26 January 2010

Who Are You? -- Part Two

In Part One, I suggested that the shaping and developing of the horse through breeding and theories of horsemanship tells the contemplative person quite a bit about individuals and even civilizations. Part Two is about the first surviving Western treatise on horsemanship. It's still a useful book, but I contend it tells us more than how to manage a horse.

Xenophon: The Art of Leadership

The prehistory of horsemanship suggests brutality and force. So does much of the history of horsemanship. Force, brutality, and even outright cruelty have dominated since the beginning, but a few prominent texts scattered through the ages suggest other methods. In the Western tradition, the first of these is The Art of Horsemanship written around 350 BCE by Xenophon of Athens, a student of Socrates and a prominent military man. Xenophon’s slim treatise remains a worthwhile read for horsemen today, both for its practical advice and as a guide for the moral development of leaders in democracies.

I wonder if Xenophon himself was fully aware of what he was doing. For example, here's his first line:
         It has been my fortune to spend a great deal of time in riding, and so I think myself versed in the horseman’s art. This makes me willing to set forth to the younger of my friends what I believe would be the best way for them to deal with horses.

This is a strong hook. He establishes himself as an authority and offers “to the younger of [his] friends” some practical advice. At worst, that’s what they get. At best, those young friends of old or new may come to realize they’ve been given some excellent advice on diplomacy and the management of mankind as well as horses.

This is advice on leadership and delegation. His forthright and practical advice does not romanticize horses or even suggest a mutual friendship between man and horse. The horse is not a friend, but more a willing subject. Still Xenophon is the first to advocate that patience and judicious care bring willing submission. For example, he says,
     See to it that the colt be kind, used to the hand, and fond of men when he is put out to the horse-breaker. He is generally made so at home and by the groom, if the man knows how to manage so that solitude means to the colt hunger and thirst and teasing horseflies, while food, drink, and relief from pain come from man. For if this be done, colts must not only love men, but even long for them.
This doesn't sound like today’s idealized partnership of horse and rider, does it? In this stage, the owner/rider isn’t even directly involved. To me, it sounds like tasks are designated to underlings whose duty is to develop something like a horse version of Stockholm Syndrome.

I am not attacking Xenophon. His advice is still sound horsemanship, but his words reveal strong political and military undertones in his methods. For him, horsemanship is about learning control—both self-control and the command of others, horse or human. That his advice is meant for future leaders is also clear. His audience, “the younger of my friends,” had to be the sons of power and privilege, for only these people would have been literate and able to afford good horses.

So to those young men, Xenophon gives not a didactic treatise on morality or tactics, but excellent advice on practical horsemanship, a skill and a sport that still appeals to the vigorous, athletic youth of today. Under that though is another message: Knowing good horsemanship provides a model on how to lead, to command with ease, with authority, and even with the cooperation of the led.

It’s unsurprising that Xenophon of Athens would laud this type of relationship with a horse. Although we are taught that democracy means equality and freedom, people like Noam Chomsky have noted that underlying the concept is the art of convincing people to be willingly led. In a totalitarian society, the rulers simply use intimidation or outright force to silence those who resist.

The swings between authoritarian force and authoritative seduction are evident throughout man’s relationship with horses.

More of that in Part Three.

22 January 2010

"Stop Pulling! Stop Pulling!!"

I just watched this video of a bolting horse and I felt like I was channeling this rider's instructor, mouthing her words, feeling her concern.

Although I can't quite tell what started the bolt on this video, it's quite common for beginner riders to go off balance and tip forward after even a small jump. In fact, it's an inevitable part of learning, but more serious problems then arise because a horse understands leaning forward as a request for more speed. English riding instructor Heather Moffett, cleverly and appropriately, calls this curled position the "fatal crouch." The situation typically becomes even worse when the rider tries to slow down the horse by pulling. Again, it's a natural response. People instinctively want to bend forward to protect their soft bellies and to use their hands to force a stop. Unfortunately, this clashes with the horses' instincts to go faster when humans tip forward and to flee in terror when people grab and pull at their mouths. So, if a rider wants a recipe for a bolt here it is: Lean forward and pull.

