Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones: The Whole Bit

Here’s an easy way to turn a Sunday School picnic into a John Ford barroom brawl: start talking about bits.
In particular, question the USE of bits.
Then, quick, DUCK!

And I’m only about half kidding.

No doubt about it, pain, including the fear of pain and the desire to avoid pain, can be a dandy motivator. I've learned a lot of things that way, myself.
Certainly was instrumental for me in learning to slip a left hook, for example. But then I didn’t particularly regard my opponent as my “friend” or my “partner.”
He was just a guy trying to hurt me and I figured out how to avoid – or minimize -- him hurting me.

You know, if I want you to go someplace with me and I apply a wristlock to you, I bet you’re going to go wherever I want you to go.
Because to resist increases the pain.
It isn’t ME hurting you, you’re hurting yourself by resisting, see?
To avoid or minimize the pain, you go along.
But we’re not “friends” and we’re not “partners,” are we?

I can get you to “give” me your money if I pull gun on you.
That doesn’t make it a donation, doesn’t mean you gave it to me “willingly” and doesn’t make you my “friend,” does it?

Bits work on the pain principle.
It is inherent in the nature of a bit -- ANY bit.
A horse learns to avoid – or minimize –pain by responding to the bit.
It works, all right.
And it works pretty fast, too. And it works on MOST all horses.
You can absolutely make a horse do what you want him to do by putting a wristlock on his mouth. He’ll go along to avoid or minimize the pain.
But you’re not “friends” and you’re not “partners.”

Figure this one out for me:
Most people who use computers at all, aren’t using the same computer they used 20 years ago.
Or 10 years ago.
Or even 5 years ago.
But we’re still using the same equestrian technology we used a few THOUSAND years ago?
Is that because, in a moment of unparalleled epiphany, we were so enlightened, or so clever, or so lucky that we just happened to stumble upon utter perfection?
I’m skeptical.

Generally, when I ask someone why they use a bit, I get that deer-in-the-headlights disconnected look, as if I’d just started speaking in tongues. I rarely get an answer that has any intellectual integrity. It’s a lot like talking to a tumbleweed.

One answer is “Because that’s the way we’ve ALWAYS done it.” Closely akin to this is “That’s the way I was taught.”
Even if true, this isn’t exactly the kind of sharp reasoning that would make Sherlock Holmes drop his jaw in admiration.
There is an unspoken second half to each of these statements. It’s: “ -- and I’m incapable of critically examining the situation and thinking for myself.”

Some people say they NEED a bit for control.
That may be true.
But I’d say, if you don’t have sufficient “control” without a bit, you don’t have it with one, either.

You say your horse won’t do what you want without a bit?
And I say, I HAD to use handcuffs, Your Honor, or she wouldn’t have done what I wanted her to do… How’s THAT for a defense?
If your horse doesn’t do what you ask, it’s because he doesn’t UNDERSTAND what you want, physically CAN’T do what you want, or REFUSES to do what you want. I would submit that a bit isn’t going to help in either of the first two instances, and you might do well to determine WHY in the third case, before you over-rule your horse’s vote. Remember he’s probably smarter than you, and certainly better at being a horse than you are.

Some people will say bits are all right if you have good hands.
I’d say, yeah, like a blackjack is all right if you have good hands.

Some people say there are “gentle” bits.
I’d say, Uh-huh, like there are “gentle” firearms. A .22 is a lot more gentle than a .357 magnum, so that’s not so bad to get shot with, right?

Some say bits are for “communication.”
I say, yeah, so’s wrist-lock.
It communicates who’s going to get hurt if you don’t do what I want.

Guns are designed to put bullets into people, blackjacks are designed for cracking skulls and both wristlocks and bits are designed to inflict pain.
The horse learns to cooperate to avoid the pain.

I’ve had too many relationships in my life based on pain, fear and force.
Don’t care to have another one, thanks just the same.
And I sure as hell don’t want to have that kind of relationship with my horse.

