Monday, June 29, 2020
Certainly not what this picture might suggest to you. if this picture was all that one saw about our program it would give a very misleading picture. This view of power and leadership--one leader out in front, all other following, a pronounced lack of individuality on the part of the riders, is the perfect Leninist model of leadership and power. We ride this way for safety of the group and safety of individual riders and horses. We ride this way not because we are a group divided between leaders and followers.
Instead we ride this way because we are all gong in the same direction.
As little riders advance in their skills and confidence one of the first things that they want to do is to lead rides. Of course, they do not understand the responsibility that role carries. The leader of the ride can never day dream, no flights of fancy, no letting one's focus down for even a moment. The ride leader must be constantly focused on any potential safety issue ahead and must be listening out for any problem that might be developing behind them.
It is exhausting to do so. Riding in the number two or number three position is a relaxing jaunt through the woods. Riding in the number one position gives the feeling of spending the day doing standardized tests.
This picture represents how power is best demonstrated in the program. Mozelle Henry was the mother of Monique Henry. Monique first made us aware of the the incredible abilities of the Choctaw horses and presented us with our first Choctaw horses. Mozelle was coming to visit our program. We wanted to do something special to make the visit a bit more memorable for her. We built this modified version of of Choctaw summer home called a chickee just outside the pen where we kept the Choctaws.
Everyone who worked on this project was a volutneer, no one forced or coerced into helping. The reward for the hot work that went into building this summer home was to see a big smile and a surprised look on her face as she turned and said ,"You know my people used to make homes like this."
Take a look at these two pictures. My wife and I purchased app. 20 acres of what was once pasture and was over grown with 15 years worth of pine,cherry, mimosa, and sweet gum. It was projected to cost about $1500.00 per acre to clear the land. Fencing around it would carry an astronomical cost.
Instead we cleared the land with a few chainsaws, Wendell's brush buster, and many hours of labor from program participants with special effort put into land clearing by Matt and we got the job done. Each morning before going to the office I cut down trees for about an hour and did so for many months. When we began to build our pole fence nay sayers pointed out that it would not last forever.
I pointed out that the same could be said of my body but that does not cause me to refrain from squeezing all of the life that I can out of this body before it gives out. The fence lasted three years. The amount of forage that our livestock ate from that pasture during that three years, coupled with a micro grant from the Livestock Conservancy has now allowed us to fence in the cleared pasture and portions of silvopasture.
So what is the hierarchy of our program? How is it managed? How is power and authority allocated?
This is hard for many program participants to accept, but there is no power, as it is thought to in most settings, to be allocated. Those who work the hardest are rewarded by being asked to do more. They have proven themselves and as a result are given an opportunity to prove themselves on a more difficult task. Those who have been around the program for a while know how rare it is for me to directly ask someone to do a project. Doing so is about the highest compliment that I can give to a program participant. It means that they have earned my trust and I know that I can count on them.
But it does not result in titles, rewards, or anything more than a thank you. Power is indirectly manifested in the amount of service that a program participant can perform.
The reward for great service is more responsibility. It is my role to set priorities. When I fail to do so the program suffers, often significantly. I hope to be able to set stronger priorities this winter as the program takes on new social responsibilities. It might require me to speak louder, but I hope that it only requires participants to listen better.
Last week a new visitor to our program said in a bit of a peevish tone, "When I got here I could not even tell who was in charge!"
I thanked her for that compliment and told her that is exactly the kind of projection of status that we are shooting for.
Sunday, June 28, 2020
Things play out as they do. I wish that I had began our program years earlier. I wish that when I began our program I had as clear a vision of what it should be as I do now. I have been on a twenty year learning curve and I am now sixty years old. The program does, and will continue to make radical differences in the lives of individuals but I doubt if, in my life time, it will be emulated often enough by other programs to have the societal impact that could be found were it to become the norm instead of being unique.
I am an academic by design. I was in college the first time that I met a college professor. Had I grown up in an academic environment that surely would have been my profession. I had a double major at William and Mary---for studies in Religion and studies in government.
Like Harry Truman, I believe that every mistake made by humans today has been made before and that a solid enough study of history can equip us with the tools to understand how to solve those problems. In short, the key to a better future is a better understanding of the past.
