Saturday, August 29, 2009

Horses For Horses' Sake, Not For Their Usability

There was a three year period in seventeenth century Holland when the nation took its love for flowers to dizzying heights. "Tulipmania" swept over the land, and a rather uncomplicated blossoming bulb became the ultimate desire of the masses and international commerce.

This photo would have been so perfect if I had not clipped off Silvestre's muzzle!
(Leslie Town would never make such an error, would you, Leslie?)

It was just an ornamental flower...of no edible or medicinal use. Tulips were valued, at first, for their beauty alone. There did not need to be a reason for their presence, other than it pleased humans to see tumults of them spilling over the landscape. (Only later did such sublime admiration become corrupted by profit-crazed growers and traders causing vast amounts of trouble in the marketplace, before a certain normalcy was restored.) Even today, we spend enormous amounts of time and money planting, tending and admiring flowers, flowers for flowers' sake, and no other reason or demonstration of use is necessary as explanation or justification for their presence in our lives.

Notice Fada behind Kevin, hoping to capture his attention, too...

In his bestselling book THE BOTANY OF DESIRE / A Plant's-Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan chose to focus upon four particular plants (the apple, the tulip, cannabis and the potato) to postulate that domestication of these plants has occurred in a reciprocal manner. Pollan suggests many plants and animals have determinedly altered themselves, or allowed themselves to be manipulated by us, in ways designed to appeal to humans, thus assuring their continued propagation in an ever changing world. "All these plants, which I'd always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn't do for themselves.", writes Pollan.

And Kevin becomes aware that Fada needs some special itches, and he kindly provides them!

Humans and horses are another example of a co-evolutionary pairing that has occurred in nature. If we consider the history of humans and horses (the surmised, the assumed and the known) we can see the many ways this splendid creature, the horse, has assured its presence into our lives with persistent, albeit changeable meaningfulness.

One may first follow the claims that man admired the horse for the flesh he could slice off its carcass and gnaw upon for sustenance and, only later, did he make a determination that this muscular creature could be enslaved for its ability to carry weighty burdens from point A to point B and threaten enemies in warring raids.

As societies became less nomadic, the horse was put to use as a tool for agricultural pursuits in addition to an expanded means of transportation. Time passes...cuts of other meaty beasts predominate on dinner plates, combustion engines have become the primary people movers and tillers of the landscape...but this did not signal the end of the horse/human liaison.

Perhaps more than ever before (at least in recorded history) the horse enchants us with its overall aesthetic beauty--its appealing blend of form, movement and sensitivity. Horses are now prized for sport and pleasure use, as men and women capitalize on the power and loveliness of equines to enhance their leisure time. For the majority of humans in this day and age, having horses in our lives is not a necessity, it is a personal choice.

The "zebro" of Iberia yet lives! Our incomparable Sorraia x Sorraia Mustang filly, Encantara!

Pollan writes, "Domestication is about a whole lot more than fat tubers and docile sheep; the offspring of the ancient marriage of plants and people are far stranger and more marvelous than we realize. There is a natural history of the human imagination, of beauty, religion and possibly philosophy, too."

This quote expands equally well to the horse/human liaison. The similar reciprocal domestication of horses and humans, our co-evolutionary pattern of togetherness, now has many of us who are "equestrianly disposed" questioning our reason for wanting horses in our lives from a deeper, philosophical perspective and in doing so we are discovering that something about using horses no longer feels right.

Segura, the week old filly by Altamiro out of Zorita

Segura means "confident" and "secure" in Porguguese, and after seeing this photo of the young filly asserting herself with her slightly older half-brother, I felt perhaps her name should reflect these elements. When I spoke to her about it this morning, she nickered to me her affirmative! And so, her name has thus been granted!

In Imke Spilker's ground breaking book, EMPOWERED HORSES, she eloquently writes about the changes which have occurred over the ages in the way humans have used horses.

"As machinery began to replace horse power, it seemed to those who had a heart for the horse that this was deliverance for these animals. At last the forced hard labor was over. Finally, no one would out of necessity treat them badly. Interaction with horses could become a luxury, riding a way for horse lovers to pass the time.