Some people argue that it’s all just degree. That leg pressure or anything else is “pain” too.
Often a difference in degree makes a difference in kind.
If we go dancing and I lead you with my balance, shifting my weight, and the pressure of my hand on your back or waist and on your hand, is that the same thing as jabbing you with a cattle prod?
Any difference there?

Do we get away with using bits for so long because horses can’t express their resistance in a way we are willing to hear?
When a horse resists, it’s a problem horse.
And when a woman resists being treated like chattel, she’s being a castrating bitch, right?
When a slave resists he’s being “uppity.”
When a somebody fights back to defend his home against an invading army he’s a “terrorist.”
It seems to me that it’s all part of the same ball of wax.
Some people believe they have a right to force other beings to do their bidding – or ELSE.
I don’t believe in that, personally, sexually, nationally or equitationally.

If I can’t have a relationship based on mutual respect, trust and affection, I’d rather have none at all.
That includes my relationship with my horse.
He’s my friend.
He’s my partner.
He’s not my servant and he sure as hell isn’t my slave.

So I don’t use bits on my horses for pretty much the same reason I don’t use handcuffs on my dates.

That’s the way I look at it.

And now, I’ll duck.


Thanks to "Metal in the Mouth" by Dr, Robt. Cook. If you're a horseman and you haven't read it, I recommend you do.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones: Sacking Out

I had a wonderful learning opportunity the other day I thought I’d mention.
Had a chance to “sack out” a couple of young ponies.
The only sacking out I’d ever done before involved rainy Saturday afternoons, old movies on TV and junk food.

THIS sacking out was a bit different.

We were going to put blankets (actually we used saddle pads) and saddles on a couple of frisky young ponies who’d never had blanket or saddle on their backs before.
I’d fed these lads many times and had scratched their ears and stroked their necks and such, so we weren’t strangers.
Still, this was a big step in our relationship.
Not sure which base.

I had the luxury of having someone to guide me in this adventure, who already knew what they were doing, a horsewoman with both extensive education and a wealth of experience. She’s training some of the horses at this barn and I fell into the lucky position of getting to tag along. She knows so much, just off the top of her head, taht for me it’s like sitting at the feet of Yoda and furiously taking notes. I’d mention her by name, but I don’t have her permission, and I wouldn’t want to make her blush.

We worked in the round pen.

The key to this whole process, it seems to me, is patience. To go slowly, gently & quietly, a little at a time, letting the pony take whatever time he needs to get used to this crazy blanket-and-saddle idea. We let them move around us on the lead rope if they needed to, so they didn’t feel trapped or panic.
Horses like it better if they can run away from danger.
Come to think of it, so do I.

We just kept repeating our presentation of the blanket until the ponies figured out it wasn’t a threat.
I let my charge sniff the saddle pad, "groomed" him with it, laid it against his side, then up toward his back. When he got to the end of his comfort zone with it, he moved away and that was fine with me. I started over, each time going a little farther until he moved away again.
Then we'd start over.....

Going from zero to blanket took a little bit of time.
But going from blanket to saddle took no time at all, which surprised me a little.
I guess, once he was all right with having something on his back -- certain it wasn't a predator -- then having something ELSE on top of that wasn't such a big deal.
When you think about it, the process of desensitization is pretty impressive, and that horses do it so quickly is somewhere near the border of amazing.

Once blanketed and saddled, with the stirrups secured so they wouldn't flop around, we tied off the lead rope into short reins and let the ponies be at liberty in the round pen awhile. We just kept them moving, and I got a chance to work on my positioning with that, too. They walked, trotted and cantered, getting the feel of this new situation.

Not sure how long we spent. I’m guessing about an hour.
Did a little bit of unsaddled groundwork afterward, just leading and halting.
Mostly that was for me, to work on my own technique.
The ponies already knew how to walk and stop.

Learning to communicate with a horse speaking in Horse, is both interesting and challenging. it being an extremely subtle, non-verbal language.
In the bad old days, they say, a duel would be fought over a raised eyebrow, or an insolent tone or inflection.
Horse is a much more subtle lingua franca than that, even.
A shift of weight, a raising or lowering of shoulders, a change in gaze, can alter the whole meaning of what you think you’re saying.