It is the study of the mistakes, and successes, of the past that can best help us to understand how the concept of power must be understood in any endeavor that hopes to one day achieve revolutionary impact.
The established horse world is dependent on the belief that converting horses to cash is not only an acceptable use of the horse, but that it is the highest and best use of a horse. The rotten core of the established horse world was best summarized on the subject lines of one of the most memorable pieces of constructive criticism that our program ever received---"Quit Breeding Worthless Crap With No Marketable Value" was how the tome began.
The established horse world uses competition as a gauge for a horse's sales price and the horse's sales price is perverted into being the equivalent of the horse's "value."
By that standard a horse that I give to a child has no "value." It's sales price was nothing so it's value was nothing. The fact that that horse prevented that child from committing suicide is not factored into it's "value."
Society, individuals, and horses can only reach their full potential if the hold that the established horse world has on all things equine is utterly broken and that system is replaced with one that recognizes the innate value of every horse and every human as a starting point in building a system of horse/human relations.
Our program has over sixty horses, some owned by the program, some owned by program participants, most owned by me. We have no paid staff. Everything that we do is done by volunteers. We have never turned anyone away for inability to pay program fees. We teach natural horsemanship, riding, conservation of nearly extinct strains of Colonial Spanish horses and other early colonial livestock. For over seven years we have provided weekly programming for those who are inpatient PTSD survivors at our local Veterans Hospital. We teach soil and water conservation and practice microbial pasture development. We teach history and cross cultural understanding. We teach music. We teach communication. We teach the use of horses in overcoming traumatic life experiences.
Some kids come to us imprisoned by anxiety, living in a world of fear, and who are incapable of expressing their feelings. Worst of all, they feel that they are not worth the effort of other's attention.
And some of these kids learn to tame and train wild horses, conduct clinics on doing so, become not only good horse trainers by the age of 14--they become good riding instructors by that age---and, many of them learn to play several instruments and perform on stage.
And none of this is brain surgery. Everything that we do can be done by horse owners across this nation.
And the hardest thing about keeping a program like ours alive is not money, or lack of volunteers--it is preventing conflict between program participants from hampering the goals of the program.
That requires a redefinition of the concept of power and an understanding of that redefinition by program participants. And that very difficult issue will be the subject of the next post.
Friday, June 26, 2020
I find that mine is letting me down. Natural horsemanship makes better horses, but most importantly it makes better people. Over the years it has allowed me to learn to accept the weaknesses of others and to understand how much we are all products of our backgrounds, It has allowed me to be tolerant of the views of others, regardless of how much I disagreed with them. It allowed me to be able to place the needs of the herd above my own needs without engendering any resentment.
Perhaps the greatest thing that I learned from the round pen was that completely ignoring self interest is not the goal of an ethical life, it is merely the first step to achieving an ethical life. The round pen teaches that a life that has any focus except improving the lives of others is a wasted existence.
Natural horsemanship requires one to develop sufficient empathy to understand the emotional needs of a prey animal. It is but a short hop over to develop sufficient empathy for people whose lives, particularly as children, were filled with such trauma and suffering that they respond to life as does any prey animal.
That understanding has allowed me to prosecute crimes of molestation and abuse against children for over twenty years while only once having a victim that I could not instill with enough confidence to take the stand and testify. That understanding has drawn many people to our program upon whom pain drips down constantly--sometimes even running in torrents, sometime in slow drops, but never ceasing to drip. What they have learned in the round pen helps them have life and to have it more abundantly and allows them to help others
Now I enter stores and see ignorant, smug, people parading around with out masks proudly picking up their beer and cigarettes and dropping them down on the counter to be waited on by a senior citizen who is waiting for the end of her shift to go home to fix supper for her spouse of forty years whose diabetes and other health problems have turned him into a shut in.
And I feel nothing but rage.
And I see neo Nazis and Klan trash on television who genuinely believe that they were born superior to other people.
And I feel nothing but rage.
And at every turn in my life I see people who not only fail repudiate self interest in the interest of others, they affirmatively place their own interests and desires above the good of others.
And I feel nothing but hopelessness.
And in the past I could work some horses, teach some little ones to ride, ride deep in the woods with some brilliant young adults and older teens, do a thirty mile ride, or maybe even more......and feel restored.