"Yet horses have received very little in the way of deliverance. This change of circumstances never penetrated far enough into human consciousness to change the basic relationship between man and horse. It is almost shocking how much the horse is still seen by people as a creature intended for their use--completely different from a dog or cat. A horse is not seen as a friend or companion. At best, this is just an 'add-on' to the utility aspect. In human consciousness the horse is here to be used and as a matter of course, to be totally at the service of the whims of mankind. As a bicycle is for cycling, a horse is here to be ridden!"

Imke further illuminates,
"The world of horses and its peaceful rhythms are very alien to today's man. He lives fast, shrill and loud, and everything must function at the push of a button. He climbs out of his car and onto his horse and off they go. He wants to have his fun during his scarce leisure time, he wants to pursue his pleasure, and his horse serves that purpose. That is why horses and human beings are further apart today than ever. What to the rider is sport, fun, and restorative is to the horse, hard work, senseless running around and all too often, torturous stress. The health of horses suffers from this--totally unnecessarily, and it is a situation that, strictly speaking, violates our animal welfare laws.

"The work horse has become a sport and leisure-time apparatus. Horses as consumer products? It almost seems that way. Today horses are used up much faster than in the past, and are considered old when they have fundamentally just reached maturity. In the past one simply cold not afford to use up a horse in its youth. Horses were intended to perform important and valuable work for many long years. To this day--despite all noble sentiment--the egocentric viewpoint of human beings toward the so usable horse has not changed one whit."

Fada has left the family band and joined in with her half-brothers and the domestic horses and mules.
Interessado and Fada...uncomingly dark grulla Sorraia x Sorraia Mustang yearlings.

From where I sit these days (more often upon a rock, looking up to horses as mentors, rather than astride their backs intending to impose instruction upon them) the use of horses for sport, pleasure or distinctly financial gain feels as equally inappropriate to me as eating their flesh or having them haul a cannon to the war front. The entire concept; that in order for the horse to justify its existence in our lives he must be of some use, seems to me now to be severely distorted thinking. (I can still hear my first dressage instructor chiding me for my reluctance to impose so much sweat and toil upon my horse during a lesson..."You pay hundreds of dollars monthly for his upkeep, while he stands idle in a stall enjoying all manner of excellent care--it is not too much to ask him to give you an hour of physical effort!") It didn't feel right then...and it still doesn't feel right to assume that because I provide care for my horse he owes me something. Nor do I feel that his role in my life is based upon whether I can ride him or "use" him for some beneficial end.

Silvestre nibbled on my shawl with great interest and now contemplates it more deeply while it lays over his shoulders...curious, and slightly uncertain, but not afraid.

Unfortunately, the idea that a horse's value to humans is based on his "usability" is perhaps no where more evident than in the realm of individuals breeding various strains of the North American Mustang in captivity. Initially it is their power and beauty, (whether or not they displays coveted Spanish characteristics), autonomously displayed in the wild, that captivates humans and prompts them to bring a mustang horse into their lives. Befriending him and desiring to share a life with him is not enough, one must prove to the world that one can bridle the wild beast, make him manageable, craft him into a dependable riding horse then go on to promote him and his offspring as hardy "using" horses.

Encantara continues to find us humans interesting, yet cannot fully connect. Here she watches me closely over the safety of her mother's back. She has begun to take alfalfa cookies from our hands, but is still too shy to approach us directly.

The Sorraia horses and the Sorraia type mustangs have clearly worked some co-evolutionary magic, for they have been (to use Michael Pollan's words) "acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn't do for themselves". If the remaining Sorraia horses in Europe are beginning to deteriorate due to a genetic bottleneck, their survival is potentially assured by the complementary unions between the European Sorraias and certain, select, mustangs possessing the Sorraia phenotype, and this could only happen with the intervention of humans. But there is apparently even more going on here than assuring the continuance of an ancestral equine form! One can imagine our setting up the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve, in this light, as more than just a preservation effort, but also, by providing them an environment that, as much as possible, gives them back their autonomy and asks nothing from them except that they simply be themselves, something else presses forward as well...

Zorita has come into her foal heat, and Altamiro makes no delay in taking advantage of her receptive attitude!

Is this the next step in the co-evolution of horses and humans--that the tradition of using horses to satisfy our whims of sport and pleasure be replaced with our being of service to them, instead, and whatever pleasure we obtain from our relationship is reciprocally beneficial to body, mind and soul, both theirs and ours?

