Sunday, June 21, 2015

Slow Horse Movement - Proud to Disappoint You

I am a former speed junkie. Horseback riding speed, as in fast, heart pounding speed over daring fences.  I understand riders who want to experience that too, both experienced riders and absolute beginners. I am proud, at Kensington Stables, to disappoint every rider who wants to pay their good money to get that speed thrill that day as they walk up for their trail ride, their one trail ride they may have all year, or in the last five years, and hope they can get that TV vacation resort advertisement "Gallop on the Beach."

 I am a saddlefitter, I study the effects of rider's weights on the backs of horses, if you can't stay centered and still and deeply balanced in the saddle at any speed, even the walk, you are hurting the horse. Walking isn't too bad for them. Those riders expecting to blast across some beach, or trot relentlessly on any trail, bouncing your body and pounding your spine into some poor horse's back....don't come to Kensington Stables. We care about our horses.  We want them to remain motivated to work with and for those riders taking lessons who do want to develop trust, who understand you earn the right to speed. We feel responsible for the patrons of the Park not to have your inability to control the animal ruin some kid's future. Sometimes we have to be cranky to get that point across, as there is no time, zero time, to nicely explain all this to consumers who pay good money and expect their TV idea of riding to be laid in sparkling consumer researched and developed package at their feet. I think the fact that we provide and allow direct control of the animal at all, to any and all comers, is a generous and miraculous function of human to human trust, Please earn your patronage.

Where this desire for speed comes from within each rider must vary. Or it's just standard roller coaster thrill. And that's maybe the heart of the issue, the roller coaster being a pre-engineered mechanism, designed to keep us safe, while feeling vulnerable. We trust that speed machine. People get the idea that a horse should be pre-trained ( available at an hourly affordable price of $37) to perfectly deliver a breeze blowing thrill. As though the horse is a machine to be used. I can always recognize the true experienced rider who takes a trail ride with us...they never, EVER, expect to go any faster than a walk the first time, you just do that out of respect for other people's horses. Everyone else who says they have experience and proceeds to expect the gamut of privileges, from speed to being allowed to take the horse out by themselves, just displays all their ignorance, in marquis lighted glory.

This separation between the purchasing rider and the horse, maybe is the source of how Animal Activists come to believe that riders, and all horsemen, are abusers,  Those who ride without personally performing the long years of work to build trust, and believe their money grants them the  right to experience some version of speed, whether a one hour trail ride in Prospect Park, or some longer term arrangement where another individual and or/staff is responsible to deliver an animal for entertainment or sport value, no matter how much that rider practices their athletics of riding skill, is assuming that animal is safe for their roller coasting entertainment. Trust in staff and other humans to cover for possibility of things going badly under the transfer out of the hands of trainer into consuming rider's sole control allows these riders to be disappointed when that staff says "maybe not today, will you be going as fast as you would like." I wonder if the more wealthy riders threaten their staff if disappointment looms. I wouldn't know. But it might be how some truly lousy riders make it to the most prestigious show rings.

Taking a NYC Carriage ride is one of the safer horse activities, as the design itself, the driver being in charge while the patron sits, was "thought up" long ago in the age of horse culture, to compensate for those who needed the service of a horse, but did not personally have the time to develop trust.

Those riders who believe in their skill as riders, and take other persons property out for a mad dash gallop, because they trust their skill as a rider to "handle anything", and do so without specific request by owners of such horses to do exactly that, a mad dash chaotic gallop, are, in my mind selfish m------ ( rhymes with mashed potatoes). The equivalent of borrowing someone's car and doing donuts in a parking lot. Meantime the car owner next day mysteriously gets a flat tire, but thass not the borrower's problemo. At least not right away, keep doing that, keep thinking you can do that, keep escalating  unearned privilege, keep on.....I'm not going to say what can happen. Cause and effect are rarely connected by the ignorant and willful and controlling types. Horses are a good way to scare the bejeezus out of this habit of expected privilege, but that's another blog post.

When I look back now and examine how I went from being picked last in gym, to that day, that one single day I can remember when I passed through the "speed looking glass" and entered the world of athletes, it happened because I trusted my horse to protect me when I galloped through a wooded twisting rocky trail, and make it out the other end unscathed. This trust developed over the course of years, the two of us getting to know each other. My horse's ability to protect me came from years of physical conditioning that allowed her to negotiate all those turns, rocks, and leg busting footing over tree roots. She had learned how to handle that ground, learned what to look for, and was a pile of muscle and fitness ready to process it. I had learned how to stay with her motion and remain centered and balanced.

