Learning Classical Riding Methods:   By Joseph Berto

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     "When I'm with my horse I feel as though I'm riding in God's grace, that I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing." J. Berto 2011

One of the most difficult journeys you will ever begin is the path of classical horsemanship. The time, focus, determination, physical ability and dedication to achieve and translate knowledge to ability is beyond most of our capacities.
But that doesn't mean that we don't try.  There are millions of horses available for our equine partnership.  Yet few of us will ever develop enough skill to bring even one of them to its potential.  If fact only a small fraction will ever even ride a horse that has been trained to its fullest by another.  The reason there are so few horses to carry us on our journey is because there are so few skillful teachers!

"T o understand this secret , you must first understand the distinction between training an animal and educating one.  Trained animals are relatively easy to turn out.  All that is required is a book of instructions, a certain amount of bluff and bluster, something to use in for threatening and punishing purposes, and of course the animal.  Educating an animal, on the other hand, demands keen intelligence, integrity, imagination and the gentle touch, mentally, vocally and physically."  J. Allen Boone, Kinship With All Life

So where does one start?  How does one begin?  To be an excellent rider there is a special skill set required that goes far beyond time spent in the saddle or games played from the ground.  The key to expert riding is called FEEL, and to obtain feel one must first have KNOWLEDGE.  To obtain knowledge you can read books, but without the aid and tutelage of a rare and unique teacher who can expose you to a patient and trusting horse, you will never achieve enough knowledge to develop feel. 

"Horses should be trained in such as way that they not only love their riders,
but look forward to the time they are with them."  Xenonophon 400 B.C.

Conquest and I beginning our classical journeyRiding a horse does not have to be about horse shows or competition. It doesn't need to be about racing.  It is not about riding for ego, although a beautiful horse, softly ridden, is a gift to behold.  Riding a horse can be about an experience that transcends easy description.  To achieve this requires trying to attain a level of horsemanship that appeals to the spirit, the true self.  And this spiritual horsemanship has such true beauty that even non-riders are caught up in its spell.  It is also about patience in a society that has no time for such things.  It is the agonizing wait between learning epiphanies.  It is about the discipline to allow riding to happen, rather than make it happen.  It is a oneness with the horse that is extraordinarily difficult to find, yet is so simple when you are there. Like Love, it cannot be defined, but when you are in it, you know it truly.  But unlike Love with a human, to capture "This Feeling" requires the permission of a dumb animal, a horse. 

"We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words."  (Black Beauty)

Finding the road to that acceptance is wrought with frustration and discouragement.  It requires a careful balance of intellectual understanding and kinesthetic feel that is very, very difficult to obtain. It requires a single-minded determination to learn something that is bewitchingly elusive.  It requires a level physical fitness and flexibility that is far beyond what is apparent. Fulfillment of the riding passion can overwhelm self preservation, financial, physical and emotional.  And when you figure out most of the big pieces, it turns out the little details are just as important, so the process is seemingly never ending.
"(admire) those who are at that place, even through the moments where desperation gnaws at that promise unfulfilled.  It is a hard place.  It would be harder still to be lead on by a willowisp into bad country.  Seeing and feeling do not necessarily translate into the passion of doing ... and thank god as the doing of things requires an absolutism that removes much".  B. Drummond 2009

Where is my Journey going?

Master said, God had given men reason, by which they could find out things for themselves; but He gave animals knowledge . . . which was much more prompt and perfect in its way, and by which they had often saved the lives of men. (Anna Sewell)

    If you are very fortunate, then you may experience one ride or one moment, one excruciatingly fleeting second on a horse will happen to change everything.  For some it is just an indefinable sensation that overcomes you while you are astride.  It may also occur when you watch a exceptionally ridden performance.  This emotional moment can occur after one year of riding or forty.  This feeling is a sensation of extraordinary consciousness, an awareness of connection, vibrancy, spirituality.  Time will slow to a crawl, or stand still.  You will, for a fleeting instant, be one with another sentient being, the horse you are riding or watching.  You may want to laugh or cry, you will never forget the sensation.  Unfortunately the instant you acknowledge it, the sensation will vanish.  The return to self will bring with it the sadness, and will make you realize that everything you had been taught added up to nothing.  Because nothing in your skills can make that feeling re-occur. 