But not now.
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Last summer we brought down the spectacular Choctaw stallion, Big Muddy Miracle, from Mary McConnell's herd in Rappahannock and left him out with several straight Choctaw mares and a few Colonial Spanish mares that are very high percentage Choctaw. He spent August with us and by late July five mares should begin foaling. A bit later on Baton Rouge, a Corolla mare should have a foal from , a Corolla stallion owned by Wendell Whitehead.
The Corollas are one of only two herds of wild Colonial Spanish horses left. Bonnie Gruenberg's great book, "Wild Horse Dilemma" explains how the native horses of the mainland, called by white's, "Chickasaw" horses were bred into the horses of the Outer Banks in the 18th century. In the book she refers to one of our mares, Swimmer," as a living example to that genetic infusion. When pastured with Choctaws today I doubt if anyone would be able to identify her as being anything but straight Choctaw.
When one looks today for the perfect family horse one would be hard pressed to find a better strain of horses than the Choctaws. The Corollas have the best temperament of any horses that I have ever trained but the Choctaws come in a close second. Their endurance is simply shocking. Were it not for the fact that they are so rare as to be nearly extinct, I have no doubt that they would absolutely dominate the sport of endurance riding.
I hope to have a stallion born of one of these Choctaw mares for our breeding program. The other foals will be available for sale at the appropriate time.
The colt in the picture above has reached the appropriate time. He is in his third year and is becoming an experienced trial horse. His mother is a formerly wild mare from Shackleford and his father is a powerful little Corolla stallion. Whoever purchases him will have to agree to keep him as a stallion and to make him available for future breedings. The Banker Colonial Spanish horse is one of the rarest strains of these horses left and to geld a stallion like MatchCoor is nothing better than vandalism.
Saturday, June 20, 2020
This is a donkey, a Mammoth donkey, a heritage livestock breed that is nearly extinct. She is taller than most of the Colonial Spanish horses that I ride. They have little fear and training them to saddle is much easier and safer than training a horse to saddle. They walk faster than most horses but they trot and canter slower than horses.
They have a need to bond with people that might even be stronger than the need to bond that I see with Choctaw horses. They respond well to clicker training and once they develop a skill it seems to be stuck with them without the need for refresher sessions.
In some ways they are too tough for their own good. Their tolerance for pain is so high that it often more difficult to to tell when a donkey is sick than it is to tell if a horse is sick. Worst of all, they make little effort to keep flies off of their legs. Unfortunately, I have found no fly spray that is truly effective in repelling these flies, regardless of advertisers claims.
That is Jenner sitting on the log with the donkeys. Jenner is a serious donkey man. He prefers them to horses. If the virus allows us to remain open this summer, Jenner and I will be doing a five session, "Intro to Donkeys" class on Saturday afternoons.
The donkey riding experience might not be for everyone. I doubt that teen age barrel racers would enjoy riding donkeys as much as I do. For all of their advantages it must be conceded that donkeys will not you where you are going as fast as a horse will.
But as one matures one can find an easy solution to that problem. If the donkey won't get you there as soon as you would like, just begin your ride sooner.
Friday, June 19, 2020
There was a time around 2014 and 2015 that my optimism for what programs like ours can do for the nation was at its peak. I was seeing the impact that teaching kids from different economic and racial backgrounds how to apply sankofa, the African concept of reaching back into history and bringing forward that which is good and useful. to today's world.
This is not some silly nostalgia. This is not reaching back to a time when everyone "knew their place." This is reaching back to bring forward skills, beliefs, values and practices that connect us to who we are, by learning who we were.
This is the teaching of the things that connect us--to nature, to farming, to livestock, to art, to music---to everything that made us human. I was watching it happen with the students from Rivermont School. The boys were primarily black kids from the city and had not been exposed to life in the woods or in the pasture. Suburban kids (and adults) in the program had minimal exposure to the lives that some of these boys led.
But the simple act of clearing land, cutting down trees, moving brush, planting pasture and riding horses brought a close connection in less time than I had ever seen between people of such different background.
My role model has been the Henderson School in Marion, Virginia and before that the Fox Fire Project. Cultural educational institutions can be important part of the building blocks in building a just society.
