Living in-relation with horses: feedback

‘It has to be a togetherness’ (Tom Dorrance, True Unity, 1987, P 11)dorrance_1

Tom Dorrance insisted that togetherness, ‘this thing between the horse and the person’ could not be learnt through instruction – ‘do this and you get that’. Rather, it was a matter of ‘feel’, something that could only be acquired through full-bodied experience. Speaking of his own experience, he said ‘I try to feel what the horse is feeling and operate from where the horse is’. To feel ‘the whole horse’, he said, involves feeling ‘inside the horse, right in his innards’. And, most importantly, we feel ‘the inside of the horse… from inside of ourselves’. In short, feel is an experience of entwined being (Pp 12-14). To develop an understanding of this experience, in this post I want to introduce the ecological idea of feedback.

In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, the anthropologist and systems theorist, Gregory Bateson, argued that mind is not located in the brain, but exists in relational systems characterised by feedback. ‘The mental characteristics of the system are immanent’, Bateson said, ‘not in some part, but in the system as a whole’ (1972, P 287). Mind, in other words, is not separate from the body, and bodies themselves exist as parts of systems.

Bateson offers a useful illustration:

Consider a man felling a tree with an axe. Each stroke of the axe is modified or corrected, according to the shape of the cut face of the tree left by the previous stroke. This self-corrective (i.e. mental) process is brought about by a total system, tree-eyes-brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree; and it is this total system that has the characteristics of immanent mind…. But this is not how the average Occidental sees the event sequence of tree felling. He says ‘I cut down the tree’ and he even believes that there is a delimited agent, the ‘self’, which performed a ‘purposive’ action upon a delimited object. (P 288)

Although Bateson’s ecological formulation may sound unfamiliar, it accords with our most common experiences of being in the world. When we are fully engaged in any activity, we are participating in feedback systems. It could be cooking a meal, arranging flowers, surfing, playing a musical instrument, solving a maths problem, painting a landscape or gardening – having ‘green fingers’, for example, means being part of a whole system which includes earth and roots and stems and leaves. Or take cricket as another example: for a skilled batsman, the ball is not an external object they think about, but something they ‘think’ with: the smallest change in movement from the ball produces sympathetic movement in the bat and in the feet, which is readjusted as more information is received about the effect of the pitch on the ball. These ecological experiences of engagement, of being with, is what is meant when we speak of getting a feel for a particular field or activity.

This has implications for the learning process. When we learn things abstractly, knowledge is located in a mind restricted to a self, but learning only becomes deeper, and a full-bodied part of us, when it has opened up feedback channels that change our mental capacities. In the process, we become a cricketer, a gardener, a mathematician, a surfer or a horseperson/rider, each of which is a particular sort of being, participating in particular feedback systems. In other words, this involves the capacity to feel the inner form of a garden, a wave, a maths problem, or a horse from inside ‘our’ own. Which underscores the significance of the role bodily imagination plays in deep learning – it does so, by opening feedback channels so that we change our form of being and sense of space.

Returning now to Tom Dorrance, here is a description he gives of the process of learning feel with horses:

Some riders I have worked with are getting closer and closer to feeling the feet, and where they are, and what is going to happen before it even happens. If the horse is needing a little support, a little directing, a little help, they are more ready to help the horse at the time it needs it. If the horse is going to make it anyway, these riders don’t get in the way, and that is so important. Then these riders will get so they can feel the whole horse, what’s going on all through the horse… be able to feel when the horse needs a little directing and support and when it is time to just let it happen. (Pp 17-18)

When Tom speaks of ‘feeling the feet and where they are, and what is going to happen before it even happens’ he is referring to the experience of participating in open horse-and-human feedback loops.  And this is essential to good timing: with the intertwined space of feedback comes the capacity to be ‘right on’ in timing with horses, just as it does, for example, in catching a wave just right. Until a rider has this feedback feel, they will ‘try to just do an action and make it happen’, and they will be out of time, and whatever they do will be ineffective (P 26). Tom insists that there is a delicacy in getting feel and timing, in being in-tune. It takes patience, awareness, imagination, the capacity to listen, and knowing when to get out of the way and ‘just let it happen’. (Pp 17-27)

