Sherry Ackerman: Dressage in the Fourth Dimension-Transcendental Union: Contact, Relaxation, Rhythm

Sherry Ackerman: Dressage in the Fourth Dimension-Transcendental Union: Contact, Relaxation, Rhythm

(Copyright © 2008 Sherry Ackerman. Published by New World Library. Used with permission of the author. Image by Anthony van Dyck, detail of Equestrian Portrait of Prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy-Carignano.)

Any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you…Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question…Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. ~ Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

Western social norms, so strongly influenced by the Puritan ethic, have traditionally offered a distorted view of sensuality and body communication. Nudity is regarded with suspicion, touching is associated with lust, and sharing sensual experience is considered inappropriate. In general, appreciation for the body has been considered pornographic. I recently entered some of my artwork in a gallery show. In an attempt to decide which pieces might find favor with the jury, I called the show organizer and asked some questions. I told her that I had a couple of “risky” new works that I would like to enter but was uncertain how the jury would receive them. She asked me what I meant by “risky,” and I told her they were abstracts with extremely bold colors and lines. “Oh,” she replied, “as long as they’re not nudes, I don’t think there will be any problems.”

Other cultural traditions hold a more integrated view of the human condition: mind, body, and spirit are cohesive and interdependent upon one another for holistic personal growth. The Tantric yogi, for example, considers intimate physical contact to be a means for awakening kundalini, the dazzling life-energy that lies coiled within each of us. According to this view, kundalini, the primal sensual energy that created the cosmos, arouses and uplifts us. The driving force of evolution, it generates love. The raising of kundalini is the mission of the Tantric yogi. The experience, sought for a long time, may come unexpectedly and be overwhelming. Those who have known it say that it dissolves duality, the sense of self and other, and is a complete and limitless union with the divine. (1) The mission of the Tantric yogi and that of the equestrian ecuyer are closely aligned.

Letting Go of Self

As I have already discussed, the dressage rider must necessarily let go of self to merge with the horse. The boundaries between horse and rider must dissolve if the two are to experience oneness. While contact (anlehnung), relations (losgelassenheit), and rhythm (takt) are all cornerstones of this unity, it is contact that ultimately assures it. Contact is probably one of the least understood principles of dressage. Uniformly, riders think it means how they hold the reins. In the most reduced sense, it does, but more inclusively it refers to every aspect of exchange that takes place between the horse and rider. It implies a mutual relationship based on reciprocity. It ends up being most observable in the rider’s hands, but the hands are only a manifestation of the entire position. If the rider’s hand position, and consequently contact, is poor, it’s because his or her fundamental position is not sufficiently developed. The rider’s errors of position are inhibiting the reciprocity between rider and horse, and in the expanded sense, contact is not established. The best riders have learned that less is better. The less they move around, the less they interfere, the less they rely on the technical aids–the less they give credence to duality between horse and self–the better their mounts can perform.

I recently taught a rider how to improve her collection in canter with her upper-level dressage horse. I repeatedly instructed her to sit still and stop moving around so much. After several such admonishments, Barb finally looked down from her mare and said, “Oh, you mean that I have to stop cantering, so that she can!?” Exactly!

Throwing Out the Rules

I studied for years with a wise old studio artist who spent hours complaining to the class that all our work suffered from too much conformity to the rules. He used to say, “Throw the rules out, forget perspective, forget composition…just draw!” When we did, we began to produce. Our fingers and wrists became supple, and we made lines that were soft and feather-light. Shade fell where it naturally should, and forms were nicely rounded and symmetrical.

The same advice would be true for most riders: Just throw out the rules and ride! Forget “heels down, heads up” — just ride from a primal place. Let the canter become a waltz, and the trot a suspended lilt. Too many dressage aspirants crippled by analysis paralysis never allow their life energy to uncoil. They analyze every move, every function, every mistake, going over and over it in their minds, dissecting and evaluating it. Everything becomes quantitative, segregated, and isolated. This is not contact, because it emphasizes duality, thereby admitting no authentic reciprocity between horse and rider.

One evening after a discouraging afternoon with a student, I called a colleague for support. I wore my frustration on my sleeve as I asked her, “Why? Why is it so difficult for some people to learn dressage?” She had obviously wrestled with the same question, as her answer was immediate. “Because,” she said, “they are too concerned about what their own bodies are doing, and they have forgotten to feel the horse.” I hung up and drew a deep breath, knowing what I had to do. I had to help students weed their human gardens of egocentricity, selfishness, and greed. They had to learn that they do not own their dressage. It belongs as much to the horse as it does to them.

