Monday, November 16, 2009

The Primal Connection - Bella and the Rock

The Sorraia Mustang mare Bella (ctr.), down at the beach with her herd mates during the summer of 2008

Each day is a new beginning and while modern humans may take for granted that when they emerge from warm, dream-spent bed covers, place their feet upon the floor and stand up to begin their daily routines their world will be a reliably familiar one, I think that those who live more closely tied to the rhythms of nature take nothing for granted.

My observations, following the lives of the horses living here at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve, is that they engage in a perpetual assessment of things, moment to moment, with every perceptive sense taking in visible and invisible fluctuations in their environment and between their herd mates. Theirs is a river-realm of continuously flowing streams of information which they are constantly adjusting to. (Actually we are part of the same river, but have compartmentalized ourselves to the point we are virtually oblivious to the subtle, yet rich, dialogues occurring everywhere in the universe.)

Domestically bred and traditionally housed horses require absolute reliability of routine and often are prone to anxiety if the protocol they are accustomed to is not followed. Stabled and paddocked horses expect consistency and regimented orderliness and have stunted, muted capacities for subtle sensory assessments, having put their trust in their caretaker's ability to assure their reliably familiar world will be the same today as it is tomorrow.

Part of this reliably familiar world is the almost absent-minded acceptance horses demonstrate for the type of handling they receive from their human caretakers. This type of handling assumes a certain ownership over the horse's body and mind, manifesting itself in a human who strides into the barn, opens the stall door, captures the head of the horse in a halter, brings the horse out into the aisle and systematically takes over parts of the horse's body for grooming, hoof maintenance, veterinary procedures, tacking up, etc. It is expected that the horse stands calmly in compliance as the human goes about these activities upon the horse's body in an equally absent-minded way. Most often, these activities the human imposes upon the horse are a means to an end, an end that typically involves some kind of "use" the human will be putting the horse to. Horse and human are aware of each other, but their feeling and appreciation of each other's core essences is as weak as an over-used tea bag.

Many variations of this domestically kept horse/human scenario are played out every day, sometimes with gruff roughness from each of them, other times a real bond of togetherness prevails, yet typically there is always an assumed right that the human feels she possesses when engaged in horse handling.
Bella (Bella means "beautiful" in Spanish)

Among the equines here at Ravenseyrie, especially when entering the Sorraia group, one simply cannot get away with any sort of assumed rights over the horses, or expect that what a horse freely gave me on one day will be offered again the next. Like them, each time I am out mingling with the environment and come into the territory where they are, I have to carefully assess the subtle fluctuations of the present moment to determine what possibilities of interaction are present. How do I go about this assessment?

Before I share how I approach the horses, I'd like to highlight the importance other authors have placed on the proper introductions that ought to be undertaken in order to assure that human and horse are truly and fully accepting of each other and ready to share time together.

In his book, What Horses Reveal, Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling describes the approach to a horse as the "First Encounter" which is based on recognizing the character of the horse and how he experiences and reacts to the world around him. He describes the horse as a house that requires the right key before entrance is granted. Our understanding of our own nature and complete harmony with the nature of the horse coupled with careful body language and movement determines whether or not the horse is willing to let us inside. Hempfling relays that no matter how many times we come and go from this house, we must always gain entrance in the same or similar barging in as if we have ownership. Here are some of the things Mr. Hempfling has to share regarding the First Encounter from pages 134 and 138 of his book:

'Immediate communication' is a very important concept for us. It is the alpha and omega of the first encounter. For, if you do not have a 'key' to the 'house', i.e. you cannot immediately communicate with the horse, then, to stay with our analogy, you are an intruder breaking in, particularly if you are forcibly entering the house, and as a rule, anyone who enters forcibly violates and steals.

The moment of the first encounter is a moment of the most concentrated patience, because, with great humility, we are serving another creature's needs.

It is consciousness of self, you must be aware of your every expression and particularly their effects on the horse. It is an expression that reflects the deepest peace, sincerity and heartfelt cordiality, no mere superficial 'friendliness'.

I make clear to the horse by the manner of my approach that I never want anything from him. Nothing happens without his invitation. I am never permitted to overstep my boundaries; at most I can defend my boundaries for my immediate protection.

This approach is continually renewed from second to second. Nothing is rigidly determined in advance: everything is dependent upon the communication and reactions of the moment.

