Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster
by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, Vermont
“In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired, in the pursuit of The Way, every day something is dropped.” – Lao Tzu
Before I dreamed of farming with horses I dreamed of becoming a saint. As things have turned out I have had a bit more success in attaining my horse farming dream. I was an art school drop-out, completely disillusioned at the prospect of trying to make a living hustling my oil paint artifacts through the galleries of Easy Street. At the age of twenty-four I dropped everything and entered a Benedictine monastic community. While a monk I had the opportunity to travel extensively in Mexico and Nicaragua. I had direct contact with the plight of the poor, and particularly of the indigenous communities whose lives were still so intrinsically linked to the soil. These experiences deeply impacted my world view.
In 1992, after seven years of monastic life, I reached a decision to leave the monastery with the intention of going to Latin America to do service work in community development. I wished to help those poor Indian farmers gain access to new tools and markets so that they would be able to hold onto their traditional lands. Toward that end I enrolled in a two-year Apprentice Program at a Biodynamic farm in upstate New York to acquire practical skills in organic agriculture. After working there for a couple of years, completely immersed in the joys and struggles of a small farm striving to survive in our North American context, a conviction began to arise and take root in me that transforming our own culture through sustainable agriculture was a worthy and noble task and perhaps the more urgent.
It has been said that we will protect what we love. Prior to World War I about 90% of Americans were agriculturalists. Today in the United States only 1.5 % of the population is involved in farming. We are a nation in which farmers have become a disappearing minority. Many contemporary Americans have never set foot on a working farm and have no idea where their food comes from. We are raising a generation of children who are computer savvy but environmentally illiterate. In such a society the value of farm labor and the conservation of farm land are cast to the wayside.
In the 12th century in feudal Japan there lived an outstanding Zen monk by name of Dogen. He taught a pared-down form of meditation which he described as Shikantaza — or “just sitting”. Shikantaza is the indescribably subtle art of “not-doing”. Zen Buddhism is not so much a religion, with all the attendant doctrines and belief systems, nor a philosophy with a complex set of thought constructs, but rather simply it is a practice for paying attention. Viewed in this light, the practice of Zen is not that different to the deeply present awareness required of anyone who wishes to skillfully work with draft horses.
In Zen practice one learns to relax all parts of the body and mind that are not intrinsic to the support of a specific action. This kind of focus is referred to as single-pointed attention. Shikantaza is not a practice whose purpose is to bring us closer to some future enlightenment; it is a practice that aims to help us unfold an authentic expression of who we really are in this present moment. Practice is not something that we do — it is something that we become. To practice Shikantaza is to express a deep-seated faith in the basic goodness of our own true nature.
Vermont based horse trainer, Neal Perry has said that there are no hard-mouthed horses. He explains that if you were to put a horse with a reputation as hard-mouthed into a stall next to a horse that is responsive to the bit, and then sent a veterinarian in to examine them to see which one has the hard mouth, the vet would not be able to detect any physical difference between the two. Neal believes this is because the hard-to-handle horse does not have a hard mouth, what it has is a tense body. The hard-mouthed horse has responded to training by tensing all its muscles and in that way it can resist the bit. Often what follows is an escalating cycle of harsher bits and heavy-handed training techniques that result in an even tenser horse. The easy-to-handle horse on the other hand, has learned to relax into the pressure of the bit, to keep its body supple until specific muscle groups need to be engaged for a particular action. This horse can be handled with the hands light and sensitive on the lines.
Horse as Teacher
After completing our two year apprenticeship in bio-dynamic farming at Hawthorne Valley Farm, Kerry and I had a few month’s hiatus before going to the next farming situation we had lined up in Montana. As we were preparing to leave the farm I began to have some doubts as to whether the farming life was really for me — all that hard work and little pay — was it really worth it? Shortly before moving, we went to hear Wendell Berry speak at the town hall in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He was there to help inaugurate the opening of a new CSA farm in the area (Brookfield Farm). That evening Wendell spoke words that stirred me to the depths of my soul and galvanized my commitment to pursuing the small sustainable farming dream.