     My wife and I own a 100 acre ranch near Medford, Oregon, raising horses and keeping hay fields harvested.  This encompasses all the joys and pitfalls of farming and ranching these days.  In addition to this I'm standing next to the S-64F Aircrane I pilot.routine, my other career is as firefighting helicopter pilot.  This can be a very exciting career, sometimes overwhelming in its demands for focus and precision. Flying a helicopter in this fashion is an extreme profession that is truly the opposite of harmony with horses, however one of the things that is the same is that both require a 100% commitment to be successful.  Committing to one, and then stopping and re-committing to the other makes it difficult to do well in both.  Whatever your profession in this modern world, you may find the same difficulties, because few jobs intermesh smoothly with ongoing peacefulness required to achieve kinship with the sentient being, a horse.  Unfortunately without a job (unless you are wealthy), fulfilling the passion of horses is unsustainable.  Because of this seeming incompatibility it very hard to find a personal balance.  Achieving this balance is something that I have not fully resolved to this day.   I do know this, although I enjoy the drama of flying, I love to ride horses even more.

     My love affair with the horse began more than 15 years ago.  At the time I had no concept as to the complexities of this decision, or where this journey was taking me.  Like most American men I had thoughts of Westerns and cowboys when it came to horses, and at first I had a big paint gelding. And like most beginners I had my share of problems. Riding was not what I thought.  It was uncomfortable and time consuming. And despite the fact that my wife rides for pleasure and introduced me to it with fun as the key ingredient, I just wasn't having much fun. After several other horses, I was about to give it up.  It was about that time I was given a young black Andalusian colt by my wife, and decided to give it one more try and fortunately for me, at about that time, I saw a riding performance where a horse was ridden in a way I had never seen.  Perhaps it was the fact that it was an Andalusian horse, perhaps it was just serendipity, but this display of riding skill resonated in a way that I didn't quite fully understand. Joyous, artful, peaceful, something was different. What I most noticed was the way the horse moved, like it had a harmonious connection with the rider.  It is this connecting with a horse that I have been striving to achieve ever since. Ultimately I discovered High School Classical Riding, in Portugal, and although it is not the only place where you may discover it for yourself, it is where I had the most success in grasping this slender thread.

"I am never afraid of what I know." (Black Beauty)

 As I became more involved with horses, the need for more knowledge began, so I started to go to horse clinics.  I even started several new business, Equi-tee Farm and Fence, which makes horse fencing, and Shake'n fork, a revolutionary auto sifting manure fork.  The marketing of horse related products often took my wife Dianne and I to horse expos', and watching the various performances was always entertaining. As a beginner I was enamored with the "natural horsemanship" style of instruction.  It was easy to learn, almost like teaching out of a book, and seemed to produce near instant results.  Having a horse follow you around, riding with no saddle and only one rein or even bridle less, all these "circus" performances seemed like real horsemanship.  Between operating the ranch, my job flying and starting a business, there wasn't really much time to focus on any more than the basics of horsemanship, but at least it was a start.  And I was having so much fun with my new colt that I looked forward to every day with him.  As I learned these methods and read and learned about other types of riding I became a more informed horse owner.  And it was now that I was discouraged to find that there was an apparent disconnect between this "horsemanship" being taught by Expo clinicians, where ground handling or games is the emphasis, and the "Horsemanship" taught by the Masters, where astride expertise was valued.

    It was this chasm of knowledge (or lack of it) that I found was so difficult to cross.   Did riding well mean that the fun was gone, or conversely, does riding for fun mean that you couldn't achieve riding excellence?  From my point of view it seemed that natural horsemanship allowed for poor riding ability, provided you could handle the horse well on the ground.  I couldn't see where natural horsemanship was building a connection with the horse once astride.  In fact the more I saw of it, the more "disconnected" the rider seemed to become from from the horse. This lack of skill was made up with bigger bits, longer spurs and an exaggerated riding style that was nothing like I hoped to emulate.  I began to notice that the riders I admired didn't use any "natural" horsemanship.  I also noticed that  practitioners of natural horsemanship were not beautiful riders.  I guess it took me a while to admit I didn't want to be "natural horsemanship" level anything, because it didn't fit my idea of what skillful riding should be.

