Dressage: Divine but Useless–Yes!


Credit Mark Pernice

“CHRISTMAS is at our throats again.”

That was the cheery yuletide greeting favored by the late English playwright Noël Coward, commemorating the holiday after which he was named. Less contrarian were the words of President Calvin Coolidge: “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”

Which quotation strikes a chord with you? Are you a Coward or a Coolidge?

If you sympathize more with Coward, welcome to the club. There are many more of us out there than one might expect. A 2005 survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans were bothered “some” or “a lot” by the commercialization of Christmas. A 2013 follow-up confirmed that materialism is Americans’ least favorite part of the season.

Call it the Christmas Conundrum. We are supposed to revel in gift-giving and generosity, yet the season’s lavishness and commercialization leave many people cold. The underlying contradiction runs throughout modern life. On one hand, we naturally seek and rejoice in prosperity. On the other hand, success in this endeavor is often marred by a materialism we find repellent and alienating.

On a recent trip to India, I found an opportunity to help sort out this contradiction. I sought guidance from a penniless Hindu swami named Gnanmunidas at the Swaminarayan Akshardham Hindu temple in New Delhi. We had never met before, but he came highly recommended by friends. If Yelp reviewed monks, he would have had five stars.

To my astonishment, Gnanmunidas greeted me with an avuncular, “How ya doin’?” He referred to me as “dude.” And what was that accent — Texas? Sure enough, he had grown up in Houston, the son of Indian petroleum engineers, and had graduated from the University of Texas. Later, he got an M.B.A., and quickly made a lot of money.

But then Gnanmunidas had his awakening. At 26, he asked himself, “Is this all there is?” His grappling with that question led him to India, where he renounced everything and entered a Hindu seminary. Six years later, he emerged a monk. From that moment on, the sum total of his worldly possessions has been two robes, prayer beads and a wooden bowl. He is prohibited from even touching money — a discipline that would obviously be impossible for those of us enmeshed in ordinary economic life.

As an economist, I was more than a little afraid to hear what this capitalist-turned-renunciant had to teach me. But I posed a query nonetheless: “Swami, is economic prosperity a good or bad thing?” I held my breath and waited for his answer.

“It’s good,” he replied. “It has saved millions of people in my country from starvation.”

This was not what I expected. “But you own almost nothing,” I pressed. “I was sure you’d say that money is corrupting.” He laughed at my naïveté. “There is nothing wrong with money, dude. The problem in life is attachment to money.” The formula for a good life, he explained, is simple: abundance without attachment.

The assertion that there is nothing wrong with abundance per se is entirely consistent with most mainstream philosophies. Even traditions commonly perceived as ascetic rarely condemn prosperity on its face. The Dalai Lama, for example, teaches that material goods themselves are not the problem. The real issue, he writes, is our delusion that “satisfaction can arise from gratifying the senses alone.”

Moreover, any moral system that takes poverty relief seriously has to celebrate the ahistoric economic bounty that has been harvested these past few centuries. The proportion of the world living on $1 per day or less has shrunk by 80 percent in our lifetimes. Today, Bill Gates can credibly predict that almost no countries will be conventionally “poor” by 2035.

In other words, if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it and work to share the means to create it with others around the world. The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment.

In Tibetan, the word “attachment” is translated as “do chag,” which literally means “sticky desire.” It signifies a desperate grasping at something, motivated by fear of separation from the object. One can find such attachment in many dysfunctional corners of life, from jealous relationships to paranoia about reputation and professional standing.

In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction. But how to do it? Three practices can help.

First, collect experiences, not things.

Material things appear to be permanent, while experiences seem evanescent and likely to be forgotten. Should you take a second honeymoon with your spouse, or get a new couch? The week away sounds great, but hey — the couch is something you’ll have forever, right?

Wrong. Thirty years from now, when you are sitting in rocking chairs on the porch, you’ll remember your second honeymoon in great detail. But are you likely to say to one another, “Remember that awesome couch?” Of course not. It will be gone and forgotten. Though it seems counterintuitive, it is physically permanent stuff that evaporates from our minds. It is memories in the ether of our consciousness that last a lifetime, there for us to enjoy again and again.

