Some 20 years ago Maia interviewed Richard Weis, Australia’s most prominent and highly respected specialist equestrian trainer, about his belief that riding is a metaphor for life. The experience she and her horse (pictured) had while training with him was nothing but good vibes. Regardless of whether you’re interested in horses or not, this article offers a unique and interesting take on something mankind has been drawn to for millennia…
While it is many years since I actively rode horses, I always considered it an absolute privilege to sit on a horse, and a delight beyond words to work in harmony with one of God’s most beautiful creatures.
Easier said than done. It takes many years to train your body to do something it wasn’t designed to do – to move in sympathy with a large and powerful animal in a soft, relaxed, balanced, connected and unobtrusive way – let alone understand how to influence its actions, how its mind works, how to communicate with it effectively in a way it can understand and tune into its unique personality.
It’s a challenge human beings have been inexorably drawn to for millennia. And the beauty of it is that it’s an open-ended process – you never stop learning so the challenge is always there.
It was always a pleasure to ride in or observe one of Richard Weis’ clinics. I never tired of seeing or feeling a horse soften and expand in a really dynamic way. The sensation is beyond what can be explained to those who haven’t experienced it – suffice to say that when a horse really gives his back to you, it’s cloud nine kind of stuff. Not only you see or feel it in the horse; you would see it in Richard’s face.
Always personable, and infinitely likeable, Richard was a dedicated teacher – driven by the desire to help riders experience that special place. His involvement with each horse and rider was total – that completely focused commitment which comes naturally when one’s work also happens to be a life-absorbing passion…
Maia: What is the most important aspect of riding in your view, Richard?
Richard: The discipline of riding is what fascinates me and is what I love most about it. It has exactly the same quality of discipline as you get in Tai Chi and other martial arts. We have just as strong a martial art tradition existing in riding, and if you look back through the literature it’s just as rich in great wisdom as any of the martial artists were.
Maia: In fact it is known as an art – ‘the classical art of equitation’.
Richard: The first book on dressage, Xenephon’s book, is over 2300 years old and is still in print. The principles of it are just as pertinent and important and they’re just as actively studied by riders today as they’ve probably ever been.
There was a time in the renaissance where all sorts of disciplines that were a little bit to the left of the normal mainstream culture; like dancing, singing and playing a musical instrument, were considered to be a really important part of rounding out a personality, and that’s where I think riding really fits in.
Maia: Can you enlarge a little on the discipline?
Richard: It’s a time where you can’t let your emotions run away with you, you can’t let yourself become so attached to an outcome that you lose the rational thought of the training approach. There’s nothing better that I know of to make somebody able to contain him or herself better than riding – to be fully open and fully contained – which is exactly what we’re asking of the horse. It’s not the kind of discipline where you think ‘I must be in this frame of mind’ – the horse itself creates the discipline and feeds it back to you, so the horse requires certain things of us – to do with our posture, the openness of our body, the way we think and the way we communicate.
Maia: The horse gives a very honest reflection of what the rider is doing so it’s a very good feedback system.
Richard: The horse is like a biofeedback machine – that’s exactly, absolutely what it is. And the horse is reflecting emotionally what the rider is asking, so even within the precision of the movements it’s biofeedback and it’s irrefutable – you can’t fudge it – horses don’t fudge.
Maia: What perspective do you have about riding and training in this way, from a spiritual point of view?
Richard: I have to discipline myself to have faith that if I’m sensate, and simply open up my body, somehow the spiritual element will come from that – that it won’t come from me seeking it. That it will come from me living a life of integrity. As a fundamentally creative person, I’ve learnt that I have an enormous potential for self-delusion. It’s really not a very good idea for me to look down a spiritual path because when I do, I find that I’m not really rooted in reality and I get myself in all sorts of trouble.
How would I like to live? What I’d really like to do is open myself up to life experience. I would like to open my body up and I’d like to walk forth. To me that is the very best way I could spend this life that I’m having now.
Maia: So how does the horse contribute to this?
Richard: The horse requires it of me, he asks it of me, in fact he demands it of me. So if riding is a metaphor for living, that’s the time I can practice it – when I can wholeheartedly open up to the experience that the horse is providing. So when a horse is a little bit emotional or a little bit worried, I just have to say, “Well, I’m not, I’m all open to it. See if you can take your cue from me. Huge energy, huge expansion, give that a try.” Now if I could live my life like that, I would do a whole lot better. If I could live my life like I ride a horse….wow!
Maia: And there is such a challenge in that, and generally in working with horses, don’t you think?
Richard: There’s an incredible danger in riding. There’s an incredible fear level that most people experience as soon as they separate their feet from the earth. And if you happen to separate your feet from the earth in such a way that you’ve got a ton of self-willed energy underneath you, and you know that if the horse doesn’t want to carry you it can drop you on your bum really quickly, and if it decides it wants to go with you wherever it likes it can also do that – it takes you totally out of the comfort zone.
Maia: Part of the attraction to the challenge perhaps?