Again, quoting from Imke Spilker,
"A connection with mankind could offer the horses of today the opportunity to develop themselves, to be completely themselves, to win back a bit of their lost freedom. As an alternative to losing more and more from their contact with us, horses could gain some space in which to preserve their independence even though they must live in a human world."

We have been together for a long time, horses and humans, and our needs, requirements, desires and goals have continued to evolve. I'm not sure where preserving the Sorraia's unique genetics fits in, or my abiding love of artistic equitation (and how perfectly structured these Iberian horses are for haute école!)--but I do feel that further meditations and revelations will lead me onward.

For now, I am thankful to realize that the co-evolutionary pairing and reciprocal domestication between Homo sapiens sapiens and Equus ferus caballus has progressed to a place in time where horses for horses' sake alone is something humans are beginning to experience as worthwhile. What a new and intriguing future is unfolding!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Zorita and Altamiro's Foal Arrives

A newborn filly out of Sovina's Zorita (Sorraia x Sulphur Mustang) by Altamiro (purebred Sorraia)

When I checked in with Altamiro's family band this past Thursday morning, Zorita's udder had the telltale swollen tautness of essential nutrients at the ready. I thought she might deliver her foal later that day, or over the night. By nightfall, both Zorita's abdomen and udder were still full. Friday morning, I jumped out of bed, and while still in sleeping attire, I took the field glasses, ran outside and climbed atop the gate support to scan the western horizon where I could make out Altamiro's band in the dim light. Zorita is the lightest coloured grulla in our herd and easy to spot. When I focused the glasses upon her, I could see she had a light coloured form at her side! I went back into the house to get dressed and Kevin went out for a closer look at the new foal. By the time he got out there, the newborn was laying down, so Kev gave Zorita some alfalfa cookies and lavished praise upon her before returning to the house.

After giving the dogs their breakfast and quickly eating mine, I went out with my camera to welcome the new arrival. It was nearly half past six, the sun was up, humid, sticky air pressed heavily upon us and the flies were already an irritating presence. Most every photo I took was blurry, as the horses were constantly in motion, tossing heads and swishing tails against the invasion of the flies.

Judging by the look of the filly's navel, the cleanness of Zorita's hindquarters and the dry but not yet fluffy coat of the filly, I'd have to guess that Zorita delivered this foal sometime around 4 or 5 a. m.

Though it is extremely rare for me to travel out into the horse herds with treats in my pockets, Ms. Zorita knew that I had some for her and she walked directly up to me to claim them and receive her much deserved accolades for bringing such a fine, healthy filly into the world. I promised her I would visit with her again later in the day, and soon Altamiro directed his family off into the woods to outwit the flies.

By mid-afternoon, high winds and heavy rains came and while I was at work in the studio, admiring the vigorous dancing of the rain upon the lake, I worried a bit about how the new filly was handling such a torrent of chilly moisture so soon in her outside-the-womb existence. I thought about how most traditional breeding operations typically keep the mare and foal indoors in a comfortable stall for two to four days before turning them outside in a controlled setting. I wished to be up on the bluff, to see where Zorita and the baby were during this storm and I imagined them deep into the woods, protected from the worst of the elemental pummeling. I wondered if Zorita was missing the comfort of a barn, like she had with her first two foals, and for the rest of the afternoon, I was feeling a little strange--weighing the benefits of a snug barn against the tempering and nurturing that is so indiscriminately part of life in the wilderness.

Shortly before daylight was due to fade from the landscape, Altamiro brought his family up to the house for display and let them linger around here for about an hour and a half--something he hasn't allowed since he claimed his rulership over them earlier this spring. This made for some great photo opportunities, which I surely was happy to take advantage of.

The wet, cool summer we've experienced this year on the island has given the landscape a prolonged verdancy and my eyes cannot get enough of the wonderful contrasts between that lush green carpet and the lovely grulla colouring of Zorita and this fresh-washed filly.

Kevin and I are relieved and thankful to have the last foal of the year arrive in good form and to see that despite the intense wind and rain over the afternoon, both mother and baby are doing extremely well. I am also delighted to see that Zorita feels confident enough to share her filly with us--which already came up for her first touch of a human's hand.