So can Mill Swamp Indian Horses--both directly and indirectly. On a direct level I plan to expand the reach of our program to bring in a more diverse set of kids. One of the worst things that the established horse world has done to our nation is to turn horses into toys for little rich white girls and pricing them out of reach of the rest of society. We do not follow such wicked practices.
But secondly, if I can maintain the energy to keep it going and if I can keep our program alive through the time of this violence and sickness and financial hardship, I want to reach out to other programs that teach the historical, cultural skills that give meaning to individual lives and bring people.
I want to see how we, working togehter can promote this kind of vital cultural understanding.
And as hard as it will be to keep so many things afloat at the same time I believe that this is the time to move on such a mission. The irony is that while the nation appears splintered and divided on the surface, the reality is that the protests are multi racial events. The reality is that there has been a massive change in white understanding of the reality of black life in America. And it is happening fast and we must strike while the fire is hot.
I write on June 19th, the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas learned that they were free. But I am writing on June 19, 2021, at a time when so many white people across the nation have finally come to understand what freedom must mean.
Once again, it is time for the nation to experience a new birth of freedom. It might be really difficult to understand that teaching black and white kids to tame wild horses together can bring about that new birth of freedom.
But it will. That is what sankofa can bring us.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Just heard on the news that happiness in America is at it's lowest level since the question was ever put to a poll. I believe that it said that 50% of those surveyed said that they were unhappy and only 14% said that they were happy.
I have long since given up on the existence of happiness as more than a fleeting moment of whimsical relief. When I feel it, it comes more as a brief memory than as an actual emotion. In that regard happiness is much like the flavor of horehound candy. I have not tasted that candy in over forty years, but every now and then I can taste it--my memory of it is as clear as if it were in my mouth.
Last Saturday we opened back up to giving riding lessons to smaller kids. It was tremendous fun and for the day I felt actual happiness.
I do not believe that the two are mutually exclusive for everyone and I am delighted that there are some who can experience both happiness and meaningfulness in their lives. Happiness certainly has its place, but if I had to choose between a life with meaning and a life of happiness the choice would be clear.
The irony could not be richer. The existence of so many unhappy people, living lives of pain and tedium, makes it that much easier for all of us to live a life of meaning. Opportunities to improve the quality of the lives of others can be found at every hand. The virus, the divisiveness, and the economic catastrophe that this nation finds itself trapped in ushers in opportunities for service that were not so obvious just six months ago.
If memory serves, the eulogy at Momma's funeral ended with these lines:
"When you see hunger, open your pantry. When you see homelessness, open your doors. When you seen need, open your checkbook.
And if you do not see hunger, homelessness, and need, open your eyes."
This is the season for Americans to open their eyes.
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
The older I get the less competition, in nearly any form, appeals to me. Competition gives us only three options--to win, to lose, or to tie. Were I to win, I would, by definition, cause others to be losers. That does not appeal to me. Were I to lose, then in the eyes of the world, I would be a failure. That does not appeal to me. And were I to tie with my other competitors society would view the contest as being unsatisfying and incomplete.
Horse training that is not based on natural horsemanship is a grueling competition for domination over the horse. Natural horsemanship is not based in competition. It is based in communication.
When I fail to communicate precisely what I want the horse to understand, I have lost. When I fail to understand what the horse is attempting to communicate to me, I have lost.
When the horse and I understand each other, we both have won.
I am perfectly happy using enough pressure to help the horse understand what I want done, but I will have lost if I use more pressure than necessary to communicate with the horse.
The lessons of the round pen teach just how false the very concept of racial superiority is. White supremacy is a concept that can only take root among those who believe that in order for a white man to win, a black man must loose.
Or, in more accurate analysis, white supremacy is a concept that can only take root and flourish among those who think that each victory for a black man is a loss for a white man. In short, it is a philosophy dependent on fear.
A world view of life as a competition and a struggle between you and me, us and them, our team and their team insures the development of a society made up of winners and losers, rulers and ruled, and oppressors and oppressed.
When that view becomes internalized one can be assured that the result will be violence--in the home, on the streets, and between nations. When that view becomes internalized it is instinctive to shoot a fleeing suspect in the back.
...because if he got away he would have won, and nothing is more important to those who internalize this view than winning.