In many ways, Dressage may be the highest of the Shambhala Artforms. Because of the miraculous nature of the horse and the similarities between warriorship and horsemanship, it is the closest one can come to actually touching drala. Trungpa, Rinpoche said at encampment that, "If you want to learn how to meditate, you should learn to ride a horse." The Tibetans call the horse the four legged miracle. He is so sublime. If he is trained properly. He is like man in that way. Everything is in the proper training. Just touching the horse and smelling one is very powerful.
Horsemanship Dharma by Katharine Locke
Training the horse is training the mind: training it to be present, to be kind, to recognize the everyday wisdom in the actions of the horse, to find the simple way, to formulate clear questions for the horse, and to listen closely to the answers. Training the horse is training the horse’s mind as well, in some ways much more than training their bodies. They already know how to do everything that I want them to do. Their obscurations are mostly man made. The journey is to develop a shared language and a joyful relationship. Movements and expressiveness naturally grow from these.
In 2013 I began searching for teachers for this stage of my journey as a horseman. I was coming out of a deeply challenging period of injury, menopause and family illness. I felt the limits of my previous training in natural horsemanship. I had been hurt in a fall from a horse and I needed to fully understand what happened. I wanted to deepen my understanding of my beloved horses, including — and especially — the one I fell from.
Classical dressage is the label for the kind of work I am learning to practice. If you google that term you will see pictures of horses and riders dancing together with profound expressiveness and gentle softness in the reins. The riders in perfect upright open posture like meditation posture astride a horse. The horses elegantly carrying those riders by matching that posture in their own quadruped way. At its best classical dressage is a glorious vision of harmony and joy. Horses and riders deeply present with each other.
So I went searching in the modern way for these ancient teachings, reading blogs, joining discussion groups and ordering books. Along the way I noticed a person on the Shambhala Network with a profile picture of a horse. That’s how I came upon Craig Stevens and the National School of Classical Equitation (http://www.classical-equitation.com). He was added to the list of people I was following and considering for in-depth education.
I chose to study with Craig and his wife and co-teacher Mary Anne Campbell at their barn in Snohomish, Washington in the fall of 2013. Their container offered a strong sense of strength and safety, as well as the genuineness of the teaching they were offering. Recovering from a very rough few years, I was in a delicate state. A kind and supportive atmosphere was paramount. It was also clear that they do beautiful things with ordinary horses and people. I was drawn to their lack of pretension and passionate devotion to the art of horsemanship.
That first ten day intensive was like getting meditation instruction and being introduced to the lineage. I learned anew how to sit on a horse, received instruction on a few fundamental techniques, and was introduced to a view of kindness and softness in how to interact with a horse. I learned that Classical Equitation traces back to the Ancient Greeks through the Renaissance and what is known as the golden age of equitation at the School of Versailles in pre-revolution France. For centuries classical equitation was a vital training ground for the nobility throughout Europe. It also informed 19th century military riding and, through that, modern dressage.
Around Shambhala Day last year I made an aspiration, and a commitment to myself, to take horsemanship as my path of awakening. While I have dedicated much of the last decade and a half to my horses, I knew there were ways in which I had been skating on the surface. This was a commitment to going deeper, to turning my time with horses more toward mindfulness and awareness. Relinquishing my goal oriented attitude, some days all I would do is try to stay present while on the back of my horse feeling the flow of our two bodies moving in concert, or simply standing still.
The brief introduction from Craig and Mary Anne, combined with this commitment, took me through a year in which my relationships with my horses were transformed. I practiced with them regularly, did less and learned more. And they started to like me better! My old mare River Run, the big white horse that many have seen at Dorje Denma Ling and the 2011 Shambhala Sun Camp and Magyel Pomra Encampment (photos here), helped me find the way and rebuild my confidence. If I was too harsh one day, the next day she would turn away when I approached with the halter. Pretty clear! By doing a little bit most days, my young mare Sylvie, who I had fallen from in 2010, and I were finally able to move through our fear to come together as partners. By December we were trail riding with confidence and joy, jumping small fences, and more.
By the fall of last year I started longing for deeper practice and study with Craig, Mary Anne, and their equine teaching staff. With the support and encouragement of my dear husband, I traveled to Washington in January, for six weeks. Before going I started calling it my healing horsemanship retreat and the experience was precisely that. In this true form, classical equitation is profoundly healing for the horses and the humans. Consistent slow mindful work with my posture and the horse’s posture balances and frees both of our bodies.
The practice begins the moment I form the intent to approach a horse. While there may be an agenda, grooming, riding, turn out, etc, the attitude is curiosity and presence. Every interaction with the horse is an opportunity to explore kindness, touch and empathy. Horsemanship is a language of touch so we constantly investigate the qualities of touch and their effects. A horse can feel a fly land on its back, so even moving hairs is meaningful to them. They are large powerful animals with their own thoughts and reactions. Sometimes communication is forceful to stay safe. These interactions can build the relationship as much as the gentle ones, as long there is no residue of anger or aggression in them.
Craig has progressed through the Four Dignities in Shambhala Training and read much of Chögyam Trungpa’s writing. Most days during my time with him at some point we start applying some piece of Shambhala dharma to horsemanship. The paramitas, the four dignities, Kasung slogans, heaven, earth and man, etc: every bit of it is precise instruction for the practice of horsemanship. Bringing the dharma into horse practice illuminates and enriches it immensely. And the horse practice strengthens and expands my ability to peacefully abide both on and off the cushion….or on and off the saddle!
View more at Katherine Locke’s YouTube Channel!
Katharine Locke resides at Fourwinds Farm (www.fourwindsfarm.ca) on the beautiful Northumberland shore of Nova Scotia with her partner, horses and other animals. In 1992, before he knew anything of her lifelong passion for horses, Sakyong Mipham gave her the Shambhala name Windhorse Lady.
Craig Stevens is an equestrian scholar and historian. After decades in the modern conventional horse world, he began researching and practicing the old ways of working with horses and their riders. He travels three to four months of the year in Europe and North America teaching classical equitation. Mary Anne Campbell is Craig’s wife and principal student, as well as the Director of NSAE. Craig, Mary Anne and a group of his students recently formed an educational organisation called the Foundation for Equestrian Arts (www.foundationfortheequestrianarts.org). It’s purpose is to preserve this ancient lineage and support its contemporary practitioners.