Dangerous Patterns: In Horsemanship & in the World, Harmony or Conflict Begins with Us
My reason for writing this article is to perhaps shift the way you think about how you are thinking about something. As I get older, more aware and (hopefully wiser), I search for ways to feel that I am contributing to the betterment of the world. Maybe there is something in what I am doing that can really help me contribute. One of the simplest and most profound ways is something we all can do. Ghandi said it best: "Be the change you want to see in the world." There are lessons to be learned through horsemanship that go beyond horsemanship.
When you live with horses you get good at seeing patterns; at seeing how one thing influences another and how one little nuance can manifest in so many ways, often with greater consequences than we imagine. We can drop the lead rope and lose track of our horse for a moment because our liberty is good, so he usually comes back easily, itʼs not a big deal.... But a habit is formed... And maybe last thing that happened right before a horse you were holding went into the road and killed himself and the family in the car was that you dropped the line. A small error of judgement that happened by allowing yourself to form a careless habit. You had no idea something so terrible could result from such a small assumption. Do I have your attention?
Maybe I am in a position to help people see a pattern, that I have realized is the same pattern that is creating a lot of pain for a lot of people in this world. It may seem benign, or even ʻrightʼ and may be done with the best intentions, but it is a pattern that can lead to trouble, none the less.
We all have our own unique perspective of this world, and because of that we each have something unique to share. The world does not look exactly the same from each of our different perspectives, and this is part of what creates a world that is infinitely interesting. It also can create a sense of needing something concrete, some absolute truth to hold onto... An island upon which to rest after swimming in the vast ocean of particular pieces of information, sights, sounds, colors, temperatures coming at us in waves. We look for something to tell us who we and where we fit in this world. These islands of truth can be landmarks. And if they arenʼt real we can make them up. We can set up lighthouses. We can mark them on the map to help us know exactly where we are....
Even among the group of people standing in front of the sign reading: ʻYou are here" no one is in exactly the same place, but we are happy to group ourselves together in that moment and enjoy the security of a shared ʻherenessʼ. It is close enough. And clearly the people at the other end of the building are ʻnot hereʼ. Unless of course, the map got bigger and it became a map of the county. Then perhaps on that scale we would all be in the ʻhereʼ of this particular building. If we pulled out even more we would all be in the ʻhereʼ of this state, this country ... This planet.
So stand at that sign and look around. Where do you draw the line? Who is actually ʻhereʼ and who is not designated as ʻhereʼ? Ponder that for a moment.
I have designated my unique perspective in the horse world as: Dressage, Naturally. I used to call myself a dressage rider (with a big, red, bold letters and arrow pointing). Then as I drove down the driveways to the Parelli Centers in FL and CO I could almost see the big red arrow in the sky that said: ʻNatural Horsemanshipʼ because clearly HERE was where it was all happening!
In both those locations (Dressage-Land and Parelli-Land) everyone had clearly and quite proudly marked themselves as fully HERE in THIS place, doing THESE things. Then there was me. Who was I? Where was I? I canʼt possibly be in two places at once, so I took turns letting the different arrows point to me at different times until eventually creating my own label: Dressage, Naturally. It is by absolute design that the name is a little vague... Is it saying that I do ʻdressage in a natural wayʼ, or is it that ʻnaturally I do dressageʼ (I mean, who wouldnʼt want to?) ;-)
It is more a description of what I see from my unique perspective when I put my periscope up and look out over the murky waters. When people come to Dressage, Naturally I want to share with them what I see. I want them to see the parts of the ocean they can visit and help them navigate there..
In my mind, my Dressage, Naturally label isnʼt an arrow, but is a sort of semi-transparent area, with borders that are difficult to discern.
I recently saw a video much like many videos that get sent around the internet. It showed amazingly beautiful horsemanship. People were riding bareback, bridle-less doing liberty, smiling with their horses, looking excruciatingly happy. These were labeled the Natural Horsemen and they did everything better, lighter, happier. This was contrasted with the Sport riders (dressage & jumping primarily). This video showed only the worst moments of dressage and jumping. Tongues were lolling out of mouths, eyes were rolling in heads, photographs caught horses in the most contorted positions. clearly this is undesirable.
ʻWhy would you do this?ʼ (showing a stressed horse in competition) the video asked, ʻif you could do thisʼ (showing a child sitting on a pony smiling ear to ear). People gave many comments, ʻOh, this is so beautifulʼ, ʻyes natural horsemanship is the bestʼ.
I just can't help but wonder what the message of this video really was (whether intended or not).
Why weren't they images of excellent horsemanship contrasted with horrific horsemanship done among people who call themselves natural horsemen? This would give the opportunity to discern what is quality and what is not. I had hoped that the intended message of the video was that there is a quality of horsemanship that can lead to happy humans and horses. I hoped that the message was meant to be that there is a way to do be with horses that leads to beauty and harmony. Unfortunately I couldn't help but feel that the message was more about we are better than you.
Uh Oh. An uneasy feeling came over me.
What I would find most beautiful is a video that recognized the best of horsemanship across disciplines... To me, natural horsemanship is about a harmonious context from which you can move forward to any discipline ... It is about the best qualities that master horsemen everywhere share... (Even ones that would never give themselves the label ʻnatural horsemanʼ).
That is my idea of natural horsemanship, but I am fearing that maybe the intention or message of the video was not to highlight quality. It seemed like the point of that video was to give the idea that anyone who called themselves a natural horseman was ʻbetterʼ than anyone who did a sport.
