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.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Nothing Less Than This - Defined

(photo: Leslie Town)

"Nothing less than this" means that old perceptions of what I once thought was acceptable in horse/human relationships have no place in where I find myself today and I will accept interacting with horses only when it is something that they choose and not something I impose upon them. The interactions I described in yesterday's entry demonstrate this quite vividly.

Historically, horses have been hunted for food and domesticated for labor. We have forced them to carry us into war, to shoulder our burdens, to till our fields and participate in our concepts of sporting pleasure. To do all these things we have had to design and manufacture various means of restraint, some more torturous than others...all meant to suppress the horse's instinct and desires, and through mild irritation to intense pain convince him to bend to our will instead.

Leslie Town)

The controversial French écuyer, Francois Baucher (who I idolized for quite some time), in the nineteenth century defined horse training as ridding the horse of his "instinctive forces" and replacing them with "transmitted forces", the epitome of which was a horse who held himself in collection between the "weight of the reins and the breath of the boots", demonstrating exquisite lightness to the aids and reveling in the state of "liberty on parole".

Mistral and Zeus
(photo: Leslie Town)

When given the choice of positioning his body to balance in collection wherein the cessation of aids is granted and relief is found, or resisting the rider's directives which brings on the pulsated pressure of the bit and the punishment of the heels (with or without spurs), horses soon learn to choose the former.

In modern dressage, it is even worse, for there is no cessation of the aids, the horse is constantly pressed between bit and spur, and, unable to carry himself in collection due to these unrelenting pressures, he gives instead a false collection that some YouTube Olympic videos call "dancing" (take no note of the clenched jaw and wringing tail).

My history is in dressage, but it is little different with those who pursue various versions of Natural Horsemanship...the entire premise of training is based on finding a way to compel the horse to become "useful" to humans. Running a horse in a round pen until it stops resisting and gives up its independence is no different than putting pressure on a halter and lead rope until the horse softens and follows. If the horse says "no", he is sent back to running around the round pen or the lead rope is firmed up, wriggled, snapped, etc. until such time the horse finds the right answer of "yes". Relief and praise follow a "yes", added pressure is the human's response to a "no". The best of these trainers use so little pressure things progress with minimal resistance, while others are brutal and brusque giving a bad name to otherwise fairly gentle means of establishing a usable dialogue with horses.

(photo: Leslie Town)

All this so that we can "do" things with horses...ride them, drive them, breed them. Even new age equine psychotherapy centers on "using" the horse to heal emotional trauma in humans. I have come to ask myself, must we always "do" something with horses? Must we always "use" them? No one thinks to inquire of those who chose to have dogs in their lives what they "use" them for or what they "do" with them. I see no fault in horses and humans developing a means of mutually enjoying one another simply for the sake of companionship. And should such a companionship evolve into playing and training in ways that empower and encourage the horse (and human) to develop their minds and bodies in such a manner that creates something more artistically fulfilling than what can be achieved separate from each other, so much the better.Link
(photo: Leslie Town)

How timely that in Germany someone like Imke Spilker comes along and tells us that horses have a right to say "no".

In Russia, Alexander Nevzorov is saying the same thing.

In a recent interview with the online Horses For Life magazine, Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling relays, "For sure, my approach to the horses is a very simple thing. If the horse does not want me to jump on him and ride him, I will not do it. The horse has to come to me and say 'please ride me because I like it. I'm more fresh after the ride than before. I'm healthier, stronger, and prouder when you have been riding me than before." I would never do anything with the horse if the horse is suffering at all in any way and losing quality of life."

In sunny California, Carolyn Resnick tells the world that a horse should have the space and freedom to escape her influence if he needs to. She is looking to establish a spiritual bond, where a horse comes to be with her through a "magnetic heart connection". In a recent entry on her blog, Carolyn writes, "I want a horse to know that he can run away if he chooses and the reason I seek his company is because I like being with him, not that he needs to do something for me. I demonstrate to the horse that I will always respect his wishes and I will never enter his personal space without permission."

(photo: Leslie Town)

So this is where my journey with horses finds me now, accepting no less than this as the foundation for how I share my life with these fabulous beings. I'm thankful to those people who have already challenged traditional modes of horse/human interactions. In sharing their journeys publicly, they have opened a new world of beauty for me, and I hope that many more equestrians experience and embrace the feeling of "no less than this" for themselves.
Grazing Grullas
(photo: Leslie Town)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Nothing Less Than This

Here at Ravenseyrie, a multitude of alternative approaches to horsemanship (and life in general) present themselves on a regular basis. Partly, I think this "alternative" life is stimulated by physically dwelling in a rugged, remote wilderness area - but also it is influenced by the predilections and choices Kevin and I have incorporated into our philosophy of "beingness". Our intentions, coupled with the setting of Ravenseyrie, constitutes a symbiotic relationship which manifests itself as a continual sensory and psychological evolution shared by us and the animals, plants and elements, one and all.

