Sunday, May 13, 2012

Follow the follower

All this horse talk (my open letter to Buck Brannaman continues to draw more readers than any other post here) sent me back to Jane Smiley's novel Horse Heaven, an intimate, multivocal conjuration of the brutal and beautiful world of thoroughbred racing. I'm curious to know whether people who know horses and horsepeople find it as persuasive as I do... Reading this passage last night gave me a thrill of recognition, as Smiley describes the ebb and flow of "leadership" that's possible between two skilled and supple animals:

"The noise was incredible -- hooves pounding, horses breathing like the roar of a high wind, jocks talking and calling -- and the whole time Justa Bob held Roberto's hands with his mouth, steadily and calmly. Now they were on the second turn. Roberto found himself wondering whether Justa Bob would chose to go wide or slip through the hole between the number-three horse and the number-two horse, and then, when he realized that it was supposed to be him making the decisions, maybe, Justa Bob chose the hole, and threaded that like a needle... Now Justa Bob began to close on the leader, a chestnut with a long silky tail that gleamed in the early-afternoon sunshine. Roberto could feel his horse gauge the distance and put on more speed, but Roberto didn't quite know whether to trust the horse's judgment. The chestnut's jockey was really riding -- going for the whip, yelling -- and the red horse was responding. But this was Roberto's first race; he literally didn't know what to do, so he went with his instincts -- just do the thing that feels the most delicious -- which in this case was to let Justa Bob take care of it. Now the animal's brown nose was at the other jockey's knee, then at the other horse's shoulder, neck, and head. The wire was upon them, and just then Justa Bob stretched out his nose and stuck it in front of the chestnut's nose. Three strides after the wire, Justa Bob was already pulling himself up. He cantered out calmly, turned without being asked, and returned to his groom, who said, "Hey, fella. No extra effort, huh?" Behind them, the tote board was flashing 'Photo Finish!' and so there was plenty of time to be taken. But Roberto had no doubts, and neither did the groom. He said to Roberto, with a laugh, 'This guy likes to give the bettors heart attacks, that's for sure. He is such a character.'

Roberto said, 'That was so much fun. Does he always make the decisions?'

'Always does. He does it his way or he doesn't do it at all.'

'I can't believe he doesn't win every race. He seems to know how.'

The groom shrugged, and now gave Roberto the best lesson of his life as a jockey. He said, 'Some jocks can listen and some can't.'"

Beautiful. The one question I asked Buck directly at the clinic I attended was about his description of the ideal rider as an "enlightened monarch." Given how few of us were perfectly enlightened, I asked, was there room in his philosophy or methods for honoring the horse's often superior knowledge, for rewarding a choice the horse made when it wasn't the rider's choice but was the choice that kept both horse and rider safe? The question got a laugh out of Buck, and he admitted to having occasionally led his horse to do something dumb, but, no, he said, the most important thing is for the rider to remain in charge. This was a disappointing answer, and optimistically I hope maybe a less than honest answer, the one he thought we all needed to hear. "I'm in charge" is a common human refuge when we're confronted with intelligence and/or wisdom that exceeds our own.