Bella and Animado in the autumn of 2008

Carolyn Resnick describes the best means of establishing a relationship with a horse as being a magnetic heart connection. Carolyn believes anyone can achieve this type of connection but first they need to "understand how important it is to interact with their horse in this simple way - sharing time and space everyday like horses do with each other, moving a horse around, letting him move you around, easy and gentle like, with lots of pauses in between." Like Klaus, Carolyn does not take for granted that the horse's acceptance of her is the same every time she approaches him and realizes that she can only enter the house if the key is working. In her book, Naked Liberty, Carolyn relays:

I work with a horse in two stages every day. First, I spend time with the horse in the moment in passive time. When I get the feeling that he has connected to me in friendship and is focused on me, I begin with my daily program, whether it is riding him or traditional training. Sometimes the passive time I spend is as short as a quick hello from my horse. If he comes up to me, gives me a sniff and places his head in the halter, he is ready to go. (Putting on a halter is a critical time. If the horse objects to being haltered, it will negatively affect the interactions you have with him thereafter.)

Bella (far right) during the summer of 2008

Imke Spilker as well has some wonderful things to say about how she prefers to approach horses. We'll quote from her book, Empowered Horses:

"Hey, you!"
I want to reduce the distance between us, but it would be disrespectful to push my way into the horse's personal space and touch him, without first asking permission. Think of the same situation in human terms: if I want to convince a person I don't know about my finer qualities and meet him in a spirit of friendship, I'll wait for his invitation, or offer one myself. People that do not abide by this rule of politeness can seem aggressive, even when they don't intend to be. So, when we respect a horse's personal space we convey the message, "I come as a friend."
Nurturing the relationship according to the horse's rules and in the horse's rhythm, I try, despite all our differences, to show my affection, to offer myself to the horse as a friend, as a companion. pg.10

Reflecting, observing, sensing--those are the tasks for human beings. A person who begins to see the world through the eyes of his horse becomes that horse's kindred spirit. And suddenly, completely new forms of communication are possible. Now external signals are of lesser importance. We understand each other directly, instantaneously, because the sharing of feelings creates an interface, and entranceway into the other's world.

Togetherness is the foundation from which everything else proceeds. Togetherness--not hierarchy--puts us on the same level. Togetherness is the prerequisite for influencing each other from within the depths of our being. And that relates to feelings and movement--horse and person on one wavelength in a dialog of movement. As with musicians, in the beginning there is a search for the common key and rhythm; before they begin to play a piece, musicians attune to one another. Togetherness and sharing openly are the first and oldest form of understanding. This is the archetype of every meaningful communication. Being together in harmony means shared feelings with one another. I share yours--I share mine. pg. 28-29

The communication between a person and a horse occurs on a much deeper, more direct level. It eludes a formal observer.

The melody is an inner one and that is where we both hear it. The way I move my hands is just a visible accompaniment to my mental images.

The horse perceives the whole of a human being and only when we are congruent as a whole, will a horse understand and trust us.

Although I have no physical hold on the horse, he picks up on the inner language of my thoughts and desires, and orients himself to them. When there is great emotional unity human beings, too, can pick up on each other's inner images. Suddenly, we "just know" what the other is thinking in the very moment he thinks it, sometimes without even seeing him. We all once lived in a world without words, and as children, we could think and communicate using inner images. It was only much later that we began to orient ourselves to words. You too can understand this inner language if you build a feeling-based connection to horses." pg. 98-99

So now, dear readers, you have a pretty good base of remarkable insights from these authors to assist in understanding a series of photos I'm going to share from an interaction I had with Bella last week.

Bella is a registered Spanish Mustang mare, possessing several phenotypical characteristics of the atavistic Sorraia horses. She is a captive bred range born mare (from Caballos de Destino in South Dakota) who came to Ravenseyrie as a relatively un-handled yearling. She gave birth to the half-Sorraia studcolt, Animado, when she was four years old. She is now five and expecting her second foal next March. She has never had any "official" training, but using an approach to establishing a relationship with her similar to the ones described by the above authors has enabled me to gain her acceptance of being haltered and led as well as having her hooves occasionally attended to. (Haltering and leading are things I rarely do--here there is little need for this.) Within the hierarchy of the herd, Bella is the dominant mare. She is very noble and has always seemed mentally older than her age. She has a sweet, yet very demanding personality, is slow to anger, but swift to violent retribution without regrets. She likes interacting with me but I always feel that I let her down, i.e. there is often something more she wants me to understand about her that so far I have failed to recognize--something that feels like she wants us to do when we are together...

Bella often nickers during our interactions, using the low murmur voice typically reserved for foals...she makes this low murmuring nicker when I have found the precise itchy spot, or when I am handling her front legs and she wants me to give her a shoulder lift (an equine bodywork movement) or after we have come to an understanding about something new we might be learning together. She will also paw with a foreleg if I am not paying good attention or not "getting" something she is trying to put across to me.

