Golf And The Four Horses

In the “Shime” chapter of the Shobogenzo, Zen Master Dogen Zenji discusses the “four horses,” which is a metaphor used by the Buddha in the Samyuta-Agama sutra. This metaphor of the four horses speaks about how we are when we practice the game of golf– four, one could say, classes of students.

The first horse, the superior class, is like a horse that runs fastest by merely feeling the whip’s shadow. The second horse, the good class, runs fastest when the whip brushes its hair, the hair of its mane. The third horse, the poor class, runs fastest where the whip has actually touched its flesh. And the fourth, the lowest kind of horse, is the one who runs fastest only when the whip can be felt to the marrow of its bones.

At first glance we all want to be like the first horse in the superior class. These are the fast learners…the ones who seem to be a natural. Dogen Zenji says this may not be so desirable. A study of master golfers has shown that it is not the students with innate natural abilities who have achieved golf mastery. The golfers who have achieved mastery are mostly the students with average to below average natural abilities…the ones who have practiced their craft diligently. This is very interesting…why is this so?

The road to mastery for all students has many plateaus in skill levels interrupted by brief spikes in improvements. When the first class of student takes up golf they see an immediate spike in improvement in their skill level and are very motivated. When they reach that ultimate first plateau where they do not improve despite hard practice, most gifted students get discouraged.

Gifted students are used to seeing fast progress, so they may blame the instructor or something else just so they don’t have to put in the hard work that is needed to attain mastery. Many superior students will then give up the game due to frustration.

Superior athletes who never make it big are seen in ALL sports. We all have heard countless stories about gifted athletes who never made it big because they weren’t willing to put the time in needed to reach their innate potential.

The fourth class of student will see slow improvements, much time spent on plateaus in their skill level. If the fourth class of golf student stays with it and practices hard they will learn the golf to the marrow of their bones, like the fourth horse.

Before you can master ANY skill, you need to learn the skill to the marrow of your bones. To learn golf to the marrow of your bones you need to stay at each skill level for however long it takes. Most first class students never learn the skill to the marrow of their bones because it comes easy to them. The time spent on plateaus for students who learn fast are shorter than the ones who learn slower.

The paradox of the four horses parable is we must practice like the fourth class of horse to become like the first class of horse.

Hit ’em Long and Straight!
John Lynch