This is the first of a series of posts I hope to do on living in-relation with horses.
I have been inspired to write about this by Corey Ryan, a horseman with whom I’ve been working over the past year. Corey’s understanding of relationship and connection makes such a difference to the learning experience for horse and human. Through him, I am learning anew the significance of a relational way of being, and more and more about being in-relation with horses. I will be giving examples of these learning experiences in subsequent posts.
Here I want to take as a starting point the ecological principle of universal connectedness, and raise some questions about the implications of this for living in-relation with horses. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term ‘interbeing’ to describe this ecological principle. He says ‘To be is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing’. All things in the universe are interconnected. The vegetables that I am eating needed the sun and rain and earth to grow; the rain needed a cloud that was blown by a wind that connected far distant places and people… (The Heart of Understanding P4).
Despite the primacy of this principle, we often don’t have the language to appreciate and describe our experiences of interbeing. Particularly as we live in an individualist society, we tend to fall back on terms that give primacy to a logic of separation rather than that of connection. It is common to assume, for example, that horse and human are primarily separate entities and then think of connection as a bridge, or a rope, between these entities. But I think that if you reflect on an experience of connectedness, that’s not how it feels. And so, I’m interested in exploring a conceptual language that is true to this experience, in the hope that this will help us better appreciate the wonder of living in-relation with horses, and, importantly, understand ways of being that make this possible.
While the language to accurately describe experiences of connection and inter-being might not be readily available, these experiences are in fact present, in all domains of life. Imagine gardening, for example, and being with earth and air and plants. Tending plants, the gardener would be listening to them, in dialogue with them, as they are with each other and with the worms and microorganisms in the soil and the bees in the flowers and…. There would be a mutual caring and being cared for in this gardening experience.
Here are some other examples. Imagine sailing and being with wind and water and sails and tiller. Or watching a bird in a tree. Or participating in a lively conversation. Or surfing. Or dancing – think of the effortless ease of skilful dancing, when dancing partners are so in-tune that they are not able to tell where one begins and the other ends.
Any everyday activity can be experienced in a state of either separation or connection. When in the garden, for example, I can act upon, do things to plants, treating them as inert objects, or I can be gardening, in-relation with plants and the environment in which we live. Typically, we shift between states of being, but the crucial point to remember is that connection is primary – separation is only logically possible if there is a primary connection. And, the experience of connection is readily available to us in everyday life. Of course, effortless skill in something like dancing, takes never-ending practice. But, a learning process itself can be practiced in a state of either separation or connection. Possibly, then, the most important skill is that of awareness – the capacity to be in-relation with our states of being.
And so, to horses. We can experience connection in all sorts of situations – when watching a horse in a paddock, when leading, when standing beside each other, when stroking or grooming, when picking up a rein, or ‘thinking’ ‘trot’…. I’ll give just one example here which horse people should recognize, that of looking at a horse in a paddock.
I walk into the paddock with my attention on a particular horse. She is eating grass with her herd, at some distance from me. I’m in no rush. I’m carrying a halter, but I’m not thinking ahead of what I might do with it. As I enter, she looks up from her eating – she looks up at me. She stands there, ears forward, looking at me. We are looking at each other. So, what is happening in this moment of looking? What does it feel like? What do we see?
On entering the paddock, I will have taken in how she is in herself today, and what’s going on with the other horses in the herd, their location in the paddock and so on. I’ll have an awareness of the whole picture, without fixing my attention on any aspect of it. While it’s important that I have an awareness of everything that is going on, if I were to fixate on my horse’s state, for example, tell myself stories about it, anticipate possible consequences, this would take me away from my connection with her here, now. And then I would lose the capacity to respond to whatever emerges between us. So, here I am, looking at her, without any expectations.
In that moment of connection when she looks up, I am quite simply absorbed in the looking, drawn into it. Time slows down, goes into suspension, and everything feels still, even though there is a wind. The distance between us closes at the same time as space opens and fills with the looking. I feel open in a mutual looking that is without trajectory, without beginning or end points. And there is a softness to the experience, a soft focus, a soft feel in this acknowledging of each other’s presence.