I took some wonderful photos of the other foals and Kevin mingling with them, but will save those for a new journal entry in a few days. I cannot resist however, to insert one now, showing the fine facial features of Silvestre, Encantara and Fada--each showing that aristocratic Sorraia profile inherited from their sire, Altamiro. Such exquisite beings! They swell my heart with beautiful sensations...these horses bring such depth and wonder to our lives here at Ravenseyrie!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Radicalization and Rediscovery

The Raven's of Ravenseyrie, keeping watch over their Sorraia Mustangs

Throughout today's dialogue, I will share some of the images of how beautifully summer is passing here at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve.

In a comment posted yesterday to the journal entry titled, An Article by Imke Spilker, a reader by the name of June wrote, "I have a new word - it's "spilkered"! It refers to someone who has been radicalized by coming into contact with Imke Spilker's ideas. I have been spilkered, and I don't know where it's leading me!!!"

I know just what you mean, June!

A photo sequence showing a small flock of Canada Geese among Altamiro's family band:

I had my first introduction to these truly unconventional ideas on horse/human relationships just after our first two Sorraia Mustang fillies were delivered from South Dakota. While they were considered "captive bred" horses, they nonetheless came from a situation not too dissimilar from the way horses live here at Ravenseyrie. From the very first, they let us know that in order to establish a good connection (which I consider to be relations built on willing engagement as opposed to force and coercion), we would have to follow a very different path. These fillies, Bella and Belina gave us our first hint at how much more can be accomplished by allowing the horse all possible freedom to "escape" our influence and express their feelings about whatever we might be asking of them.

As mentioned in two prior journal entries (here and here), the work of Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling, Carolyn Resnick, Alexander Nevzorov and especially Imke Spilker further radicalized me. Like June, I'm not precisely sure where it is leading me--this radicalization of thought and action in our relations with horses--but I have a nagging intuitive sense that it is not a "new" way of being with horses (although it may seem that way to us modern humans) rather, it is a rediscovering of how early humans used to interact with horses.

A photo sequence showing Belina and Encantara nibbling just the seed heads of the Timothy grasses:

While I am not ready to write a detailed essay about it yet, let us just say that I feel it is possible that in prehistoric times, humans and horses had a very intimate relationship that was based on mutual understanding, reciprocal offerings of friendship and a complete lack of violence. How do you like that for a radicalized statement!!

June's comment prompted me to look up the words "radical" and "radicalized" and I'm sharing here what my copy of The American Heritage Dictionary offers us regarding these words.

Radical: adj. 1. Arising from or going to a root or source; fundamental; basic. 2. Carried to the farthest limit; extreme, sweeping: radical social change. 3. Favoring or effecting revolutionary changes, as in political organization. 4. Of or designing a word root. 5. Botany. Of, pertaining to, or growing from the root.

Radicalize, radicalized: To make radical or more radical

A photo sequence showing my friend Nancy, on a recent visit to Ravenseyrie:

When we begin to appreciate the perception presented to us by deep thinking horse lovers, like Imke Spilker, we discover that we are going back to the root of things...the way perhaps the first humans and first horses began their relationships, as definition #5 relays, "Of, pertaining to, or growing from the root."

Animado playing games with my shawl over his shoulders:

We have come to accept certain so-called "facts" about our prehistoric roots, which initially have humans consuming horses as food, and later brutally domesticating them for all manner of exploitation. But we don't really know that human's first encounters with horses were violent and based on gustatory predilections. Perhaps the killing for food and violent coercion of horses is a subsequent perversion of how humans and equines first lived together. Much of prehistory is conjecture and dependent upon the prevailing mindset that writes up the research, as such it is open to interpretation...and I'm choosing to interpret things from a "radical" perspective.

When our 2009 tourists season winds up here on the island and the slower pace of life returns, I will revisit this radicalized thinking and put together some of the research that has prompted me to reconsider the way in which first contacts between horses and humans may have occurred.

For now, I am finding it immensely exciting and personally satisfying to follow my intuition and look for the lamps of illumination being held up for me by other novel thinkers who are further along the path than I.

This photo is for June, who has been "spilkered" and is being lead back to the horses:

Mistral and Zeus enjoying a shady spot, away from the summer heat and biting flies:

A short sequence showing Zorita, the half Sorraia mare who is due to deliver a foal by our purebred Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, on or around August 24th. Send her good thoughts for a smooth delivery and a healthy foal, won't you?