Okay, let's look at the photo sequence, keeping in mind that it is me taking the photos, so it was not possible to take photos of everything that we did together.

I'm hiking out to the west, where the family band is hanging out. The others are grazing, but from what I can tell, Bella is enjoying a standing nap. She senses my approach from quite a distance and maintains a focus on me, matching my focus on her.

The closer I come to Bella I can already feel that even though she hasn't altered her slack-hipped stance she will be coming up to engage with me. She doesn't always come forward to interact with me, sometimes she remains sleeping or continues grazing, ignoring my presence...likewise, I don't always go out with the intention of connecting with and interacting with her. But in my core being I knew that she was receptive to me this day, and in her core being she knew that I was willing to interact with her.

I stopped short of walking straight up to her (about ten feet away) and took up a position with my body aslant to hers, my heart filled with genuine admiration for who she is. Though still slightly dozy, within just a few seconds she came over to me. The key fit the house and she let me in.

Bella wanted to be itched and massaged. I willingly obliged. Noticing a burr was snagged in the inner part of her mane, I stopped itching to pull the prickly seed case out. She was not pleased that I had interrupted what was probably just the high point of a particularly good itch to do something so mundane as remove a burr. She let me know right away that she would rather I continue to itch and leave off the grooming for the moment. Sometimes, Bella can be pushy and more than asking for itches she demands them. Her manner of demanding is to step almost on my foot while simultaneously pushing her body, shoulder-first in a bullish bumping kind of way. It's a remarkably precise and deliberate action, rich with communicative expression. My response to this is to step away, giving her nothing to push upon, rather than attempting to correct her breech of gentility by forcing her to back out of my space (which is the traditionalists approach to teaching a horse to stay out of the human's space.)

At the same time, of course, I realize that I had disrupted a perfectly lovely itch session by shifting my focus to grooming so abruptly, even so, I did not right away go back to resuming our itch session, rather I asked Bella to make a half circle to the left allowing us to both reposition ourselves to begin again...our mutual transgressions now forgotten by this simple new channeling of our togetherness, our primal connection restored to its former harmony.

After I had given full attention to every spot that Bella wanted either itched or massaged, I then asked if I could get the tangle out of her mane and she was perfectly accepting.

"Would you like to play a bit with circles and turns around the haunches?", I inquired. "Oh yes!" was her response. How do I know this? I stepped three feet away from her, positioned myself just behind her center, slightly towards her rear, with my body facing forward and angled left, then I opened my arm and gracefully invited her to circle left while I myself did the same thing. That was my question put forth and her following my offer precisely was her definitive "yes".

After a couple of circles to the left and also to the right, then turns around the haunches both left and right, then a little steps of the hindquarters around the shoulders and some backing to the hand, I was going to end our session. But I could see that Bella still wanted to do something and since we'd pretty much run through our repertoire, I decided to see if she would trot along with me a few steps...something we've never tried. I did my best perky-horse trot hoping to entice her to accompany me--she looked quite interested in a bemused sort of way, but she remained stationary.

Spotting a rock nearby, I thought to suggest we should try an old game we used to do when she was a yearling, which was to lift a foreleg and rest it on a rock (a basic prelude to learning Spanish walk), something she became pretty good at, but as our herd increased and the foals started coming, I sort of left off thoughts of training for haute école movements.

So, I went over to the rock, noticed that it was nice and flat, almost like a pedestal, and I thought maybe Bella would like to try standing up on it with both front feet. Like the companion trotting idea, standing her front feet on a pedestal is something we've never done before. I invited her with my mind and a gesture of my hand, to come and stand up on the rock. Without hesitation, she did! And while I stroked her appreciatively, she gave her low murmuring nicker. I asked her if she'd stay up there long enough for me to take a photo and she obliged me. I took a few photos, but when I went to back up a bit further to get her full body in the frame, my camera batteries went dead (such timing!).
Bella remained up on the rock, so I gave her more caresses while she was up there and then asked her to step down, which she did. We exchanged several more mutual admiration gestures and then I continued on with my hike, feeling really good about our encounter. I hope she returned to her herd mates feeling really good about our encounter, too.

