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.