Kung Fu of Riding or Resistance is Futile, Perseverance is Everything

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I recently wrote about how while riding I felt the hind legs of the horse move under me as if they were my own. A great experience, like I said but, alas, a fleeting one like these things usually are. I have ridden several times since then but without a similar connection with the horse. The first time on horse back after the glimpse of enlightenment (Sounds like a grand word for it it but it was grand!) was in fact rubbish. I was stiff and my lower legs were all over the place as you can see from the photo. They should be hugging the horse gently, maintaining a constant contact with the horse. But not that time, no sir. That has been my Achilles’ heel (pun intended) for a long time now but that day was particularly difficult. In addition to that, Allu, the horse I’ve been riding recently, had just been shod and that almost always affects the horse and the way it moves. So Allu too was feeling a bit stiff and was even more headstrong than usually. Not that he would be a particularly difficult character to get along with, he just has his moments like every thinking being does. Look at his tail in the photo: he may seem concentrated and all that, but the whipping tail tells that he is not. Instead he is thinking ways of avoiding me (which I’m making easier for him with my loose legs). Ach well, never mind, it was rubbish riding but a great day.

This is how it goes when you are leaning to do stuff that pushes your motor skills to their limits. You have these moments of clarity and insight, glimpses of how things will feel when you finally manage to do them right. You catch that tiny glimpse and then it’s gone again, and for awhile after it feels like you have just taken two steps ahead only to be flung back a dozen. Easily disheartening. Frustrating, heck yeah. But what do you do? You keep at it. Never give up, never surrender, because if you have felt it once, if you have managed to get it right even for that one tiny moment, you can do it again. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, nor this month, but maybe next Christmas or the year after that. It’ll come – if you just keep at it.

Yep, they're still there, I just feel them right now.

Yep, they’re still there, I just can’t feel them right now.

So I now know how it feels to really connect with the horse and to truly ride. I know that it can be done and I even have an idea about how it’s done. Now I just need to let myself do it. Like Yoda said, ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ I needed someone to show me how it’s done (Thanks, Sully, I owe you one, really.) but the only one who can implement it is me. Like another great and wise fictional character, Groo the Wanderer, once said: ‘Wisdom cannot be bought, but it can be borrowed until you find your own.’ It’s all there, somewhere, waiting for me to get there too.

Kung Fu of Riding or Watching ‘Strike Back’ for Educational Purposes

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You know how they say that when the student is ready, a teacher will appear? Well, I haven’t found my grand master yet, but every now and again a teacher does appear to show me how some little thing is done. But the thing is, you can never know in advance when that teacher appears (it’s not necessarily when you acutely need one) less alone what form or shape that teacher takes. In my experience you often don’t even realise that a teacher has appeared until after learning. Which maybe years after the lesson.

What I learned the other week was to ‘see’ in my minds eye the hocks of the horse I was riding and how I could effect the quality of the horse’s gait just by visualising their movement. Sounds a bit (more than a bit, I guess) esoteric and weird, I know, but riding horses if anything is something that is, after a certain level of skill, done more intuitively than by force or logic. Anyhow, I was riding, doing the exercises and thinking that ‘Wait, this feels somehow different than yesterday. What’s going on here?’ I’ve been riding for almost 30 years so I have a pretty clear picture where I am skill-wise, but that Sunday everything was, well, different. Then I saw it, the hocks moving under me. I felt them as if they were part of me directly and not of the horse. Wow, I thought, so this is how it’s done!

The thing is, I have been practicing tai ji (or tai chi) for 13 some years now. In it, and in any East Asian martial art I know about, the goal is to feel the movement and the energy of the opponent (and the universe). Feel where s/he is about to go, feel the change in the opponents posture before it takes place. Now tai ji isn’t exactly a contact sport but the principle is still the same, and there are pair exercises too just for learning the skill of reading the opponent. I have the 5th duan in tai ji (there are 9 altogether), I’m pretty good with the sword, but I’m not yet that good in reading the opponent. I have had glimpses but nothing like this with the hocks. In a word, it felt like a small spark of enlightenment.

The researcher in me naturally started to look for a reason for this experience. Where did it come from? The exercise was pretty basic (though not particularly easy) and a familiar one. What ever was different must have been something in me. Something must have allowed me to change the way I was. I felt different. I carried myself differently. My neck and shoulders were still so darn stiff and sore that I couldn’t turn my head easily but yet I felt relaxed and at ease.

Boy, was I happy: my mystery-loving head had found a conundrum!

Few days later I found out who the teacher had been. Me and my man had been watching the British military action series Strike Back on HBO’s netservice. Love it. Excellent entertainment if you’re into that kind of thing and for some god forsaken reason I am. The plots are good but even more importantly, the action acting is even more so, and that’s elemental for an action flick. That’s why we kungfu nerds watch those Hong Kong -films: it’s the martial arts skill of the kungfu actors and actresses, not the plots, which are rather often close to non-existent. So for a week I had been watching Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester move like they meant it. And that had somehow rubbed off on me. Go figure, but riding that horse I was carrying myself in a manner similar to the way Stapleton walks (I don’t know why it’s him. We’re both dark haired? Haven’t figured that one out – yet.)

I realised this when we were watching the series’ first season with Richard Armitage playing the lead. Yep, we watched that last since it’s not on HBO and we had to dig for it. Looking it I realised how much more pro the following seasons looked like, and that it was all down to the way the actors moved – and some other little things, but mainly just that. In martial arts terms, Stapleton and Winchester are rooted (or at least they are doing a good job acting as if they are). They own the earth they move on. Being rooted is an interesting concept and a difficult one to explain in words alone but a simple explanation would be that a rooted person has a low centre of balance and is therefore difficult to dislodge among other things. Seeing the first season made me realise it; they don’t move that well in the first season. Not their fault, they just didn’t have that much time to learn it, but the contrasts made me realise what I had learned from watching the series.

Riding horses is not knife fighting or raiding buildings but, like they say in kendo, everything you do can become practicing kendo. When doing tai ji, I practice riding. Riding, I practice tai ji. And apparently watching action flicks can become a practice too. So thanks, lads, it’s joy to watch you two play (and you do seem to have fun!), and thanks for the lessons on carrying oneself, Sully! Pass my thanks to the pros who have shown you two how to do it all. They really must be something else altogether! Thanks to you my gongfu of riding has improved.

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