I don’t recall the exact words that Wendell spoke on that occasion but I still remember very clearly what I thought I heard him say; “If you want to save the earth — if you want to save humanity — stay in one place. Stay in one place and get connected to the land and grow your own food; get connected and build your own shelter; make your own clothes. Stay in one place and begin to build community with your neighbors, those who walk on two legs and those who walk on four or wing in the sky or swim in the brook. Enough talk, enough New Age rip-offs, turn off the TV, give the computer a rest, stay off the jet planes and step out your back door — behold infinity in a spring blossom peaking up through the leaves of the forest floor. What is at stake here is your own life and the very life of the soil.”
As an apprentice at Hawthorne Valley Farm I had my first opportunity to enter into a relationship with horses. Brownie was a fifteen year old Morgan mare. Dakota was a refined looking quarter horse mare, a couple of years younger than her companion. These two horses served as the saddle horses for the Visiting Students Program and for the summer camp. There was a very high turn over of personnel in these programs. As a result, the horses had to constantly adapt to changing management and training styles, all of which left Dakota with a rebellious streak and Brownie with a sour attitude.
Soon after I arrived at the farm I got a couple of riding lessons on Brownie from a young woman from Germany named Inez. She was a skilled horsewoman and gave me a thorough introduction to riding, something which I never had. She showed me how to properly groom the horse and how to pick up and clean out its feet. She gave me pointers on making sure the fit of the saddle and bit were proper.
After completing our two year apprenticeship, Kerry and I went to work for the Visiting Students Program. Brownie and Dakota were under our care for the duration of one year. Although I would never harness or work either of these horses, that year of being responsible for their daily care was an important phase in my development as a novice teamster. It is only through the daily repetition and contact with horses that we can begin to develop “horse sense”.
Kerry had some riding experience from her school days. We rode Brownie and Dakota western style. On one occasion we were riding bareback across a rolling hillside pasture. It was a beautiful fall morning with just a slight nip in the air. I was riding Dakota and she was feeling frisky. She broke into a canter without my asking her to but I went along with it because it was an exciting ride, when all of a sudden the tricky old gal did a little buck in full stride and sent me sky high. I landed in the soft meadow grass, unhurt but duly humbled.
In the fall of that year the director of the Visiting Student’s Program invited over a horse trainer named Christine Sierau to work with us and our horses for a day and to explain what she was doing with her horses over at Blue Rider stables in South Egremont, Massachusetts. Christine was German by birth, she had an austere persona, one might even say harsh — but she sure knew horses. Some of her ideas seemed eccentric but her results were amazing. The riding stable she ran served children with special needs. The stable was outfitted with rescue horses. Many of these animals had been starved and abused and probably most sensible persons would have considered them beyond repair. This woman devoted herself to bringing train wreck horses and outlaw horses back from the brink.
Her recuperative strategy was built upon the theory that, just as a horse’s vision is split between two half spheres pertaining to the orbit of each eye, so is the horse’s cognitive function split along the same lines. According to this reasoning, if a horse had been typically trained to do everything starting off its left side — bitting, saddling, mounting, etc. — and had negative impressions of all that due to poor handling, well then, you could start from scratch by retraining it to accept everything being done instead from the right side. This was a brilliantly simple but effective way to begin anew with a troubled horse. Her motto was, “No bad horses — only bad trainers.” In regards to riders, Christine focused on helping people to discover and move from their own “core” while on the back of a horse — and to tune into the grounded center of the horse and try to become one with it. She had us try lying back on the horse’s back and feeling the support as we released our arms out to the sides in a wide gesture of trust and release, or to ride bareback in a circle with no hands — arms spread wide like an eagle. Afterwards, she worked on the horses with acupressure and stress-releasing traction of their tails, necks, and limbs. This work opened up my mind to how much more there could be to training both horses and people beyond simply saddling or harnessing and making it go.
First Things First
If we want to train people to drive draft horses, we must first learn how to train the horses. To effectively train horses in a meaningful and lasting way we must first understand them. Equus is an ancient Greek denomination for the horse that had the connotation of quickness. The Greeks, who depended on horses and understood them very well, may have been alluding to quickness of mind as well as to the obvious quickness of the feet.
The first written account of a training approach that used positive reinforcement and which sought to train the horse by first understanding it on its own terms dates back to a treatise entitled; “The Art of Horsemanship” composed in 360 B.C by the Greek warrior horseman Xenophon. The modern equivalent of this empathic approach to training horses is Natural Horsemanship. Through this approach we have available a whole new skill set based on ancient principles of understanding the horse in its own right; seeking to gentle it rather than to break it.