We join Dimitri as he discusses the subject of horses and horsemanship with the circus horse-trainer and performer, Savitar. Although it is perhaps more of a discourse than a discussion, for Savitar is in full flow and full of enthusiasm for his favourite subject. In the ring Savitar is renowned for his ability to ride two horses at the same time, standing with one foot on one horse and the other on the back of its brother.
From one point of view, Savitar explains, it could be claimed that they are power itself, or energy in motion, in contrast to energy at rest or at peace. Li-Ho refers to them as yang. My father once confided that to understand the horse fully we must also understand something of the nature of fire; and certainly, they seem capable of drawing on energies which are at the very basis of life.
And remember, Dimitri, whether a Chiron or an Eurytion, for so long as we are humans we cannot escape the human predicament. In a way we shall always be horsemen of one sort or another; so it is as well to give horsemanship and all that it entails its full and merited due.
Horses are naturally impulsive creatures; but once properly subdued and guided a good horse can convey us, almost instantaneously, to wherever we aspire and, if the old myths are to be believed, even to the very gates of heaven.
To what then shall we liken the swiftness of the horse, Savitar asked. Perhaps to the glance of the sun as the first rays of dawn flash from the eastern horizon across the waters to the ever brightening shore; or shall we say it is like the lightning bolt of inspiration that in a fraction of a second illumines the mystic darkness of a still and peaceful mind; or like the sudden leap from glowing spark to dancing flame amid the dry fuel of the humble hearth.
Shall we say that astride its back we can in an instant find ourselves beyond this world and all its cares, free to roam wherever we will; and then, just as suddenly, return again to Earth and all that Earth involves? Shall we say that it is as quick as the warning thought that guards the mind and closes all its doors to wickedness? Or perhaps we shall liken it to that wickedness itself which appears sometimes like a meteor hurtling earthwards from afar, and which in a trice can reduce to ash an unprotected house.
Though, we should also note, not all horses are blessed with fleetness of foot. The range is very wide indeed, for it contains at one extreme the various winged steeds of myth and fable, like Pegasus, from whose hooves it is said the living waters flow. And at the other extreme, alas, is the donkey. Having said that, Savitar admitted, I have an affection for the too-often maligned domesticated ass. The humble beast of burden too has its place. And in my experience it is not unknown for a trainer to pair his apprentice, even if he is already a horseman of some talent, with one of the circus donkeys in order to fulfil one or other of the many aspects of his circus education.
If it should fall to us to take charge of either a Pegasus or a Jack-ass then have no doubt that a somewhat difficult challenge lies ahead. But though they may be difficult, such are never insurmountable.
“I fear that my capabilities with them do not stretch very far”, admitted Dimitri. “I marvel at the rapport you have with your horses. They behave more like affectionate companions than the unruly steeds of my experience. Whenever I try my hand at training, irrespective of what I do, they seem to have a mind of their own.”
Well so they do, he replied; and it is a mind which has a will of its own too. That is why it is important to know how to tame them, control them and bring them to harmony with our wishes. Power misdirected slays the happiness of both horseman and horse in the end. Power misdirected, or in opposition to the will and purpose of the rider, this type of power and all like it, makes any sort of performance untenable. Vicious or disobedient horses have no place in the ring.
My father entered the circus before I was born, he continued. At one time he was an equestrian performer in Professor Damodaran’s famous three-ring Kamala Circus. Circus life is all that I have known. I have been around horses all my days, and have known them all at one time or another: the bold, the shy, the skittish and the lazy, the noble, the strong, the graceful, the fleet of foot, and of course the not so fleet of foot. All the elements are represented in some way or other, in all their different combinations and varying proportions. But at the end of the day they are all horses; and similar principles apply to their general management.