Free to Participate

Our life force must be unfettered so that we can become free to participate in primal energy. We need to center in our wildness so that the horse can actualize its tameness. “The marks of wildness,” say Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade, “are love of nature, especially its silence; a voice free to say spontaneous things; an exuberance, a love of the ‘edge.'” (2) The wild rider is not like a psychotic, but, in the words of William butler Yeats, merely “mad as the mist and the snow.” The wildness of nature is highly sophisticated. Jung remarked, “It is difficult to say to anybody, you should…become acquainted with your animal, because people think it is a sort of lunatic asylum, they think the animal is jumping over walls and raising hell all over town. Yet the animal…is pious, it follows the path with great regularity…Only man is extravagant. (3) The civilized eye of humankind has become dulled, unable to comprehend the natural wildness of the planet.

William Blake has said, “The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man.” (4) To this list, I would add the thunder of horses’ hooves, their flared nostrils when excited, and their heaving flanks at gallop. The practice of the wild is a secret that not all understand. Sometimes blues musicians, abstract artists, and lovers understand it. To cross the abyss from technical equation to equestrian art requires this understanding.

The self must symbolically die. Things that were once done in the world of phenomena must be reenacted in the world of noumena (the world of objects of human inquiry, understand, or cognition). There is no gnosis (direct experience of the supernatural divine) without pain. One must come to know dressage not just with the mind but also with the flesh. Intimate, uninhabited contact between horse and rider is a prerequisite. The rider must become comfortable expressing unconditional love for his or her horse, must surrender the very core of his or own private being, the sense of self. There is no anguish like relinquishing one’s individuality, one’s sense of control: it is beyond words. But for dressage to take its rightful place as an art de vivre, the boundaries of personality must dissolve. “To the extent that there is attachment to ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘mine’, there is no attachment to, and therefore no unitive knowledge of, the divine Ground,” says Aldous Huxley. (5)

Purity of Mind

Dressage practice demands purity of mind. Dressage riders cannot let the hope of attaining certain levels, scores, and awards govern them. Whenever I hear a student lamenting “how far behind” another student she or he is, I know that ego has not yet been properly subjugated. Statements like “If I had her horse I would be doing better” and “He has more natural talent than I do” reveal a covetous, greedy spirit. The mind must be cleansed so that, as the late Henri van Schaik, a Dutch equestrian who competed in the 1936 Summer Olympics, was fond of reminding his students, we can practice “art only for the sake of art.” Then, and only then, can dressage become an avenue to reflection, exploration, awareness, and self-knowledge. This is the climate in which relaxation (losgelassenheit) can grow.

Breath control and posture are central to relaxation. In Indian philosophy, the term for breath control is pranayama, and for posture, asana. Both breathing technique and position are as critical to dressage as they are to yoga. How many times has a clinician instructed you to “breathe” and “sit tall”? To become accomplished in either takes considerable practice and presupposes a thorough commitment to spirituality. For as the body progressively relaxes and “lets go,” the mind follows by suspending cognition. In this yielded state, the practitioner is extremely inclined toward spiritual insight and becomes aware that dressage offers the experience of attaining transcendental union with a partner. Most other yogic disciplines are yogas-of-one, but dressage is a yoga-of-two.

Union Between Horse and Rider

The union between horse and rider is a sacred sacrifice that teaches each to treat the other with the utmost respect and reverence. The rider discards cruel training tools and brings compassion to the work. The horse gives up her vices, such as bucking, rearing, and bolting, and gains confidence in, and respect for, the process. In The Ethics and Passions of Dressage, Charles de Kunffy points out that equestrian sculpture often depicts men in the nude, either seated on horses in antiquity or, in our century, walking alongside their equestrian partners.

The horse bares all about his rider. Leaving nothing to the imagination, the rider appears in the spiritual nudity of utter frankness, stripped of his pretentious draping. The reciprocity of power and energy ennobles both creatures beyond the character they project by themselves. The configuration of these vastly different creatures as a pair far surpasses the potential of their composite parts. They are more beautiful together than they could ever be separately. (6)

The Kubjika Tantra enjoins an adept to worship his lover as a goddess. To the rider, his or her horse becomes sacred and is the object of his or her adoration. We listen to the heartbeat of Pegasus in every stride that we share with our mount. Horse and rider absorb one another’s prana, or life energy, into their fusing senses. If we can lose ourselves in dressage, become no longer conscious of where our body ends and our horse’s body begins, so that the dance itself becomes the only reality, then we may–even if only for an instant–experience magical oneness.