My reason for sharing these experiences is not to display my laughable "prowess" as a horse trainer...(I would actually flunk Carolyn Resnick's "quick quiz"designed to evaluate one's relationship with her horses and her leadership skills). I'm putting these things into the Journal of Ravenseyrie to provide readers with examples of how this unconventional approach to horse/human relationship manifests itself here at Ravenseyrie. The things the horses and I are exploring are not things that one brags about or gives achievement ribbons for--these are intimacies I am sharing, which are not aimed at creating a "using" horse for a human's equestrian pursuits, but are meant to heighten our appreciation for each other, facilitate greater understanding and explore new avenues of fun learning. I have no idea where it is leading, but I'm absolutely fascinated with this primal connection and want to only engage with my horses when the connection is mutually pure. This will require continual reassessment within myself and how I fit into things, and I am thankful for ground-breaking horsemen and women who have inspired me to take a journey down a river like this!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Touching Encantara

Living with a family of atavistic horses in a wilderness setting provides me with amazing opportunities to experience a variety of non-traditional interactions. The wide open landscape here at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve, while an excellent environment for the development of natural herd dynamics, poses challenges, however, for human/horse relationships.

Because I do not separate the horses or keep them in small paddocks, my capacity to influence interactions with these semi-wild equines rests entirely with them. Ravenseyrie is under equine rulership. These horses hold the power--they determine whether or not I am allowed to groom them, play with them, train them, doctor them, etc.

I could change this, have thought about changing this, still may change this--stack the deck of cards a little more in my favor, if you will--by imposing restrictions, from time to time on the autonomy these horses experience. Rational, pragmatic voices certainly suggest I should...after all horses ought to be under our control, if only to allow us to provide them better care and training, all designed with their best interests in mind, or so the thinking goes. I can appreciate the merit of this--but, something strangely inexplicable holds me back from actually doing it myself (at least in the usual way things are done). Reasonable, sensible voices may be quite right in telling me if I am not willing to assert control over horses--for their own best interests--I have no business being with horses. I wouldn't dare argue with rational thinkers...

...but over the course of the next several journal entries, I will offer some examples of the purity of interactions which have emerged, providing a little insight into why I am reluctant to break this primal connection by introducing too many man-made restrictions on these horses just to make it possible for me to have more human-centered, traditional interactions . Perhaps there is something here that the universe itself desires me (us) to learn?

My most recent example involves Encantara. You might recall Encantara was Altamiro's firstborn for the year. Belina delivered this exquisite "zebro" filly on a chilly spring day in early May. Mother's Day to be exact.
Belina is an exceptionally protective mare, and would not allow any one except Altamiro to be within touching distance on the first day. She was the same way when her first filly, Fada, was born. This cautious reserve of Belina's is something her foals immediately took into their behavioral development. With Fada, it took four days before she reached out a tentative muzzle to touch me with and allowed me to touch her back.

To touch Encantara took a bit longer. Days went by, weeks passed. Spring became summer, Encantara lost her foal coat, engaged in long mutual grooming sessions with her herd mates, rubbed on trees, mingled confidently with every element of her environment--all the while curious enough to come near me, but not yet ready to bring herself to touch me or allow me to touch her. And oh!, how I longed to touch her!
I began to wonder if the price to pay for her striking primitive markings and ancestral morphology was a concomitant avoidance of anything that wasn't wild like her. It didn't seem to matter that her mother would come to me for itches, caresses and grooming, or that her younger brother, Silvestre would engage with me not just for itches, but mini-schooling sessions where he tested out the feeling of a makeshift leather halter and wore proudly my woolen shawl. Encantara wanted none of this...but I could see her eyes following me, always, and I had hope that one day she would willingly come to physically interact with me.

Weeks stretched themselves into months. Vegetation began dying back, biting-cold winds swept all the leaves from the trees and Encantara exchanged her summer sleekness for a thickly layered winter coat. She is now six months old.

Now that the grass isn't as delectable, Altamiro and his family band have discovered that if they come around near the house later in the day, us humans will hand feed compressed alfalfa cubes. Encantara quickly developed an appreciation for this nutritious treat and decided it was okay to take a thin sliver of these "cookies" from a human hand. After a week, she allowed me to softly cup her chin as she munched on her cookie. One day, I reached out to stroke her cheek and she moved away in alarm. But I tried it again the next day, and this time my touch on her cheek was accepted. And one day, I trailed from her cheek and laid my hand against her neck. She did not leave and I felt a little closer to heaven!

And so it began that when I would hike out the far fields, Encantara would walk right up to me, perhaps thinking I might have some of those alfalfa cookies. I don't carry cookies with me, and she soon discovered this, but began to poke around to make certain, nuzzling my basket of brushes, my pockets and my camera bag, my hat, the toe of my boot, the hem of my skirt. She found no cookies, but all that exploration seemed to really relax her and she allowed me to cup her chin and lay my hand on her neck briefly before shrinking away from my presence.

