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Thinking Like a Horse

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Ten years ago I began exploring the kinetic partnership between humans and horses. In 1998 I was commissioned by Mount Holyoke College to create a site-specific work that would celebrate the dance program and the equestrian team. I made a trilogy of works for 35 dancers and 12 horses—and what began as a single project became a passionate choreographic journey.

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The audacious magnitude of that Mount Holyoke project led me into uncharted choreographic territory. I assembled a company of unusually athletic dancers and forged partnerships with a handful of accomplished, courageous equestrian collaborators. Dancing in dirt arenas in Vermont, Connecticut, Florida, and California, we developed a movement language designed to merge the artistry of dance performance with equestrian artistry.

After creating several large-scale works, my choreographic projects gradually shifted into a single focused fascination with the magical relationship skilled dancers could forge with equine partners. As dancers, we seemed to have a heightened ability to physically listen. We could join the horses in their movement.

The horses responded as if we were members of their equine herd. We had discovered how to be the alpha without dominating. Our leadership emerged from kinetic listening.

Initially our performance works included showcases for solo dancer, rider and horse, expansive movement installations that spanned fields and hillsides and intricate formation works for large numbers of dancers and horses. We worked with high-level dressage riders and their horses. In 2004 my dancers and I began investigating working with horses at liberty, or riderless. We began training in natural horsemanship ground skills. This began the most humbling part of our evolving journey.

In order to honestly enter a kinetic dialogue with a nonverbal creature, one must join that world. Learning to mirror a horse means learning to think like a horse. In this process, we had to re-examine many of the conventions and assumptions we as dancers make about movement. These are a few of the “thinking like a horse” adjustments we have made to our training, dance making, rehearsal process, and approach to performance.

Vision is a dominant sense in a dancer’s training. Classes are conducted in front of mirrors that are used to learn movement, assess progress, and correct alignment. Dancing with a horse, sight becomes almost secondary to tactile cues, sound cues, and spatial sensing. We use a diffuse, soft focus, to take in short-range and long-range information, much as horses do with their 270 degrees of peripheral vision. We watch for pinned ears or flicking tails, both signs of annoyance.

Dancers are trained to commit choreography to memory. They fine-tune their phrasing; they know what comes next and they work to make the performance seem spontaneous. With horses, the dance must actually bespontaneous. Moment-to-moment decisions, made in real time, are embedded within the fabric of a piece of choreography. Some decisions are made to keep the horse engaged; some are made to keep the dancer safe.

Horses are creatures of flight. Their speed is their only protection from predators. Dancing with such a creature, we must remain constantly vigilant. A frightened 1,200-pound animal can unintentionally cause severe injury. Choreography is constantly being readjusted to “now time.” Dancing within inches of an equine partner, a lateral movement might be 6 steps or 10. The moment is not a memorized event.

The dancer’s desire to repeat a movement until perfect is not an option in our rehearsal process. The horse will memorize the movement faster than the human, then get bored. Repetition is usually for the human’s benefit. We learned to sink into horse time.

Quick, sharp movement is a choreographic mainstay for many contemporary choreographers. With horses, this kind of movement has the power to “drive.” If the sharp movement has specific spatial intent, it becomes an action much like pointing and the horse will move the portion of the body you are pointing to. If the driving movement just scatters into space diffusely, the horse might flee or, worse, do nothing. Lots of active movement next to a motionless horse is quite meaningless.

What sets our equine partnering apart from dancing with a human partner is the constant accountability. Dancers moving with one another are fairly forgiving. Confusing signals are buried beneath multiple layers of complex movement. Not so with a horse. Every move means something in their sensory world. Movement that sends or drives the horse away can be used as a very interesting choreographic tool. If a send is aimed, for instance, at the horse’s haunches, and if that send is modulated precisely with just enough energy, you might get the horse to keep its front legs still and just move his haunches, resulting in a beautiful equine pirouette on the forelegs.

Horses track on movement and decide within minutes whether they feel threatened or interested, whether one is a good leader or not worth the effort. If you are decisive and clear, you might earn their trust and curiosity. This is called “draw.” Leadership can be achieved by force. A horse under saddle, ridden with whip and spurs, will submit to the rider’s will. But submission and engaged following are two very different outcomes.

For a bipedal human, moving with a quadruped means learning to embody the horizontal plane. When we dance in tandem with a horse, we stay on its inside shoulder so that we are not running to keep up with them but rather asking them to shape around us. Shaping in space is how horses communicate with one another. Within moments of a foal’s birth, the mother shapes around the baby, gently nudging it to stay with her (on her inside shoulder). For horses, shaping in space is the kinetic subject of ongoing alpha negotiations—an alpha mare moving a less dominant horse over. In herd behavior, there are always complex alpha negotiations for leadership in play. With horses, everything means something. In dancing with horses, we have several mantras: No assumptions. Take nothing for granted. We are always in spatial relationship.

Horses seek strong leadership. The strong leader makes decisions that take the partner’s well-being into account. I have watched many dancers improvising, touching, weaving in and out of each other’s space, without full awareness of the effect their movement has on others. There is pyrotechnic dancing, but no real physical listening. The discerning eye might sense slight artifice but still be impressed. But the dances that steal our hearts are those in which two humans are truly dancing with each other—the same for dances with equine partners.

 

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