Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jean-Claude Racinet / Homage to a Man of Knowledge and Feel

Jean-Claude Racinet

While browsing online, I chanced upon the news that a man who had played a vital role in my life had passed away this past Saturday.

Jean-Claude Racinet is the man who inspired me to learn all I could about Francois Baucher and to make the quest for Légèreté part of my equestrian journey. Jean-Claude was passionate, driven, gifted and very generous with his knowledge. France's loss was America's gain, and I know that after immigrating to the United States, Jean-Claude touched the lives of many equestrians who had never before been exposed to Classical French Equitation.

It was through Ivan Bezugloff's monthly publication of Dressage & CT back in the 1990's when I first experienced the phenomenal authorship of Jean-Claude Racinet. Profound in its depth of details, exquisitely visual with its capacity to relay personal anecdotes and vibrating with incorrigible French wit, Jean-Claude's writing captivated me from the beginning of each article to the end. So moved was I by Jean-Claude's descriptions of riding horses in collection on a loose rein versus a taut one, I wrote to him personally to ask if this was something that happened only occasionally or if it was the norm for this type of equitation. I received a very earnest reply which evolved into many years of learning and friendship with Jean-Claude, as well as his extremely capable wife, Susan.

I first met Jean-Claude in person at a clinic in Traverse City, Michigan. Kevin and I brought our two Polish Arabian geldings for two days of lessons. Mistral and Jean-Claude did not get on to well together, but he really liked Kevin's horse Phoenix and after riding him in a demonstration for one of Kevin's lessons, he remarked with satisfaction, "This is a good horse!"

I watched Jean-Claude ride several horses during this clinic--I think it was of utmost importance for his understanding of the horse to "feel" him from the saddle. Jean-Claude had a spectacular seat, a perfect example of position by balance rather than position by muscular might as I had been taught by my previous dressage instructor. This "feel" was a dialogue between Jean-Claude and the horse: mouth-tongue-bit-rein speaking to fingers and arms... upper body-stomach-lower lumbar-seat-legs sensing the hindquarter engagement, hoof-placement, breathing and muscle responses of the horses body.

One horse he rode displeased me greatly, the dialogue during work on flying changes of lead was more brusque and punitive than I would have expected Jean-Claude to engage in. (Such is the bane of a traveling clinician--often expected to produce on the spot results which compromise occasionally on time-honored finesse.) But the others, were like watching a sculptor at work with fine tools instead of the chisel and hammer of the first example. One overweight Paso Fino remains etched in my mind. This horse was a trail horse. His owner had brought him to Jean-Claude to have some osetopathic bodywork done. This horse had never had a dressage lesson and didn't look at all capable of elegant movement even if he had. After palpating and working on the trouble spots of this horse's spine, Jean-Claude asked if he could ride the gelding to feel if his manipulations had helped. At first, I had no clue what I was seeing--so different it was from the type of dressage riding I had training in by other instructors. Instead of using incessant leg aids to drive the horse on to a steady contact with the bit and attempting to soften and collect via endlessly trotting in circles, Jean-Claude allowed the horse to be temporarily "inverted"--with a high head, low withers, hollow back and disengaged hindquarters. And to add to this ugly "frame", he went about in brief reprises of mincing walk, halt and reinback. The reins were long, the reins were short, the reins were high, the reins were dropped on the neck, the reins were all over the place! Jean-Claude's heels tap-tapped now, and not now, and his whip was tapping on the horse's croup now, and not now. I was just about to think that our studying with Jean-Claude was a mistake when something amazing happened. This chubby little horse, looking all awkward and ugly simply melted into the image of a baroque haute école destrier. His jaw softened, his withers lifted, his neck rounded, his poll flexed, his hindquarters tilted under, his rear legs stepped under his body and all his joints became fluid springs--the mincing steps were replaced by elevated dancing. I had just witnessed the very best of Baucher's "second manner". No one looked more pleased about the transformation than the horse himself, who likely didn't realize he could use his body in such a powerfully united and graceful way.