This is my excuse for my habit of breaking with tradition and engaging in seemingly "risky" behavior.

Tuesday, after our evening meal, the pups and I hiked out to the northwest sector where the herd was plucking at the emerging eats in the "Scanty Field". I brought nothing with me...no basket of brushes, no camera and no treats. (Any hiker carrying horse cookies is soon roughly mobbed by the herd, so I only feed treats in certain settings.) My intention was simply to enjoy the mellowness of the evening and bid a good evening to each equine individual.

I could see that Doll had already regarded me visually and was fixing to send out a magnetic vibration to hook me into giving her a finger currying and massage. I didn't want to be employed as a personal groom this night and refrained from making eye-contact with the draft mule and walked with quick determination on a diagonal trajectory taking me away from her...but it was too late! She'd cleverly walked with equally quick determination in such a way that an interception was imminent. Just at the point of nearly colliding, her heart magnet altered my intention and instead of stepping around and breezing right on by her, I stopped briefly and told her that if she wanted a massage that badly, I'd meet up with her at a large boulder that was some fifty feet away. I pointed it out and then turned my back to her and briskly walked to the rock and stepped up on it. Doll came straight over and positioned herself just right and invited me aboard. I slipped on to her back and began an earnest session of "mounted itches".

The sun was low and warm, and slightly blinding. The herd grazed in an aura of late day light. An idea emerged in my mind, and though I had never done such a thing with Doll before, I decided the night was magic enough that the idea should be acted upon. Using my focused intention and appropriate body positioning, I invited Doll to turn to the right and take us over to another rock some thirty feet away. You aren't the least bit surprised, are you, that Doll did exactly what I suggested? Can you imagine the sensation of this type of communication and willing participation between two disparate beings? We did several variations of this playful exercise interspersed with intense rewards of itches and massages. It was for me a much headier experience than any of my first place winnings at dressage competitions so many years ago with Mistral.

Once again, I am convinced that for myself, being with horses (or mules) should be nothing less than this.

Last evening we had an engagement in town - so rare a thing, and so filled with conflicting emotion. It was another lovely spring evening - we've waited SO long for spring warmth, I didn't want to go to town! I wanted to be out with the dogs and the horses and the birds and the rocks. Kevin agreed I had just enough time for a quick walk before changing clothes and attending the viewing of a documentary being presented by the Manitoulin Community Food Network.*

Off the pups and I went, my camera bag slung over my shoulder, my walking stick assisting me in negotiating the uneven terrain hastily, yet safely. The herd was again in the "Scanty Field" and I thought I could quickly snap a few photos and then head back to the house.

The same thing happened this night as the prior one! Doll and her heart magnet...me with a camera to record how these strange communications transpire.

I walked to the rock and stood upon it. Doll came over
and positioned herself just right.
But before I committed myself to sliding aboard, I noticed that a handful of horses were interested this evening in what Doll and I were up to.
It's one thing to ride completely tackless in the big wide open when the other herd members are preoccupied--but when they are converging upon you with youthful curiosity, it seemed prudent to refrain from taking Doll up on her offer.
It was a good thing I didn't mount up, in short order, Bella feigned a nip to Doll's rump and sent her scurrying away.
Then Altamiro came over to scrutinize me.

And Animado, especially wanted to try out the feeling of getting itches with the human standing on the rock.

And what of Doll? She had walked over to where I had left my walking stick leaning on a nearby rock, and mouthed it briefly before wandering off to graze.

It was just as well - after all, with a commitment to be elsewhere, enjoying the liberty riding with Doll would take me into a timeless realm and I'd surely disappoint Kevin by not returning when promised. After taking my few photos, I hustled back to the house, just in time.

So what does "nothing less than this" mean?

I'll answer this question in detail in my next journal entry.
*Note: The link to the website of the Manitoulin Community Food Network is made possible thanks to the dogged-brillance of my sometimes geeky husband, Kevin Droski, who taught himself how to make web pages and the MCFN is his first effort. What a man!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Article by Imke Spilker

After careful consideration, my friend, Kris, and Imke Spilker have decided that it would be a nice treat for readers of the Journal of Ravenseyrie to have opportunity to read in full the article I quoted from in the entry titled, More on Empowered Horses. (Click here for the first entry on the Empowered Horses book.) The article you'll be reading today was first published in the October 1997 issue of Freizeit im Sattel. We are ever closer (days?) to receiving ordered copies of the Trafalgar Square edition of Empowered Horses. In the meantime, thanks to the thoughtful generosity of Imke and Kris, we can sample a bit of how Imke relates with horses through this dated, yet timeless article. Thank you, Kris and Imke, for this opportunity! (If readers would like to discuss this article, I'd be happy to open up our comments section for this, please feel free to leave your impressions, questions, etc.)