On Sunday, November the 8th, I was out among the family band, pulling burrs from Altamiro's tail, and also the mares'. Encantara was grazing, but keeping an eye on me. When I was mostly done with the others, I noticed she had now taken up a dozing position, I walked nearby her and stopped. She came right over and sniffed to see if I had any treats. Not finding any food reward on my person, she began once again to nuzzle my basket of brushes and camera bag while I gave her a little itch on the neck. Then I tentatively and carefully worked my way down to her chest. I was thrilled that not only did she not shrink away from this action, but she soon realized how good it felt to be itched there! A mental connection was made, and I could actually see it in her facial expression, like a sort of new sparkle in her eye and a softening of her nostrils.

For the first time, I was able to run my fingers over those zebra stripes on her lovely neck--the feeling was absolutely sublime. Let others brag on about how they have shaken the hand of royalty, or kissed the Pope's ring--those mean nothing to me and pale in comparison to touching the Enchantress herself, Encantara!

The next day, I was most interested to see how things would go...would Encantara seek me out again? Would she remember our connection and desire more touching, engage in more explorations of each other? I wondered even if perhaps Encantara might be asking these very same questions, hoping and wondering if I would come out and see her.

When I found the family band, Encantara was the first to come to me! Notice how soft her expression, how hopeful and trusting her body posture is as she approaches me in this photo. And as I caress her with my voice and hold the camera in one hand I am able to take a photo of my touching her with the other hand. The effort was noisy, clumsy, peculiar...but she stayed with me, no longer distrustful, no longer suspicious...A friendship was born!

It was my day off, and so I was able to hang out for several hours among the family band, grooming, composing paintings and poetry of them in my head and otherwise "dawdling" away a fine morning. Throughout this time, Encantara would go off with the others to graze, but frequently came back to spend time with me. Like new lovers, we couldn't seem to get enough of each other! What a high I was on...did she feel the same way, too?

No doubt if I had placed Encantara and Belina in a smaller paddock or a box stall I would have been able to establish a physical connection with this ultra-shy filly in far less time than six months. Taking away a horse's option of leaving our presence if they are uncomfortable, gently cornering them, desensitizing them to our touch, etc. has been the way many horses come to accept the ministrations of humans. While imposing ourselves upon horses like that sometimes intensifies their distrust of humans, most of the time they "give in" and in doing so (if among kind people) find that there are some pleasures to be had by allowing us to touch them. I do not consider this means of gaining a foal's trust and acceptance inappropriate, and if done empathetically its an excellent way to help a young horse learn to accept so many things in the world humans have designed. For myself, even though it is much more challenging (and certain potentials are vastly limited) this wilderness approach is presently the only acceptable way of developing relationships with our horses here at Ravenseyrie.

As mentioned earlier, I'm planning to devote a string of journal entries to experiences I've had that have arisen within this wilderness setting where the horses rule the land and I am a guest in their territory. What I am discovering is that there is some kind of primal connection between us that at times makes the step by step training methods seem utterly unnecessary. What I am calling the "primal connection", Imke Spilker refers to as the "inner language". Carolyn Resnick has named it the "magnetic heart connection". Other terms attempting to describe this phenomenon are, "heart entrainment", "resonance", "gnosis", "universal logos", etc.

To close today's entry, I'll share another recent experience with Encatara which demonstrates this peculiar, magnificent, cross-species understanding that stands apart from the means of communication that must first be trained into each of us. This experience had no training, it simply emerged, effortlessly with complete, mutual understanding.

During a recent visit with Encantara, just a few days after our big "breakthrough" in physical touching, Silvestre joined our group of two and in no time it all the "three's a crowd" expression became obvious as I simply could not keep focused attention on two inquisitive foals, each pressing their rumps into me for itches. I cooed them my apologies and turned to leave. Of course they followed and I had to shoo them back to their mothers.

When I was about seventy feet away, I turned back for one last look at these beautiful semi-wild Sorraia horses. Encantara had positioned herself next to a Cedar tree and was rubbing her rump against it, all the while looking intently at me. I mentally "threw out" the idea to her that if she wanted to come over to me I would definitely itch her bum for her and do a far better job than the tree could. Then I motioned with my hand for her to come.

She immediately left the tree, walked by all the others and came and stood in perfect position to receive the promised rump itch.

