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!


Anonymous said...

Have you read Vicki Hearne's "Adam's Task"? It's a wonderful book and talks about the domestic animals who shared Adam's exile from paradise and, unlike the wild animals, continued to be his companions on his journey.
Personally, I don't believe in the evolution of species - I believe it happened just like it says in Genesis. Either way, I think at the beginning, and at the heart of things, there is a comradeship between humans and certain animals that endures and that has as its end something more than merely mutual exploitation.

- June

Lynne Gerard said...

Yes, June, I have read Vicki Hearn's book, ADAM'S TASK.In her book Hearne gives a description of the Genesis creation story--as she interprets it--and leaves the reader the impression that she bases her training upon this story.

I will quote it here:
"Here 'nature,' of course, means something like 'paradise,' a region of clarity in which language never refers beyond ourselves and our intentions. Something very like a myth or story of expulsion from such a paradise stands behind the trainer's attempt to make sense of a life in which we must say, 'Joe, Fetch!' or at the least, 'Joe, Sit!' I hear a story that goes like this: When God first created the Earth He gave Adam and Eve 'dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon earth.' Adam gave names to the creatures, and they all responded to their names without objection, since in this dominion to command and to recognize were one action. There was no gap between the ability to command and the full acknowledgment of the personhood of the being so commanded. Nature came when called, and came the first time, too, without coaxing, nagging or tugging.
"Then Adam and Eve themselves failed in obedience, and in this story to fail in obedience is to fail in authority. Most of animate creation, responding to this failure, turned pretty irrevocably from human command. The tiger, the wolf and the field mouse as well as, of course, the grasshopper refuse to come when called, to recognize our naming. One may say that before the Fall, all animals were domestic, that nature was domestic. After the Fall, wildness was possible, and most creatures chose it but a few did not. The dog, the horse, the burro, the elephant, the ox and a few others agreed to go along with humanity anyway, thus giving us a kind of second chance to repair our damaged authority, to do something about our incoherence. Training, in this story, can, through its taut catharsis, cleanse our authority, for varying stretches of time, of Nietzschean 'resentiment'. Without that catharsis, dogs very properly withhold full obedience." (pg. 47-48)

"So I am ending my book by appealing to the sense I have developed, as a result of reading and thinking like a dog and horse trainer for several decades now, that animals matter to us, and that the way they matter to us is probably all we can know of how and why we matter and of how they matter to one another and to the planet. The animal trainer's version of Genesis will and must continue to be the one I told earlier, the one that ends with a picture of Adam and Eve leaving Eden accompanied by the few species who chose to share their lot, to accept the human fate and all of the uneasiness and dis-eases that implies." (pg. 265)

This then, is the story-line Hearne has embraced and based her horse/human relationship upon. But for me it is altogether based on a premise which is vastly different than the story-line I have been drawn to. She mentions "otherness" frequently throughout the book and here on page 264 we read, "Everything in the Universe is, as I have said, Other, but animals are the only non-human Others who answer us without our having to travel to India to find the right guru."

We must keep in mind that there are many stories humans have worded into being by way of explanation of things we perceive in our existence and as means of justification for our actions. The story-line of the Creationists versus that of the Evolutionists are examples of such a human constructed phenomenon.

For my part, I no longer direct energy to debate the validity of one story over another, or to create a sense of separation between ourselves and the animals, or between ourselves and the universe. (For me, there is no Other, no Duality, no Fall From Grace)...I simply find a sense of euphoria and peace in recognizing beauty and unity and opening up my actions to reflect these things.

Annemiek said...

Hey Lynne,

Did you know we even have a song in the Netherlands which is called “Tulpen uit Amsterdam” (Tulips from Amsterdam)? In the light of your entry I realized how a simple flower can have such an impact on a country’s people, economy, infrastructure, etc. A flower that cannot be eaten, has no medical use. Every year complete truckloads of flowers (I believe all Tulips) go to the Vatican in Rome when the Pope has his Easter Speech. Every year the Pope says (in Dutch): “bedankt voor de bloemen!” (Thank you for the flowers). Amazing isn’t it? I sometimes think these Tulips have a mind of their own, and at one time they decided they wanted to become famous!

I believe the whole idea of keeping horses for the horses sake should take root worldwide. Why is it totally accepted to keep cats, dogs, rabbits etc. as pets but not horses? Actually I believe people even have a “nickname” for horses kept as pets. Pasture pets they are called and it is always used in a negative way. In my situation when a person learns I have a horse, the first question they ask is: “And do you ride every day?” When I say I don’t ride my horse, the next question is: “Is he hurt?” When I say he does not like to be ridden, people look at me as if I have grown two horns all of a sudden. Ah well, maybe just maybe one day things will take a turn for the better.

