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Can We Ride for the Fun of It? - Excerpt from "Dressage for No Country"
 Photo courtesy of Rose Caslar Belasik

by Paul Belasik

When we were young, my siblings and I could get into some pretty vicious games. I can’t remember how many times my father would head out into the yard to calm things down. We would always hear the same refrain: In exasperation, he’d shout,

“Can’t you kids do anything without keeping score? Just play the game for the fun of it!”

When you see certain trends in your personality repeat, you wonder how much of this was deep inside you, written in your own DNA, and how much was trained into you. The more I became involved in dressage, the more I came to understand what my father had been trying to say. My affinity for concepts of Zen Buddhism seemed to take more hold. Early in college, when I first became aware of Zen advice—maybe because of the way I was raised, maybe because of who I was—it resonated deeply with me. Do a thing for the love of doing it. It seemed to validate my natural curiosity and give me a reason not to be too concerned with approval.

Dressage for No Country - Horse and Rider Books

Most countries will have similar axioms about competition, but American riders often grow up hearing or bearing the influence from quotes like, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” from college football coach Red Saunders (often attributed to Vince Lombardi, the famous professional football coach), or “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” and “Americans play to win, all the time,” from General George Patton. Parents teach their children that they can be anything that they want, and society starts them early, competing against each other to attain it.

What would dressage look like if its most powerful images did not involve riders standing on podiums with medals around their necks, endorsements looming, free saddles, free boots, fame and adoration from people who don’t even know what kind of person they are admiring?

What if it was not about one person winning and the rest losing?

What if dressage was instead about reaching a place where you are near the “best idea” of yourself? You might not be famous, but your horse likes and respects you, people like and respect you. You work hard, but you’re not nervous about the outcome. How you feel about your work won’t change much because of some judge’s opinion. You are less concerned with how you measure up to an external yardstick because you are seriously engaged in how you meet standards established by your own tests. When you are riding, training, or teaching, you are so focused, you are often unaware of time. Even when a session is difficult, you feel right with your horse. The stiffness in your back seems to have disappeared. If you get frustrated, you can quickly recover your attention. Your emotions can’t seem to get a foothold; the anxieties in your life seem suspended for a while. What you do together with your horse seems like cooperation: a mutually beneficial dance, and not like a continuing argument.

Have you ever seen pictures of people swimming in the ocean, their hands clasped around the dorsal fin of a dolphin as the dolphin carries them along? They feel excitement, fear, joy—their faces say it all. They can’t put into words the rapture they are relishing, a suspension of any editorializing or sarcasm. It is a powerful jolt of pure experience, in that moment of communion with nature itself. Even though the positive effect of that connection can’t be entirely explained, most people acknowledge it is important.

We ride horses. Do we find ourselves forgetting how ridiculously amazing that is?

This excerpt from Dressage for No Country by Paul Belasik is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

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