   So I determined to start learning all over again, but this time with my goal as Kinship with my horse.  It also became clear that learning to ride well was going to take a great deal of time, focus and years of studious work because it was now obvious that real horsemanship talent is a clever disguise for  people who just work very hard at their art. The horses I most admired were the Iberian breeds that were ridden using classical methods, and since the classical masters all seemed to originate in Europe, it was there I decided to go.  I visited many countries, including Spain, but found that it was in Portugal where the Art was still most evident.  It was the Portuguese horses and certain Portuguese riders that started me down the road I so fervently embrace.  It is this path I am sharing with you.

"You would have to look a long, long time to find a dishonest or cruel horse. ...nearly every horse is pure of heart".  (N.Y.T. Editorial)

     I was lucky because I did not have a foundation in other types of Horsemanship that I had to overcome.  Once I was introduced to artful riding it opened my eyes to the possibility of a  High School Trained riding path.  I discarded my new age books and began reading classical books to see if I could validate what I felt.  Through the classical works of the Masters I discovered that not only was "the feeling" well known, this sensation was universal and had been occurring between horses and riders for thousands of years.  I then began searching out instructors or methods in an attempt to re-tune in "the feeling", to teach me what I had been reading about.  This turned out to be much more difficult that finding well written books.   I was surprised to find out that very few instructors were aware of what I was talking about, in fact I began to be embarrassed to ask about it.  Few of  the trainers even remotely display that touch.  Worse still, most of the horses I was put on to ride were not anywhere near the point that they would share their spirit. "Broke" is not just a word either.   Learning the "High School" style of riding is not only difficult to do, it is difficult to even find teachers.  
    But I did find a few. All of them had decades of experience, none were beginners.  All had amazing humility regarding their own skills.  When introduced, most were reluctant to talk or teach, not because they didn't know how, but rather that they weren't sure of my intentions.  Indifference to their passion hardens them to unknown students.  In time though, most find great satisfaction in finding a student willing to learn.  Long lengths of time went by with only tiny breaths of "the feeling".  The more I was taught, the more I understood the principles that they were sharing, the same ones that I had read about from the great authors.  And it has made me aware that  "Classical" horsemanship is not just a word, it is a lifestyle, and the School style of riding is its epitome.  School riding is a tool to help you and you horse connect in a way that can be I experience a capriole at Vale Do Sousa in Portugala life changing experience.  For me this is experience is still occurring to this day. In Portugal Portugal the principles of classical riding are more visible than in other places.  There I was no longer embarrassed by my search for the sensation of connection, rather, I was put on exceptional horses that were eager to share their spirit and strength.   Moments of
joy stretched into seconds, seconds into minutes.  And as the years of instruction take hold, I have begun to be able to reproduce some of the guidance here at home into my Stallion, who has grown into a magnificent Andalusian in every sense.  As I taught him, so he has taught me.  Together we have rides that are light, intuitive, inspiring, magical.  When I am not riding, the way of classical riding still guides me, for leaving its gentleness requires a re-connection with the feeling that is not easy to find once lost.  What I find most interesting abut classical horsemanship is that is is an amplifier of the inner self.  If one is in balance and peace, riding  can be full of wonder and kinship.  If one is feel angry or fretful, then there is rarely harmony with the horse.  It is virtually impossible to feel poorly and then to ride and come away satisfied.  However, if one is at peace (especially in times of turmoil), then riding in harmony and joy with a horse is not only possible, but routine.  This requires a commitment to conducting ones life in such a way to remain at peace, and this is the reason why riding well is so difficult.  It is because life itself is difficult.  I love to ride, I only regret that the first 40 years of my life I was not aware of His gift of the horse. 

  Joseph Berto


PS I work with the Morgado Lusitano Riding Center because they have the horses and the way of going that allows us to share in "The Feeling", perhaps for the first time, perhaps for a revisit.  I return to them over and over again, and each time is like laughing with an old friend.  I have enabled hundreds of clients to visit, and the excitement that the clients share tells me that I am doing the right thing.  Classical horsemanship is special and for the few that make the journey, the reward is beyond words.


 This page was last updated on 03/30/16 .




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