Right now, I believe I’ve mastered enough Horse vocabulary to elevate me, in their eyes, to the status of “drooling idiot.”
That’s a long way from “trusted leader.”

Fortunately for me, horses are tolerant teachers.


The Tao of Spartacus Jones: You and Me, Pard.

Once upon a time, I was “lunging” my pony in the indoor arena.
My way.
“My way” is where I trot right along with him in a slightly smaller circle, maybe an arm’s reach away. We pace each other. Walk a lap, trot a lap, walk a lap, trot a lap…
During one of our workouts, one of the resident DQ’s observed us and decided to enlighten me. “You know,” she said condescendingly, “if you use a whip and stand in the center of the arena, you don’t have to run around with him.”
“True,” I told her. “But if I use a whip and stand in the center of the arena, I don’t get to run around with him.”
I wish I could describe the look on her face at that point. It was as if a little alien had popped out of my chest and urinated in her martini.
She and I didn’t chat much after that.

When it comes to horsemanship, I think I have two things going for me.
First, I don’t know much, but I KNOW I don’t know much. That means I LISTEN to EVERYBODY. If I hear a good idea, I’ll steal it. I don’t care where it comes from.
The other thing, closely related to that, is that I came to horsemanship as an adult, with a fair amount of life experience under my belt, including some teaching study and experience, and I did NOT have years and years of indoctrination into any particular equestrian discipline, or the equestrian “culture” in general.

As a result, I ask, what to some may seem to be stupid questions. Sometimes it pisses them off, too. That’s ok with me. I don’t mind seeming “stupid” or pissing somebody off if it means I get the answer to the question.

On the other hand, my approach is unjaundiced by presumptions, assumptions and biases, too, and that allows me to look for answers in places other people may not think to look.
So there’s advantage as well as disadvantage to entering into horsemanship with a “fresh” mind, something I learned from long experience in “martial arts.” Sometimes I do envy people who have had the opportunity to spend years and years with horses from the time they were kids. Yet, for me, I think this is the best way.
“When the student is ready, the master appears.”

Here’s something I don’t understand: if my horse and I are supposed to be “partners,” as it has become quite fashionable to say, then how come one partner is doing all the work?
Oh, yes, it’s a brains/brawn partnership, right?
The human partner puts up the brains and the horse kicks in the brawn.
There are two problems with that theory. First, the horse has far more brawn to offer than humans have brains, so even if true, it’s a tremendously lop-sided arrangement. Second, it suggests that horses don’t have any brains of their own, and if you think that, I think you should stay, far, far away from them, for their safety and for yours.

I’m not comfortable with that kind of one-sided “partnership.”
True, partners may have disparate talents, the combination of which should exceed the sum of the parts. And a partnership isn’t 50/50 at every moment, but fluctuates from 80/20 to 20/80, the way a unicyclist stays in continual motion in order to maintain his balance.
Nevertheless, it seems that a real partnership would be a lot more egalitarian than that between many horses and humans. If one “partner” is making all the decisions and the other partner is doing all the work, that arrangement had ought to be voluntary for both parties.

I’m not big on “do as I say, not as I do.” Seen too much of that, I guess. When I work with humans, I don’t ask or expect anyone to do anything I can’t or won’t do, or haven’t done, myself. If I want respect, I have to earn it, and I earn it by showing that I live by the same rules I’m asking them to live by. Say what I mean, mean what I say, do what I say I’m going to do.

Same thing with my pony.
Since reading a friend’s account of her first 50-mile endurance ride, I’ve decided I’d like to take a crack at that. If nothing else, it’s a socially acceptable reason to spends lots more time with my horse and lots less time with people. No downside, there.

I mentioned to a fellow at the barn that I was starting to train for endurance riding and off he went on a catalogue of things my HORSE would have to do to get ready. To be fair, some of them were good ideas, too. But he’d missed something important. I’d said that “I” was starting to train for endurance riding, not “we” or “my horse.” But nowhere in his idea of training was there any training for ME.

Now, the first thing I’M doing to train is to drop at least 25 pounds, probably more, without, I hope, sacrificing any strength. Since muscle weighs more than fat, that means I’m going to have to be leaner than I’ve ever been before. and it’ll be tough to do, I know.

