I had the opportunity to attend a dinner lecture with Paul Belasik of the Pennsylvania Riding Academy this past weekend. Leah Nelson of Spring Hill Farm in Duluth, MN brought him in for a two-day clinic and the lecture was the capstone to that. After hearing him speak I really wish I had ridden in his clinic, but luckily it sounds like he will be back in the spring.
The dinner was in the private upstairs dining room of Va Bene Italian Restaurant in Duluth. Being a full-time mom and a part-time riding instructor means I don't have many chances these days to do adult things (in other words, things that happen past 7 PM and require pants that aren't breeches or pajamas) so this evening felt very fancy and special to me. I even drank Prosecco!
Mr. Belasik sat right across from me and ate with us. He was soft-spoken, kind and funny. After the main course, he read from his newest book, which has not been published yet. His writing is an extension of his persona–deeply observant and shyly humorous.
Mr. Belasik has had a long and diverse education and career, studying with both German and Classical masters, and competing in both Dressage and Three-Day Eventing. His website biography reads, "His training methods focus not only on the practical, physical point of view, but also with a keen eye toward the artistic, scientific, and philosophical components of horsemanship as well."
He made some very thought-provoking points that have stuck with me, and I'd like to share them here. I wish I had recorded the lecture...I'll do my best not to butchering his message or meaning in my re-telling.
1. He gets asked a lot whether or not "competition" dressage and "classical" dressage are compatible. After going into the history of both, which was very interesting, he concluded both Yes and No. They don't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive, but since they have different goals, they're not easily compatible either. There is much to learn from both schools, but he elaborated that when we start to focus on results, ribbons, scores and levels, this "art" of ours becomes about ego and profit. He said, ask yourselves: Am I riding because of ribbons? Or am I making art?
His website has this quote on it, which really struck a cord with me:
2. He talked about how humans report feeling a greater sense of satisfaction and happiness when they are highly focused on a task–even when the task is not something they deem as necessarily enjoyable–than when they are in a highly desirable/enjoyable situation but are distracted and unable to focus on the moment. Man, I could not agree more with this, and I think that constant-distraction is one of the major plights of modern life. We live our lives in a constant state of distraction. Our iPhones are always ready and available to distract us from our own thoughts, and we over-schedule ourselves so there is not a moment to spare in our day. We're either asleep or plugged in and going, going, going.
I think that is why horseback riding feels so therapeutic for many of us...when we're on our horses, we can't be checking our phones or thinking about anything else. In fact, those rides where our brains won't "turn off" usually feel terrible. In order to ride really well we have to block out the rest of the world, sync up with our horse, focus our minds and our breathe, and essentially find a Zen or meditative state. This is an exercise of the mind that has been proven to be NECESSARY for our general happiness and satisfaction (everyone from Montessori teachers to Zen Buddhists agree), and yet modern life does not value or encourage it. For many riders the only time they're ever truly focused on something is when they're on their horse. No wonder we're all addicted! ;)
Again, from his website:
There were more nuggets of wisdom from his talk, but I am not sure I can do them justice with my partial understanding, so I will leave them alone. I am looking forward to getting his book! If you have the opportunity to ever hear Mr. Belasik speak somewhere, or better yet ride with him, I would guess it would be a highly beneficial experience.
A big Thank You to Leah and Spring Hill for the opportunity to meet and learn from such a wonderful teacher.