Here’s a quote from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “The Marrow of Zen” by Shunryu Suzuki.
“In our scriptures (Samyuktagama Sutra, volume 33), it is said that 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!
When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best. This is, I think, the usual understanding of this story, and of Zen. You may think that when you sit in zazen you will find out whether you are one of the best horses or one of the worst ones. Here, however, there is a misunderstanding of Zen. If you think the aim of Zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. This is not the right understanding. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst one. When you consider the mercy of Buddha, how do you think Buddha will feel about the four kinds of horses? He will have more sympathy for the worst one than for the best one.
When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it. So I think that sometimes the best horse may be the worst horse, and the worst horse can be the best one.”
From the first time I read this book over 20 years ago, this is the one story I always remember. I think it's a great metaphor and way of thinking. Horses are a lot like our own bodies and we "ride" them from above similarly. They're smart but very kinesthetic, they're sensitive, capable, resistant to control, stubborn, clumsy, graceful, and most of all they have a similar mix of being both wild and civilized. I often tell my T’ai-Chi students to try treating their bodies during training as though they were horses. Will you get the best result from their horse/body by beating it? By bribing it? By fooling it? Or by treating it with an overall respect and a spirit of cooperation that might include, at times, all of the above? I'm sure this metaphor is sturdy and has figured in all kinds of teachings, otherwise it would have been edited out over time...I wonder with more and more people very rarely even seeing a horse if it will continue to be a living metaphor as time goes on...
With regard to lessons in general, I started out as the fourth horse...now I think I'm somewhere between a three and a two.