How communication develops body awareness

The Horse Too is Allowed to Say “No”
by Imke Spilker
Translated by Kristina McCormack

In keeping horses, the trend is unmistakable: we give our horses more freedom because we have learned that it does them good. We give them an open stall or a paddock, and, with others of their kind, they can decide when and why and where to go, in which activities around them they will participate and whether they would rather withdraw. In the project:
Communicating With Horses Imke Spilker carries this principle of free choice over into the foundation-building ground work. The horses may always decide whether and how they would like to participate. Does that sound strange? Read on to discover how and why this works, and how it affects horses and people.

Anyone who has worked intensively with animals over a long period of time notices that they have a very good sense for what is right for them. So why is it that this realization is so totally ignored when it comes to the training and physical development of horses? Why do we have to force them to do what is good for them, or should be, according to human conviction? I want to be with horses, to experience things together, and to do something for them to help them in their physical development. Our horses here know that. When they see us coming (carrying tack, for example) they all gather at the entrance to the fenced-in but always open riding arena, fighting to see who gets to go first. Their participation happens entirely of their own free will – they can at any time leave the arena via an exit passage that is never closed off. The horses are fascinated by this kind of work, as we are. No one gives them instructions about what has to be done – they have equal rights. Instead of the orders or demands of a strict hierarchy, they are met with fun, acknowledgment, and empowerment. So there are no “lazy” horses – because someone who comes of his own free will and works out of his own interest in the subject is highly motivated. How does this happen?

What benefits, motivates
You begin with those things that a horse clearly likes and finds pleasant, food for example, or scratching. I observe a horse very closely and think about how I can do a little something to make him happy. That can vary widely – for example, some horses view treats as bribery. And, no horse will piaffe in exchange for snacks. In the end the only motivation is that the horses realize that it is good for them to work this way. It helps them and they are possessed by the good feelings that ensue. Then it is more likely that you will have to temper their enthusiasm because they simply do not want to stop working (for those situations we have a consolation prize?).

Lord and Master, or Friend?
Horses must be dominated, according to conventional wisdom. When that does not happen, chaos ensues and a human being is hopelessly at the mercy of his horse. This is a macho-myth that is very helpful to people of a certain psychological profile. But, for others it is not. Many people have become very insecure because of this myth – simply because they actually like their horses. For them, questions like this arise: Do I have to enforce my will, even though I may be the one making a mistake? Must I be lord and master when I would rather be friend? May I be affectionate with my horse, may I let him nuzzle and “groom” me? Many people do not feel right autocratically laying claim to the “alpha” position. They are sensitive to the arrogance that lies behind this, they sense the ignorance – and the danger that ensues from such behavior…For these people the position of the horse in our project is more fitting. Kim, for example, has been part of the project for a couple of years. He was one of those Haflingers that everyone saw as too stupid, too lazy, too clumsy, stubborn...and he was handled accordingly. Kim believed this himself. He became white eyed, high headed, pulled people down, and tumbled off an embankment…just what you’d expect from a mixture of mountain draft with Arabian bloodlines. But he is actually not like that (no horse is), and today he knows it. He has come to very precisely know his strengths, his body’s power, and his hindquarters, and he carries himself even into piaffe like an Iberian. Playfully he unfolds his power, perfectly masters his body, and knows exactly what he is doing. In the photo (below) Kim has, through looks and gentle nudges, invited the person, whom he likes and has known for a while, to come into the arena and play with him. For the person this is all still relatively new, but he joins in the running simply because Kim has invited him. They are having great fun, experiencing unconditional trust and perfect harmony with one another. At the same time, Kim indicates with his “listening within” ear position that he is very much in himself, focused on his own body. His transformation into a sensitive and supple athlete is based on the increased trust in himself.

How lightly the rather massive Kim moves on his hindquarters – a bending of the haunches that he perfected on his own. He has become very agile, and very aware of his body.

A moment of quiet intimacy: when things become too wild for a person the horses sense it immediately and contain themselves.

