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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw



My dear friend Nita Little is a BIG personality. She is a master teacher, performer and scholar and a brilliant and inspiring movement-artist. Her hard-earned PhD in Performance Studies from UC Davis headlines her personal introduction. She carries herself with assertive confidence.

Nita has a huge heart. She approaches conversation with laser focus and expansive energy. She wears her passion on her sleeve. Sometimes she has no idea how large her personality reads to others.

(PHOTO: Jessica Ferran)

Nita and I shared a fascinating two days in central Oregon, where she attended an Inters-pecies Research LAB that I co-taught with Alissa Mayer, a talented equine trainer who merges somatics for humans with equine training methods. Our LAB participants included Lisa Bradley, a Bend Oregon equine-assisted therapist, Sally Ann Ness, Anthropology Faculty at UC Riverside whose current research and writing focuses on inter-species studies and how moving away from our human-centric lens might inform her study of critical race theory, Bonnie Simoa, Dance Chair at Lane Community College and a somatics practitioner, Jessica Farren an equine photographer and Jessica Ealy a young dancer and accomplished equestrian who trains wild mustangs.

During the LAB our interactions with the horses and debrief conversations focused on the question of ASK: As a choreographer who endeavors to create performance works with horses, I find that the issue of The ASK comes up a lot for me. What am I asking of this non-verbal creature of flight? Do I wish to join, dialogue with or dominate them? Am I ever NOT asking?

Horses are creatures of flight, herd animals who seek trustworthy leadership. As a dancer, my agenda is to create a movement dialogue with this animal which means that I must gain the trust of the animal. Early in my exploration of dances with horses, my improvisation skills kept the curious horses interested. Ensuing natural horsemanship training gave me the leadership tools to become a trustworthy leader. That said, with over 27 years of horsemanship ground-skills training under my belt, I find that most equine trainings skew that dialogue towards domination. The ASK might be gentle, progressive and respectful but is still a demand. As I diligently practice my horsemanship with a patient equine, I often ponder: Could I ever just share space with the animal without asking? When does the ASK become inadvertent abuse?

The word inadvertent is crucial here. No horse trainer I have ever met intentionally abused the animal. However, most humans are goal oriented. Our education system is all about achieving goals. We are calibrated from a young age to seek out right answers, identify goals and work towards achieving them. Horsemanship training a system for training humans to achieve the multi-faceted goal of establishing partnership with their horse(s). In the human learning process, when a goal is not realized, the human is apt to try harder, practice, hopefully get better (at asking, leading, assisting, suggesting). When this diligent practicing is done with a horse in a somewhat confined space (be it a paddock, arena or round pen) the practicing can easily turn into what I would call, in the context of this article, inadvertent abuse.

When I began exploring the possibility of creating a dance with an equine partner, I was operating on pure instinct. My improvisational skills - specifically my ability to sponge energy off another moving body - served me well. I just wanted to share space with a horse and devise movement that was deeply congruent. As I gained more and more horsemanship knowledge and skill, the desire to direct the animal gained importance. My learning trajectory began with unconscious competence and gradually shifted to conscious incompetence and eventually into a fair amount of conscious competence. At that juncture I actually struggled to retain the unconscious competence instincts. They were valuable. Lucky for us, as NYC based dancers, we had limited horse time...perhaps once a week. So, we devised ways of practicing our horsemanship in a dance studio context: Noticing skills, decision-making skills, the ability to modulate the intensity, speed and spatial reach of movement. Out of this studio research grew a body of kinetic research I came to call Physical Listening.

In the July LAB in Oakridge Oregon I was hoping to learn more about the numerous kinds of ASK one might use with an equine partner. I wanted to continue to explore how I might share space with horses with movement vocabulary that had visual, spatial and energetic congruency with the animal but did not ASK the horse for anything.

In our July LAB, it became clear to all of us that the texture, tone, duration, and trajectory of the ASK requires complex attention. Alissa taught a training method called Find the Herd which is designed to cause a join-up that is not a response to human domination. The form is this: A horse and a human share a large paddock or arena space. The human sends energy towards the general area where the horse is hanging out, causing the animal to move away. Immediately after this ASK, the human walks away from the animal, changing directions multiple times in order to be constantly moving away from the horse. This is a challenging If…Then score, the human constantly adjusting pathways to make sure the animal does not feel chased. Then there is an essential reset, a checking in, after each interlude of send and move away. In theory this sequence eventually causes the horse to look to the human as their herd. The join-up becomes the animal’s choice.

