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.”

Locating your diaphragm.

I gave this post two tags.  One is Rider Fitness.  The other, Organizing Your Time at the Barn.

Or in this case, your time not at the barn.

Perhaps it is the start of show season here in the Northwest that is creating a tendency in the professionals to nag, but I have been noticing that many of you spend a great deal of time in your cars.  In fact, I would say some of you spend more time in your cars than on your horses.  (This is something that should be thought of as a quality of life issue!)

Given that you do this, then I have a suggestion: use this time to find and strengthen your diaphragm.

Short story:

Yesterday I came home and Rick asked me about my day, “How did it go?”

I said, “Great!  Sally finally found her diaphragm!”

Not a long male silence, just a pause, the hint of a grin, neatly squelched.

“Perfect.  Where was it?”

There are days when he should just go straight to the creek, smoke a cigar and leave the niceties of coming home well enough alone.

But anyway, Sally drives rather a lot, and I gave her this task last week:  When driving, hopefully on one of those long, boring sections that are common in Eastern Oregon and the south side of Washington State,


place your hands at the base (YES–AT THE BASE) of the steering wheel, settling your seat bones in the seat nicely, lift your chest, press upward on the wheel, downward on your elbows, downward/backward on your seat bones.

Hopefully you will locate and press out and up the place just under your rib cage in the center–the same one that should ache like crazy on your first horse, about ten minutes into the ride.  That place is key to both your center and using diaphragmatic breathing to your advantage on a horse.

Frankly, I was surprised to hear how many people do long trips with hands at the 10 and 2 position.  I understand this for severe traffic, drivers education, or the Indy 500, but on a long trip?

On looking for the following totally frightening picture:


I located an article that says 10 and 2 hand position is no longer advised:


For one thing steering wheels have changed design, and then, should the airbag deploy, it will hit your hands going several hundred miles an hour.  And I gather, through some other unpleasant-sounding articles that nasty consequences can occur–such as “degloving” which I will not go into just now.

The consequence I am looking for is that you ride better.

Anyway, I always drive hands low on a long trip. and was surprised to hear others do not.  If you spend a lot of time at something it shapes you.  Give it a try.

(For more on this subject–diagrams!–please see previous post: https://dressagesnob.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/weight-aids-use-of-the-seat/)

The perfect bike for you.

Baffled by your horse decisions?

Buy a bike.

Take your pick.  They are a fraction of the price of a horse.  And fun to ride too.



“Planet-X full carbon fiber triathlon, TT bike, with 50mm carbon tubular wheels. This bike was custom built by a certified bike builder, using the some of the best and lightest components on the market. This bike weighs out at 16.13lbs and is very aerodynamic. Comparable stock bikes would run around $3500-$4000 without the carbon wheelset. This bike has never been wrecked and is in excellent shape, used for one year of training/racing. Feel free to email, text or call Rick with any questions at 509-xxx-xxxx”


$350 “Fixie bicycle for sale. Wheels were $350 by themselves. Get the whole bike for 350$. Will trade for marine stereo equipment, amps, subs, speakers, deck, etc. …call or text 406-xxx-xxx five
Thanks” (This bike has no gears and no brakes.)



Jeff Jones space frame steel: $3,500  This bike has 27 gears (you can climb a tree with it) disk brakes and a fat front tire.

Watch  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1udNJAm1-I

Three different options:

Buy the Carbon bike at the top at $2,300, and have the bars too low, and seat too high and it will hurt your back and your crotch. Perfect for a 28-year-old triathelete.  Will you love riding it? (Maybe.)

Buy the “Fixie” at $350 Live at the bottom of the hill and you will neither get up (no gears) nor safely down (no brakes)  Okay for a bike messenger in New York.  Will you love riding it? (Maybe.)

Buy the Jones at $3,500 and try to jump those hurdles without years of practice?  Hope for a parachute in the bag!  Will you love riding it?  (Maybe.)

The love riding it part depends on who you are, where you live and what you want.

But if you do not love riding it, the bike will sit in the garage gathering dust and you will get no fitter or have no fun with it.

