I was talking with my friend Don the other day. Don is decades my senior and though she speaks from the perspective of wisdom gleaned from time I have yet to pass through, she often surpasses me in her youthfulness and simple clarity. Some might call me an old soul. I would just call her vigorous and smart.
I had put her on speakerphone because I was at the stable, and needed both hands. Normally, I would not use speakerphone in a public place because I don’t think it is polite but it was the May long weekend, and the stable was a quiet place, just the proprietors and me… and Sanson.
Don is actually my ‘boss’ of sorts, she is the international co-ordinator of the brand of saddles I represent here in Poland, and she is based in Holland. But we have a mutual like and respect of each other and our conversations frequently and happily go deep off track. Those who have ridden with me know I am a fan of going off road!
I had called to ask a question from a saddle perspective but 2 hours later our chat had turned to other matters. In this time I had haltered Sanson, brought him to the hitch rail, groomed him and un-did his braids, fed him a biscuit of hay, and now in the round pen working on our ‘dance moves’. Simple manoeuvres designed to connect his nose to my body centre, and dance, move around each other to influence his feet and body shape. He is rather fabulous at it, so it was no problem for me to have ‘Don’ buttoned in my shirt pocket as Sanson and I gently danced around each other in the warm afternoon air, as I babbled away to my friend.
Our conversation had turned to teaching and rather, teachers. We were discussing the idea of teachers and how they influence people. Don said that she absolutely does not like people who try to tell her how to live her life. She had been burned more than once by people obsessed by NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and had developed a fairly muscular radar for manipulators, though as someone who is an employed leader herself, and even to the point where she must educate those she leads, I can speak from experience I have never felt her attempt to mind control me, change me or alter me. She met me where I was as a person, and just presented information for me to pick up… if i wanted it. She even helped direct me, point me in the right direction. This is a person who has had 30+ years of experience of retail and customer service in a highly specific field and yet, she seemed immune to the very human desire to control and dominate. Astounding.
Don also mentioned that though she is often in a position where she must ‘teach’ she doesn’t consider herself necessarily ‘worthy’ enough to call herself a Teacher… so doesn’t expend energy trying to change people. I countered with my perspective, because I often find myself in the position of Teacher. It happened first with ballet and dance, now with horses, and nominally in a number of other areas too. I certainly do not consider myself a teacher, in a traditional sense of the word.
The crux of my position, I said to Don, was many people who find themselves in the position of Supervisor, Leader or Teacher see this relationship as something very black and white. Based around the concept that As-a-teacher-I-must-know-Everything-about-that-which-I-teach. Student is the subject Teacher must enlighten. Teacher tells you what is True, Correct or Worthy. You remember the facts Teacher gives. Then repeat. I happen to think that this concept is antiquated. Repeating is not the same as understanding or interpreting, something that an artistic education teaches very well.
The American horse trainer Carolyn Resnick says
‘ Good trainers are very comfortable with not knowing what they are doing’.
Careful not to misunderstand this statement, to be effective trainer you must have knowledge and experience. But what Carolyn is advocating is remaining open to the situation and the moment, and allowing it to continue to change and alter you.
Yes, a true teacher knows that they must listen to their students and the world around them, if they wish to remain viable.
How is it possible for one person to know EVERYTHING about a given subject? My beloved ballet teacher, Miss B, used to tell us regularly,
‘The day you think you know it all, is the day you should stop dancing’.
I think the same should go for all pursuits, horses included.
I think that humans have barely begun to scratch the surface of what horses are capable of, and what we can learn from them. The horsemanship library is a vast, vast ocean of information, perspectives and approaches. Indeed, my small perspective is just that… a perspective. My window into the Universe of the Horse.
Never do I intend to offer hard and fast ultimate rules. Unbreakable truths and black and white techniques. Just because something might be true to one person and one horse in one moment does not mean it will be true for all.