From my perspective (in that semi-transparent fuzzy-edged circle of mine that includes natural horsemanship and dressage) I couldnʼt help but feel that this wasnʼt really playing fair. It wasnʼt fair to the sport people because it was certainly set up to make them look bad, ALL of them. And it wasnʼt fair to natural horsemen because it was a pretty darned predatory video and my view of natural horsemanship was about learning todecrease our predatory characteristics! It happens both ways, of course, from both sport and ʻnaturalʼ people... One mistake, one misunderstanding or unfortunate moment caught on tape, and people are so eager to not so much critique or understand what just happened, but instead to use it as a reason to condemn everything about what that person, or worse, the entire ʻdisciplineʼ does.
It caused me to wonder what people are really wanting. Do we want to celebrate excellent horsemanship or do we want to belong to something easily labeled? In order to feel good about US do we have to put down THEM? It seems to be human nature to do this. Once you give yourself a label, the next instinct is to promote that label as the best one in order to confirm oneʼs choices and place in the world. I guess I expected more from humans who have signed up to learn the lessons that horses teach us when we choose to become their partners.
Just as easily, there could be a video made of amazingly beautiful scenes of horses jumping the moon for their riders, offering ex- tended trots and flying changes, effortlessly. Proud equine athletes who understand perfectly their precise riders, who feel exhila- rated by what they get to go and do. It could be contrasted with horrific scenes of horses learning hard lessons from people in fringed chaps. Horses in rope halters being wrapped around trees, horses with ropes tied around their legs. Scenes with riders allowing their horses to run and run until they ʻchange their ideaʼ, taken out of context and without explanation. How would natural horsemen feel about a video like that?
Lets face it, no matter what the discipline, there are humans who so sincerely do it wrong, or who have their heart in the right place and are merely learning and have not yet ʻarrivedʼ. We need to be gentle with them, because they are us. Havenʼt we all had unfortunate moments? If someone is a horse-lover doing their best, why do they need to be attacked? Of course, there are those who simply are mean people, horse-haters, instead of horse-lovers. People who are using animals to satisfy their egos or needs to dominate. Those people need to be sent good energy, and a positive example... They need to be ignored by not giving them business, by not watching them do their thing... And if a horse is being harmed, we need to intervene to save the innocent. Those people can be found in many places, not just in the competition arena. In fact I would be willing to guess there are much worse things going on ʻbehind the barnsʼ in the privacy of their ignorance and out of the view of the public eye.
Do we really need to set up an US or THEM pattern? Is that being a partner, is that moving towards harmony? What is the line? Who is part of the big red arrow of US? Who gets to draw the line? What would be much more interesting to me would be to see videos that highlight and acknowledged excellence in riding no matter where you learned it or what you like to do with your horse. Wouldnʼt it be a noble goal to be able to recognize what the qualities of excellent horsemanship look like regardless of outfit, equipment, discipline? If you pull back far enough you will see that we are all in the same place, the place marked by the big red arrow that says: "Horse Lovers Are Here".
But this is not just about these particular videos. It is an example of a way of thinking... A careless, dangerous habit that only seems benign. Maybe some of you are thinking: ʻOh Karen, relax, they are just proud to be a natural horseman and want to show the worldʼ.
So here is the real point I want to make. Let me ask you: What is the difference between this video I first described and the propa- ganda against any group of people that has been hated and discriminated against. How is it different? Now, I am not comparing this as an equal crime, but it is a way of thinking, it is a predatory thought pattern. It promotes disharmony. Isnʼt this a thought pat- tern that we, as students of the school of natural horsemanship are supposedly trying to eliminate? In our human history this care- less habit has been repeated many, many times, with horrific consequences.
To me, the thought process that gives the message: "All natural horsemen are pure and beautiful and all sport riders are cruel", (or vice versa) is the same thought process as when one group of people discriminates against another, or when politicians put the need to have their party win over the needs of the people.
If everything we have learned from our journey with horses stops as soon as we look at another human, then they are lessons lost. If we have not learned to see the subtlety of quality beyond labels then they are lessons lost. If it is more important to us to be righteous than compassionate then they are lessons lost. Letʼs help the innocent who are in trouble, but know that if we fight against fighters we become fighters. If we hate the haters we become haters. By going against ʻthemʼ we become ʻthemʼ.
Letʼs not use our beautiful horses and our harmonious horsemanship as a vehicle towards becoming haters and fighters. Standing in my Dressage, Naturally shoes, I hear it from both sides. I hear students of dressage criticize natural horsemen, and I hear students of natural horsemen criticize dressage. From my vantage point I have the beautiful opportunity to reconcile these seemingly different concepts. One of the most wonderful results is that it is a metaphor for life. It has given me a concrete example and a way to practice some more spiritual/philosophical principles. It gives me a chance to practice walking the talk.
Our world has enough problems. Use your gift. Use the gift that our horses have given us. It is the gift of compassion, of harmonizing through our differences, of creating positivity, of partnership over dominance, of leading through following, of communicating by understanding, of being open within boundaries. And if you must create a change, then use the gift of understanding how to cause their ideas to change without making them feel wrong.
I tell my students at my clinics: "You donʼt have to be a ʻdressage riderʼ, you donʼt have to be a ʻnatural horsemanʼ, you donʼt even need to be a ʻDressage, Naturallyʼ person. You are you. You have your dream with your horse, just like everyone else." Dressage, natural horsemanship, and Dressage, Naturally are names of bodies of knowledge that can serve you. You donʼt have to be them, you donʼt have to promote them. You donʼt need to take on that burden. Be you and use them to help you fulfill your dream. It is your dream. Free yourself. Show the world what you can do. Share, if you like, where you got your information, but shed the label ... You just may be more than that label can describe anyway.
In the words of don Miguel Ruiz: "You are not something. You are not nothing. You are something else."
Originally published in the August 2010 Dressage, Naturally Newsletter