I was young, and took for granted all the small moments that created that trust. Or maybe, it's not that I took for granted those small moments, I just did not make the connection how that speed that day had anything to do with those small moments that created trust. I had been convinced that speed and daring feats of thrill, proof of my great horsemanship, were a result of me conquering fear. None of the rest of the fuzzy warm stuff, the small moments, counted. Not only did they not count, but you had to keep a lid on it. You couldn't let anyone know you were doing that because it was perhaps "baby-ish." You had to live up to the competition of who can be the least afraid. And to prove that, you had to boast and be non-chalant about all the near neck-breaking versions of stupid you did to regularly toughen your chicken shit heart.

Most people who I teach are afraid of speed, have the opposite desire, and want things slow and safe. I love teaching these people because I can open up to them to how, now that I look back on how I got there, how to bring yourself into speed and movement and potential things going badly, and how to come out unscathed, or at least not badly scathed. You do have to be able to break a fingernail, cut yourself, get klonked and bonked and suffer some straining. You will fall off. But falling off is a way different thing than getting thrown off. Falling off is about losing your balance. Being tossed is quite often about believing in your skill and assuming you can skip trust.

Small moments also do not mean, sneaking into the horse's stall and whispering love sounds, although that stuff you can do plenty of and it is effective. What I mean by small moments, are the invisible touches, invisible cues with the rein, the leg, the leadline, the pressures of touch and guidance, and the lack of any cues at all, when the horse has done the right thing. I had a great trainers who taught me horsemanship is not overt control all the time. They taught me a style of touch that works, and gently corrected the too strong signals which shut off lines of communication. They also taught me the backing off the cues is the second part of the deal.  I call this "The Window of Peace."  It's my shortcut term, don't look for it in any book.  And it is best delivered with a leading sound, to signify when the "Window of Peace" is occurring. That sound is your voice softly, and not "trumpet loudly", saying "Good Boy" or "Good Girl" in combination with your body relaxing, and ceasing to give direction for one second or if you can, for five seconds,

Wouldn't you want to work for a Boss like that? Wouldn't you want to have trust in someone like that? Wouldn't you actually consider trust in someone who did not need to be helicopter boss? Wouldn't you perform better for a non-helicopter boss?

Those who answer " Who gives a shit, every boss is bad, and I will make it my mission to get over on every boss I ever work for, now and forever" remind me of some horses who have lost faith in humans. And there are horses like this you can never fully trust, even though you may be able to work with them. And there are horses you must handle differently. Just like not all humans are good people, only most humans are good people.

 But not a one of those horses, a horse having lost faith in humans, is a NYC Carriage Horse. Bright examples of the most faith-in-humans soaked souls I have ever witnessed. We should not reciprocate by "doing them a favor" and relegating them to some pasture to do nothing and eat and beat up on each other for entertainment, oh, I mean horseplay. I wouldn't enjoy being put in a room full of other people with no private bedroom of my own, to watch TV and have sandwiches in constant supply as a measure of compassion for me who cannot speak for myself, so that somebody else may un-employ me and box me into a welfare room that somehow resembles asylum, When instead I could be interpreting the small cues and puzzle out the direction of those who attempt to create trust and offer me work, shelter and daily small digestible variety and purpose of work. I'm not an idiot requiring free food and TV forever and neither are our Urban Horses. If you are going to anthropomorphize, have some background in horsemanship, not just accept this separation myth of human vs. horse-useage as speed thrill machine, Or as work slave machine. That sleepy look on any horse's face, is the same wonderful sleepy look we have when we are fully immersed in work we know and respect, and are calm because we can handle the workload without stress. Wild eyed, chattering and "spirited" workers,with manes they toss about for attention, so beautiful they need martinis make the conclusion.

I have had a few speed junkie riders, who I have managed to keep occupied with the complex and deeply layered task of trust development. So much so, have they been occupied, that when they are allowed to plumb the depths of trust development, not that they would admit it right away, but after a while, the speed junkie students have confessed to me not in so many words, but in attitude, that they were only speed junkies because that's what they thought was expected. Imagine how many Animal Activists are fueled to abolish horse ownership across the board because they think speed junkie-ism is what all riders seek.

