Dancing With Horses
Copyright © by SuZi, 8/8/12
Art is both a way of seeing the world as well as communication of that perception—it is a language of envisioning. If it is understood that dance is art—is a dialect of that language of envisioning—then works of art are not always static, are not always fixed in space or in time, can exist in the ether.
In the art of dance, the act of dance can be either private or performed for viewing, can be the solo work of a dancer, or the work of a partnership, or a company of dancers can create the dance. In dance there are aspects considered classical: motions, whole performances that have existed for generations, for centuries. These dances can be the highly ritualized performances of a particular culture; in the western culture, classical dance would be ballet.
Still, perception of dance as art has been limited to the dancers all being human. Instances of human-other being dance performance have been perceived as being either entertainment (as in circus performances), or sport. As with many human endeavors, the compartmentalization of a dance team that includes any being other than another human is seen as lesser, is denigrated as sport or entertainment, is thus slurred. Generally, non-human life forms are not even given citizen status as planetary life forms, yet ample evidence of all stripes exists to prove than non-human life forms have emotions, demonstrate thought, memory—the internet is full of photos of inter-species affection, care-taking and bonding.
A dance, thus, is still a dance—a work of art—whether or not both dance partners are human; however, perception of when dance occurs—when is dancing actually dancing and not merely motion—is the differentiation between when motion exists as necessity, when motion exists as recreation (sport), and when it exists as dance.
Dancing with horses poses special problems, because of the way horses are thought of by humans: the United States Department of Agriculture does not recognize anything horse-related as agribusiness(despite the many millions of dollars equine activities add to the national economy); and despite the thousands of years of human history dependent upon equine partnership, horses are seen with a romance that finds its pinnacle of hypocrisy when wild horses are captured, tortured and killed, or domestic horses—usually suffering from the tortures of abuse-neglect—are torturously shipped to slaughter. Thus, equine activities are seen as sport: participation is the activity of a few thousand professionals, or of a few million hobbyists.
Sports, whether human-centric solely or not, is not seen as art, because art is the work of artists, who are seen as “persons with a rare God-given talent [… and that art is} something mysterious and beyond human understanding” ( Edwards 2). There’s a conundrum here: athletes often devote a monastic monomania to their endeavors, and if they do well enough gain the social status of demi-gods; artists can pursue their endeavor with the same dedication, yet socially endure stigma, derision, with a few token players gaining coinage in highly secularized sections of the social current. In this light, it’s not surprising that general media commentary about the equestrian portions of the 2012 Olympics—the only portions of the Olympics that does involve non-human partnership—would refer to these partnerships as elitist; elitism being the favored pejorative for the arts for so long that arts are cut in educational institutions with barely a whisper of protest, while sports teams are seen as socially crucial. In both the arts and in sports, many play while few are dedicated enough to set their life course in the endeavor; yet consistency of thought demands that the same respect is given all forms of dedication.
Equestrianism does demand dedication: horses do not take holidays, and are dependant on their human caregivers once they are removed from the care of nature for their self-medicating forage instincts, their podiatric and dental needs in exchange for confinement and the inclusion humans in their emotional bondings. Humans fail in these relationships with shameful frequency; however, there are those for whom the relationship is a pledge, a life’s dedication and thus an art. Indeed, world renown equestrian Charles de Kunffy posits equestrianism as unquestioningly an art form:
Riding is a creative art […] a performing art, and when the human mind effortlessly animates the horse’s body during a performance, the art creates its own moment of beauty. The artistic statement is made by harmony obvious even to the beholder[…This is why a performance of high quality is breathless and flows seamlessly (de Kunffy 8). De Kunffy’s statement may, in modification, be quite true of ballet, and classical equestrianism—dressage—is seen as not only a horse-human ballet duet, but has a history spanning centuries.
In a recent comedy routine by Steven Colbert, as his commentary on current-event Olympics, Colbert investigated dressage as to whether or not it was truly an elitist pursuit or could also be the doable realm of “Joe Six-Pack”. Obviously, statistics from the United States Dressage Federation on their Adult Amateur membership would not be sufficiently winsome for television, Colbert’s primary domain. Yet every ballerina, every dancer, begins with basic lessons usually from a local instructor and elitism is rarely a concern at that level.
