One of my favorite quotes, although talking about meditation, can be applied to Tai Chi and is from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki,Tai Chi

It is said there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

Most people think it’s great to be the best horse, the excellent horse, who runs easily. As Suzuki goes on to explain, however, this is not actually so. If we understand practice as something deeper than just physical exercise or self-defense, something that transforms us at our core, then this begins to make sense.

Four horses in Tai Chi

I love to use this analogy of the 4 types of horses when talking in Tai Chi, but it makes sense in all martial arts. Whether you practice Kung Fu, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Karate, or really practice anything that is quite difficult and complex, there is a great opportunity in being the worst horse.

In Tai Chi class we have many students who were professional level athletes or dancers. Often they pick up the coordination and memorize the sequence of our forms with far less trouble than others. We also have many students who have done little or nothing with their bodies for years. For these bad horses it can be quite difficult to learn Tai Chi. They struggle from the first class, and I see it on their faces and hear it in their voices. Sometimes they get frustrated, and sometimes they laugh at themselves. Either way, theirs is a fundamentally different journey.

How you travel on your path is important

Think of trying to get from LA to San Diego. Your friend is also going, and he has a car. You don’t get a car. You’re walking. This might seem like a crazy, overwhelming undertaking. Your friend will make it in a few hours. Your trip will take much longer. You’ll look at your friend speeding off into the sunset and wonder at how unfair life is. But you know that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll eventually make it. At the end, you’ll be much stronger than when you began. You’ll also remember that trip much more vividly than your friend. So, who had the better trip?

We can also think of our mind in meditation as the horse. If our mind does what we want easily, and we get to a place of calm focus early on, this seems great. Yet where is the growth? If we understand life is like school, we aren’t here for things to be easy. We are here to learn and to grow. The students who have the hardest time will continue beyond the early stages of growth, beyond the superficial levels of success. These bad horses will eventually get to the marrow of practice.