This “paradox of things” has been thoroughly documented by researchers. In 2003, psychologists from the University of Colorado and Cornell studied how Americans remembered different kinds of purchases — material things and experiences — they have made in the past. Using both a national survey and a controlled experiment with human subjects, they found that reflecting on experiential purchases left their subjects significantly happier than did remembering the material acquisitions.


Credit Mark Pernice

I learned this lesson once and for all from my son Carlos. Five years ago, when Carlos was 9 years old, he announced that all he wanted for Christmas was a fishing trip — just the two of us, alone. No toys; no new things — just the trip. So we went fishing, and have done so every year since. Any material thing I had bought him would have been long forgotten. Yet both of us can tell you every place we’ve gone together, and all the fish we’ve caught, every single year.

Second, steer clear of excessive usefulness.

Our daily lives often consist of a dogged pursuit of practicality and usefulness at all costs. This is a sure path toward the attachment we need to avoid. Aristotle makes this point in his Nicomachean Ethics; he shows admiration for learned men because “they knew things that are remarkable, admirable, difficult, and divine, but useless.”

Countless studies show that doing things for their own sake — as opposed to things that are merely a means to achieve something else — makes for mindfulness and joy.

In one famous experiment, college students were given puzzles to solve. Some of the students were paid, and others were not. The unpaid participants tended to continue to work on the puzzles after the experiment was finished, whereas the paid participants abandoned the task as soon as the session was over. And the paid subjects reported enjoying the whole experience less.

FOR those living paycheck to paycheck, a focus on money is understandable. But for those of us blessed to be above poverty, attachment to money is a means-ends confusion. Excessive focus on your finances obscures what you are supposed to enjoy with them. It’s as if your experience of the holidays never extended beyond the time spent at the airport on the way to see family. (If you’re thinking that’s actually the best part, then you have a different problem.)

This manifestly does not mean we should abandon productive impulses. On the contrary, it means we need to treat our industry as an intrinsic end. This is the point made famously in the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, where work is sanctified as inherently valuable, not as a path to a payoff.

And finally, get to the center of the wheel.

In the rose windows of many medieval churches, one finds the famous “wheel of fortune,” or rota fortunae. The concept is borrowed from ancient Romans’ worship of the pagan goddess Fortuna. Following the wheel’s rim around, one sees the cycle of victory and defeat that everyone experiences throughout the struggles of life. At the top of the circle is a king; at the bottom, the same man as a pauper.

Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” uses the idea to tell of important people brought low throughout history: “And thus does Fortune’s wheel turn treacherously. And out of happiness bring men to sorrow.”

The lesson went beyond the rich and famous. Everyone was supposed to remember that each of us is turning on the wheel. One day, we’re at the top of our game. But from time to time, we find ourselves laid low in health, wealth and reputation.

If the lesson ended there, it would be pretty depressing. Every victory seems an exercise in futility, because soon enough we will be back at the bottom. But as the Catholic theologian Robert Barron writes, the early church answered this existential puzzle by placing Jesus at the center of the wheel. Worldly things occupy the wheel’s rim. These objects of attachment spin ceaselessly and mercilessly. Fixed at the center was the focal point of faith, the lodestar for transcending health, wealth, power, pleasure and fame — for moving beyond mortal abundance. The least practical thing in life was thus the most important and enduring.

But even if you are not religious, there is an important lesson for us embedded in this ancient theology. Namely, woe be unto those who live and die by the slings and arrows of worldly attachment. To prioritize these things is to cling to the rim, a sure recipe for existential vertigo. Instead, make sure you know what is the transcendental truth at the center of your wheel, and make that your focus.

So here is my central claim: The frustration and emptiness so many people feel at this time of year is not an objection to the abundance per se, nor should it be. It is a healthy hunger for nonattachment. This season, don’t rail against the crowds of shoppers on Fifth Avenue or become some sort of anti-gift misanthrope. Celebrate the bounty that has pulled millions out of poverty worldwide. But then, ponder the three practices above. Move beyond attachment by collecting experiences, avoid excessive usefulness, and get to the center of your wheel. It might just turn out to be a happy holiday after all.

I never finished my story about Swami Gnanmunidas. Before I left him that day in Delhi, we had a light lunch of soup and naan. I told him I would be writing about our conversation; many Americans would be hearing his name. He contemplated this for a moment and, modeling nonattachment, responded simply.

“Dude, do you like the soup? It’s spicy.”

