Dancing with Horses in America: A Country Divided

By JoAnna Mendl Shaw

I am a choreographer. Long before the COVID pandemic shut down the dance world and nudged dancers to make dances for living rooms and outdoor spaces, I was making site-specific performance works for urban and rural landscapes. Once committed to working beyond traditional theatrical spaces, I found that choreographing for a stage in a darkened theatre seemed too safe and easy. The audience sits all facing the same direction, while carefully designed lighting illuminates portions of the stage, visually shaping the space and directing people’s attention. The performers know that the steps they have memorized and rehearsed will be the same each night.

But what if all those theatrical elements were undefined and my job as a choreographer was to use the natural environment to create theatrical frames and direct the viewers’ eyes? What if my dance was at the mercy of cloud cover and weather? What if the performance content was determined in the moment?

My choreography lives outside theatre spaces. I make dances on hillsides, in dirt arenas, on beaches, and in empty swimming pools. Since 1999, my cast of performers has often included equines. When dancing with a horse, the dancer adapts to the animal. If the horse is ridden by a skilled equestrian, memorized sequences of steps will vary with each performance. If dancing with a riderless horse (at liberty), the choreography is co-created in the moment, with the dancer shaping her movement decisions to the temperament and behavior of the horse. In those liberty dances, the human performer is merging gentle horsemanship with improvisation strategies that involve constant spatial tracking and energetic sponging. The human is beholden to the equine in a partnership that aspires to consummate ally-ship.

Grazing Gracefully, commissioned by Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Long Island, June 2015

I embarked on this interspecies choreographic journey in 1998 at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts where I was commissioned to create a performance event that might capture the eyes and interest of hundreds of ambient spectators. Envisioning grand spectacle, I asked if I might collaborate with some of the college equestrians. During our three months of creation, we experimented with dancers moving in tandem with ridden horses, one hand on the animals’ shoulder, matching front legs. The dancers were all skilled improvisers, and they were intuitively “sponging” off their equine partner’s energy. The result was unlike the behavior of any human being the horses had ever encountered. They were intrigued and chose to join up with the dancers. Almost immediately, the riders noticed that their horses were matching the dancers energetically and following them spatially. When dancers and riders were both actively attending to the energetic state of the horse, beautifully synchronized human-equine trios emerged.

The Mount Holyoke project revealed to me something magical about how a dancer might communicate with equines. I wanted to continue this research and found willing collaborators. I formed a small company and we worked with willing equestrians and their horses. With persistence and luck, my company – The Equus Projects – went on to create several other large dancing projects with horses. Word got out in the horse world, and we were contacted by internationally recognized Natural Horsemanship trainers who began to train us to work with riderless horses. We learned about “drive” and “draw,” how to ask for a trot or canter, direct the animal to circle around us then pause and face us. We could ask the horse to perform beautiful lateral movements in tandem with our footfalls. We also learned that the non-verbal rewards we offered the animals when they did what we requested was to stop asking for more. “The release teaches.”

The Pullman Project, Chicago, 2017

Over the years I have continued to be utterly seduced by the grace and power of these large patient animals who have served humans for thousands of years. I love that we humans must seriously up the ante on our ability to notice the details of a partners’ movement and energetic state. We learned that a dominant extroverted horse needs to be constantly challenged and an introverted submissive animal requires patient repetition. Not all horses are the same. Indeed, not all humans are the same. The lessons embedded in working with horses are clear. Stay humble. Be honest. Find your grounding. Make no assumptions. The horses forever changed how I made dances. They also deeply influenced how I communicated with humans and how I thought of myself in relationship to the natural world.

Below is a slightly edited excerpt from my book, Physical Listening: A Dancer’s Interspecies Journeypublished earlier this year. It demonstrates how horses can provide common ground for people of widely divergent political views. It also touches on how profoundly our presumptions and assumptions limit and hinder our capacity for unbiased and honest communication.

* * *

March of 2007. Five Equus dancers fly to Orlando, Florida to teach a Dancing with Horses clinic for equestrians. We will be co-teaching with equine trainer and equestrian Karen Rohlf at her small private horse farm in Reddick, Florida, two hours north of Orlando.

Luke Wiley, photo by Arthur Fink

Reddick is a stone’s throw from Ocala, Florida, which, along with Lexington, Kentucky is referred to as the horse capital of America. We are five New York City dancers, deep in rural Florida. Luke Wiley is wearing one of his signature outfits: orange flared wraparound pants slit to the hip. He looks fabulous. Our first visit is to the Parelli ranch in Reddick. Luke’s attire turns heads.

Luke is a gorgeous, tremendously sensitive dancer and a deep thinker. He was my student at Juilliard and joined The Equus Projects shortly after graduating. He was integral to many of our studio sessions that explored the integration of Natural Horsemanship and dance-making. 

In 2007, Luke’s appearance merely turned heads and perhaps caused a slight chuckle. What is unfamiliar catches the eye. Just that. No more than a passing curiosity. Today, I suspect his attire might elicit a far more extreme and less accepting response. Some of the folks who are now deeply invested in their partisan stances are the very people who attended that clinic with Karen. They loved our work and were ready to embrace the human differences we represented. We met each other with joy, interacting and connecting through the horses. The animals were our common ground. Eighteen equestrians trailered their horses to Karen’s ranch in Reddick. Forty-five other horse folks audited that clinic.