In addition to his devotion to redeeming the work of Baucher, Jean-Claude also came to be an adept of equine osteopathy. Working in close communication with Dr. Dominique Giniaux in France, Jean-Claude became so excited about the correlations between Baucher's flexions and their similarity to osteopathic manipulations that he translated two of Dr. Giniaux's books into English and wrote a book titled Total Horsemanship demonstrating the curative aspect of Baucher's methods and their harmony with osteopathic concepts.

I have had the pleasure of working with Jean-Claude on cover art which he incorporated into his books Racinet Explains Baucher and Total Horsemanship, published by Xenophon Press.

When I was asked to come up with a painting which could be used on the cover of Racinet Explains Baucher, it was suggested that perhaps an image of Baucher in sepia colored tones could be included. Accustomed to painting animals and landscapes, the thought of rendering an image of a human was off-putting. If not for the positive encouragement of Susan Racinet, I believe I would have asked them to seek a professional portrait artist for this job instead. But Susan had confidence in my ability to try something new and was sure that she would be happy with the results. In the end, I decided to at least give it a try.

I had several photos taken from the Traverse City clinic which showed Jean-Claude discussing concepts with me. I was intrigued by the expressiveness of his gesticulating hands, whose activity did so much to "explain Baucher". It was then I decided that I would paint Jean-Claude himself as the focal point of the cover and paint smaller images of Baucher to overlay on the main painting. I had wanted to include in this journal entry the very photograph of Jean-Claude which I used as reference, but after tearing apart my archives (this was before digital cameras were the norm), I could not locate this photograph! However I did find one taken a few seconds before and have scanned it and pasted it in below.

Me and Mistral receiving instruction from Jean-Claude Racinet
at a 1995(?) clinic in Traverse City, Michigan

I worked on several versions of the layout of the painting beginning with a pencil drawing from my sketch book:

and then worked up some watercolor washes to establish a sense of where I wanted to enhance depth and value using just the color sepia, loosely painting over a series of xeroxed copies of a pencil sketch, one of which looked like this:

When I sent the finished artwork to Susan, she was indeed pleased with it, so much so she asked if she could keep it, relaying that I had captured the essence of his remarkable hands in a way that moved her greatly.

And the finished cover, with the overlaid watercolor vignettes of Baucher turned out like this:

For his part, Jean-Claude thought I made him look too old, but he, too, was pleased with the cover art and wrote me this inscription inside the cover of the book which he sent to me shortly after the book was published:

A few years later, when Jean-Claude was working on the manuscript for Total Horsemanship, he asked if I would like to once again come up with a painting for the cover art. Of course, my answer was yes! Jean-Claude thought an image of a horse in piaffe would be nice, but could I include a bit of the horse's skeleton showing through. Heavens! How would I manage this? Susan was worried that it would end up looking too macabre to be suited for the cover of a book. But once again, I accepted the challenge and after consulting numerous scientific texts came up with this painting:

Prior to darkening the lines of the skeleton, I emailed JC a scanned version of the painting just to make sure it looked right to him. I don't recall which one of the bones it was (the femur maybe?) but it wasn't quite at the right angle according to Jean-Claude, and thankfully I was able to correct the error. When Jean-Claude and Susan received the original painting, JC left a message on our telephone answering machine which was so enthusiastic, like a school girl receiving praise from a favorite teacher, I played the message over and over until Kevin suggested I might wear out the machine if I didn't cease.

The finished cover looked like this and was later republished in French for the European market:

During the years of an active relationship with Jean-Claude and Susan, I was able to spend time learning from Jean-Claude at his home and at ours. It was a marvelous opportunity to get to know and appreciate them as friends and experience a bit of each other's worlds. I remember watching Jean-Claude lose himself in playing the piano, while his young son, Jean-Francois, entertained kittens on the floor nearby. I remember Kevin and I driving Jean-Claude to Oxford, Michigan for a meeting with Major Robert Borg (reader's of the old Dressage & CT articles will remember this unique and unlikely Baucheriste and his role with the U.S. Olympic Equestrian team in the late 1940's and early 1950's). On this several hour drive, we listened to the symphonies of Schubert and Schuman and talked about Jean-Claude's time in French army as well as Kevin's studies into the absurdity of the "war on drugs", during which time Jean-Claude's head bobbed downward in slumber. We had a lovely dinner with the quite elderly Major Borg and Jean-Claude presented him with a copy of Racinet Explains Baucher.