Intuition, Not Rigid Methods
No one here just tacks up and leaps onto a horse’s back, rather we first come together with the horse on the ground, on the same level. Riding without the horse first clearly inviting, does not interest us. How the work proceeds depends entirely on the horse. There are no recipes, and it can be different each time, because both horse and person are individuals who are constantly changing. Our basic requirement is to be open when we approach the horse, and to like him exactly as he is. It is shocking how rarely one encounters that liking in practice, particularly among “professionals.” Bad intentions are attributed to the horses, they are handled as though they are deliberately dangerous, everything becomes an issue of respect, which is beaten in, and in the end one arrives at what the horses already have in excess: fear. Our inner attitude toward the horse is enormously important. We have all had the experience of someone treating us unjustly and with great mistrust. At some point we actually behave just as expected, confirming the prejudgment in retrospect. This influence can be positive, too. We can empower each other in our positive qualities. That is actually what we do with the horses here, or they with us…depending on the point of view. That is why the horses gladly participate in the work, why they come by to show themselves off, present their physical talents and develop them further. Fitness and physical development are quintessentially in their self-interest. Horses have only their bodies with which to express themselves, and they do that with enthusiasm.

Self-responsibility Required
Taking responsibility for themselves is a quality that is thoroughly driven out of horses from their youth on. They are not allowed to have an opinion, rather, they are supposed to obey. The more naturally they grow up and are kept, the more familiar they will be with self-responsibility. The example of Ole, a young Norwegian gelding makes this clear. At first he is still shy, does not want to do anything wrong, is a bit afraid. This makes him heavy-headed like many horses of his type. But, after 15 minutes of “communication” he begins to feel strong and self-confident. His movements become rhythmic and powerful and graceful. How? He was given no task to do, but discovered, through the human being, that he is doing nothing wrong and that the person finds him good. Through this sort of affirmation and acknowledgement a horse continuously develops himself further and the level of his work continuously rises. The horse offers exercises of his own accord even to the level of high school once he has gotten that far. Ole would rarely move as he does on the photo by himself. He needs us for that. In the work together, however, the development of the horses rapidly gains a surprising dynamic of it own.
Between these first two photos fifteen minutes passed which we spent together in the riding arena. Ole is here for the first time, and shy and insecure at the beginning. He gains more self-confidence just from the praise and affirmation of the human being, and it is mirrored immediately in the way he carries himself.
Icelandic stallion Toppur shows us how something like this looks at a much higher level. His measured rhythmic jumps in an uphill canter show a baroque exercise. The Galopade demands a very focused use of his haunches. Toppur masters this demanding exercise completely independently, without being disturbed with constant corrections. He remains wholly centered because he can keep his attention on himself instead of on the instructions of the human being.

Baroque elegance in Icelandic: Toppur is perfectly collected and balanced, totally focused on his body. Movement this expressive and in self-carriage is only possible because both horse and person desire it.

Help with Disabilities
This work in dialog is particularly suited to horses with physical or psychic(emotional/mental/spiritual) afflictions. “Untalented”, resigned, broken-down horses immediately sense the difference (unconditional acceptance from the human being) and quickly change for the positive as they internalize what they have learned and take it further. So, more and more they help and train themselves. It is admirable how deliberately and with how much energy handicapped horses in particular apply themselves. A physically damaged horse must always determine for himself the content and degree of difficulty of his exercise program. How else can I be sure that I am not over-facing or tormenting him?

Alternating Roles
To come to an understanding with communicative horses, the person must absolutely not be an “expert.” On the contrary, a “newbie” is more open, giving the horses space comes easier to him. The horses are happy to teach us and enjoy that role. A prerequisite is that the person has learned to pay attention to his partner, the horse, and respect his wishes. The horses sense whether or not a basis of mutuality exists. Once it is established, both parties can develop their sensitivity, to themselves and to the other. Intuitive understanding functions (only) in both directions. Naturally, we are asked whether this kind of interaction can become dangerous for the human being. Horses are by nature peaceful beings who do not make victims of weaker ones, and who scrupulously avoid deliberately hurting someone. Danger exists when the person applies pressure and force, and the horse can no longer retreat from the situation. A horse who has the possibility of walking away, whose needs for peace and space are respected, will harm no one. A game into which the horse is pressured is no longer one (even if the person is amused by it). On the other hand, without force or threat, even the most strenuous exercises can be playfully easy for the horse. One must learn to let go, and one must think from the horse’s perspective – that is all too gladly forgotten about. To me there is nothing safer than communicating with horses in this way -- anything else strikes me as too dangerous. I do not like battles because someone always has to lose. The message that comes across when we communicate with one another depends to a large degree on how we say something. That applies to communication with horses as well. A horse must be able to say “no” at any time and have the freedom to leave, and then we human beings must design our work in such away that the horse truly benefits by it.