When we are in deep harmony with our horse, rhythm flows naturally. Pythagoras declared, upon the authority of Empedocles, that every individual who is to achieve greatness must be capable of expressing rhythm in some manner. Rhythm (tact) in dressage is the metronome-like sound of the horse’s footfalls. Rhythm does not exist in a vacuum but is indicative of balance. If the horse suddenly loses its balance and falls on the forehand (the front legs and shoulders), he rushes. Similarly, if balance is compromised by inarticulate rider aids, the horse bears down on the forehand and loses free forward momentum. Rhythm and balance flow from the same well.

Key to Balance

Rider position is the key to balance. Pythagoras maintained that anything that departs from its center departs from balance. Teachers such as Sally Swift and Mary Wanless have been instrumental in making riders aware of their centers. Sally Swift writes in Centered Riding that, “if you watch someone riding and s/he looks off balance, jerky, or stiff, it is almost always because the center is wrong. The rider is usually behind his/her own balance and behind the motion of the horse. If s/he can get the center correct, the rest will fall into place.” Swift goes on to say,

To find your center, simply point a finger at your belly to a spot between your navel and your pubic arch, the front of your pelvis. Deep behind that point, against the front of your spine, lies your center of balance, your center of energy, and your center of control. From the bottom of your diaphragm and rib cage, large muscles stretch to the lower spine. Other muscles connect from there into the pelvis and down to the thighs. These are some of the deepest and strongest muscles in your body. If you were to cut yourself in half at your center, you would find that, because the lower, or lumbar, vertebrae are very thick, the front of your spine is actually in the center of the circle of your body, not at the back, as you might have thought. Down here, deep and close to the lumbar spine, you also have the largest bundle of muscle-controlling nerves in your body. At the site of this large nerve center and the heavy, controlling muscles, is your center. (7)

Pythagorean theory, based upon mathematical principles, maintained that the stability of a body was destroyed as soon as the vertical line passing through its center of gravity fell outside its base. Pythagorean theory is a perfect description of the classical dressage position! It is also the position of hamni, for example, in aikido. When standing in hamni, the martial artist is in perfect balance, centered and able to blend efficiently with his or her partner. Likewise, when seated in the classical position, the dressage rider is in perfect balance and absorbs any fractious movement by the horse. This soft, supple position is very secure. The rider, by giving up dominance, gains stability. It is worth noting that both dressage and the martial arts have roots in war and other violent circumstances. In those settings, improper technique could result in death. Consequently, the survival instinct, the desire to maintain immanence with nature, wove the ways of enlightenment into the technique.

Centering and Blending

My friend Ben is a lifetime student of aikido. He told me he realized just how much was ingrained in the technique when he visited an army base in Japan with an aikido teacher who couldn’t speak English. Although the language barrier prevented the master from teaching the underlying philosophy, the students–all American soldiers–were starting to come to all sorts of realizations about centering and blending. Ben excitedly told me that “they were getting it from the technique! No one could explain it to them, but they were getting it anyway–just from training!” On that visit Ben discovered that the basics of centered practice, which result in changed consciousness, went beyond the confines of linguistics: they were implicit in the art. And so it is with dressage. Like the Samurai of ancient Japan, the most eloquent contemporary dressage artists have acquired a complete disdain for force. Says Paul Belasik, “It is as if out of the roots of violence, subjugation and war, these few people seek harmony with nature. They try to create something ephemeral. It is art they can never finish.” (8)

Art consists of communication of spirit through form. It’s the union of external reality with inner knowledge. From this standpoint, in equestrian art there is no secret so close as that between a dressage artist and his or her horse. An awareness of external reality derives from the study of nature in its totality–from cosmic to microcosmic–and inner knowledge results from reflection. The two are inseparable.

Dressage is an avenue in the search for truth and purity, illuminated by the old maxim “Where art ends, violence begins…and violence begins where knowledge ends.” Horse and rider travel as partners, the rider ever cognizant that, wherever humanity has left its footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization, there is the hoofprint of the horse beside it.

(1) Indra Sinha, The Great Book of Tantra (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1993), 109.

(2) Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade, eds., The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart (New York; Harper Perennial, 1992), 3.

(3) William Butler Yeats, “Mad as the Mist and Snow,” in The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933; reprint, Glacier National Park, MT: Kissinger Publishing, 2004), 21; Jung is quoted in Bly, Hillman, and Meade, eds., The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, 4.

(4) Blake is quoted in Bly, Hillman, and Meade, eds., The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, 4.

(5) Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), 98.

(6) Charles de Kunffy, The Ethics and passions of Dressage (Middletown, MD: Half Halt Press, 1993), 46.

(7) Sally Swift, Centered Riding (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 17.

(8) Paul Belasik, Riding toward the Light: An Apprenticeship in the Art of Dressage Riding (London: J.A. Allen & Co., 1990), 11.

Find out more about Sherry Ackerman and her work at




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