Story by Larissa Cox
Robin Shen has spent a long time on the "Road to Enlightenment" with his horsemanship. After soaking up every riding book that he could get his hands on, taking instruction from countless riding coaches, this Enlightened Horseman shares his knowledge with you.
How did you begin your riding career, and where did you find the knowledge to bring you to where you are in your horsemanship today?
I started 40 years ago riding Mother's retired Race Horses. It's where I first learned to stay on a horse. Later in college, a fellow student introduced me to the college polo club which rekindled my interest in horses. In the club, there happened to be a difficult-to-handle, club horse. No one wanted to put in the time to correct his attitude. The club president offered him to me for free. I took him, and that's when the real journey began.
I started taking lessons from anyone who was teaching. I took lessons from traditional pony club instructors, Reiners, Hunter Jumpers, Natural Horsemanship Instructors, Dressage coaches, even Olympians. It didn’t matter what their discipline was, or their status. As long as they knew even one thing I didn't know, I would pay for a lesson. I also did not care if I had to travel. As long as I could get there by driving in a day, I would hunt them down. This allowed me to access great resources all over California.
I also read every book voraciously and experimented with every technique I could. All this was applied to my poor gift horse and eventually, between all the lessons, the reading, and ultimately, the corrections drummed into me by my ultimate mentor, that Horse, I arrived at where I am today, occasionally dispensing marginal advice to others on a similar journey.
You refer to your methodologies as “Enlightened Horsemanship”. What is the foundation of your training approach, and how are these methods different from typical training today?
I picked the term Enlightened Horsemanship because I liked the play on words. Light is what all riders want their horses to be, and light is what all horses want their riders to be.
As for being different from typical training, I don't really think of my physical techniques as being different but I am avid about leadership by example, and not by exception or demand. i.e, if you want your horse to be soft, then you must be soft, if you want your horse to strong, start lifting weights, if you want your horse to be supple, start stretching, if you want your horse to have endurance, then get some yourself, and most important, if you want your horse to achieve Haute Ecole, then you better be in school too. Everything that you might want from your horse, you should strive for yourself. I have found tremendous success with this approach.
What are the characteristics of an “Enlightened Horseperson” and how can riders develop these traits?
An Enlightened Rider Leads by Example. This is achieved by striving for everything you might want your horse to be. Strong, supple, collected, fit, and
educated, to say the least.
Enlightened Riders also focus on principles more than the techniques themselves. They will do everything they can to understand why, how, and when a technique is applied rather than simply aping traditions or habits. And finally, Enlightened Riders see the horse and human as a single unit. A partnership in every sense of the word. If the Horse has flaws, the Rider should compensate, and if the human has flaws, the rider may train the horse to make up the difference. And he remembers they saying that while a horse may lend grace, power, and speed, it is only a loan.
What is one ubiquitous habit in the equestrian world that you would recommend riders to stop doing?
I wish that riders would keep in mind that horses do not learn when an aid is applied but when it is released. If they could remember this, they would release more, and apply less. We have the idea that horses give us freedom, but not if they are in turn constrained. Perhaps it is nothing more than a mindset, but I think it is a powerful difference to consider that a horse should free to collect, rather than restrained into position.
What is one beneficial training approach in the equestrian world that you would like to see riders continue doing?
Oh there are so many things out there that I love to see. The equestrian world is so full of wonderful people, that the list of what I love about them would be endless. But if you put a crop to my head, I might say that I love to see people cross training. The more riders delve into other disciplines, the more they start to see that while there may be divisions among novices, there is consensus among masters.