A few days ago, I picked up a book in the library entitled, “Show Jumping: The Great Ones.” The book was dated enough to have one of those fabric covers with that gold colored lettering, faded from sunlight and noticeably worn from years of study. As the title would suggest, the book dedicated each chapter to a famous Show Jumping rider, whom the author felt, whether by competitive results or possession of a less-tangible quality, that they were worthy of the title ‘Great.’ I don’t know the history of Show Jumping all that well, but I of course I recognized the name Bill Steinkraus, as he’s one of most famous riders in our country and I had read his book, Reflections on Riding and Jumping, many times. But what I gained from reading the chapter on his career, which I hadn’t previously from his training manual, were the ways in which his personality affected his success.
In addition to being a world-class horseman, Steinkraus is also a proficient violinist. He felt that, “[The study of riding and violin] were not that different. With the violin there was manipulation of the hands, with riding the manipulation of the body of the horse and the body of the rider. Both demand the development of physical mechanisms, along with much practice and dedication.” From reading the rest, it’s clear that Steinkraus had a wiser understanding of the sport’s intricacies than many other riders of that time did. Even today that special personality is possessed by only a handful of riders. It’s difficult to phrase in words, but it’s as if those individuals understand horses, and the riding of them, at a far more complex level than their peers and the rest of us do. Their understanding is not simply natural, but carefully practiced, thought-out, and taught.
Perhaps that is the true art of the sport, finding the perfect balance of thinking and feeling. We’ve all seen people who ride with such natural ‘feel’ they don’t have to think about the technique behind it because they just make it happen. It seems like a blessing, and it probably is in a lot of ways, but to improve on what you already have requires that you are consciously aware of what it is you have and the aids you are applying to get it. Conversely, there are riders that think so much about the technique that they miss the moment for understanding the feel of it. For the ‘great’ riders, thinking and feeling are the same and they constantly bolster the other to improvement. It’s hard to teach ourselves the level at which we should ‘think’ or ‘feel’, but maybe that really is the key to future success.