Such is the potency of the "inner language" and the untainted quality of the primal connection.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Brief Comparison of Spilker and Hempfling

June, one of the reader's of the Journal of Ravenseyrie, has been immersing herself in learning a new way of interacting with horses. Like many of us, June has found herself marvelously impacted by the work of Imke Spilker as presented in her book EMPOWERED HORSES. The teachings of Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling are also providing June with much to think about and prompting her to explore different means of "coming together" with her own horses.

In a few recent comments to other Journal of Ravenseyrie entries, June has recognized that the concept of "dominance" in the horse/human relationship brings up some differences between the way Imke Spilker relates with horses and the way Mr. Hempfling does.
Within Imke Spilker's work, the notion of dominance is not addressed in the manner which it is in Mr. Hempfling's work perhaps because Imke Spilker's approach is not based on domination but on shared leadership. In Imke's world there is no fixed individual in control, rather horse and human cede control back and forth to suit the quality of the moment.
Imke writes,
We will stop when our horse says: "No!" We will let it all go, try another way, or do something else. We will not force our horse to do it our way. Rather, we will find the path our horse wants to travel and walk it with him. We ask him for his permission, we discuss things, and above all we listen. "Okay, Toppur. Pardon me. I did not mean it like that." We reflect on the matter once more--pause--and then I make a renewed attempt. Now Toppur does what I request!

In this aspect it may be that Ms. Spilker's interactions with horses favor feminine qualities as a means of motivating a horse to become master of himself on the road to self-actualization. The role of the human is built on deference to the horse, and it becomes the job of the human to identify what motivates the horse and initiate ways which assist the horse in developing his own awareness of his inherent potential. Horse and human work as a team, as friends on a common goal, a goal that the horse comes to choose for himself and we join them as a supportive mentor, offering suggestions, ideas and creative advice rather than demands, corrections and punishments. In Imke Spilker's work the cultivation of non-linear perception also leads to identifying, nurturing and trusting our instincts and intuitive powers which then makes it possible to completely harmonize with our horses in a mutual understanding that transcends our apparent species differentia.
Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling's work is extraordinary, beautiful and inspiring and I find little about it that makes me uncomfortable. My feeling is that Mr. Hempfling's work is much more influenced by masculine traits. In his book, What Horses Reveal, Mr. Hempfling relays how strongly he identifies with his forefathers "the Celts, the Vikings, the Teutons, the Goths and the Cimbrians", so it does not surprise me the emphasis he places on the concept of dominance in his work, but he isn't dominating via violent force as was the way of his forefathers. The way Mr. Hempfling goes about demonstrating his dominance over his horse is more a reflection of his own domination of his inner self (so that he isn't acting out of fear, anger, or a desire to be powerful himself) demonstrating to the horse that he is a competent leader--he just confidently and deftly uses his intent and body language to stimulate the horse to move. (This is much like Carolyn Resnick's third "ritual" Taking Territory) Mr. Hempfling also feels horses and humans are part of an ongoing mythological process of learning to control our darker sides, and it is in this juxtaposition that he looks upon horse/human interactions. My impression is that his means of training are flexible but yet exist more in a linear, human directed path which is much more serious, keenly structured, less play oriented and maybe a little limiting by the devotion to patriarchal notions of chivalry.
Both Imke Spilker and Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling discuss the importance of recognizing we humans are a part of nature, just as the horses are, and we need to be inwardly and outwardly authentic in our beingness...they each do this differently based on the way they view their heritage as humans.

It's no secret that of the two influences, I feel a greater kinship with Imke than with Klaus, mostly because of the things she says about egalitarianism between horse and human, shared leadership and the "inner language" that we can become part of. These are things that I have been pursuing with my horses and I've felt immense gratification with the way they respond. I also recognize that the very notion of sharing leadership boggles the minds of those still bound by the dynamics of traditional horsemanship.

For some reason, it seems many people are under the impression that to indulge a horse's preferences sometimes over our own, means that we have forfeited our own right to say "no" and our own right to experience "respect" which automatically leads to the horse taking over, running us over and abusing our good nature in a thousand bullish ways. Here we have a topic to discuss in a future journal entry, with personal examples to share.
Thank you June for providing questions that provoked me to briefly compare Klaus Ferdinand Hempling's work with Imke Spilker's on the subject of dominance. Overall, I don't think the two are necessarily far apart on things. I will quote a segment of Hempfling's book What Horses Reveal to illustrate:

Does the horse walk behind me or do I walk ahead of the horse?

