03 February 2010

Who Are You? -- Part Three


Getting  my energy up to discuss the Italian nobleman Frederico Grisone is difficult.  First of all, his 1550 manual on horse training has yet to be translated into English although I've heard someone is working on it.  I'm not sure I care since, to me, the bit to the left pretty much says it all.  Grisone was a product of the Renaissance, a glorious time that glorified Man--specifically, the civilized Christian man doing God's work, i.e. dominating the world.  Lesser creatures--be they New World natives or horses--look out!

Did I mention that horses often had teeth pulled to accommodate this type of bit, which I believe weighed up to five pounds or so.

Here is another example of Grisone's methods. This one shows how to teach a horse to lead. I wanted to use another illustration, one with a man poking a horse with a vicious cat that's been bound to the end of a long stick, but I can't find it right now.  I suspect the less inventive illustration shown here is still vivid enough to make my point.

This Who Are You topic is not simply to condemn Grisone. I consider his horse torture reprehensible, but it is important to understand the underlying assumptions or beliefs that led to this type of approach.

Most horsemen are products of their time.  A few rise above their day, but most do not.  Perhaps Xenophon was just lucky and reflected the most enlightened atmosphere of ancient Greece. Perhaps Grisone was trapped by unfortunate elements of the Italian Renaissance and hence became a different type of trainer. As Sylvia Loch points out in Dressage: The Art of Classical Riding "sixteenth century Italian thinking was concerned as much with creating a grand illusion, as with seeking the truth. In drama, literature, art, and politics, rhetoric and spectacle abounded." That's the key to Grisone's methods and his time: "A grand illusion."

Unsurprisingly, Grisone was a contemporary of Nicolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, the ultimate guide for leaders who want to retain power without having to be ethical or even particularly competent. The advice found in The Prince contends that the ends justify the means and that appearance trumps reality.  

So, with Grisone the central issues of Who Are You arise. For horsemen perhaps we can simply ask this:  Who was closer to the truth:  Xenophon or Grisone?  Which is better: democractic cooperation or totalitarian coercion?

I'd like to think the answer is simple, but it isn't.  Both nature and nurture are at play.  Our eras may pull us in one direction while our natural inclinations may pull us in another.  Few of us think or intuit our way out of cultural givens.  And in this case, Grisone succumbed to the standard assumptions of his culture and resorted to force, still an easy path for all too many people.
Let’s face it. Force can work IF the ends justify the means. Grisone solved disagreements between horse and rider not through the patient coaxing advised by Xenophon but through force, brutal force if necessary. For example, Grisone actually used something not unlike waterboarding on horses that feared crossing water, and anyone familiar with the work of psychologist Martin Seligman knows that relentless torture produces a sort of resigned compliance, “learned helplessness.”

This however leads to a more central issue of the governance of a horse: Do the ends indeed justify the means? Grisone's results were probably quite pleasing to the eyes of most. Only a few, undoubtedly those with both knowledge of and an innate sympathy for the horse, would see the underlying truth of Grisone's methods: a master-slave relationship.

The concept of master-slave then leads to a still deeper question. Isn’t that what all horse-rider relationships are? Is partnership possible with a lesser being? Are horses indeed lesser beings?

These are questions that people I deem real horseman answer in ways that most people, including many top riders, do not. Unfortunately, I still know people who heartily approve of the master-slave relationship between horse and rider. They apply draw reins and tie-downs and scoff at what’s now called natural horsemanship.

Reading Xenophon or just looking at the illustrations of Grisone's work should prompt a person to ask  "Who am I? Do I  seek CONTROL or COOPERATION?" These are central issues, not just for horsemen but for humanity. Who rules? How? And why?

Luckily for many generations of well-bred horses, Grisone's harsh methods quickly fell from favor--if not always from practice--at least at the upper levels of riding.  But this leads to yet another question.  Why then is Grisone often still referred to as the father of modern dressage?

From what I see, Grisone's importance lies not so much in what he wrote but that that he wrote SOMETHING.  The printing press was invented in 1440 and a century later books were becoming much more common among the wealthy.  So the printing press allowed Grisone's then fashionable method to spread rapidly.  Indeed, his work was printed, reprinted, translated, and spread around much of Europe. As a writing instructor, I know that it's much easier to rewrite or even rip apart a text or one's own draft than it is to sit down and come up with original ideas while staring at a blank page.

What's true for reading and writing is also true for actual experience, and the Italian riding schools attracted Europe's aristocracy.  So Grisone and his proteges gave other noble horsemen a framework to refine, retool, and rebel against.  And they did. The ideas of others prompt us to respond. So we have to give Grisone credit for giving later, more humane horseman some starting points and a choice.  In this case, most went back to Xenophon. 

As proof of the evolution of horsemanship in Europe, here's an illustration from a fine German site showing the progressive changes to dressage bits that occurred as other horseman started reworking what Grisone began. Click on the picture to make it larger.

For still more information, there is a good discussion here:  Federigo Grisone's Gli Ordini di Cavalcare

I'll post more on these later folks in Part 4, whenever I get around to it.