious, consistent riders, no matter the discipline.
KM: We ask such unnatural things of horses. Dressage, reining, show jumping…Can they possibly like the work we give them, which is sometimes really strenuous?
SA: Horses can love their work. They love to move. Even some competition horses love their work. They’ve had their natural movement liberated and enhanced. Horses can show a lot of passion in their work; when they really get warmed up and moving, they become physically expressive, they blow down through their nose and become very animated. They love it!
The ones you see that don’t love their work have probably had their gaits and natural movement reduced. There is a lot of control in dressage. Movements take place in certain places, at certain times, for instance. I’ve seen many people who aren’t yet sufficiently skilled or balanced to handle a given exercise unconsciously–but nevertheless systematically–go about the business of reducing the horse’s gaits. Our ethical imperative is to learn to ride or manage the motion of the horse.
KM: When we’re in over our heads and we’re afraid, we do “tense up” even more. And even people who love horses are sometimes afraid of them.
SA: There’s another issue. We need to deal with the fact that when people say they love horses, they may have a desire to love horses, but until they conquer their fear of their horse, their fear will drive their behavior. Their behavior will be unloving in the sense that it will limit the horse in every way. But people have reasons for fears, so they should honor them.
KM: Honor fear? How do you honor fear?
SA: To begin with, admitting that we have fear is an incredibly empowering act, one that can make itself felt throughout our lives in a tremendous way. When we wake up to the need to transform our relationship with our horse, we wake up to it with people. If I’m inconsistent in my messages to my horse, for instance, I want to go left but I’m sitting to right, this is a conflicting message. I’m probably giving conflicting messages to the people in my life, too.
KM: Are horses really that sensitive to inconsistencies?
SA: Horses read everything about you. Your horse reads your mind because he’s learned to; you’ve spent so much time together. But he also reads you, your micro-movements, your intent, and your energy. Horses read your face when you walk in the barn; they look right at you. If you’ve got a smile on your face yet you’re angry and frustrated inside from your day at work or in your life, they are not fooled and they will act out all that toxic energy for you. It will come out in bad behavior eventually, if not sooner, but rarely do we realize that we are the cause.
KM: So what do we do to become honest in acknowledging our emotions, about our horses and ourselves, and how does that lead us to the Fourth Dimension?
SA: The horse’s body is a mirror of everything that happens. If there is an imbalance, the first thing to do is refrain from blame and ask yourself “What am I doing to keep that dynamic going?” Good teachers have to teach this, at the same time allowing each student to find his or her own path. The person who is ready to act will act. It’s not loving to tell a person how to live their life, or force them to change before they are ready.
But while one person when having problems with their horse will do a whole list of things before they do anything about themselves—buy a new saddle, new spurs, a stronger bit, change the boarding stable or trainer, even sell the “problem” horse and start the whole cycle over again with a new horse who is doomed from the start—the awake person will say “This is really melting down, I’d better give this a break and start rethinking what’s going on.”
The Fourth Dimension is much larger than people think; it is not just a matter of when we are riding our horse, but when we are on the ground, too. It is not a condition of the heart without the head or the head without the heart. Both the heart and head must be aligned, so we learn to behave in ways beyond our normal conditioned responses. Our normal responses may not be about the truth, and we have to learn to seek and surrender to the truth. At the same time the Fourth Dimension is about peace and harmony, it is about being awake. It’s a type of consciousness.
So, the transformation has to start with us.