But how can I NOT do it?

If I’m asking my pony to carry my weight for 50 miles or more, how can I possibly justify making that harder for him by weighing more than I have to?
How can I ask him to put out all that effort to get into endurance shape for ME, if I’m not going to make the same commitment MYSELF, to get in shape for HIM?
How could I possibly ask for or deserve his respect, let alone trust in my leadership.
Hell, it’s not like this is HIS idea (although, being an arab, a long ride might very well be his idea of a good time).

Sure, there’s leadership “technique,” how to stand, how to move, and so on and you have to know that stuff and know it well. It takes time and practice. I'm working on that every chance I get.
But there’s more to being a good boxer than learning an assortment of boxing techniques, otherwise some of the boxing-aerobics bunnies would be champs by now -- and all 2nd Lieutenants still quoting the manual, would command respect and loyalty of Napoleanic proportions.

No, there’s more to leadership than a collection of cheap tricks. "Techniques" are just moves that mimic what a leader does; it doesn’t make you one.
That’s something in the heart.

And my pony has a heart big as a mountain.
If I can’t at least match it, it seems to me that I should shut up, get off and walk.

Just my opinion.


Monday, September 8, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones: An Apple A Day

I don’t know much about much when it comes to horses, but I KNOW I don't know much, and I’m trying to learn all I can.
However, when I first met my friend Kelsey, I knew NOTHING about horses, although if you gave me a good hint and enough time I could usually figure out which end was the front.

Trucked him out to this place I would board him and when he came out of the trailer, he was like a hungry challenger launching himself out of his corner, pretty sure he could knock the champ out with one punch. It was a concerto of dance-prance-snort, mane tossing and tail-flagging and I immediately asked myself, “What the HELL do you think you’re DOING?????”

Lee, who had given me some lessons and had helped me look at a few horses in the selection process, had suggested I give him a little time to settle in. So into a paddock he went, where he jogged up and down the fence line announcing to all within earshot that there was a new sheriff in town.

I decided on four days.
The Old People considered four a sacred number and advised taking four days to contemplate a problem before making a decision and taking action. Good advice.
Has probably saved my life once or twice.
Maybe a few others, too.

So for four days all I did was visit his paddock, give him apples and hand-groom him. Of course, I did this about a hundred times a day. I also spent a lot of time just sitting on the fence, watching him eat grass. And sometimes I’d sing to us. “The Wayward Wind.”
Little did I know that the Wind was his first cousin.

After four days, it was time to do something.
I just didn’t know what.
So I decided I’d just get a lead rope and show him around the place.
I thought we’d be going for a walk; he thought it was a rodeo event.
What I asked of him was that he walk when I walked and stop when I stopped, and, if it wasn’t too much trouble, would he mind not walking ON me. It was not a thing of beauty and many a moment I wished I’d bought steel-toed shoes. When we paused to give my arm a rest, we’d share a bite of apple or carrot. I’d take a bite and give him a bite.
It was something we could agree on.

I did this for four days, too.
Then, because I didn’t know anything else, I figured it was time to put him in the cross-ties and do a real grooming. I quickly learned that he didn’t have a high opinion of cross-ties, and he demonstrated that he could do his dancing-prancing as easily with them as without.
Today, although I know he’d tolerate them, I wouldn’t cross-tie him without a particularly good reason for doing so. It always seemed a little awkward to me. Like inviting someone to come over for a drink, offering them a chair and then tying them to it.

I discovered that Kelsey of Arabia must’ve thought I was Claude Rains because he sure acted at times like I was invisible. His presumed his way into my space like a Jehovah’s Witness and stayed as long as he pleased, with no regard for me subtly looking at my watch. Sure wish I had those boots….