In central Florida—which boasts, albeit inaccurately, of being a horse capital, perhaps the horse capital—there are accomplished equestrians who make their living as instructors: they are equine professionals. Theirs is not the realm of recognition beyond the secular society of equestrianism, and sometimes their note of worth remains highly local; however, much the same may be said for the art of ballet, or opera, or pottery—mastery does not imply a need for notoriety: A life-time’s dedication is worthy of recognition. Audrey Kitchens –who has run Double K Stables since 1978 on property held in her family for a few generations—says, “There wasn’t even ever anything else I even thought of doing…it was the passion of a lifetime” (Kitchens). Kitchens’ post secondary education included study with respected equine authorities Linda Tellington-Jones , Major Hector Cormona, Bill Woods and Major Anders Lindgren, but her pursuits included racehorse training rider, barrel racing, gymkhana, eventing and arena jumping, as well as classical dressage. Kitchens says of dressage that “people don’t understand it’s a progressive method of training and it doesn’t have to lead to exotic leaps in top hat and tails, but it will culminate in making your horse a better horse to ride”(Kitchens). Also in central Florida, Vickie Rollack, USDF Bronze medalist and World Champion of the Appaloosa Horse Club , says that “dressage is the basis of all training whatever your horse is going to do. It’s humane and works with the biomechanics of the horse. While some horses are not dressage horses, dressage benefits all horses: it’s a systematic approach, it takes the time to develop the horse classically with the ultimate goal of lightness”(Rollack). Both testimonies speak to long, patient training that is clearly the mark of dedication, of that committed pursuit that marks artist and athlete.
Artistry itself is , according to Betty Edwards, “an ability to make a shift in brain state to a different mode of seeing/perceiving” (3). Edwards devotes an entire chapter of Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain to brain function, and attributes artistic ability to a deliberate utilization of the right brain hemisphere, which she says is the source of “intuition and […] leaps of insight” what Edwards calls ‘the A-Ha Response” (35). De Kunffy echoes this seemingly mystical moment as an intelligent application of acquired skill: “We become unaware of ourselves […]We become absorbed in an effort that seems independent of the senses and so thoroughly effortless that it suggests a feeling of being in a dream[..we have entered the artistic experience” (8).
The difference between these two recognized masters is their artistic medium: Edwards is a renown drawing instructor who specializes in making artists of those who have had no previous art experience, while de Kunffy is an internationally recognized equestrian (and sufficiently certified to judge the Olympics). In either case, any pursuit of and medium’s mastery will find that artistic moment, the a-ha, the effortless
The issue of equestrianism being seen as art then becomes an matter of bias, of prejudice towards the non-human partnership as being lesser than the ballet duet between two humans. Horses have inspired countless generations, Rollack attributes modern equestrianism to the Greek, Xenophon. She says of herself that she has loved horses since she “came out of my mother”. Rollack further states “I think you’re born with the equestrian bug and it depends on whose family you’re born into if that dream can be realized”. Obviously, the same is also true for the nascent violinist, the kid who never gets an art class but feels that passion and frustration. Rollack likens a “truly classical rider” to that of “a concert pianist”, because while the rider ‘dances with the horse’ the ‘fingers of the pianist dance with the keys”. Kitchens sees the mastery required in terms equal to those used in other classical artistic endeavors, citing “the precision, the communication, the perfectionism, the challenge of trying to get that communication with the horse as perfect as possible”. It is only the noun horse here that creates the paradox; in Kitchens’ comment one might be delineating the relationship between lead dancer and company, or conductor and orchestra. De Kunffy is unapologetic in his perception of dressage as art; his instruction to his book of exercises is similar to that of Edwards discussing drawing, but de Kunffy says ‘I am trying to reach those who felt lonesome with their artistic experiences” (9). He later captions a photograph with “Notice the similarly meditative expressions on both horse and rider”(14). While de Kunffy’s text, as also does Edwards’, pursues exercises aimed at artistic achievement, there’s no doubt that de Kunffy views equestrianism as art in an way equal to the view Edwards has of drawing as art.
In our current fast and disposable culture, any endeavor requiring years of dedication will seem elitist, whether the pursuit is the study of soccer or Socrates, the dedication is to drawing or dressage. What lies at core here is understanding enough for overdue respect, and in this both drawing and dressage are fully deserving of the social elevation they both so markedly deserve.
De Kunffy, Charles. Training Strategies for Dressage Riders.
Howell –Macmillan. 1994
Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
Kitchens, Audrey. Telephone interview. August 2012.
Facebook: Audrey Kitchens, also Double K Stables
Rollack, Vickie. Telephone interview. August 2012.
Facebook: Vickie Rollack, also Cornerstone Equine
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