This is the simple question. What would you make of the following very unusual thought. What if I do not bring the horse onto my path and lead him, but, rather, I simply put myself on the horse's path and walk two metres ahead of him? Am I leading the horse? Or, am I simply walking his path a few steps in front of him?
Again and again during my encounters with unfamiliar horses, I let them follow my hand as though they are being hypnotized. The pictures show that. But what if, in fact, I am actually following the head of the horse, only I am a second in advance of the horse's movement? That seems totally absurd, but that is, in a specific, exaggerated way, exactly what happens. I put myself in a world at one with the horses, as the shepherd is at one with the sheep. In my case there is a comparable interplay: leading and being led blend into a shared experience. I lead the horse, the horse leads me, and we are both led in that place and time. Only in that way can what seems to be impossible occur. We are simply on a shared path. We each reveal ourselves. --Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling

Sunday, November 8, 2009

SeaWorld and Empowered Horses

This past Saturday a friend of mine stopped into the studio to chat a bit. Ted and his wife, Barb, had just returned from a week long holiday in Florida shared with their son, daughter-in-law and delightful seven year old granddaughter, Willow. Ted looked very refreshed and said they'd all had a wonderful time. One of the highlights was a visit to SeaWorld.

Ted relayed to me that prior to the show, the SeaWorld trainers explained the general philosophy of how they interact with and teach these marine mammals to do the amazing things they do.

Some of the noteworthy things Ted related were:
--there is no force involved
--there is no punishment

--undesirable behavior is ignored, not corrected
--copious praise reinforces desired behavior
--food is just one reward, praise and human attention are more appreciated by the animals
--the gate to the back pools is always open so if an animal doesn't want to participate it is free to leave the area
--if an animal does not want to "perform" his part of the show is canceled

In fact, this last element is something that Ted and his family experienced for themselves. The first day they went to see the show, they struck up a conversation with an enthusiastic fellow sitting nearby who was especially addicted to SeaWorld (having made many repeat visits) and enjoyed telling them all the things he'd learned about the type of training that is done to put a show like this together. He also told them that sometimes Shamu refused to perform, and that if this happened they should come back at another time because Shamu's performance was spectacular and worth waiting for. Sure enough, during their first visit, the Shamu Rocks America show had to be called off, but during their next visit, the killer whale was in a better mood and ready to show what he could do, bringing astonishment and awe to the cheering crowds.

I was thrilled with what Ted was telling me because it felt very much like the path of horse/human relations I have been pursuing, and reflected almost word for word the philosophy put forth by Imke Spilker in her book, Empowered Horses. This philosophy is also present in Alexander Nevzorov's work, and there are many similarities as well with the work of Carolyn Resnick.

I quickly did some research on the internet and found a website which provides information on training marine mammals at SeaWorld. Those of you who train horses and are especially drawn to non-coercive means of training will enjoy reading through the way training and behavioral shaping takes place at SeaWorld. Reading about how SeaWorld approaches training once again (as with the way Imke Spilker interacts with horses) also reminds me very much of the philosophy behind the Montessori method of teaching young children.

After reading through the SeaWorld web pages, I was especially impressed with their detailing of what they feel creates an ideal training environment which to my perception seemed remarkably holistic and more of an overall interactive lifestyle which includes, sessions devoted to learning, exercise, relationship, play, husbandry and the shows.

Learning about the way SeaWorld trains these marine animals came at a time when I had just been reading on various Spanish Mustang forums and websites how disgusted many of these trainers are with the surge of enthusiasm dedicated to shifting perceptions of horses as livestock which are to be dominated and used, to that of horses as friends with whom we can have egalitarian relationships that lead to self-actualization for both horse and human.

Here are just a few comments from these various sites that caught my attention because they come from a particular perception that horses will take advantage of humans and harm them if they are not reprimanded, disciplined, punished, etc.

"On the flip side, we have those that will over-gentle the horse and try to treat it like a dog. They do not discipline or follow through. They allow the horse to make decisions and then can't change the behavior because the horse does not take them seriously. These horses are allowed to act like spoiled children and will hurt you if given the chance."

"Too many people equate natural horsemanship with passive, whimpy, non coercive, "training" methods. I am not Ghandi. I am just as violent, (and no more so) than are the horses in my herd. If one of my horses would bite me I would take my natural fist, do my best to make it feel like a natural kick, and try to knock the natural hell out of him. "

"I like your description of how you deal with a ground problem, horse to horse. Himself gets popped in the old kisser or a hard fist on the neck when he deserves it. When it happens, he then looks at me and starts licking his lips or if bridled-up, will spin his bit's cricket roller. Like he knows I caught him crossing a line. And then we're fine. It's the old John Lyon Three Second Rule: If the horse bites or kicks or something along those lines, you have three seconds to kill him. Then you let him know that the world is now OK. Rub him a bit. Love a horse to death and one of you may die."

