For the last couple of years, I’ve done some cross training in the discipline of shotokan karate. There are many interesting parallels to dressage, but there is one thing we do in karate that I think would be useful for riders to think about, and that is the ritualization of respect.

So much about karate is wrapped up in Japanese philosophy about respect. When we enter the dojo, everyone, including the sensei, stands at the threshold and bows to the room. This consecrates the space as place of respect, and shows respect towards other people who might be in the room, as well as the room itself. At the beginning and end of a class, we bow to the sensei and to the picture of his teacher’s teacher, and the sensei bows to his students and the picture, thus setting a tone of mutual respect between teacher and pupil, as well as honoring the lineage of knowledge that we are all studying. Before and after engaging in sparring, students bow to each other to show respect for each other as partners.

Sometimes I feel that we take too much ego into the arena – too much baggage that gets in the way of respectful communication between horse and rider, as well as rider and teacher – which I don’t see as much when I’m in the dojo. Imagine stopping to bow before you enter the arena – taking a moment to transition into a space of focus, a place to respect the discipline you practice as well as the other practitioners around you. Imagine bowing to your horse, showing respect to the animal that is about to become your dance partner. Imagine bowing to your teacher, recalling the respect you have for his or her knowledge, and your role as student to let yourself be guided by that knowledge. Think of you and your teacher bowing to your teacher’s teachers to show respect for the wisdom that has been passed down through generations of teachers. Imagine your teacher bowing to you to indicate respect for your developing abilities, your individual needs, and your desire to learn. These brief moments of mental focusing could set the tone for a better ride, leaving behind the daily clutter of worries, irritations, and insecurities. If you think this sounds crazy, it’s worth mentioning that the one arena I can think of where riders do actually doff their hats in respect before every ride is the Spanish Riding School.