Learning to Think Like Shakespeare

Given the popular saying that sport is 90% mental, gaining command over our mind and thoughts is important for optimizing our training and competition as equestrian athletes. Most people would first think of practices like meditation when they think about enhancing their mental game, but I’m going to write about a broader mental strategy—and it’s five-hundred years old. 

Photo by Ema Klugman.

Most people have read Shakespeare at some point, and most of those people hated having to read it. Admittedly, I stumbled my way through a Shakespeare class in college, understanding approximately 5% of what I read but still enjoying the seminar discussions. It’s not what I would describe as pleasure reading. 

However, as with any great thinker, with Shakespeare we continue to come back to his works, to produce further renditions of his plays, and to discuss what was going on in the heads of his weird and wonderful characters in hopes of discovering something about ourselves.  

In his new book, How to Think Like Shakespeare, Scott Newstok discusses learning and education through the lens of Shakespeare. He describes it as a “love letter to the craft of thought,” and while he makes a case for a broad liberal arts education, his ideas apply to equestrian education as well.  In Newstok’s interview with Inside Higher Ed, he recounts how his book asks the question: Which educational assumptions shaped a mind like Shakespeare’s? His answer: Play emerges through work, creativity through imitation, autonomy through tradition, innovation through constraints, freedom through discipline. I have drawn the following lessons from these ideas, applying them to equestrian education and training:

Play emerges through work.Perhaps one of the best feelings of accomplishment in riding horses is when something that used to feel hard feels easy. Through work—repetition, diligence, concentration—comes muscle memory and strength (both for you and the horse). Play is the reward for your hard work. This is the reason that your coach can be confident in saying “have fun; just enjoy it” when you walk into the ring. You’ve done the work; now it’s time to play. 

Creativity emerges through imitation.  There are a thousand and one ways to train a horse. People have been doing it for centuries. As in any sport or trade, there’s a variety of methods to get the best results. One top rider might use lots of cavaletti work while another does none at all—yet in competition they are hoping to achieve the same winning results, over the same exact course. Every system has its intricacies. One way to develop our own system is to imitate those of others. One thing my coach has told me is that she can’t tell me what to do in every single moment. She says that where instruction ends, creativity must begin. 

I had a wonderful English teacher in high school who was adamant that we develop our own writing style, much like riders develop their own riding style. She had a certain way of describing it—she told us we should “try on” the different styles of different writers, to walk around in their syntax and feel how the prose came out on the page. Often I would try this, and it felt horrible—so I would try on another style, and another, and another, until my own style became a merging of all the writers I had read and tried to imitate. Imitation enabled my creativity. It is hard to be creative when you have nothing to base your ideas on.

Autonomy emerges through tradition.This point follows from the last. At some point in your riding—whether you are an amateur who shows a few times a year, or a young professional making a go at the sport—you have to be independent. You walk into the ring, and you’re alone. You start a business, and you’re alone. The decisions are yours to make. Of course, you are not really alone—you are accompanied by years of training and advice, and of experience that you gained (sometimes right after you needed it). Your autonomy—basically your independence and ability to think for yourself—only comes as the result of tradition. You build tradition through repetition and habit. After so much repetition in a system, you develop patterns of behavior; you can use those patterns to make your own decisions, including creative ones. These decisions ultimately affect our horses’ training, education, and wellbeing.

Innovation emerges through constraints.Like the adage about creativity, this one about innovation highlights the push and pull of developing one’s own style in an existing framework. But we can also think about “innovation through constraints” in a broader sense: when a business partnership is floundering, can you innovate to make it feasible? When a horse’s training is not working, can you innovate in your methods to make the horse understand what you’re asking? When tradition and imitation don’t work, creativity and innovation have to step in. 

Freedom emerges through discipline.  Freedom and discipline occupy a similar position to play and work. Through work, one can play. Through discipline, one can be free. Only through diligent discipline—the careful, slow work that may seem boring but is so essential—can one earn their freedom. This could be the discipline of riding without stirrups, which frees us to ride confidently and maintain an excellent position. Or it could be the discipline of gradually bringing a horse back from an injury, so that eventually he can be free to do everything he could do before the injury.

Finally, Newstok has some interesting commentary on education which applies to our own horse training, particularly in this time of quarantine. He writes that “our word ‘school’ derives from the Greek word for leisure, which in turn goes back to an older root meaning pause.” We can think about this perspective when we “school” our horses—taking it as a time to pause and think. To school is to educate, to force ourselves to pause, to half-halt, and then evaluate.

I hope that as we look to the future—as Banquo asked the three witches in Macbeth to “look into the seeds of time”—we can be aware of how our thoughts affect who we become. Of course, I hope those seeds of time do contain a swift recovery from COVID-19 so we can get out there to the horse shows and put our Shakespearean creativity to good use.