Jean-Claude gives Kevin a private lesson in our unfinished manege while
visiting us at our Michigan farm back in the late 1990's.
Kevin used to ride back then and it must have been very humorous for JC to give a lesson to a rider wearing overalls!

Jean-Claude having a delicate, "feeling" dialogue with Phoenix

When the Racinet's were preparing to move from South Carolina to Virginia, we were the fortunate recipients of one of Jean-Claude's personal horses, a large-bodied beautiful, tall, bay Morgan gelding named, Kilarney. Killer, they called him, because he just couldn't seem to get along with other horses and at 20 years old and trained a la Baucher, he was not a horse to sell, so he came to live with our cows and mules (we were still on our Michigan farm). Before dying from a tragic colic episode 18 months later, Kilarney taught me the splendor of passage, to which he was so well trained just an arching of my lower lumbar "forwarding the stomach to the hands" brought him into exquisite collection and springy, lofty dance steps.

There are many good stories--more than what I can relay in this entry--many wonderful conversations and times shared...many treasured memories.

Somewhere along the way, Jean-Claude and I drifted apart in our approach to horses and our correspondence dwindled and ended. Shortly before immigrating to Canada, Susan called me and we had a nice conversation, but that is the last we've communicated, though I have sent a few cards since our immigration to Canada. Time moves on, people explore new things, but always warm thoughts remain.

My journey with horses is so far away now from those days of Baucher and riding with a bits, bridles and coercing the horse to yield to the whims of humans, and yet there is so much of what Jean-Claude taught me that still has great meaning for where I am today and where I will be tomorrow. To quote from his first book, ANOTHER HORSEMANSHIP, "You perhaps think that you need a teacher. Now this can be taken care of, since you have not one, but two teachers at hand - your horse first, and...yourself, to boot."

For students who are suddenly feeling lost without this great riding master to mentor you on your journey, I wish for you these words to become a great comfort. Susan, if you happen to read this journal entry, know that my thoughts are with you and your family. I will send you something in the mail very soon.

Update: Thanks to the sensitive and very capable editing of Jean-Claude's longtime friend and colleague, Christian Kristen von Stetten, the last book authored by JCR has reached publication and is now available for purchase. Falling for Fallacies. Misleading Commonplace Notions of Dressage Riding is an attractive, thought provoking book which should be read by any student of collection.


eva said...

Lynne, what a gem of a memory you awakened here offering a glimpse into the man's being. I had no idea you new Jean-Claude personally and were able to watch this classical "dialogue" between the man and the horse in its depths and heights. The book covers are magnificent, a lasting tribute.

Do you have an inkling what it was between Mistral and JC that they wouldn't get along so well?

Heather Read said...

Lynne - thank you for writing this beautiful memorial to JC.

I began riding with JC not long before you in 1989. I was 9 yrs old at the time and he was reluctant to teach a youngster. So Susan trained me on a lounge line for nearly a year before I was allowed to ride with JC. I was blessed for that for Susan was such a patient teacher and without those lessons I would never have developed a seat.

I was privileged to ride with JC regularly when they were in NJ and then through clinics until about 2006 when I retired my mare who, bless her heart, danced in lightness with me until she was 25 years old. I too remember JCs stories and the endless drives from barn to barn when he was up for clinics. I will treasure all of the memories I have of JC from my childhood through today as he has had a most profound impact on my love of horses, my riding, my quest for knowledge, and perhaps the totality of my life.

JCs riding was masterful ... like watching an artist paint. And his integration of Baucher and osteopathy just genius. My work with JC and other influences has led me to exploring myofascial release and energy work in my riding. My hope is that someday I will be able to continue what I have learned with JC and piece together more pieces of the puzzle we call horsemanship!