Being in-relation with horses involves the same feel and feedback dynamics whether we are ‘on the ground’ or ‘in the saddle’. In the last post I described the calming experience of stroking-being stroked as an example of feedback. Here, I’ll give an example of Corey riding. It’s worth noting that Corey and Suzi describe their approach as ‘intuitive horsemanship’, ‘intuition’ being another way to describe knowing through feel and feedback. In fact, if you asked Corey how he knew what was the appropriate response in any particular situation, his likely answer would be ‘through feedback’.focus4a

Look again at this photo of Corey with Peridot walking over a tyre. In connection with this and other photos, I have referred to Corey’s use of hands-reins, noting, in particular, when the reins are loose, indicating relaxation and flow. Now it might look as if nothing is happening with hands-reins, but this is deceptive. Hands-reins are parts of an open feedback system, coming into play principally as a back-up to focus. In a sense, ‘loose reins’ is the default position, but there’s an aliveness and communication in this feel. Corey will be making constant subtle adjustments in hands-reins in the process of offering support and guidance, always with softness, which might need to become firm, but will never involve pulling. Through feel-feedback, he is particularly attuned to the precisely right time for a release. It is in moments of getting out of the way and ‘letting it happen’ that reins are loose, in those moments when the horse-and-human connection is right ‘on song’.

That is what is happening as Peridot-and-Corey walk over the tyre. They are doing so with balance and precise placing of horse-and-human feet, rather than awkwardly and stumbling, which could have happened had Corey not prepared well. In preparation, he would have been feeling down to the feet, knowing when each one left the ground, assisting with balance and straightness when necessary. He would have been not only responding to feedback from Peridot, but also feeling the form of the tyre inside his horseperson being. Rather than regarding the tyre as an external object over which ‘he’ had to manoeuvre ‘a horse’, Corey would be participating in a feedback loop of which the tyre is a part. He would be living-imagining tyre-feet-hands- .

Now transpose the tyre situation to the bush, and you’ll get a sense of the expansion of the feedback loops involved in riding in this environment. Where Corey and Suzi live at St Albans, they are surrounded by steep hills and sandstone ridges, with rocks and caves and creek beds and all sorts of trees and bushes and grasses. This country was affected by the Gospers mountain fire and subsequent floods last year, both of which have had considerable effects on the terrain and the vegetation – falling trees, for example. Furthermore, when you are in this bush, you can come across kangaroos, dingoes, goannas, snakes, hornet’s nests and anthills. Recently, when we were riding there, we paused, and I looked around at this ancient country, and marvelled at the complexity of the feedback systems involved in riding in it. There is a lot to take in – the quality of the ground, the slope of hills, size of rocks, space between trees, height of branches and so on. What is called for is an opening of our being, or, in Bateson’s terms, our ‘mind’, to the complex systems of relations involved, getting ‘in tune with’, ‘getting your eye in’. We need to develop a feel for this country.

To give some idea of the experience of feedback in riding in this place, here is how I imagine riding up a hill. Now, the gait and speed required for going up a hill with balance depends on the slope, and, needless to say, I only do ‘walking’ slopes, that is, those that are not so steep! In preparation, I feel-imagine the hill, the slope, and the particular quality of a climbing walk, with neck outstretched and reins loose. I take in the whole and then bring a concentrated focus in closer as we head off. As Peridot and I climb, I feel horse-and-human climbing muscles, and the meeting with the hill’s ‘muscles’ as feet connect with earth. I’m adjusting position and weight in the saddle as we climb and turn around trees, rocks. We’re going this side of a tree, rather than that, as the vegetation is less dense. Adjustments are made in response to the feel of a stoney patch under foot or fallen trees or branches. With whole body-focus-hands- I’m maintaining straightness, offering support, direction, and getting out of the way. Stroking if I feel a sense of worry coming on; allowing the right momentum, whilst catching a rush in good time. And then, at the top, I imagine-feel halt, backed up, if necessary, with smooth hands-reins. We pause and really let down, with reins completely loose.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey and Suzi


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