What a nice name you gave the new little filly. Segura, daughter of Zorita, I like that.

Did Fada leave the family band voluntarily? I was kind of expecting that the young mares would take off one of these days. I just wonder how a band consisting of (half) brothers and sisters (and the others) will develop. Will a half brothers and sisters mate? I am curious what will happen in this situation.

Spanish Sulphurs said...

Keeping horses as just a pet is fine. I don't see a problem with it. However, just as it is wrong in dogs and cats, it is also wrong to breed horses just to breed them. Every year people complain about the excess of horses, dogs, and cats. Thousands being killed by people breeding horses just to breed them. No purpose, nothing thought out. Breeding just to breed is what has created the devastation there is on dog breeds. A great example of that is the German Shepherd. The American GSD is so far from what a real German Shepherd is suppose to be that I feel it is disgraceful to even call the American GSD a German Shepherd. They should be called American Shepherds. They have given the GSD in general a bad name. A well bred GSD is always from europe. Champion performance bloodlines, health tested ancestors, courage tested to insure they are not flighty and fear bite. American Shepherds look deformed and cannot even perform tasks for which they were bred.

Breeding animals just to create more is irresponsible and contributes to the over population of horses.

Kris McCormack said...

To my mind, the cruelty and incredible stupidity of much of humankind provides a compelling argument against both Intelligent Design/Creationism and Evolution. What could be less intelligent AND less "evolved" than mankind's treatment of the earth, his fellow humans, and the creatures that share this planet?

Fortunately, for the purpose of sharing and discussing why we have chosen to have horses in our lives it is not necessary to agree on a creation story/myth/theory. :-)

This is a juicy topic, Lynne, and one on which many of us are reflecting deeply.

My mother tells me that I was fascinated with horses when I was still an infant, long before I could walk. I have no conscious memory of that time in my life, but I feel pretty certain that my fascination with horses had nothing to do with a desire to ride them. Yet, when my time came to actually have horses in my life for the first time -- I was 7 years old -- it was in the form of riding lessons. And when, as a middle-aged adult after many years away from horses, I chose to change my life around so that I could have horses in my life again, so that I could have a horse of my own, it was also (ostensibly) to ride. At least, that’s what I thought then.

One horse became three, and, after a time, I changed my life around once more so that the horses could live with us instead of at a boarding barn. At the time, I thought I was doing this for their health, so that they could have 24/7 freedom of movement and some semblance of herd life. Their health and well-being was certainly my *conscious* motivation. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m not so sure that’s all that was going on.

So much has changed for me since the horses have been back in my life and especially since they have been living at home that I’m beginning to think my concerns for their health and well-being were actually a “vehicle” to further my own soul journey. Am I doing something for their benefit or are they doing something for mine? Did their interests and my soul journey just happen to be aligned? Are they here to be my gurus, my spiritual guides? Did they consciously choose that role? I don’t have any definitive answers -- just more and more questions about these beings who share my life.

One of the questions I continually ask myself is: what does it mean to keep horses for the horses’ sake? Certainly, in the case of Ravenseyrie, the situation is quite clear. Those horses are very fortunate. They have a great deal of varied terrain on which they are free to roam. No one seeks to possess their bodies, to force them into service as sports or leisure appliances. Their interactions with human beings are mostly voluntary. Because of the size and composition of their herds they have a varied and active social life. They have a high degree of autonomy and control over the course of their daily lives.

The case of the horses in my life is somewhat different. They have several fenced acres of varied terrain to call their own, and a barn that is always open. They can enter and leave at will. There are only the three of them... and me... so their social life is quite limited -- but still better than that of horses who are kept separate from other horses.
My horses have wholesome food, clean water, freedom of movement, and each other’s company. Is that enough for a happy, fulfilled life? I don’t think so. I think there needs to be some mental stimulation, some interaction, that makes up for the lack of the active social life of a larger herd or family group. I see it as my job to provide that stimulation... and how to do that is the beginning of an entirely different discussion. :-)

Anonymous said...

It's interesting how horses (more than other animals) can be a mythic creature inside one's mind - my fascination and dreamlife with horses as a young child did involve riding them. I wonder if centaurs came to be thought up in this way. They say horses are sensitive to being attacked on the back by predators. Because of this it can be threatening to have another creature climb on their backs. But, for the same reason, I wonder if it might not also be reassuring to have a creature whom they trust sit on them and stand guard over the vulnerable spot - the rider literally has "got their back." I wonder if this is why horses sometimes become more confident when they are ridden. I remember when our paint mare first came to live with us, for a few days she was a little anxious as she settled in, but when I climbed on her back on the 2nd day, she immediately became very relaxed and had a nap with me sitting there.

- June