I have learned all I know about them from him. He was a supreme horseman, the director of many top performers and the trainer of many different kinds of horses; and each of them in their own unique way knew and loved him well. He always managed, with the lightest of touches, to gather together and focus all of the creature’s force to the task in hand. He made the most difficult feats ever witnessed in the ring appear perfectly simple and natural. And however arduous the task, he approached it with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Everyone in the circus world misses him so much.
It may sound odd, but I still feel his presence sometimes. Often when I least expect it. The older I get the more I feel that we are still in touch, that the loving bond between us has never actually been broken. I still hear within my mind his kindly voice offering the guidance that every father is duty bound to offer every son. I feel that my life in the circus is still his concern; and that makes me happier than I can express in words. I sense his smiling eyes in the purposes of my heart. I still wonder where I would be without him.
But anyway, back to the matter in hand. Most novices make the mistake of allowing the horse to feel as though it is the master. Such are taken wherever the horse desires. When the rider resists there is conflict; and unless he knows what he is doing, the horse invariable wins the day. Thus is the rider dazzled and bewildered by the horse-pleasures and follies of material life; and thus is he sometimes thrown unceremoniously and painfully to the ground when the runaway horse refuses the reins.
As far as establishing rapport between horse and rider is concerned, all the great horse trainers, as well as the most accomplished horsemen, will tell you that when dealing with horses, kindness is one of the horseman’s greatest weapons. My friend Tamerlan, one of the greatest Cossack performers the circus has ever known, would sometimes offer the following advice if he witnessed a groom employing methods he thought too harsh:
“Calm yourself, friend. Kindness will often slay the disobedience of the most wilful horse.”
This slaying, Savitar added, is sometimes referred to as purification.
But the mighty power he refers to is not the mawkish, overindulgent variety that too often passes among outsiders for the genuine article. No, it is circus-kindness: firm, disciplined and focussed on the demands of the performance; but at the same time, compassionate and understanding of the horse’s natural proclivities and inclinations.
Forget all about ‘you have to be cruel to be kind’. The best approach is not in any way harsh or punitive; for to attempt to break the spirit of a horse is a dark deed. To succeed in doing so is a calamitous crime almost beyond forgiveness. All performers should remember that without our fiery, four-cornered friend there wouldn’t be any performance at all.
On the other hand, the subduing, taming and controlling of the horse saves both horseman and horse from failure and even from potential disaster if they choose to enter the performance ring.
Xenophon, perhaps the most famous of the old authorities, implies what the art of horse-breaking really involves:
“See to it that the colt be kind, used to the hand, and fond of men when he is put out to the horse-breaker. He is generally made so at home and by the groom, if the man knows how to manage so that solitude means to the colt hunger and thirst and teasing horseflies, while food, drink, and relief from pain come from man. For if this be done, colts must not only love men, but even long for them.”
This approach is all the more noteworthy when we remember that in Xenophon’s day, the horses he was referring to were almost exclusively being prepared for war. There is in some respects however, very little difference between the demands on such a horse and those on the horse that bravely enters the ring. Both must be well prepared. They must know and submit to moderate restraint; and must also well understand that good things flow from their association with man.
The qualities required of the circus horse are very similar to those needed by Xenophon’s war horses; and the dangers of both arenas are multiplied when a horseman does not have the mastery of his horse. In Xenophon’s words:
“To sum it all up, the least troublesome and the most serviceable to his rider in the wars would naturally be the horse that is sound-footed, gentle, sufficiently fleet, ready and able to undergo fatigue, and, first and foremost, obedient.
On the other hand, horses that need much urging from laziness or much coaxing and attention from being too mettlesome, keep the rider’s hands always engaged, and take away his courage in moments of danger.”
Let the gentle light of conscience be thy guide, and you shall steer your horses well, Savitar advised. And let thy love of all things Good be thy purifying fire. With softly spoken encouragement, mild but firm admonition if and when required, soothing hands and a kind heart, your horse will come to know that the Good can also be the pleasant; and when he does so, you shall have your willing servant.
