Read an Excerpt from “The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in Seventies America” by Daniel Belgrad

December 12, 2019
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National Horse Day (#NationalDayoftheHorse) is December 13th. And in honor of this equestrian holiday, we’d like to share an excerpt from The Culture of Feedback by Daniel Belgrad focusing on human-animal relationships, particularly those between horses and their humans. The book digs deep into a dazzling variety of left-of-center experiences and attitudes and looks anew at the wild side of the 1970s. In doing so, Belgrad tells the story of a generation of Americans who were struck by a newfound interest in—and respect for—plants, animals, indigenous populations, and the very sounds around them. 

In conjunction with the growing impact of ecological thinking and its emphasis on empathy, the Seventies witnessed a new focus on the affective quality of human-animal interactions. Acknowledging the emotional lives of animals demanded moving beyond behaviorist approaches to animal behavior, which remained rooted in the dualism of mind and matter that characterized Enlightenment science. This led to a particular excitement about exploring new forms of human relationship with horses, as these were animals that were known to resist behavioral conditioning. Due to its reliance on empathy and physicality, the new ideal for interacting with animals was often described in ecological texts as a kind of dance.

The emphasis on learning from horses did not derive from their intelligence alone. It was due also to the fact that humans had formed working relationships with the species; and, significantly, the dynamics of those relationships could not be reliably mastered by using only behaviorist techniques. Horses responded to “operant conditioning,” to be sure; but they also often exceeded it or willfully defied it in ways that forced their humans to acknowledge the animal’s “point of view.” They seemed to have their own ideas and ways. And because of their size and strength, not acknowledging those could be dangerous. As horse trainer Ray Hunt laconically observed, “They can buck us off, and run us over too.” Trainers who spent large amounts of time working with their animals “in the field” staked out an intellectual middle ground between New Age enthusiasts like John Lilly and laboratory-based ethologists who denied the possibility of animal consciousness.

Dependable behavior from a horse, their trainers had learned from experience, could only be garnered through a two-way communication involving negotiated boundaries and mutual trust. Humans working with horses found themselves not in control but part of a dyadic system with dual controls. They were required to work within the constraints dictated by the dynamics of that system. Hunt called it “patterns of relating” with “mutual respect and discipline.” The horses made some of those rules. If the humans strayed outside of the parameters, the animals responded with a range of negative affects, including boredom, laziness, frustration, and disgust.

For breaking their rules, horses would discipline their trainers. Ray Hunt promised in his 1978 book, Think Harmony with Horses: An In-depth Study of Horse/Man Relationship, that if a rider had trouble with a horse,

I’ll prove to you that the horse is right and we are wrong . . . you have to get discipline within yourself so that you can have it with your horse. If you don’t, this is what will cause your horse to get cranky and take over . . . It’s because he knows you don’t mean what you’re talking about . . . because we are so superior, or neglectful, or lazy. Because we haven’t prepared ourselves to recognize the horse’s feelings.

A horse, Hunt warned, assessed a rider’s behavior; if one lost his respect, he wouldn’t even try to do what was asked of him. Conversely, the successful establishment of a dyadic relationship achieved levels of communication and accomplishment far exceeding what could be expected under the behaviorist paradigm. Hunt wrote, “these horses are more sensitive than we can ever imagine . . . You develop this sensitivity.” He instructed the rider to relinquish egoistic control of the horse and to develop a kinesthetic sensitivity that enabled him or her to acknowledge the horse’s feedback, creating a dyadic system. Hunt wrote, “a make-it-happen attitude can defeat your purpose. Just back off and ride the horse and know where every foot is. Know how it felt when it got there. Know what happened to get it there.”

Hunt was among the pioneers of a new horse training technique—now popularly known as “horse whispering”—that was widely adopted in the United States during the 1970s as a result of its spectacular success with “problem” horses. Horse whispering was radical in that it forsook the historically ingrained image of good horsemanship as based on the power to dominate or “break” the incorrigibly wild horse. Horse breaking pitted man against animal in a battle by which each tried to instill lasting fear in the other. Horse whispering to the contrary developed the horse-rider relationship as a friendship rooted in trust and empathy. In Think Harmony with Horses, Hunt wrote, “[Your horse is] an individual and this is why I say he’s entitled to his thoughts just as you are entitled to yours. . . I want to respect my horse’s thoughts and feelings.”

Horse whispering aimed to develop horse and rider into one mind sharing the same idea. Hunt instructed his students on the need to respect the horse’s contribution to this shared mind:

This is real important to me. You can ask the horse to do your thing, but you ask him; you offer it to him in a good way. You fix it up and let him find it. You do not make anything happen, no more than you can make a friendship happen . . . If we don’t let the horse think a little bit too we’re not being fair.

Hunt emphasized that his clinics were not aimed at training the horse but at training the rider in how to learn with the horse, by first listening to the horse and then learning from her. We are, he wrote, “working to recognize what our horse is telling us of how we feel to him.”

This communication happened mostly kinesthetically, through “feel.” “When the horse moves and you move with him, your idea and his idea become one,” Hunt directed; “He isn’t dragging you and you aren’t pushing him along . . . you’re in time with his body and then he can be close to you and understand what you are talking about.” Hunt explicitly used dance as a metaphor in describing this interaction.

I use the symbol of ‘dancing’ a lot because there’s a rhythm and there are two of you working together and you’re feeling of each other . . . The music is the life in your body and in the horse’s body. . . . Feel it. A feel following a feel – there’s no pressure mentally or physically. That’s what you are offering him . . . . You reach out, you feel of him, then for him, and then you both feel together.

An understanding of horse whispering spread beyond the horse-riding community to the general public in the late 1970s, with two successful Hollywood movies popularizing the approach in 1979. The Black Stallion was directed by Carroll Ballard, who would later direct Never Cry Wolf. The Electric Horseman starred Robert Redford, who was himself an avid horseman. Redford was widely known at the time as both an equestrian and an environmentalist, having written a National Geographic story and a coffee-table book about riding horseback through the Western wilderness. Both The Black Stallion and The Electric Horseman showed people how rewarding it could be to develop a friendship with a horse.

Daniel Belgrad is associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Florida and author of The Culture of Spontaneity, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

The Culture of Feedback is available now on our website or at your favorite bookseller.

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