Anyone wanting to see how experienced riders slow a horse down has only to watch a televised horse race. After the finish line, how do jockeys slow and stop their horses? Do they crouch and hang on tight? Hardly. That's what they did to get their mounts to try to break the sound barrier. To slow and stop, they stand straight up and slowly lengthen the reins.

Going back to the video, it also shows how pulling can also cause a horse to rear. This far more dangerous situation is from seconds 30 through 38 on the video. The horse had stopped, but the rider's adrenalized tension and lack of experience likely caused her to pull when the horse fidgeted. Luckily, this rider respected her instructor enough to follow her instruction to "stop pulling." Almost anyone who's ever taken a riding lesson understands how much bravery and discipline it takes to surrender to instruction and respond appropriately when the body is screaming clutch the reins and hang on for dear life.

Learning to disregard instincts is among the most difficult challenges for a rider. This is one reason my students typically spend months and months on the longe. And even when they go off the longe line, they ride in bosal hackamores or natural horsemanship halters for a long time before their introduction to the snaffle. A beginner can do enough damage with even a halter, but my no-bits-for-beginners policy helps keep my horses sane and,in turn, keeps my students safer. Meanwhile, they learn that even riding with a halter means working on lightness.

It takes a couple of years to develop a good seat, but it's generally a lot longer before a rider grasps--pun intended--the limited role of hands in good riding.

21 January 2010

Who Are You? -- Part One

The English have this proverb: "Show me your horse and I will tell you who you are." Still one of the best lines I've ever heard, it deserves several posts on the history, psychology, politics, ethics, and meditative aspects of horsemanship.

I'll start with a personal story. My husband grew up in a wealthy Southern enclave, a place where women wore gloves and hats to shop and not just on Sunday. He once described his hometown as a place where people could live long, full lives without ever knowing what others thought of them. This most likely describes the ideal of a community where gatherings were superficial or politely guarded to promote a tolerant yet non-intimate type of social harmony. Such an ideal is, alas, far less likely between those brought up in less proper communities, and almost impossible between horse and rider where the horse will be direct and honest even if the rider isn't. In other words, the intimate relationship between horse and rider reveals the inner self whether the rider knows it or not. Aside from basic horsemanship skills, this relationship shows our ability to communicate, our basic assumptions on the use of force, fairness, reciprocity, and a whole bunch of other things. In short, it shows much about our personalities and even our politics.

Of course a few riders of extreme patience and skill avoid too many awkward and intimate revelations of their flaws and those of their horses. These few make themselves and their mounts look good no matter what problems they’ve encountered. I’ve seen some examples. A local woman regularly exhibits a Shire at the local county fair. In his early years, she rode him as both a dressage horse and a western reining horse. And now, showing him as an exhibition horse, she still makes a member of the coldest of the cold breeds look light and easy! On the international level, Many years ago, I watched a televised interview with veteran eventer J. Michael Plumb where he complained how dull and uninterestingly unpleasant his Olympic mount Bluestone was. I was surprised. Watching him on the cross-country course, I would have sworn they were a happy, harmonious pair. Those who have been lucky enough to see Reiner Klimke's victory lap with the heralded seventy-five consecutive flying changes on the once notoriously difficult Ahlerich will know what I mean. Such tactful, persistent skill in riders is rare indeed. At the very least, it shows a nearly miraculous connection with a horse. At best, it may well show the most noble, patient aspects of a human being.

Most of us can expect our horses to tell the world—at least the world of horsemen—exactly who we are. Non-horseman may argue with this. In fact, one of my daily vocabulary emails arrived just now with this as the daily quotation:

         The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older
         and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete,
         gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never
         attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not
         brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught
         with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of
         the splendor and travail of the earth.
                        -Henry Beston, naturalist and author (1888-1968).

With the horse, Beston was wrong. While most of the elements Beston describes are true, the horse did not arrive “finished and complete.” Man selected and shaped the horse, and, for better or worse, that selection and shaping of the species and finally the development of specific breeds, for work, for war, and for display, allowed man to spread across the world and dominate the earth. This shaping and developing also reveals much about the people who changed horses and horsemanship

That's what I want to talk about over the next series of posts.