In his continued fence pacing, he’d managed to rub a spot on his chest raw. It was hardly life-threatening, but it did look nasty and my inclination was to put something on it to head infection off at the pass. So I brought over a magic salve to apply to it, with no great confidence that he wouldn’t wind up sticking it in my ear.
Into the cross-ties we went, with the usual ensuing ritual dance.
I’d just try to get some salve on his abrasion.
I bent down to look at it and opened the little jar.
Abruptly, he stood perfectly still.
It scared me.
But I took advantage of the moment.
And all the while I delicately dabbed the salve onto his little ouch, he didn’t move a muscle.
Then, when I put the salve away, he returned us to our regularly scheduled program. It began to dawn on me that, of the two of us, I might not be the clever one.

We had to come to some agreement about feet.
He’d walk on his and I’d walk on mine.
Which basically meant he had to give me a little space. I started treating him like I’d treat anyone else who pushed me; I let him know I didn’t like it.
I’d been watching how the horses expressed “Get the hell out of my way,” to each other, and had noticed that they weren’t one bit shy about putting a physical exclamation point on it. I’d felt hesitant to get physical with him because that’s loaded with real bad juju for me. But as Malcolm X said, if a guy asks you a question in Chinese, you don’t answer him in English. So if this was the language horses spoke with each other, it made sense for me to translate. After all, he out-weighed me by 800 lbs; it’s not like I was going to hurt him with a finger-poke.

And I chose finger-poking because it was the thing that I, myself, found highly irritating.
If he didn’t stop when I stopped and he bumped into me, I’d finger-poke his chest until he backed up a step. If he swung his hindquarters into my space, I’d finger-poke his flank until he move his butt out of my space, using as little or as much poke as that took. And so on.

I accompanied this with vocal cues in my native tongue, Chicago-ese.
There are relatively few books on horsemanship that recommend, “Hey, back the fuck up!” as a voice command. And people will tell you “Horses don’t speak English, anyway.”
Well, I don’t speak Hungarian, either. But I bet if a Hungarian came at me red-faced, yelling and finger-poking (or if a sweetie cooed in my ear in Romanian), I’d get the gist.
Even if you don’t get the words, you get the MEANING. And if a human could figure it out, a horse certainly could.

Oddly enough this approach seemed to work. Before too long, there came a moment when, after he’d rear-ended my shoulder on a halt, and I’d just managed to say “Hey...” and cock my hand for a finger-poke, he backed up a step before I had to fire. Amazed, I eased the hammer back down. After all, you don’t shoot a guy if he gives you his wallet.

All through this highly sophisticated process, I continued to lavish him with apples.
He obviously enjoyed them and that was reason enough to do it. I enjoyed that he enjoyed them. I like providing pleasure.

I also like ritual.
Maybe it’s from the long years I spent in “martial arts.” But I know ritual can set the stage for what comes next, can conjure up the right mindset.
It became my ritual to always greet my arab friend with an apple. As a tribute, so to speak. And I’d give him another when we parted, as a thank you, not for doing what I wanted him to do, but just for being my friend.
For a long time I was meticulous --- maybe obsessive – about this apple-thing.
I didn’t hesitate to go out of my way to be sure I had them for a visit. A couple of times, I missed and substituted a carrot or a peppermint. But the ritual was that I’d arrive and call his name, then go to him and offer the apple. While he was eating it, I’d stroke his neck and tell him what a fine horse he was – as if he didn’t know it. (I hated being “patted” on the head when I was a kid, so I never “pat” my horse or any other animal, also noting that they don’t do that with each other)

Somebody once said that what horses are best at is figuring out what happens before what happens happens. I guess that’s what my pal did with our ritual. It got to the point where, I’d show up and call his name and HE would come to ME to get his apple. And pretty soon, he was coming over without me calling him, as soon as he saw me. Apple-time.

But, strange as it may be, it went further. Many times, when I show up he’s there waiting for me. Don’t ask me how he does that. I don’t have an answer that fits into two dimensions.
In the 10 years we've been friends, I have now, on a handful of occasions, not had an apple handy when I arrived. Doesn't seem to make any difference.

Here’s the thing. Sometimes people ask, “How do you CATCH your horse?”
And when they ask that, what I hear is, “How do you get a woman into bed?”
How can I possibly answer that?
Where would I possibly start?