Best regards,
Heather Read
heather (at) readandson (dot) com

Lynne Gerard said...

I never felt I was a stellar pupil of Jean-Claude, there are others who have had many more lessons with him than I--but I suppose my lessons with him were less on the horse and more in the esoteric realm, and often I never really knew where I fit in. One thing I remember him saying (after I apologized for being a gal who lived a simple life away from the typical horse circles) was that "gnosis happens in one's own backyard with one's own horse". And I this seems to be the place where much of my learning takes place, now...but I don't think that he would agree with some of the concepts that drive me now.

At any rate, our relationship was never something I felt I should toot a horn about, probably because I think in the end he was disappointed in me...

Regarding his not getting on well with Mistral--this was due to the fact that in order to reach Mistral one was completely obliged to approach him first in the psychological realm--a realm within which he was so tightly wrapped that any physical demands upon him would stimulate a revolt.

When Jean-Claude attempted to dialogue with Mistral while astride at the clinic in Traverse City, Mistral's response was to capriole--not by request either! Thank goodness Jean-Claude stayed astride and didn't suffer a fall...

And there were other such confrontations...which--thanks to the beautiful personality of Jean-Claude, I could discuss with him and be totally honest in my misgivings with what he was attempting to do for my horse--which my horse was not in a state of mind to appreciate during an osteopathic session. That one is a very long story...and once again Jean-Claude felt it important to set aside the psychological needs of the horse and address the physical needs first--this because he was leaving on a plane in the morning and felt the best use of his time was to address the physical.

But, with Mistral, this was always a trauma, and the psychological should always have been first...even Jean-Claude admitted this in the end.

Lynne Gerard said...

Heather Read--
Oh thank you for finding this tribute to Jean-Claude and adding to it some of your own experiences and memories of such a stellar equestrian!

I don't know how you found me, but I'm glad you did, and please, please feel free to spread around the link to this journal entry devoted to Jean-Claude.

I will email you, perhaps tomorrow.

I absolutely agree, "Jean-Claude's riding was masterful", and I suppose it is very fitting and right that his passing should be relating to a riding accident--wouldn't you agree?

Heather Read said...

During every clinic I remember us all worrying so greatly about his health and the horses that he would get on, that he would not get hurt. His heart was always the main concern because of his operations. We took such special care in the summer months to make sure he had shade, AC, water, and big breaks between to rest ...

So many people he cliniced with just didn't care - they just wanted their lesson and their moneys worth. This was why (I believe) he was forced to expedite and limit what was accomplished in his lessons because the nature of clinicing is ultimately to make the client happy, which can not always mean doing the best for the horse. I remember quite a few discussions with him about his disappointment that he could not do more in his lessons. But I also don't know of any other trainer who would turn a 1 hour lesson into 2 hours, out of the goodness of his heart because "the horse needed it."

In any event, the irony that his accident happened in Germany does not escape me. I don't know the students that he was working with nor the nature of there horses, but I hope that they took the same care that we did with JC.

I don't think I could ever think of what would be fitting. JC was a perpetual spirit who could have lived forever and constantly discovered new things. I had a farrier once who passed from a heart attack out in the field with his horses. That to me was more poetic.

Anonymous said...

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Lynne Gerard said...

Thank you for taking the time to leave your comments and providing me an opportunity to revisit this journal entry paying homage to Jean-Claude Racinet. Jean-Claude will always be a towering figure in my memory.

I think the internet is a marvelous tool for uniting people from different cultures all over the world. Sharing our lives through blogs has the power to expose our common humanity and stimulates an appreciation for different perspectives.

I don't know hardly any of the people who chance to read the Journal of Ravenseyrie, but it is my desire to share with all of them the beauty of this special landscape, spread information on the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses, and inspire new ways of approaching horse/human relationships--which, actually has a broader application to all those entities we share the planet with.

So its warming to know that such efforts are appreciated. Martha, thank you for stopping by to visit this blog.