In the conventional perception whips are negative to both people and horses – instruments for hitting and punishment. Horses connect them with certain experiences. That is why it can be so exciting for them to confront whips. A parallel example: It is fun for children to be thrown into the air… in part because of the threat of falling. But this is a game only as long the child himself wants the excitement and feels protected and safe. If his feelings are not precisely observed and respected, the game falls apart and becomes trauma. Our horses sometimes “conquer” the whips so thoroughly that we have a great deal of wear and tear – the whips are bitten, trampled, and crushed.

Once again, here are just a few links to where EMPOWERED HORSES by Imke Spilker can be purchased.
From the publisher
From Amazon.ca
From Amazon.com
(Amazon.com says the book will be in stock on 17April09!)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Walk in Two Realms

This past Sunday, the morning was stiff from temperatures dropping below freezing. The pups and I decided to see if the snow down the bluff was firm enough to support our weight. It was! So, down the bluff we went, exploring our way to the lake shore.

Ravenseyrie is situated on the East Bluff of Gore Bay with a half mile of "frontage" on the North Channel of Lake Huron. This bluff, aprroximately 300 feet high is comprised of limestone and dolostone with exoskeleton sections of the Niagara Escarpment playing hide and seek with the forest. The bluff's edge running along northwest sector of Ravenseyrie falls away rather acutely, but a bit more north central, the retreating ancient lake levels have carved terraces into the bluff, making it possible for the prior inhabitants to cut a crude road that bends and curves its way down to the lake shore. There are several somewhat steep hills between each terraced level. The terraced areas are quite narrow except for the third one down, which has a curious swath of boulder ladened open space which Kevin and I call "the Grotto". The Grotto collects a pool of water that dries up in mid-summer. Right now, this pool is quite pronounced with the spring melt water.

We continue our descent, marveling at just how deep the snow is on the road, and yet it falls away here and there and even has rivers of melt adjacent to it.

After several more hills and turns of the road, we are at the bottom of the bluff with the North Channel spread out in front of us, just beyond the edge of the forest.

Amazingly, the edge of the shoreline is open water! It's only a matter of a week or so now before the lake begins breaking up in earnest.

How grand it is to be down on the beach again! The dogs enjoy walking the rocky beach as much as I do.

But wait...I'm seeing only Ganja, Tobacco and Shelagh in this photo...where's Maeb? "Maaayebb! Where are you?" Oh no! Look where Maeb is:

Thankfully, the water is shallow underneath that untrustworthy ice, but just the same, I called Maeb back to the safety of the shore. We resumed our shore line explorations.

It happens in my fanciful world that when I am out exploring I am drawn down one path or another by the whim of some inner prodding. When I follow the direction I am being called to, I am always rewarded with a gift of some sort; a feather, a bone, a fossil, a special rock, etc. Here you see my first "gift feather" of the season.

Tobacco wants to continue to walk all the way to the end of the property line, but I'm thinking we'd better head on back up the bluff before the blissful sun softens the snow and we find ourselves sinking deep with every step.

We take one more long, admiring look at the lake then turn back to the bluff.

Making our way back up, the depth of the snow on the road is more easily seen.

Back at the Grotto, I take a few more photos.

Then we pause on our way up one of the hills. On the left is a tiny creek of run off water, making delightful trickling music.

Always the investigator, Maeb takes a closer look and laps up some of this melt water.

Soon we are at the bottom of the last hill going up.

Here there is an excellent cross-section view of the formation of the top land.

You can see it is not the type of landscape that supports rich, deep top soil, but it is an excellent base for prairie grasses.

And now we are back on top! What a different world it is here!

As we cross the big wide open to get back to the house, it really feels as if we have just taken a walk in two realms...one still under the mantle of deep snow, and the other now fully exposed, soon to awaken with new growth.

Though the horses have begun grazing again, we are still supplementing with hay. My calendar from last year notes that some good grazing was to be had by April 17th and so we cut out morning hay rations. By April 22nd, we stopped feeding hay altogether. It will be interesting to see when we begin to taper back on feeding hay this year. So far, we are still feeding typical portions and they continue to come back and clean up the hay, in between grazing on tiny green shoots of fresh grass.

In between grazing and napping, there is a lot of play taking place now that the landscape isn't covered in ice-topped snow.

And if this co-mingling of two magical realms weren't inspiring enough...the return of the Sandhill Cranes has now caught up with the return of the Canada Geese.

The promise of good things fills the atmosphere here at Ravenseyrie--I hope it is the same where you are.