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.


  1. I hadn't read any of Jane Smiley's stuff (because I'm really not into TB racing, and because she did her horse WRONG.) Great passage though.

    For me, and for a lot of considerate riders I know, it's a partnership. If you don't trust the horse to make good decisions sometimes, you won't have much fun. If you let the horse take total charge, well, horses really like to wander along and eat grass.

    The way I look at it with my horse Dixie is that I make the macro decisions: we're going this direction, at roughly this speed. She makes the micro decisions: I'll change my stride a bit to go over this boulder, and there's a puddle on the left side of the trail so I'll scootch over to the right. We compromise a lot - I want her to tuck her butt under and carefully walk down the gully, but I'll let her canter up the far side.

    I don't believe in micromanaging every step she takes. She knows better than I do if those rocks are too pointy to trot over. If the muscles that carry her at a trot are getting fatigued and she'd rather rack for a bit, that's fine with me. But she has bad long-term decision making skills - she'd rather race to catch up with the lead horse (and get too fatigued to KEEP up), when I know that if we just keep a steady pace we'll go all day.

  2. Hey Funder,

    Great to hear from you again. Bummer about Smiley - I usually try to separate out the fiction writer from the human being when reading (or my library would be seriously diminished!), but it's especially tough in this case, when the greatest pleasures of Horse Heaven for me came from the unusual empathy for non-human perspectives. One of the book's equine protagonists, Mr. T, is a discarded old thoroughbred who's finally given a deservedly lush retirement by his breeder after that breeder gets a letter from a little girl telling him what a "decent person" owes to a horse he's profited from. Hard not to read that passage in an ironic light, given Smiley's own cavalier decision in the case of her broken filly turned brood mare. :-(

    I like your micro/macro distinction - it resonates with me not only in this context but in the theatrical context where I used to spend much of my time. When I direct, I'm intent on finding the working structure that's loose enough to honor all the ways that my collaborator's asses are on the line (actors' asses in particular), and all the incredible things they know and can do that I don't and can't, but at the same time shapely enough to hold everything together and open the possibility that the whole may become greater than the sum of its parts. I want actors to have the freedom to commit themselves, to leap, and to know I've woven a good, springy safety net. The phrase I keep going back to as a mantra, and it applies to training as well, is "releasing them into their strength." I don't always manage it, but that's what I aim for, what leadership means to me at its best.