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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw

If...Then Score with a Wild Mustang

When I began exploring the possibility of creating dance-dialgoues with horses, 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 congruent inside their landscape.

As I gained horsemanship knowledge and skill, the desire to direct the animal increasingly became my priority. My instinctive movement skills would catch the interest of the horse, but not necessarily their trust. If I wanted to do something beyond peaking interest I would have to learn how to speak horse. I wanted to become an effective leader. (PHOTO, Jessica Ferran)

My learning trajectory had begun with unconscious competence, the skills I unconsciously brought into the pasture or equine arena. With focused attention on equine ground skills training, I worked my way though multiple stages of humbling conscious incompetence.My equine encounters are now informed by a fair amount of equine conscious competence but even now I remain acutely aware that I am a dancer, not an equestrian, and that my objectives focused on creating a kinetic dialogue with the animal. I would like to be functioning in a far less objective-driven mental state, looking for a kind of join-up that is just a conversation. I am merging equine savvy with skill-sets lodged inside my dance training - skills that lie outside the world of horsemanship. They are not skills attached to leading. In fact many of the skill-sets we develop as dancers are designed to make us expert followers: Follow instructions, learn a phrase, blend into a unison event, work as a team, share space. Much of dance training is about obedience, not designed to teach the human to claim leadership. Perhaps my dancers and I are defining a whole different kind of horsemanship, a kind of co-creative leadership.

Arriving at these realizations has been a gradual process: As New York City based dancers, horse time is limited by weather and equine circumstances

permitting. For close to two years, September through June, my dancers and I left NYC at 7am Monday mornings and drove out to a small barn in Pomona, NY where we were granted use of Juliet, a horse the owner called her "lawn ornament." Juliet was seemingly not worth training. Juliet had one blue eye (with some diminished vision) and one brown eye. She seemed stubborn and dominant but I suspect some of that behavior was protecting herself on her blind side. We loved Juliet, showered her with attention and peppermint treats and tried out all our natural horsemanship ground skills on her. She seemed to flourish. When we arrived at the barn, just crinkling a peppermint wrapper brought Juliet trotting to the fence to greet us. Juliet was eventually adopted by a Parelli equestrian who has given her a wonderful life.

(PHOTO, Vanessa Wright)

In lieu of horse time, my dancers and I devised ways of practicing our horsemanship noticing skills, decision skills, moduating of movement skills in a dance studio context. Our weekly studio research grew a body of kinetic research I think of as a Physical Listening practice. Rather than

creating movement vocabulary, we devised dozens of carefully defined improvisational structures that would in a sense direct our movement choices. For example, in a blind learning exercise one person devises a static hand position and the partner learns that position with eyes closed. With Blind Learning, our sensory information was limited to just touch. We eventually expanded that exercise to learning whole gestural phrases with eyes closed. At its conclusion, the duo performs the phrase several times in unison. It is touching to watch this process evolve and uncanny to witness how much detail we learn just through our hands. (PHOTO, jms)

​​We made dozens of scores, each specifically designed to practice one constellation of skill ​​sets: ​​spatial awareness, observing to body signals, weight sensing through touch, visual weight sensing, rope handling, trusting first thought best thought, defining personal space.

We worked on solo practices, duet forms and group forms. The scores were so detailed that they became choreographic templates that we could call upon during a creation process.

In 2017, I compiled over 50 solo, duet and group scores into a small volume titled Notes from the Pasture. Each score is described in detail and accompanied by a narrative that explains why that score was developed. Numerous scores emerged out of choreographic projects that required us to develop new skill sets.

Devising scores serves a process of defining objectives. I use scoring in all my teaching: What exactly do I want to teach? What combination of sensing and thinking do I want my student(s) to experience? I use scoring to define the objective for each section of a piece of choreography: What do I wish to communicate to the audience at this point in the performance? I use scoring as a playful way of developing physical skill sets: How many ways can I fold this piece of paper, then create a phrase based on the shape of the paper. I use scoring to encourage decision-making: In a circle, one person does a simple gesture, the next person immediately creates a movement that might logically follow. If...Then scores have dynamic relevance in the equine arena.

I put my If...Then scoring skills to use in July 2019, when I had the rare opportunity to dance with a wild mustang. Equine trainer Jessica Ealy has passed the rigorous Tip Training for mustangs as part of a BLM program to save the wold mustangs. I was honored that Jessica let me enter the round pen with a gorgeous black gelding whom she had been training for several weeks. Hours of gentle coaxing and the animal remained wary yet aggressive and difficult to connect to. I watch Jessica patiently working on a long lead line. Can you yield to gentle pressure through the halter and lead? Jessica's Tip Training is designed for wild mustangs. The objective is to make them compliant enough to be sold to someone who could continue the training, eventually progressing from groundwork to riding. Jessica is also a dancer so I asked if she would move inside the round pen, choosing flowing gathering movements with her arms, not looking at the horse, allowing lots of space between her and the animal. The horse was immediately intriguing If...Then conversation had begin. I asked Jessica if I could try moving with the mustang.

Merging improvisation with horsemanship, I let the animal define all my movement choices:

Where I placed myself in the round pen, how fast I moved, when I focused on the horse (rarely) and when I actively focused on the dirt, the sky, my own hand; when I would use soft focus to mirror the gait, matching my legs to his front legs. Flowing, large arms gestures that mostly gathered towards my body were initially intriguing to the gelding but he kept his distance. Mirroring his legs caused him to pause and turn towards me. Arching my back and arcing my arms into the space behind me seemed to draw him towards me: At first two steps, then three. The second day a heightened play drive seemed to kick in as he moved towards me....for the first time the dance felt dangerous. Photographer Laura Holbrook caught that moment of the animal's advance, just as I was deciding to claim my space. Wild mustangs are creatures of flight who have survived in the wild because they possess explosive strength. My hunched shoulders at this moment are clear indication that the dance had moved from intriguing to dangerous.

Dancing with a horse is not for the faint of heart, especially if your equine partner is a wild mustang. I was suitably humbled by the round pen experience with this mustang. I could feel the untamed energy surface. My encounter with this mustang was profound, meeting a wild animal through a movement interlude in which everything meant something to that gelding.

The following day, Equus Projects dancer Kat Reese shared a very gentle dance with a slightly less explosive wild mustang. Kat is a master of patience and subtlety. Her every movement gently calibrated, Kat gradually gained the trust and curiosity of the animal. This photo of Kat and equine captures the intimacy that Kat accomplished with that horse.

After many years of trekking on this journey alone, but for my intrepid dancers, The Equus projects has finally gained recognition (and funding) for some of our inter-species research. July 2019 we produced the first in a continuing series of Inter-Species Research LABS. The LAB are convenings of multi-disciplinary professional who share a curiosity about the power of movement to communicate beyond spoken language. This photo, taken by LAB participant Jessica Farren, a professional equine photographer, captures myself and Jessica Ealy in a somatic session led by Contact Improvisation master, Nita Little.

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