Sometimes I offer up my version of an old proverb: “You can lead a horse to water --- as long as that’s where he wants to go.”
But I realize that it’s also like what Satchmo said about the question “What’s jazz?” : “If you have to ask the question you won’t understand the answer.”

But maybe the best proverb in this case starts out, “An apple a day...”


Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones:Give Before You Take

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.

Just kidding.

OK. HALF kidding.

Very few things are either/or. Most are somewhere along a continuum.
But there ARE a few.
Here’s one...

You can either view the world as hierarchical or as egalitarian. You can’t do both.
If you do the former, you observe the DIFFERENCES between things and you order the world and everything and everyone in it by greater or lesser value, or importance. This seems natural --- and so it seems “right” -- because that’s what our brains do all the time, sort out survival-relevant data from survival-irrelevant data.
But any strength, carried to an extreme, becomes a weakness.
And I don’t know of anyone who’s ever formulated a hierarchical theory, who didn’t put his own particular in-group at the top. For example, you won’t find much research by nazi eugenicists demonstrating that Aryans were an inferior race.
That should suggest something to you.
But I don’t want to pick on the Nazis.
Too easy.

There are plenty of folks who believe that all living things are arranged in a hierarchy, with human beings at the top of the pyramid, and all other living things ranked lower in “intelligence,” for example. The creatures most like humans – apes --are the most intelligent, then mammals in general, then reptiles and so on down.
People who see it this way are often believers in a god that created Man and gave humankind “dominion” over the others. They thus believe that a HUMAN life is more valuable than the lives of other creatures. They talk about the “sanctity of human life” more than they ever talk about the sanctity of canine life, or cockroach life, or tree life.

From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to applying that hierarchy intra- as well as inter- species. So one race is better, more intelligent, more developed or more something-or-other than another, which makes it ok for them to murder off or enslave all the other “inferior” races – and convince themselves that they're doing those inferior races a big, fat favor by it.

Or maybe it’s something else.
If it’s not your race, maybe it’s your money, or your looks, or your profession, or where you went to school or your accent or your diet that puts you higher or lower on the socio-political totem pole.
Gets to the point where you’re talking about the sanctity of brown-eyed- right-handed attractive-wealthy-white-male-heterosexual-vegetarian-Protestant-Democratic life.

Folks with an egalitarian view are a little different.
They view the LIKENESSES between people and things and see them all as fundamentally similar, equally valuable and important, despite their differences.
Like links in a chain.

Some American Indian People’s, for example, might tell you that they consider every living thing to be “family,” no more or less valuable than a human being, and that, even further ALL things – rocks, trees, clouds – are living things.

I think of this today because I’ve seen a bunch of different people inter-acting with horses and these two different views are evident in that, as well. Most all the people I’ve seen seem to have an a priori assumption that because they are humans -- and presumably up there in the luxury penthouse of the evolutionary high-rise ---- they have a RIGHT to make demands on and control a horse. Some will spew some semantic crap about “partnership” but it’s pretty clear who the senior partner is supposed to be, and I don’t think many of them would go into business and consider a similar arrangement with themselves in the horse’s role, to be a satisfactory “partnership.”

Or sometimes they don’t have “dominion over” the horse but are “stewards” of the horse. But that’s another semantic distinction that doesn’t always make much of a real difference.

There are a few people who seem to look at it differently, from a more egalitarian perspective. Instead of just trying to make horses adapt to people, they adapt to horses. They learn to speak the horse’s language. They don’t just “train” horses, they learn from them.
They don’t just take, they give.

And giving is free, no strings attached. Not a quid pro quo or a means to an end.
For example, I don’t give my pony an apple as a “reward” or as a “bribe” so he’ll do what I want him to do. I give him apples because I know he enjoys them and his joy is my delight.

I think what you have to give is more than hay and vet care and hoof trims. More than apples, too. It’s respect, trust and affection.

I don’t think you can ask for, expect or deserve anything you aren’t willing to give.
You want respect? Give your respect.
You want trust? Give your trust.
You want friendship? Give your friendship.

Now if you give those things does it guarantee you’ll get them in return?
But if you don’t give them, you certainly WON’T get them.