Real knowledge can be conveyed from one person to another on three different levels. To these Gurdjieff gave the names ‘philosophical’, ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’.
- The first and lowest of these is the philosophical level. Truth on this level can only be conveyed as general principles as a way of understanding. It does not approach the complexity and subtlety of actual facts and actual experience.
- On the second, or theoretical level, fundamental laws can be taught and learned. Once these laws are understood, it is possible to use them to solve particular problems. This is a great step forward from the first or philosophical stage. I do not mean that knowledge on the philosophical level has no value in practical life, but it has value only as a general guide, and many of the concrete problems that arise in actual life are not at all soluble in philosophical terms- too many factors are involved. The problem is too small in relation to the greatness of the whole.
- It is only on the practical level that everything becomes concrete. Here every individual can see himself as he really is and his relation to others and to the universe as a whole. Problems can be solved in such away that there is no difference between knowing and doing. There is not the distinction we usually draw between knowing what we should do and knowing how to do it.
Neither Gurdjieff or J.G. Bennet presented themselves to world as horseman, but theirs is the clearest explanation I have found for the amount of confusion, argument, distortion, misery, and abuse inflicted on horses by even the most well-meaning of riders. Horses are inherently concrete, practical, and pragmatic beings. Great horseman have no distinction between knowing and doing. That usually means that they are not necessarily verbally adept and when they begin to talk about their theories and principles, they begin to separate practice and theory. They also speak out of the philosophical belief system they grew up with, often without reflecting on how the reality of their experience might modify their ideas and how they express them. Unfortunately, on top of that, people can and will interpret their words any old way they please. And so we end up with situations where countless individuals trying to interact with their horses with the best of intentions end up doing things in practice that are abhorrent.
On a practical level, I have enormous respect for the Monty Roberts and Buck Brannamans of the world. They do horses and people an immeasurable service in forging themselves a path out of the cycle of abuse that they were raised in and sharing that path with others. When I see them working with horses, especially abused horses, what I see is that they and the horse meet in a moment of recognition. I see horses respond to the inner journey of these men and to the self presence that comes from them facing their demons. But when I watch some of the countless hours of ‘join-up’ videos and the like on you-tube, I am mostly impressed by how amazingly tolerant and cooperative horses are despite the many variations of human weirdness. I was also completely bemused to discover that these people explain their activities with horses through a predator/prey model and called it ‘natural’.
Humans in their ‘natural’ state are frail, puny, slow, and ineffective compared to true predators such as wolves, tigers, hawks, sharks, pythons, or dragonflies. And certainly most people subscribing to the predator/prey philosophy are not impressing me with their predatory skills in their videos. They would have starved to death long ago if their meals depended on those skills. It finally came clear to me when I changed the words being used to reflect the genuine experience of abuse the originators are dealing with.
What has been labeled ‘the predator’ is actually the abuser while ‘the prey’ is actually the victim. The philosophy of both abusers and victims is rooted in fear. Their theory is that safety and control are obtained through patterns of dominance and submission, and that those patterns are instilled and sustained through reward and punishment. When this theory is put into practice, it is inherently abusive and tends to result in learned helplessness (click here). This is why so many horses that have been through the barrage of relentlessly incomprehensible behavior all too often found in the round pen treatment end up depressed, resentful, and unresponsive.
It is also the fundamental conflict between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ dressage. I originally got interested in dressage because I had a horse that offered me airs above the ground. I enjoyed him hopping around on his hind legs, but wanted to be able to discuss when, how many, and which way. So I went to take a ‘dressage’ lesson. I was given a supposedly second level horse to ride that was stiff as a board, had no impulsion whatsoever, and was totally unresponsive to both hand and leg never mind the seat. My feelings must have shown on my face when I was instructed to kick it harder, hit it more often with the whip and pull on its mouth, because my disinclination to schedule another lesson was met with relief. What I was thinking was that if I had kicked, hit, pulled, and bounced around on my own horse like that, he would have dumped my ass in seconds flat. And I would have earned it. If I am violent and arbitrary in my actions, it should not be a surprise when the horse responds in kind.
Eventually I realized that ‘modern’ dressage like ‘natural’ horsemanship is based on dominating the horse. Obedience and submission are the primary elements emphasized from training to international levels of competition. Horses that compete in ‘modern’ dressage suffer from sport specific injuries like degenerative joint disease especially in the hocks, crushed windpipe, sore backs, and so on because the qualities ‘classical’ dressage prizes such as impulsion, self-carriage, lightness, and responsiveness are secondary at best. In practice, ‘modern’ dressage riders resort to what ever it takes to force the horse into obedience, into looking and moving a certain way regardless of how it feels. In sacrificing the practical experience of harmony in favor of theory of submission, these people also sacrifice their horses to a philosophy of fear.
Physically, I flat-out can not ride that way (click here). My horse carried me long after I started losing the use of my right leg and blacking out from pain. We danced until his death because our relationship was based on mutualism, not dominance. Our underlying philosophy , our basic principle, was that our relationship was mutually beneficial. My theory has been that if I entrain to the horse, if I honor his willingness to carry me on his back by synchronizing my body to his every movement, he will respond to me when I occasionally move out of that synchrony. The horse naturally appreciates, and will move to regain, that sense of harmonious relationship. Then we can begin to have these very beautiful conversations where we play with moving in and out of balance. The most infinite possibilities arise when the conversation is courteous, gracious, dignified, honorable, precise, and honest. In practice that means I attend to my breath, to my posture, and to my presence.
I may never compete at the international level of dressage tests, but I will and have experienced the joy of being at one with my horse.