In this way of looking, then, I don’t see any thing, my gaze does not settle on some aspect of my horse. I see her whole undefined being, without having any descriptors – sensitive, 15 hands, arab – in my head. Her whole being includes all of these, but is not limited by any categorisation or definition. In fact, if I were to focus on any thing, I would lose the unbounded wholeness of this experience and would reduce her particular, unlimited ‘youness’. And, in this mutual looking I have a sense of ‘yes, it is you’, that I am being seen in my particularity. (Indeed, she will know from the moment I enter the paddock what sort of state I’m in today. I’ll be saying more about this in future posts.)
In this moment of connection when distance dissolves, there is a sense of being ever so close, intimate. And the wonder in this is that it is an intimate experience of difference. We are not one and the same; there is no projection or mirror here. I am experiencing a difference in my being; we are, horse-and-human, participating in a shared experience of looking, being together.
Of course, there are endless different possible scenarios to this experience. My horse might be distracted or worried about something, have her attention elsewhere. And there are all sorts of ways in which I can lose a connected state – if, for example, I’m ruminating on the latest political news, or worrying about the wind coming up, or anticipating what might happen with my horse today or thinking about what happened yesterday, or concentrating hard on what I should be doing in the paddock now. In short, in any situation when I’m elsewhere, distracted by thoughts and judgements and expectations. I’ll be returning to these all too familiar experiences of separation in future posts, giving examples of ways of recognizing such states, and ways of (re)finding connection. This is what I am constantly learning.
After that initial encounter, various different things could happen: she could resume eating, she could walk towards me, I could walk towards her, we could walk towards each other, she could walk off in another direction. In each of these, there are particular issues of connection and separation. The connection of the looking can be sustained, for example, as we walk towards each other, or there can be a more complex mix of connection and separation. If she were to resume eating or walk off, for example, she would still be aware of me, there would be an underlying connection, even though she had disconnected in a way. So, for me the issue would be how to stay in a connected state to help bring her back to our connection.
Experiences of connection like this mutual looking raise the question: what sort of being is this that we call a ‘horse’, or a ‘human’? These very terms are misleading from an ecological perspective. Implicit in this principle is the understanding that we are all mixed beings – a human is not simply ‘human’, a dog is not simply a ‘dog’, and a horse is not simply a ‘horse’. In the experience of mutual looking, there is no sense of distinct entities or species. The experience of difference, for instance, is one in which I participate: rather than being an observer at a distance, my very being is part of that difference; difference is part of who I am. This is what it means to inter-be. My horse is not thinking, experiencing anything like ‘horse’ and ‘human’, just as, for example, when a cat and a dog are lying together, or a horse and a dog are friends, they’re not experiencing distinct species. In the connection of looking we just are, together. We inter-are. In fact, as soon as I do think anything like ‘that is a horse’, ‘I am a human’, I will have lost the connection.
As horse people, then, we need to take seriously the implications of the term ‘interbeing’: our very being is between, among. When in-relation with horses, we inter-are with horses. So, as a first step, we need to be able to recognize the distinctive feel of that connected form of being. From the examples above, and, as the terms ‘connection’, ‘separation’ and ‘inter’ themselves suggest, different states of being are characterized by particular spatial and temporal qualities. Recognising these can help us distinguish forms of being.
A question that is likely to be asked is: ‘how do I know what a horse is seeing?’ I’ll be saying a lot about the subtlety in communicating with horses, but here I’ll just say that this is a question that comes from the perspective of the logic of separation. I know through the connection, because ‘I’ am part of our seeing-looking. I know because our understanding of ways of seeing and being seen comes from an environment which includes the seeing of horses along with that of a great diversity of creatures, including other ‘humans’. In other words, I know ecologically, through interbeing.
With thanks to Andrew, Suzi and Corey