Urban Artists and Riders seeks to dismantle this mis-perception that riders and horses are separated and antagonistic entities, one controls while the other obeys,

Urban Artists and Riders seeks even more to share the reward of trust, coming from your shared urban horse, to you.  This reward will break all but the most recalcitrant pathologic speed junkie. Because it was not the speed thrill I got that one day, my kneecaps missing the tree trunks by millimeters. The best part was the fact that my horse knew where my kneecaps were in the first place.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Urban Artists and Riders Group Officially Begins

It has been five years since I have been able to write about the Carriage Wars. My anger always burst to the surface about people who want to ban the Horse Carriages in NYC. Every time I want to say something about this topic, I feel the need to explain quite a bit about how and why it is perfectly OK to have carriage horses in New York City. The art of horsemanship is complicated and the subject runs way too deep to distill it in simple talking points. Animal Activists, who know nothing of the true depth of horsemanship, use simple talking points, repeatable and designed to trigger the heart and stomach together. I call it, we, the horse community calls it "slaughter porn." Most horseman hear these talking points and eyes glaze at the simplicity and irrelevance to the actual carriage horse's lives. I say "most" because some riders who think they are horsemen, simply purchase an entertainment product of riding while their trainers reap the paycheck of producing the illusion that the horse they ride is a perfectly happy animal, and they are doing no wrong, and the animal is in the greatest of hands. These horse riders can still be found wanting to ban carriages, because they think they are doing everything right in their pretty barn with their pretty horse.

 And chants of "how many horses have to die?" and "nose to tailpipe" and flagrant mis-use of the words "shame", "inhumane" and the most inaccurate of all "abuse" and "cruel", just continue to pour out the mouths of those who want to protect horses. But they don't know how and why it is so vital to keep horses in New York City, and how and why it is not only OK, it's actually more than OK for the health and happiness of those horses who live and work in New York. The Carriage horses are happy, well cared for, and love their work. I know. Animal Activists, who I speak to, out on the protest spots where we both have gathered, ask me in total disbelief, how I can and if I can ACTUALLY TELL if a horse is happy. They just can't believe that I have that ability, as though it's a superhuman talent. They ask me again, " are you saying that you can actually tell if a horse is happy?" I reply again, a simple "yes."

And I want to go on and say, "You can tell too, it's not that hard." But they would have to take some lessons and learn from a horseman to begin that process. And I don't want them at our stables because they are the Un-Persuadables, and everything they see, without even learning about it, will just be their Un-Persuadable evidence that horsepeople are cruel and self serving. And next thing you know, they and fifty of their friends will be making a huge mistake, trying to protect horses by protesting our stables, developers funding them because the stables would make a great spot for another condo. Because I let an Un-Persuadable see something like,.... oh let's just start with the big fat horrors of how horses lay in their own excrement, eat dirt, get shoes nailed to their feet, have torture instruments put in their mouths, get "whipped", get "forced" to do "way too much work", have to live in small stalls, have no freedom to choose their lifestyle.

I am not going to try to argue against any of this anymore. What I have to say takes longer than the juicy two word "horrors." All these so-called terrible things horses are forced to do and withstand have very good reasons to occur that are compassionate, humane, and make horses happy. And it's a long story to explain why this is true. And how to handle all these conditions properly, individually for each horse. Horses are all different, just like us, if you need to anthropomorphize, do it right. Don't just imagine yourself laying in a stall, or pulling a carriage, or carrying a rider, and decide this is not right for a horse. Horses LOVE their stalls, for one thing, no matter what size. Just like we love houses. Or should we all just be homeless and permanently roaming for food, not even a deer hunting stand to shelter in...oh no, that would be too much like a stall. Oh but "Let the horses run free" is what you hear constantly. Nice abstract idea that sounds alot like not wanting "the man" to keep you down. Gee got issues of resentment about being dominated and controlled? Me too. But I don't want to punish good horseman for having and caring for a horse, just because it sorta somewhat feels in an abstract way like being forced to have a day job. I don't have outdoor space in my apartment, and could I use turn-out? Wait till you see the size of my butt, yes. Doesn't mean I am unhappy in my apartment and my sedentary day job. It's right for me. It would not be right for another human who would not like that at all, so that human won't be living in NYC. Surprising how many humans who need to "run free" end up in NYC and learn to love it. Why? Because they were lucky to be employed by great employers. Great horsemen are the same as great employers.