Back to dressage:  if you have a horse who you do not love to ride, or are frightened of, you will not ride it.  So, get rid of it and get one you like to be with.

If you dream of breeding and raising one–akin to having a custom frame made for you at six times the cost of “used stock”–make sure you have ridden stock related to your dream horse, and then go about having it made.

(If you decide on this route, please take into account that “making a horse” is not a Craigslist sort of a deal–in fact, if not very lucky and carefully managed,  you are much more likely to be passing the project on in similar venue than grinning like the happy gambler.)

Why do so many people think they want the expensive Olympic model that is not comfortable, safe or fun? My guess?  Being in the optimistic future is sometimes more fun than facing reality–and as noted at the base of this other post–also human nature.

Please see previous post https://dressagesnob.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/do-you-buy-a-young-horse-or-a-bike/

Do you buy a young horse? Or a bike?

There is a temptation, looking at the price of good-quality “going” dressage horses, to want to buy in early.  A weanling is generally pretty reasonably priced, after all. And one’s imagination of the quality in the future can be seductive.

On price: I have cited this piece before, but it is a good wrap up of costs–though keep in mind again that I do not know these people–though I admire their thought process: http://www.graemont.com/understanding.php

They mention that buying a young horse can be a bargain in “money now” but there is a lot more to consider.

In purchasing a youngster, the temptation to attempt to “beat the market” should be resisted unless all of the following are present in your life and ride.

1. You own or know of a suitable place to “store” your youngster.  This place need not have rolling green hills and board fences–though these are nice–but it must have several acres, safe fencing, a good worming program and companions for your youngster.  Ideally several horses of the same age group and size.  A pipe coral in northern LA is not ideal.  Playmates over the fence teach all the bad habits of a stalled horse, and none of the good.  Keep in mind that if the board at this place is $250 a month you will have “invested” $12,000 in board and likely have $20,000 in an unbroken four year old.

2. You are a professional skilled at working young horses, or know of (and are willing and able to pay) a short string of professionals to cope with the basic tasks your young horse must learn.

3. You are a professional skilled at working young horses, or know of (and are willing and able to pay) a short string of professionals to cope with the basic tasks your young horse must learn.

4. Read items 2 and 3 and go no further if you have any doubts about this.  Handling and riding a young warmblood is very different than handling and riding an older horse–or breaking a Quarter Horse. The goals are different, the tasks are different.    The budget for this training is $8-10,000.

5. If you have gotten this far, how do you choose your youngster?  The short answer is the apple does not fall very far from the tree–the young horse is quite likely to be very similar to its parents.  So when you pick your young horse you should choose something whose mother  and father you have ridden and liked–or something that is very, very closely related.

And you?  If you are thirty, in four years you will probably ride exactly like you do currently–unless you plan to do something radically different in your education.  If you are 50, we all hope you will not ride worse at 54!  (I’m sorry, but most 50 year olds who ride, and are not professional riders, usually have desk jobs, long commutes, family obligations and do not get enough exercise.)

Horse people are notoriously bad at assessing their own level of skill.  They are also very, very good at retaining a fantasy of someday it will be better.  This is a human trait.   See New York Times Three Cheers for the Nanny State http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/opinion/three-cheers-for-the-nanny-state.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0

A sample: We have a vision of ourselves as free, rational beings who are totally capable of making all the decisions we need to in order to create a good life. Give us complete liberty, and, barring natural disasters, we’ll end up where we want to be. It’s a nice vision, one that makes us feel proud of ourselves. But it’s false.

But you say you want in the end to breed and have a horse like Totilas?  (The ultimate Carbon Fiber.)

Please make sure you are equipped to ride him!


The ten-million-euro wonder horse from the stable of Paul Schockemöhle.

I am sure broken and trained by an adult amateur.


Not the tale of The Black Stallion?


A horse backed up by a team that looks just like your local professionals?

Sjeff Janssen and Edward Gal, Totilas’ former rider.

From an article http://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/2012/07/totilas-what-next-an-interview-with-sjef-janssen/

Is this a more suitable choice?


