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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw

Process and Perfection

Ten years ago I decided to learn the art of throwing a pot and filled my kitchen cupboards with bowls and coffee cups that progressed from oddly misshapen to graceful. I spent hours in the local pottery studio, quickly becoming addicted to the feel of the clay, its density and resilience, simultaneously its willingness to be shaped. Ten years earlier I began choreographing with horses.

Pottery and horsemanship, two seemingly very different skills. However I discovered that throwing a pot has uncanny similarities to communicating with a horse..and some very import differences.

Wedging clay is an arduous process of kneading clay repeatedly, working out the air bubbles. Wedging must be thorough or the air bubbles will throw off the initial centering process and cause weaknesses and asymmetries in the structure of the pot. More dramatically, air bubbles can burst during firing and destroy the entire pot, not to mention a kiln full of other people's creations. Lazy wedging is a recipe for an imperfect pot.

Linda Parelli, a consummate horse person, who was a potter at one point in her life, told me: “If there is a problem with a pot, fix it right away or you will pay for that mistake later. The same is true of working with horses.” Pottery and horsemanship have lead me to think a lot about the pursuit of perfection.

While there is no substitute for patient thoroughness, I have watched inexperienced potters obsess about wedging and bubbles and spend hours over working a single clump of clay. Their dogged reworking seemed to me a tedious obsession with perfection. There is something to be said for the bold, courageous attempt without concern for achieving perfection.

Between 2004 and 2007 my dancers and I were tremendously fortunate to be offered scholarships to several courses in Parelli Natural Horsemanship. In June 2005 two of my dancers and I spent a week on the Parelli’s ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colorado where we each were given a horse to take care of and spent five days learning basic horsemanship ground skills Five Star Parelli Natural Horsemanship Instructor David Lichman.

That week, the horses were our teachers. They clearly let us know when our cues were unclear. It is embarrassing to recall just how little we knew and how hard we tried. We practiced in the blazing sun for hours. We worked on rope skills, learned to tie a halter and deftly handle 12’ and 22’ lead lines. We learned how a horse yields to pressure - the steady pressure of touch or rhythmic pressure of a swinging rope. We learned how to ask a horse to circle us on a 12’ line then ask for the horse to turn and face us.

Thank goodness, the horses were patient schoolmasters, accustomed to being over-asked. Nonetheless, after the third morning my horse very clearly chose to hang out in the farthest corner of his paddock, as far away from me as possible. I kept hoping he would find me fascinating. Truth be told, the greatest incentive for him to like me was the fact that I fed him twice a day. The horses did not care how graceful or determined we were. No amount of dancer devotion would make them more responsive.

We were trying to get better really fast, which is of course not at all how learning a new skill happens.

David wisely curtailed our practice time with the horses by assigning us various knot tying assignments. Knot tying is an import part of horsemanship skillsets. And tying knots is also deeply embedded in cowboy tradition. I recall sitting at the dinner table with the Pat and Linda Parelli in Florida and, despite several glasses of wine, Pat deftly demonstrated over 10 different knots.

At the end of five days Pat and Linda Parelli gave us our red Level I Savvy strings and pronounced that we had passed our Level I Parelli Natural Horsemanship training. A proud moment for three dancers from New York City!

You can sit at a pottery wheel and throw for hours. Hopefully you will get better. You throw a bad pot and no other sentient being is affected by your mistakes. You can throw away the misshapen bowl out.

You can abuse clay and you will pay for sloppiness, rushing, lack of finesse but you are simply abusing a lump of clay. If you spend an hour shaking a lead line at a horse, you have affected your relationship to that horse. That sloppiness and rushing is gently abusing a living creature. Humans are blessed by the patience of horses who suffer our ineptitudes and, if listened to, teach us to be better.

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