So I have launched a program called "Urban Artists and Riders" specifically to teach my version of Urban Horsemanship. I teach riding and horsemanship together. Not just riding alone. I don't mean to imply that other instructors at Kensington Stables don't teach both together as well, They do. What I want to teach is a version of riding and horsemanship that is particular to the horse in an urban setting. Particular to people who live and work in an urban setting, And not apologize for any lack of jumping, dressage arena, cross-country course, goal of competition in general, let alone heated wash stands and perfectly functioning stall doors, fancy saddles and don't even get me started on fancy outfits for the humans.  Just getting a perfect trot transition, and executing a perfect circle, let alone deconstructing your crappy way of sitting the horse, is so hard to do, that thinking you are not "doing much" by working on those things, just tells me you need stimulation. So go ahead and practice your ability to spend the money elsewhere to be stimulated. Meantime my group will never get bored practicing how to do the simplest things better. It's the process, not the show that counts. Artists will know what I mean, mature artists that is.

I hope to write about horses and people together, slowly one small topic at a time as it comes up in the process of teaching. I hope to tie in how the carriage horse's work also can be understood if you want to view horsemanship from this blog. I want to begin to tell the story of how horses can be happy in their work, living in the city. Through teaching my version of riding in an urban environment, I hope to shed light and love about great horsemanship, not anger and defense against those who can't take the time to learn the whole story, and instead  choose to feel better about horses by offing themselves on slaughter porn, and afternoon cocktailing on a protest line so they can check off their "helping-the-beautiful-horse-who-can't-speak-for-itself" box.

To quote one of the greatest horsemen I have ever known and have the privilege to work with and for, Walker Blankinship, Owner of Kensington Stables "Anyone who thinks a horse can't speak for themselves is a moron."

It's a blunt quote. It's not all that witty. But it does express to me the exhaustion he and I feel about trying to communicate why urban horses are in their right place. That there is no need to "rescue" them. And how so lucky we all are to have them still with us in this city. And how so lucky we are that Walker believes in keeping prices as affordable as he can, so that even ARTISTS can afford to ride.

Why the "Artist" inclusion in the group? It's a boring story of circumstance, where I had artists coming to the stables to draw the horses once a month. During this time I stopped teaching riding. And then a friend manipulated me back into teaching. And then the artists decided they wanted to ride as well.

The group meets every Saturday night at Kensington Stables after 7pm. This is a rule of thumb for simplicity, this meeting time. I am always there at this time, I may be teaching, I may be working on repairing saddles, or taking care of horses....but I do half expect guests and artists to show up. I want to know who might show up, I don't want Animal Activists on a "Gotcha Mission".  Most times it's just us riders. All two or three of us....geeks for detail. Geeks for talking about and listening to the horse that speaks to us every moment, learning the deep levels of just how varied, individual, and murky judgement call all of great horsemanship actually is, and rejoicing that the force of 1200 pounds of will and joy and sense of humor wakes up levels of artistic practice that no inanimate art tool can. And how 1200 pounds channels a new interest in patience and slowness and  practicing moving forward without "pat" answers. This is the basis for great art. Those who have grown accustomed to buttons that trigger apps may find this world tedious...but somehow they never do. Horses have a way of making you want to go slow and wait and listen. The reward is an actual happy animal who actually is your friend who actually does want to play with you who is smart enough to  want to detect your signals who actually can't wait to see you again. It's true. If an Animal Activist would ever take the time to investigate this, I believe they would no longer want to ban the Carriages.

And the beauty of the group of us is that none of us have to carry the responsibility of owning and exercising a horse all by ourselves. Of committing to regular riding lessons. Who can afford that? Certainly nobody I know. What we do have is a responsibility to learn the specifics of sharing a relationship with an animal, with the rest of the players our group, and the rest of the massive herd that horse belongs to which is the entire human population they see in Prospect Park. That is one of the specifics of Urban Horsemanship I hope to shed light on.

I hesitate to give contact info. Animal Activists have a whole lot of nothing to do other than hunt down, punish and destroy the livelihoods of good horsemen for doing a great job. Call the stables. They will forward you to me, some staff may not have my number, so leave yours. My name is Barbara Stork.