It is the riders job to make it easy for the horse

I’d guess in everyone’s life there are pieces of advice that resonate over the years.

(And by the way, as we are approaching the end of the year I wanted to say I am thankful to you for sharing Dressage Snob recollections–somewhat astounded in fact.  30,000 individual views this year.  This brings up an obvious point. Shouldn’t you be doing something more productive with your time?)

Never mind.  We are dressage enthusiasts.  Productive is not the purpose.

One bit of advice that has had particular traction with me is from Rudolf Zeilinger.  He said it over the back of a horse and with a certain “You may not understand this now,” sort of look on his face.

“It is your job to make it easy for your horse.”

And indeed I did not understand it–or came to understand it in so many different ways that my first impression was certainly inaccurate–or at best trivial.

How do you equate taking a sport that is as physically and emotionally demanding as Dressage and making it easy?

By knowing what you are doing!

More advice, trickled down from Wili Schultheis’ classic cure for most problems having to do with a horse:

“Ride better.”

Helping your horse?  Short version:

For any given movement the horse is asked to perform, they are placed in a balance that facilitates that movement. Do not get in your own way.

Examples?  I will give you the ridiculously complicated cracked egg one below,  as well as the tight rope on snow shoes, but they exist at every level of dressage and probably most things in life:

Don’t make it overly complicated and don’t get in your own way.

For instance,

Don’t chase the green-ish horse with fast steps into canter–insist that they respect the half halt and step up to canter.


Because the balance, once thrown on the forehand, is very hard to get back.  Best to not lose it at all.

Do not get in the way of the very thing you are asking for.

Important concept akin to, “Please do not shoot  yourself in the foot.”  Make sure you (or your tack) are not getting in the way of the message transmission, or preventing the horse from executing the request.

Another instance:

Ride a collected canter for pirouette that is easily ridden forward.


Because if the balance and activity are correct you can go forward (or backward or sideways) without loss of balance.


I could go on–and probably at some point will.

But there is another category of making things easy that can be addressed as well.

Again, Don’t make it overly complicated and don’t get in your own way.

Pick your partner well then pay attention to how it is going.  No amount of complicated technique will help a horse shine who is simply plain. The best thing you can do is honest, correct work.  If it is a boiled egg then it is a boiled egg.  More on that below.

On my ignorant defense of all the horribly ill-suited horses I attempted to bring along, Rudolf gave me another sage piece of advice which I try to remember–while also remembering the scope of my budget and current goals.

“Good horses make good riders.”

The best rider in the world will not succeed on a horse that is lame, over worked, under worked, malnourished or not capable of doing the job.  Some horses are not meant to be dressage horse.

I’m not disputing that the principles of dressage training, rather like Natural Horsemanship, can help most (if not all) horses and their riders.  It’s just that the athleticism, and (of late) the movement preferred, for a horse to really be competitive does not exist in all horses.

It  is very much easier for a horse mentally and physically suited to the sport to enjoy doing it than it is a horse who has impairments.  Never mind that it is much easier to make it look easy when it actually is fairly easy for the horse.  A good horse has good natural balance and rhythm. (Note I did NOT say extravagant movement–though that is nice if you can both afford it and ride it.)

Still, we see many examples of lovely horses whose riders are not yet familiar enough with the balance required for the movements to assist the horse in getting ready.  And no one likes being asked to do something and then being prevented or hindered from doing it.  Or being asked to do something that is impossible from the point of departure.

Imagine tight rope walking in snow shoes.


Side note: (Following this postulate I went on a diligent search for a picture of someone actually walking a tightrope in snow shoes–which I now believe is the one thing that does not exist in the World Wide Web.

Instead I found this, too good to skip, “Reading comprehension” quiz:


Name: _________________________
Date: _________________________

Tightrope Walking

Read the story and answer the questions to test your comprehension.

Tightrope walkers balance by putting one foot in front of the other. They wear special leather-sole shoes so that the wire will dig into their foot, giving them some ground to stand on. There are five different styles of tightrope walking. The pole the performer carries helps his or her balance on the rope.

  1. 1. Where do tightrope walkers place their feet?
    1. a. Shoulder-width apart
    2. b. Hip-width apart
    3. c. One after the other
  2. 2. What kind of soles do tightrope walkers wear?
    1. a. Leather
    2. b. Rubber
    3. c. Steel
  3. 3. What does the pole a performer carries do?
    1. a. Helps movement
    2. b. Helps agility
    3. c. Helps balance

I particularly enjoy the idea of walking the rope with feet “Shoulder-width apart”  though of course it is technically possible.


