When, in 2018, I interviewed Paola, the wise street cleaner in Anghiari (Part 1,Part 2), she said ‘when I clean at La Croce in the morning and I look towards the valley, that valley that Leonardo and Piero della Francesca also looked at, it is a great joy. . I’ve recalled these words as I look with wonder at the view from the apartment where I am staying. It is quite simply breath-taking – the light, the colours, the Apennines around and beyond. But it is the cultural and historical richness in this view that particularly holds my attention. As Paola suggests, alongside all the visible historical changes, you can still imagine those renaissance artists in this landscape. (It has been a great joy to reconnect with Paola, who is very happy to do an interview with me on life in Anghiari during covid.)
With respect to changes, I’ll start with the river. The place I am staying in has been called ‘Tiber view’, but, in fact, you cannot see the Tiber from here. With the construction of a dam a little north of here in the post-war period, the river was reduced to a shallow trickle. Completed in the ’80s, this construction involved the flooding of homes, churches, and all the attendant downstream problems that go with damming, including the loss of a variety of species of fish. I understand that, over the centuries, the course of the river has changed, and that, in the past, not only did it flow fuller and deeper, but, at one stage, came quite close to Anghiari.
On my return to Anghiari after 4 years I have once again received a very warm welcome. Maybe even more heartfelt this time, after these years of covid. I run into acquaintances and friends in the street, in the piazza, in shops, in bars, and am warmly greeted with big smiles, and, frequently, hugs and kisses. Milva, in the alimentari, looked as if she’d seen an apparition when I walked in – she was so excited to see me. And to tell me that Lorenzo, her son, smiling next to her, was getting married in July. They had thought of me in those years of absence, she said, wondered how I was doing. Well, now, here I am back in the life of this place. And it feels like a home coming.
I took this photo on arrival – the view over the Tiber valley from my bedroom window. This time I am staying in a different place, located in the medieval walls of the town, with a view over the valley from every room. It has a wonderful address: via delle mura di sopra (‘street of the upper walls’). There is also a via delle mura di sotto. Once again, on arrival, I am struck by the distinctive light, colours, smells, sounds of Tuscan spring. In this photo you can get a sense of the soft light of spring here. When I open the windows, I am greeted by the smell of spring that I recall from my first stay in Anghiari, 20 years ago. There is a constant sound of birds, Italian spring birds, and, early in the morning, I hear hens and roosters in the valley. Every morning, the bells ring in La Badia, the 12th century church located right above my house. And, in the evening, they ring in the 13th century church, Santo Stefano, at the bottom of the hill.
When I hear ‘groundwork’, I hear two things simultaneously: work on the ground and foundational work, which together require a state of being grounded. From the moment we meet our horses we are doing groundwork in this double sense. Everything we do matters – how we greet our horses, lead them, groom them, will have implications for further work, on this particular day and in future situations. We will be establishing foundations. Most importantly, we want to establish a trustworthy connection, so that wherever we might be, in whatever circumstances, our horses will trust our leadership.
Gardeners speak of the transformative effect of having their hands in the earth. In gardening, we connect with a life bigger than ourselves, with life-and-death cycles of plants, with earth and air, and worms and bees. But, typically, it’s the grounding experience itself that is spoken of as the moment that brings about a change in our being. Having our hands in the ground has a wonderfully calming effect, alleviating anxieties and chatter in our heads, allowing us to come out of ourselves and into relation with the world around us.
When I lack faith, I become controlling, thinking it’s all up to me to get something done. My hunch is that this is a common experience in all domains of life, and that it is prevalent in our life with horses. The trouble is that as soon as we become controlling, we lose a connection with our horses. If, on the other hand, we have faith, we can let go of this self-centred condition and, rather than trying to make things happen, we can work with feel through a connection with our horse. In short, having faith and trusting in the relation can help us, as Tom Dorrance would say, ‘get ourselves out of the way and let it happen’ (see eg Tom Dorrance, True Unity, 1987 Pp 46-48).
While everyone knows that practice is essential for developing our horse skills, it is often thought of simply as a means to an end. But, in order to really connect with our horses, we need to be present, undistracted by goals and outcomes. This is where an appreciation of practice in the fullest sense of the term can be helpful, namely practice understood as a vocation to which we are devoted. When engaged in such a practice, we have a sense of participating in something bigger, more important than ourselves. It is something that we feel we should do, that is good: this matters, it feels right. Practice then becomes a way of life and a learning without end, thus allowing us to hold our goals lightly and become immersed in what is before us here-and-now.
Throughout these posts I’ve been referring to the centrality of awareness to the development of a connection with our horses. So, it seems appropriate now to say a little more about what is involved in this relational state of being and why it is crucial to the process of learning feel.
‘I can’t teach you anything. I can only help you learn.’ (Tom Dorrance, True Unity, 1987, P 49
Deep learning involves discovering an intuitive feel for a discipline or field, whatever it might be – maths, Italian, cricket, playing the piano, working with horses. Like all good teachers, Tom Dorrance was insistent that feel could not be acquired through instruction, the transfer of the teacher’s knowledge to the student – ‘it is not something that can be handed to someone – it has to be learned’ (Dorrance 6). While people might get something at a cognitive level, real learning only happens through full-bodied experience – ‘It’s experience, I guess’ was one of Tom’s constant refrains. Learning feel, then, is an organic process in which each student learns in their own way, at their own particular pace (6, 12, 18, 30). And, a good teacher will set aside any outcomes they might desire for a student in order to allow this learning to happen.
In the previous post I described the stillness of a supportive holding space. Here, I want to talk about the significance of boundaries in the creation of that space and the role they play in building a horse’s confidence in our reliability.
In this post I want to talk about the significance of ‘stillness’ to leadership. To reiterate briefly, leadership in our relations with horses involves the provision of a trustworthy, safe space. This requires the relational capacity to be present and open, able to listen to our horses and to respond to what is called for, without being reactive or judgemental. In other words, leadership in human-horse relations, is analogous to that in teacher-student, parent-child, carer-cared for relations. In all of these, it is the relation that leads rather than an identifiable individual. A teacher is teacher-and-student, simultaneously teaching-and-learning; a student is a student-teacher, simultaneously learning-teaching. This is the logic implied when horsepeople say that our horses are our teachers. And it calls for humility on our part.