These types of responses from humans towards a horse's undesirable behavior often yield the results humans are after...but not always, horses are not machines and humans are not always interpreting the horse's state of being accurately (meaning that many times a horse is punished when actually the human is in error or has inappropriately provoked the undesired behavior to begin with). And while one can argue that to discipline a horse in this brusque manner is something horses understand because this is the way they handle disputes amongst themselves has a certain merit--however, it does little to raise the level of communication to a subtler, higher state of understanding that brings out the best in both horse and human. At best, this type of training teaches the horse that if he behaves in a subordinate manner things will go better for him and teaches the human that when the horse shows an opposing reaction, she must assert herself, no matter what it takes, until there is a yielding of the horse's will to hers.

This would be the point of that type of dominator-driven training, I suppose, to create, through the use of force, horses which assume a reliably subordinate behavior (subordinate minded horses are considered safer for humans to be around). A horse must submit to the human handler in all things, like a well tuned mechanized vehicle, if you will, that with the press of a button responds as the human has designed it to do.

The trainers whose comments I've highlighted are probably not mean-minded individuals and likely are not cruel to their horses, but I do feel that they may be mentally stalled in their evolution of horse/human relationships and maintain a certain roughness that will keep them from advancing. They are probably not interested in developing anything other than what they presently practice...they are happy and their horses have come to a place of adjusted contentment. It is not necessarily a bad thing, this relating to horses as subordinate creatures--these trainers are merely capitalizing on the horses natural tendencies to yield to a higher authority...
...its just no longer what I feel compelled to do. I am exploring other means of achieving willing cooperation with horses.

For myself, if I resort to inflicting pain, however brief, to make myself understood to my horse, I feel that I have missed the opportunity to take our relationship to a higher level, i.e. my punitive actions reinforce a certain baseness of character that hold us back from evolving in our understanding of our overall potential in our relationship together.

My understanding of the new philosophy of horse/human relationships (or possibly a revival of an ancient one!) is that it promotes nurturing a means of communication that--while based on what we see horses exhibit amongst themselves and utilizes the type of communication we use amongst our human selves--is ultimately generating a unique (or inherent!) situation that transcends apparent differences between the species. This type of philosophy requires a dedication to developing the relationship first, based on mutual respect, creativity, lack of rigid hierarchy, shared leadership and a complete reversal of perceiving the horse as a useful tool to fulfill human desires.

I should note here that the concept of mutual respect, avoidance of a rigid hierarchy and sharing of leadership are the very things that traditional trainers likely finger as causing "spoiled" horses. No doubt a misapplication of means to achieve "mutual respect" and "shared leadership" occur--similarly a misapplication of means can likewise ruin horses in the dominance oriented manner of training.

My point, and the point that has been made by pacifists all along, is that it is possible to achieve excellent relationships with out the threat of "might makes right". Some ancient cultures flourished as "partnership societies" and though the war-mongers later overtook them and established our present well-ingrained system of "dominator societies" we have within us the capacity to revitalize a more sustainable, egalitarian way of interacting with our world and its inhabitants. What better way to understand this than to restructure our relationships with horses (or killer whales) without resorting to domination and violent measures to gain understanding and compliance from them?

Getting back to the training philosophy of SeaWorld. A man named Chris Rice was able to have a one on one interview with Laura Surovik, one of SeaWorld's killer whale trainers. He relayed elements of this interview in his blog, and I'd like to share a few noteworthy passages here, with readers keeping in mind the parallels to being with horses.

I asked Laura if food was the primary ‘reward’ for the whales’ behaviors. I was surprised at her answer.

“Actually, the whales respond more to attention and love. They’re being fed all day, so a few fish are not so much a reward, just part of our interaction. We take our cues from observing the whales.”

The whales demonstrate her point as they swim around responding to each other’s touch. They continually rub against each other’s backs and sides and bellies and love the attention. It becomes obvious that they especially love this kind of attention from the trainers too. And the trainers are more than happy to give it!

The trainers speak of their work as a “lifestyle commitment,” often spending overnights with the whales.
“It’s a 24/7 kind of life. The whales are like family members to us.”

“You know, Chris, you’re a behaviorist, since you’re a psychology major. You know, having worked with children, and people all over the world, you have to be able to read the situation. Look in the animals’ eyes and read. Are they with me? “Animals have good days and bad days. No different than us."

I'm so glad that Ted stopped by to share his inspirational visit to SeaWorld, it has brought to me an added sense of "rightness" in the path I have been drawn to with our horses here at Ravenseryie.