So, back to good advice,

“It Depends” and

“Help your (horse or XYZ) by making sure the darned thing is in a place to do what you want.”

Hopelessly vague!  What do you expect me to DO??

In the age of the “Internet Expert” we are all too frequently faced with mounds of information on almost anything.

And with the seemingly sole exception of getting photos of tightrope walkers in impossible footwear, we can prove anything we want.


This is as true for horses as anything else.

I give you, for example, the raging debate about how best to poach an egg.  (Search it!)

Or, is Sous-vide the absolutely correct method to boil an egg?

Our Friends at WikipediA (who are currently looking for donations if you feel like it) tell us:

“Sous-vide (/sˈvd/; French for “under vacuum”)[1] is a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath or in a temperature-controlled steam environment for longer than normal cooking times—96 hours or more, in some cases—at an accurately regulated temperature much lower than normally used for cooking, typically around 55 °C (131 °F) to 60 °C (140 °F) for meats and higher for vegetables. The intention is to cook the item evenly, ensuring that the inside is properly cooked without overcooking the outside, and retain moisture.”

(I’m going to answer this question for you right here: it depends.)

Suction pack one egg to cook in a water bath?


But, get a little greedy, in a hurry?  Totally different outcome.

Now you CAN cook the eggs below, and any “expert” will tell you that indeed Sous-vide does mean vacuum packed.  But, there is absolutely no need to go to the risk and trouble of doing it because eggs themselves come vacuum packed and you can lower them into your water bath as is with no difficulty whatsoever.



So the argument and advice gets only down to semantics.  People have been doing it for centuries and I do not think yet we have established how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

There is no definitive, and more importantly, who cares?

Anyway, with cooking, as with horses, the best answer is often “It depends”.

Rider criticism?  It depends.

Is he or she leaning back too far? Maybe.

Do the hands move too much? Maybe.

Is the bit wrong or cruel? Maybe–or maybe not in all cases.

It depends–if (whatever) is helping the horse to understand or to physically accomplish the job, then it is not wrong.  Period, end of story.

Let’s not all die in beauty while we are waiting for something to happen.
You CAN take 96 hours to cook a roast, will it be 96 hours better?

And we can argue about how to best poach the egg all day.


One poached egg over 1/2 avocado, slightly smushed, and salt/pepper to taste.

No Hollandaise required.

You do have to know how to do it (not hard) and you have to think of doing it.  As well as give up on the complicated things that actually do not work very well and are a lot of extra trouble, but you can read about all day long on-line.

If you do not take the time to develop you balance, you will not ride well.  Think of our brave tightrope walker.  Suitable shoes can help–but practice and adequate shoes will do at the start.

A certain level of mastery may overcome less than perfect equipment, and this is an important point.

Given a new saddle or $3500 worth of training, which will you choose?  If your saddle REALLY does not fit, then probably the new saddle is a good idea.  If the trouble is above the saddle (You) or below (Your fittings) the new saddle not such a hot plan.  As I say in another post, do the easy things first and do not make it overly complicated.

End of advice.  Go ride your horse.


End note–and I think fairly to all posts

Because the Dressage Snob blog is popular, attempts to monetize it are rife.  In fact, I just paid Word Press a sizable amount of cash NOT to bug you with ads so you can enjoy Dressage Snob without the latest thing you looked at on line popping up to tempt you.

(I really object to this “cookies” marketing technique.  If you wanted to shop you’d be shopping!)

So forgive me the small plug on this really very useful invention, and if you have thought my advice was sound on other things, then you might consider giving this a try.  Your horse will be happier.  Mine are, and now quite a few other people.  You can read what they say below.


Selfishly I do not have them in the local tack shop.  I thought about it, and I’m feeling generous about sharing, but truthfully a little conflicted.


Miss Mariah. 14.1 (in front) out-scored a fair troop of expensive warmbloods at Prix St George last year.  (It was not easy.  Don’t do it. Sorry Rudolf)

So, all of you in some other competition zone, please feel free to get one. 

The Girth Shield


For something that does work, and will cost roughly three riding lessons, not three months of training, improve your girthing strategy.

Best wishes,