Having ridden my share of young horses (and having ferried to the emergency room a number of people at several barns riding unsuitable young horses!), almost ten years ago I bred the spotty one above.  (No he is not a quarter horse. 100% Warmblood.)

Grand daddy:


Mother was a hot three year old mare from Grande and Davignon (Donnerhall/Pik Bube) lines.  Sire a Dutch horse in AZ who was an FEI horse, but known for throwing really solid temperaments.  The professionals in all the barns I worked in raved about the character of this horse’s offspring.  Nice jumping horses too.

How come I did not breed to something flashy and hot?  The mare was that already and what I thought at the time (and still do) is that we don’t have enough horses bred specifically to be easy for adult amateurs to ride.  And guess what?  The spotty one above is super easy to ride–and if you know what you are doing he is a very nice dressage horse too.  More than that, you can put anyone on safely and go for a trail ride.  He’s nine now.  Worth his weight in gold–AFTER three years with several professionals all of whom knew exactly what they were doing in their various tasks.

Could I sell him for what went into him?  Not a chance.

Therefore the tale of the bicycle–see this post:  https://dressagesnob.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/the-perfect-bike-for-you/

Developing your system

Earlier today I pointed out a story in the New York Times about solving problems using local knowledge and resources.


The gist of it is solutions from the outside are often poorly implemented or accepted by the recipients–even if those people really do want improvement.  Anything that is not part of one’s routine can be a stretch to accept.

Horses are no different.  Something that is accepted as obvious in one part of the world, can be taken as complete heresy in another.  And many areas, with many different “systems” produce fine horses and fine riders.  But sometimes, regrettably,  some areas repeatedly produce really terrible ones!  Trainers and riders use the resources available, often repeating patterns by rote, “because it is done like this.”


These patterns may or may not work–but they are often repeated nonetheless.

If, as pointed out before, one of the characteristics of successful people everywhere is ruthless self-evaluation, then that process should be first on the list.

Here are several–totally imaginary–barn models and how they seem to work–or not!

Professional A has a very successful training program, a happy family and a group of satisfied clients, some of which show quite successfully on a local level.  Professional A never gets on a horse. Broken arm in trailer accident in her twenties does not allow her to ride.  Her clients must do it all.  The ones that show all have very good horses.  Most of which have been purchased at considerable cost from active barns in the south.  The median cost is four times what people locally “like” to spend–these are “made” amateur horses from Europe that did not work out in the more competitive regions.  Professional A’s program is working–no cure necessary as long as enough clients have the ante-in necessary.

Amateur B has a full-time job and a long commute.  He keeps his horses at home in a herd group at low-cost per horse, but a lot of ultimate cost.  Amateur B has a history of producing frightening and spoiled horses that are no fun to be around–and lots of them!  Amateur B has many, many horses in the field and none of them get much professional work–it is too expensive.  And when one does go in for work is it likely to be  a wreck because so very many unattended to problems surface when an alternative program is enacted.  What’s the cure?

Professional C has a long career and a great “out-of-town” image.  Many high quality horses peer out of Professional C’s stalls.  Clients from out-of-town appear at regular intervals to train, increasing her status.  But none of these expensive horses seem to progress up the levels, and none of the clients actually do very well at the shows.  However, Professional C is actually getting some nice scores on the one, expensive, horse she likes to ride.  How is that working for the clients?

Amateur D also has a full-time job, and someday he dreams of being a top-level judge.  He puts lots of effort into networking, attending seminars, judging local shows.  But there is never enough time to really ride or train with the regularity to get “to the next level”  (Upper level judges now have to have a string of very, very good scores–four at 65% at the lower FEI is nothing to sneeze at.  You really have to have a good horse, and be able to pilot it, to rake those numbers  in.)  So even though he is successful, he wants the next level and it is nowhere in sight.  What is the answer?

Professional E likes to show.  She will enter four horses in two classes each on every day available.  She gets really good scores on horses she has trained herself, well into the FEI.  But her clients never progress and they are frustrated at the expense of showing not so successfully.  How could this be different?