Our clinic covered a wide range of subjects from anatomy to improvisation techniques. We taught Brain Gym®, an educational, movement-based program which uses simple movement exercises to integrate the whole brain – both the sensing and thinking portions of our brain. That sensing and thinking integration calls upon the muscles that cross the midline of the body as for example the oblique abdominals that lie diagonally. Most of our complex movement is achieved with the muscles that are set on diagonal pathways. These are the muscles that activate rotation, as opposed to simple flexion and extension. We taught an entire class with large exercise balls designed specifically for the kind of abdominal strengthening called contralateral integration. The anatomical sessions were followed by Leading and Following improvisation duets that used all that right-left integration to facilitate discoveries about giving and taking leadership and moment-to-moment decision-making.

Luke during the Dancing with Horses clinic in Reddick, Florida

In our mounted sessions, we taught techniques for riding a horse with a dancer moving in tandem with the horse. Gradually, the riders began to allow their horses to follow the dancers’ lead and enjoy this new kind of human-equine trio. As the riders noticed how the dancers were constantly shaping the space between themselves and the horse, they started carving fluid pathways with and around the dancers. They learned how to stay connected to their dancer both at proximity and at a distance. We set up a fabulous sound system and eighteen horses and riders improvised with each other and the dancers, gradually becoming immersed in a joyful state of play accompanied by the music of Allison Krause.

When teaching in the horse world, The Equus Projects is often reaching into unfamiliar learning spaces. For many people, improvising is not easy or comfortable. In our Reddick workshop, we taught equestrians how to trust their own ability to make movement decisions. In their leading and following duets, we encouraged them to take pleasure in just moving together, alternating between leading and making shared decisions. We enticed them into bringing that same sense of improvisational invention into riding their horses – and doing all of this without self-editing.

Luke (right) dancing with the horses in Reddick, Florida

In all the equestrian clinics we teach, we guide our participants towards discovering new places in their bodies that hold movement potential, discovering full-bodied physical listening and trusting their capacity for creativityIn that Reddick clinic, we witnessed emboldened leadership overtake hesitation, playfulness out-distance indecision, and laughter drown out self-doubt.

In 2020, our country has come so far down the road of fear and distrust of what is unfamiliar – would we still inspire laughter and learning with that group of people?

The work of The Equus Projects is consummately about active listening and ally-ship. Theactive listening is to each other and to other creatures that are not at all like humans. Horses are prey animals, creatures of flight. Humans are predators. We barge into an environment and establish ourselves as dominant.

In our work with horses, we are trying to fit into the animal’s ecosystem. What are the rules of engagement – the herd dynamics – that shape their behavior? How can we learn to adapt and join their environment?

* * *

Horses can easily outwit us. They will always be testing our leadership. They do not suffer pretense. They ask for our grounded, authentic honesty. This is the subtext for our 2021 project, a documentary film titled IMPRINTED. The film opens with footage of the dancers training with two pregnant mares. The filmmaker, Stefan Morel, is himself an equestrian who understands the complexity of communicating with an equine partner. To dance with a horse calls for a delicate moment-to-moment balance of listening, adapting, and leading. The dancer must speak the language of a quadruped, a herd animal that instinctively seeks out a dependable leader. Without dominating, the dancer must merge improvisation with horse-centric leadership. Their objective is to keep the horse interested and willing to follow while also allowing the horse freedom to express their own movement ideas. In a dialogue that calls for heightened physical listening, the dancer is actively transforming equine behavior and shared play into a choreographic language. 

JoAnna Mendl Shaw and Lorenzo

IMPRINTED will be shot over seven months. Shooting began in April and will conclude in November 2021. To date, the footage has followed the dancers’ grounds skills training with the pregnant mares. They have been dancing with these mares for several years and are adept at co-creating a shared language but the on-going challenges of balancing directing with responding is ever-changing. Morel’s footage captures both moments of grace and awkward mishap. IMPRINTED will also capture the birth of both foals – not a simple task as mares prefer to give birth alone in the middle of the night. Lorenzo’s birth was 10 days late and occurred in the early hours of May 5th.

A foal will stand and nurse within thirty minutes of birth. It is extraordinary to witness this newborn so fully capable, learning to survive so soon after entering the world. What a humbling reminder that nature has created its own masterful strategies for survival. Witnessing Lorenzo’s birth, filmmaker Morel offers us a visceral experience of the sheer wonder and beauty of nature. 

Lorenzo and Roxy

In my work with equines, I have begun to explore how I can create performance works in which the human participants are often simply framing the spectacularly perfect natural world. We are gratefully in dialogue with natural elements, be it wind, high grass, or the behavior of an equine. I think of my work as the choreographic version of Andrew Goldsworthy’s work, my artistic imprint a grateful homage to nature. My goal inside this work is to model how our physical listening skills can guide humans to exist in more congruous relationship to each other and the natural world. 

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JoAnna Mendl Shaw has been choreographing performance works for stage, rural and urban landscapes since the 1980s. Artistic Director of The Equus Projects, Shaw tours throughout the States and Europe creating site-specific performance works that often bring dancers and horses into shared landscapes. Shaw has taught on faculty at NYU, The Juilliard School, Ailey BFA Program, Marymount, Princeton, Mount Holyoke and Montclair State. Shaw is the recipient of NEA Choreographic Fellowships and multiple National Endowment for the Arts grants for Interdisciplinary Performance.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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