There are some general things which can be depended upon. There are some techniques which even can have some semblance of universality across hundreds of thousands of individuals. But if we focus on the technique of what we are doing, we dangerously glaze over the small moments, the tiny shifts, the in-between feelings which are the key to magic success in a true horseperson, and what separates them from their mechanical copy cats.
To put it in a specific example. I met a trainer once who made a statement I had heard more than once, from more than one source, and said it with an emotionless, matter of fact tone… like it was just one of hundreds of remembered phrases they had picked up on their horsemanship journey, never questioned its validity, and preached it as Gospel truth to all their clients.
‘ The toes (of the rider) must point parallel forwards, or the hips are blocked.’
That’s it. It was said with total finality. No room for discussion. This was someone who also preaches openness, between them, their clients and the horses. And in the same breath, makes a sweeping statement of the finality of correctness. Odd! How insidious it can be, in this day an age where Natural Horsemanship is the go to buzz word, where so many old-school trainers have taken exactly the same approach, and just put a different hat on it. Odd!
‘ The toes (of the rider) must point parallel forwards, or the hips are blocked.’
I know people who practise a similar type of riding as that particular trainer teaches, that have photos of them on their dressage horses, performing things like half pass, passage, or pirouette, clearly showing a slight open angle to their toes… are their hips blocked?
As a dancer, I was trained to turn my toes out, because in this position the hips are actually the most free and open. Nobody can argue with the fact that dancers, particularly classical trainers dancers, have some of the most mobile human hips in the world. The degree to which you can open them will depend a lot upon your anatomy, your training, gender, muscle patterning and hundred of other variables. Even the brand of shoes you trained in, to the culture of training you come from, to the texture and friction of the floor you made your trainings upon. Thousands of dancers spend every day turned out. Sure, some get injured. But most do not.
Then I will go to a gym, and meet a personal trainer who will only train people to work toes parallel. They will even preach turn out as some kind of evil cause of leg pathologies immeasurable.
How can you present one thing as gospel unless you actually want people to treat you like a God? So many factors go into creating technique. Instead of our focus being on what is ‘Correct Technique’ it needs to be on what is ‘Good Teachnique’, on an individual, case to case basis.
The fact is, if we decide to teach, especially teach something like horsemanship and riding, we have to look at the individual horse and human in front of us and adjust our teachings accordingly. But for some people, they can only see the world in black and white.
Like maths. In mathematics, 1+1 is always going to be 2. But horses are not flat or two dimensional creatures. Toes front is not always going to equal superior hip control. Two rein contact is not always going to equal better collection. Dressage is not always going to be healthier. Natural horsemanship is not always going to be kinder, I could go on.
Don and I were discussing exactly this idea. 1+2=2. I said that with horses, sometimes 1+1 = 47. Or 3. Or -278. They are not formulaic, and we mustn’t teach Equestrianism in this way.
Don gave an analogy I will never forget. I present the allegory here with her good humor and permission.
To some people, two chairs, side by side, will always be two chairs. They are chairs because they are designed to be sat on, because that’s what chairs are. It doesn’t matter if they are made from wood, plastic or metal, to some people who view the world in black and white, they are still only chairs.
But flip one of those chairs on it’s side, can you sit on it now? Arrange them in a certain way and you may lie on them, like a bed. To a skinny person, two chairs side to side could be a sofa. To a wide hipped person, one chair is only half a chair. Flip them both upside down and you have 8 poles, for hanging things on. Pick it up, you have a weapon. Put a sheet over them and to a child you might have a castle or a playhouse. Sit on the ground in front of them, you have a table or a desk.
I call this Creative Perspective Awareness. It underlines everything I try to do with horses. To look at a common ‘thing’ with fresh eyes, with creativity, with real life response to what is in front of me. Learning something from a textbook, and regurgitating someone else’s success, teaching verbatim unbreakable formulas, just seems to be such a wasted opportunity to learn something new.
I always hated math class anyway.