Richard: It’s the fact that you’re separating from the ground that’s so interesting – not only do you separate from the ground, but as a dressage rider you ask the horse to separate from the ground. The mechanics at that moment; the vigour and the enormous, unbelievable energy that’s required in the horse to buoy you up from underneath and be a foot above the ground, that’s frightening. There’s no security in that. It’s incredibly unstable. So when a person like Allan Watts writes a book called ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, and he says don’t fix and brace against anything, keep yourself open and be dynamic and mobile and flow with it – In dressage we’re practising that big time, because we’re subjecting ourselves to the good nature of the horse’s will. Even when you drive your car you’ve got four wheels on the ground and something that responds fairly predictably and automatically, but on a horse and separated from the ground, what safety net have you got? Absolutely none.
Maia: So is that the full extent of the challenge?
Richard: There’s three stages of learning: the thinking, the working it out and then the putting into practice. When you start to perfect the putting it into practice – which with horses is sophisticated and difficult and takes years and years of discipline – then you can go beyond it so that you’re not really ‘doing’, you’re ‘being.’ When you get glimpses of that stage of being; lost in the work, totally in the moment, totally in the present sitting on the horse, that’s the only time that you can be fully alive.
I think the thing that makes you ‘be’ better than anything else is challenge, and there’s nothing like sitting on a horse you’ve never ridden before in your life, that’s completely his own being, that is wilful and can be wayward and uncooperative – and actually putting your life on the line because he can kill you at any moment. There’s something about moving beyond the fear, something about being there that really makes you ‘be’. That’s the great exhilaration, the great addiction that we all have to riding – it just does it to you, it just doesn’t give you any choice.
Maia: Where does The Alexander Technique come into the art of riding?
Richard: If you go back to the fundamental principles of the Alexander Technique, everything you go to do will instinctively be in the wrong direction when you’re sitting on a horse. Everyone wants to grab reins, curl their body up and be foetal, so you have to inhibit that; you have think up and wide and expansion.
Everything a horse wants to do when it gets the weight of a rider on its back is hollow and brace, so the horse also needs to learn to inhibit its first, instinctive reaction to the problem of carrying the rider.
The Alexander Technique is really nothing at all. There’s no such thing as an Alexander Technique that exists in any space that’s different from what has traditionally and classically evolved in the equestrian tradition. With my Alexander training I can sit on a horse in any country and I can communicate with it – it’s universal and timeless.
The only thing that is perhaps more sophisticated by applying the Alexander Technique to the job of riding a horse well is the pedagogy; the techniques by which the riding is taught. That’s what The Alexander Technique is, it’s a sophisticated way of thinking about the mechanics of the human body in the way that has already been recognised by riding masters for thousands of years. The legacy that Alexander left us is really nothing more than an ability to highlight those bio-mechanical elements that bring about that use-pattern a little bit more readily and in conscious awareness.
What people employ me to do is to teach them how to engage open-backed mechanics on top of the horse in order to bring about open-backed mechanics in the horse.
Maia: Do you feel that those you teach get more out of it than just the techniques to achieve what you’ve just described?
Richard: I have no doubt that riding is a metaphor for life and that a lot of people who have learned to ride are working something out in their life through that particular metaphor. What they end up making of it and what it ends up doing for them is an incredibly personal thing, and there are so many other influences in people’s lives, I’m just one small one.
Small from Richard’s perspective maybe, but in my experience – and I suspect that of many others – what he has contributed is significant. I have gained a great deal of understanding and higher awareness through riding under Richard’s watchful eye, but it hasn’t stopped there.
I had never quite been able to define the deeper reason for my ‘addiction’ to horses and riding. Richard’s explanations during this insightful interview resonated as truth. Now that I think back to when I was a scrawny little 10 year old with a fascination for horses – totally overwhelmed by fear and over-awed by the challenge, and yet at the same time totally spellbound and drawn like a magnet.
The strength of the desire had me struggling against the powerful instinct of self-preservation; teeth clenched, shaking in my boots and leaving the comfort zone in a big way. It’s been quite a revelation for me to realise the impact my actions as a child have had on who I am and how I journey through this life. Whenever I feel fear in my life, through the fear I overcame as a 10 year old I somehow ‘know’ I can handle it, and it has created a very good habit of walking into it…and after decades I can still say I have always come out in front.
I consider myself as living proof of Susan Jeffers’ teaching through her book ‘Feel the Fear, and Do It Anyway.’ We can all feel the fear and do it anyway. And for those who ride horses, it’s good to know that discipline in life, expressed through riding horses, is every bit as valuable as any other spiritual discipline – that riding is a metaphor for life.
Richard is a leading authority on the influence of the rider on the horse. His students learned balance and to sit well and move with the horse in such a way as to direct the horse in all elements of coordination; rhythm, bend, impulsion, collection, in the shapes of lateral exercises and changes.
Involved with horses from an early age, Richard knew at 17 that he wanted to teach riding. His parents encouraged him to take a different career path so he studied behavioural science, which opened the door to Transcendental Meditation. This eventually led him to study in India to become a yoga teacher, which was followed by study in England to qualify as a riding teacher. He applied the principles of yoga to his teaching of riders until he discovered the Alexander Technique. Back problems had forced him to stop riding for several years, but with the Alexander Technique he was able to ride again.
He offered clinics and train the trainer clinics around the world, in which he worked with a full range of students from beginner riders of all ages to Olympians and Paralympians. He was also sought after by riders for his expertise in applying the Alexander Technique to riding.
Richard’s articles and articles about his work have been published extensively in many of the world’s leading Equestrian Magazines.
Now retired, Richard has left a lasting legacy and made the world a better place.
© Maia Kshemya 1993