Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Breaking Horses and Corporate Take-Over of Schooling

 A few days ago, I received a message that prompted me to pull together some musings.  With Ann-Marie’s permission I’m copying her message and then sharing my response.

Hi Joseph,

Watching the movie Secretariat got me to thinking, and perhaps you are the best person to answer this esoteric, philosophical, spiritual question.

Given all of the characteristics of a thoroughbred racehorse, including a dominant personality, how does the rider get it to stop or redirect its efforts?
In the movie, I noticed that it takes a certain type of rider to ride a racehorse.  The owner had to find the right rider (personality type) for the horse.  But what happens to the horse when it's past its prime for racing, but still wants to race?  What happens if one of them - either the rider or the horse - loses the drive to race and the other does not?  How do you redirect such a horse, especially if racing is all it’s ever known?

Will redirecting a horse break its spirit, even if to continue at high performance poses risks?  Is there a way to reduce the drive for high performance without breaking its spirit, or is this an impossibility?

Let me know, thanks.


Dear Ann-Marie,

What wonderful questions you are asking!  Most are beyond my resources to answer in a direct way.  In saying that, voices (probably from students) get stirred up, mumbling about me, “you don’t go in direct ways anyway.”  To address those voices, I will first indicate some sources related to the questions at the concrete, literal level; for example, what happens to thoroughbreds taken off the track and what’s involved in “breaking” a horse?  Then I’ll move into the wondering at the deeper-level because that’s what really connects me with horses, and I suspect that’s where your questions are rooted, and because that’s where the “esoteric, philosophical, spiritual” realm invites us.  Horses, in a literal-symbolic dialectic, provide a magnetic field and a powerful mirror, even a magnifying lens, for going further into the “meaning of life”: how to engage the spirit-filled race, how to keep alive fire in the belly, joie de vivre, carpe diem . . .

If I were to focus on the surface on your questions, I might point to a couple of organizations and their work. 
  •     The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation ( ) funds a number of programs for “retired” racehorses. 
  •     Lynn Reardon recently wrote about her journey in tending such horses.  My review of her book is noted at .  Lynn’s story tells of her move from the DC corporate world to her heart’s work in Texas, near Austin, where she transitions horses from racing to other work/play.
  •      Closer to home, you can find Jo Deibel at Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue ( ). 
  •      Books featuring the term “horsemanship” explore the connections with horses that respect their spirit.  A few I’d recommend are: 1) Tom Dorrance. True Unity: Willing Communication between Horse and Man.  2) Ray Hunt. Think Harmony with Horses: An In-Depth Study of Horse/Man Relationship.  3) Robert Miller & Rick Lamb. The Revolution in Horsemanship & What it Means to Mankind.

One reason why I can’t approach your specific questions more directly is that I’m not attracted to the horse racing industry (nor to any of the competitive structures that seem to me to treat the horse as more of an object than as a respected partner).  A horse offers a human a relationship and a rare opportunity for telescopic insight.  For me, tending this relationship in the discipline of dressage gives the clearest and most profound access to engagement with power in a positive sense. 

Although some complain that I don’t answer their questions directly, I believe I’m simply  going toward the essential question.  The hard questions are accessed through symbolic processes, “mirrors,” and that’s the kind of work/play I seem given to do.  Like many others, including CG Jung (who titled his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections instead of Concrete Details about My Life), I often find the symbolic more real than the literal. 

The essential questions end up at “g/God.”  I use quotation marks because I believe it’s presumptuous to claim to know the ultimate source, and yet we’re given “spirit,” given the drive to know, and given freedom to search (or not) and to explore knowing in multiple ways.  Strange even to me, the horse seems my best venue, opening ways of knowing (including gnosis) that are relatively closed in our culture’s dominant operationalizing of knowing.

And it seems to me that even through seeing a horse-movie, you’re asking the “g/God” questions.  Any contemporary teacher who is more than semi-conscious must face the spirit questions in witnessing the broken-spirited or at least dulled-out spirits in the classroom.  What happened to those exuberant pre-schoolers?  Your questions about redirecting the fire of a racehorse mirror the agony of educators who despair the strangling of schooling.

As indicated at the outset, I suspect what’s stirring up these questions runs considerably deeper than the surface.  The place I’d move into this swirl involves the opportunity I’ve come to treasure in relating to a horse.  I’ve learned that when I go to see Leg’cy, our relationship takes precedence over performance; this mostly invisible connection must be tended even as our workout demands technical precision:  inside leg to outside hand, shoulder up and back, foreward seatbone on, relaxed lower back, heels down . . .  The discipline of this work/play calls for our best attempt at being impeccable and demands a commitment to move toward perfection.  We aim not at winning any competition other than doing the best we can.  The parallels with conducting the good life present themselves again and again.

If a horse has a healthy desire to run, perhaps to win, as the Secretariat movie spins the story, I’d see several options including letting it run free with other fast horses.  As just mentioned, however, horses are magnificent mirrors and sometimes humans project their desires.  The horse’s size and strength magnify the mirroring, thereby offering opportunity for the human to gain insight into shadowed perceptions and understandings, especially concerning power, trust, relationship; in short, to living the passionate life even amid continuous change and redirection.  I believe a horse often desires to please a human and goes into battle, over jumps, or into other competitions in a form of trust even when the results may be harmful.

Living into any purposeful relationship with as much fidelity, respect, and integrity as we can muster leads us to insight and appreciation for our particular natures and for time/space characteristics.  It’s easy to call these particulars “limitations,” but perhaps that word choice along with its meaning limits the appreciation for who we are.  Even as perfection eludes achievement, perfecting is a way of life.

So, concluding with your initial questions: yes, the drive to race can be re-directed and without breaking the spirit.  In my view and experience, racing is not the constant but points toward the inner fire that compels one toward perfecting.  In order to do this, the mirror and the coach are invaluable.  Perhaps some can walk the path of perfection alone, but I find good teachers and learners of inestimable value.  A good horse and it’s even better.

Best wishes,