Professional F likes to train.  A lot of young horses have come and gone through the barn over the years.  Some are nice, some not so nice.  Professional F will work with anything, citing sympathy with her clients “not being able to afford it.”  The selection process sometimes looks like dumpster diving, but the training is good–a lot of her off-breed horses have beaten the local warmbloods.  What should she be doing differently?

Professional G finally convinced her clients to purchase some nice young warmblood stock.  Now it is time to put them to work.  None of the clients have any experience with young horses, but they are used to it being cheap.  (A young horse is much less expensive to keep than an adult in work)  The clients are not in the habit of budgeting for full-time training.  They are going to do the work themselves.  Is this likely to work?

Amateur H makes a lot of trips to the vet.  She has a nice trailer and a large, expensive, pickup.  All of Amateur H’s  horses are lame, some very sick.  (If a horse in a town without possums is going to contract EPM, it is hers.)  She spends thousands at the state vet hospital every month and the horses then sit in the field recuperating.  When she buys a horse she does not ask for help and its front legs are so crooked that arthritis is already setting in.  She says she can deal with it.  She likes the horse and if it does not work out she has space.  Is there a smarter method to success?

All of the examples above have strengths in their training programs.  But most of them have a fatal flaw. Even the cheapest of them are still spending a lot of money–or their client’s money.  The only one that is really working for the clients appears to be the first example.  Professional A sets clear entry parameter--you are going to need to spend a good bit on a horse if you want to show.  Then time put in on the student, NOT the student’s horse.  (Sad fact, most trainers are not very good riders–and it doesn’t do you THAT much good to put any, but a very, very good rider on your horse for upper level work.  In fact, it may cause harm)  And sometimes the “not so good” trainer is not even working the horse (time spent holding a longe line and a cell phone does not count).  But you KNOW if you have had a riding lesson!

So, if you want to show with high scores, you are going to need a very good horse that is trained, and then take the time to get the training yourself.  Dressage horses do not ride themselves.

If you want to make and break your own, do not choose a warmblood as your trial project.  Pick something small and mellow.

If you want your horse to be good at trail riding, take him or her to someone who knows how to get a horse to cross streams and logs.

If you want your horse to know Prix St Georges, take him or her to a known Grand Prix trainer–better yet, buy one that already knows it!

If you want your horse worked, go to someone who likes to work horses–the person who can make any mutt into a decent citizen.  (Hint–then don’t bring the mutt, get something good!)

The client is ultimately in charge of the program–because they choose it.  Doing horses is a lot like arranging a good diet: the skillful lesson that was easy and makes you feel satisfied right after, might in fact be the TV dinner of the horse world.

Real progress, like real food, takes time and effort and money and thought.

The take home message is have a look at the parameters of how you, and each person you might use, works their program.  Look hard, then be honest with yourself about what you actually know how to do. And more importantly what success you have had in the past.  If you are not happy with it–change something!

Any other approach is a lot like going into a big box store and just buying a big box.  It might be helpful to have had a glance inside before you take it home. . . .

Preventing conflict at home

Dale Forbes:

(This is going to sound stupid and uninteresting–particularly in light of the post I have planned next about preventing sores in your seat area, but listen up!)

You like to ride and you also like your partner, child, job, etc.

There are no pictures here–this is your life, not mine.  But this is the most important part of riding well–getting it done with good communication with your human partners.

Because without that you cannot do it and be happy.  End of story.

Rule 1. Make a money budget: Be plain about it, get agreement, and stick to it.

Rule 2. Make a time budget: Be clear about your goals.

Rule 3. Do what is important to you with your time.

If in the “X” amount of time you have, talking to the gal in the next stall about her divorce is important, then do it.

If brushing the tail is a good thing right now–and it can be–then also do it.

Just keep in mind your agreement about “X” time.

And that you are in charge of what happens in that time.

I like to ride, so I don’t talk much with people in the barn.

If you want to, and have the time to talk, it is no issue–do it.

But, with my magic wand I hereby (with all the dubious powers of the Dressage Snob) absolve you from guilt if you politely go about your business.

It’s okay.  Just smile, be polite in your other ways, pat the noses, and go on with things.