Over the course of 5 sessions, one human and one horse, what we discovered, is that this process can take as long as an hour, with the human persisting in efforts to create partnership, and the horse either getting it and joining or remaining confused and trapped. For our non-equine-savvy participants this was a tedious process. For those of us with equine training, we had more success...but that could have been the horse we partnered. In most instances, successful or not, the ASK became a form of “Who can last the longest?” It began to feel like that inadvertent abuse I mentioned earlier.

For me, Find the Herd is deceptive in its simplicity. The timing, tone of ASK, handling of the whip, the human skillfully defining exactly how much force to exert inside the ASK, the timing of the reset and its important neutral energy are each crucial. This constellation of skills call for far more equine savvy judgement than a novice might have. Additionally, it seems essential to assess if the personality of horse is a good match for the exercise. A curious, confident horse seems most likely to respond positively to this game of pressure and release.

LAB participant, anthropologist Sally Ann Ness wrote this email a few days after the LAB:

I keep coming back to the moment, a defining moment for me, when Lisa was having her one-on-one turn on the first day and she turned to Alissa in the middle of her session and said, "I feel like I'm asking--am I asking?" or words to that effect. Alissa then instructed her to simply identify the space that was her "herd" rather than (my words here) sending that information out with emphasis. It was for me exactly the difference that we have in language between a declarative and an imperative mood, but it was expressed and differentiated in spatially-oriented movement rather than in grammar/words. I had sort of assumed that "asking" (as in the polite commands of "asking nicely") was specific to the phrases of human language, but here it seems that linguistic moods can be communicated otherwise in cross-species interactions as well. The imperative is not the only choice available.

I cannot help but translate this Find the Herd scenario to issues of social justice. The parallels are intriguing. What kind of ASK have dominant white lawmakers built into housing restrictions, education, inequality of opportunity and income? In 2019, I feel as if I am witnessing White Savior Good Will shaping nationally funded initiatives. I am reminded of the chapters in Obama's Stories From My Father about his on community engagement in the Pullman District of far south Chicago. I cannot help but ponder the intention of ASK that is being imposed on large swathes of the African American population.

Apply the notion of ASK and intention to gender inequity, male dominance and Me Too: The role of advertising and fashion loom truly disturbing as purveyors of the male dominated vision for beauty. Questions about the kinds of ASK also emerges for me when I am teaching in the schools. What is our education system asking of children? In many schools the primary ASK is to sit quietly, listen, and try to learn via STEM curricula that favor the left-brain learner, the child who is proficient in language skills before they enter the school system. The spatially two-dimensional read on the page learning is a difficult ASK for a learner who needs to learn via full-bodied experiencing. The ASK narrows down accomplishment to “Find the right answer.”

Numerous round pen dances later, I am acutely aware of just how much I lead with the desire to be successful, have the horse join me, make something happen, have a mutually interesting conversation.

Returning to my friend Nita Little….

Following the LAB, Nita and I spent several days together settling her belongings in her new home in Seattle. Her gratitude is abundant. Her requests for vigilance about careful handling of furniture is stated with a vehemence that clearly masks more complicated feelings about these chairs and small tables that she has inherited from her mother. These possessions have been in storage for over 10 years! I understand and chuckle.

Nita's vehement request for caution sent me back to pondering the notion of ASK: How often do our human emotions muddy the pure intention of an ASK?

On July 15th we headed to SeaTac Airport together, me to fly home after a 16-day tour and Nita to Europe to teach and lecture. Nita was having worrisome issues with what appeared to be her stand-by status for her trans-Atlantic flight. Experiencing understandable travel anxiety, Nita asked an airlines agent how to change her stand-by to a ticketed seat. Nita’s ASK was mixed with a healthy dose of dominance (unintended), anxiety and frustration. The woman was offended by Nita’s tone accompanied by the statement that she was a working professional (an indirect way to let the agent know that she was not just on a vacation with fluid travel plans). Within seconds the agent became defensive. Instead of a conversation, Nita’s request was met with indignation.

For Nita, the connection to our work with the horses became crystal clear. The exact tone of Nita’s ask was not effective. Rather than soliciting assistance, Nita was met with resistance.

Lucky for Nita the rebuke was a valuable lesson. Nita found the entire interlude a perfect demonstration of ineffective ASK and failed partnership. Nita's huge heart and generosity kicked in…and perhaps a dose of scholarly objectivity as she drew parallels between her failed interaction and the notion of ASK we spent our LAB sessions pondering.

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