To ride well we must have poise. Technically speaking, we must direct our horse from a central point of balance and equilibrium, located directly above the horse’s own balancing point. From that position we can, when in motion, subtly shift our weight in order to maintain our mutual equilibrium; or sometimes in order to restrain our horse’s forward movement, or indeed if we wish it, to urge it on. In this way we can establish and maintain relative harmony between the two wills.
And when you refer to your own efforts, Dimitri, you of all people must not doubt your inner abilities. To do so is to fall into an error every bit as regrettable as that into which he who over-estimates them falls, and in so doing suffers the inevitable consequences of his rashness and hubris. But make no mistake: doubt is just as corrosive and just as debilitating. It closes fast the door that leads unto to the gifts and talents which are our birth-right. It negates the powers and prerogatives of our true place and purpose.
There are some naturally gifted performers who enter the ring unaware of their inner talents, or not sufficiently prepared for the challenge. Stimulated by the applause of the crowd, the rousing music, the light and heat of the ring, they enter the higher flow as in a light-filled dream, and whatever wonders and mistakes happen as a result, happen.
However, and even though they rarely give voice to such things, all master-performers remain controlled and balanced. They do not get too carried away. They are at all times aware. They know the value and source of the resources they employ. They know their own abilities and also the limits of those abilities. They know when to step forward and when to stand aside. This awareness is demanded most of the ring-master who must orchestrate and conduct the performance as a whole. Like all such performances it requires perspiration as well as inspiration.
Creating the conditions conducive to manifesting our inner talent in the ring, without putting ourselves or our horse in too much danger, is no small part of learning our trade. The ring is not the place for braggarts and blusterers who believe themselves more capable than they really are; but if the talented one doubts his talent, then he too falls at the very first hurdle.
It is likewise crucial that the trainer understands what his horses can do, and on the contrary, what it would be unfair to ask them to do. Like the many kinds of men, the many kinds of horses differ in their qualities and attributes, physical and mental. Their temperaments too suit them to differing tasks and occupations. They all have their place however, and matching a horse to its task, to the extent that this is possible, is to work with Nature rather than against the intended flow. Few horses are suited to the ring; and even among those few that are, it is ever the case of ‘horses for courses’, as they so often say.
Of course the direction in which our inner talents lie is not always clearly apparent to us, especially during the early stages of our circus career. As heavenly beauty doth veil eternal truth; and as the valley’s mist sometimes conceals the rising sun; so our earthly body and all that it entails conceals from the lesser eye the fire and flame of higher Self.
I have known from the first that you have considerable potential, Dimitri. You should not doubt yourself so. I wonder if you remember the first time we met. Arturo introduced us, asking me to share with you from time to time anything I felt may be appropriate. We shook hands; and as we did so a wave of energy travelled from my hand up my forearm and through my body like an electrical pulse. It lasted but a second or two, but in that moment I knew who you were, and why our ring-master was devoted to your instruction. It is clear, at least to me, that Arturo knows it too, and hopes to see your inner purpose realised in the radiant ring of the here and now. I shall tell you, if you wish it, what it was I saw and heard and felt within. You may then interpret it as you wish.
Through the fiery twilight you sped across the margins of heaven and hell. Like some eastern prince, you stood astride thy chariot of fire and gold, pulled by fairy-steeds of fire, with nostrils a-flare, and thunder in their hooves. I beheld their waving manes; I beheld their eyes that glinted and flashed with passion; I beheld their prancing, high-stepping, spark-trailing, royal gait.
And thou, like a flame of God came down to Earth, guiding thy fiery steeds through the sunlit gates of dawn, across the wide plains that stretch from the foot of the great mountain, and through the wild woods of this wicked world; and when all that you have to say and do has been said and done, like a burning ruby you shall return once more to the heavenly pastures beyond the western horizon to quench thy horses’ thirst at the wells of eternal life.
And as they rest and renew their strength and vigour, you shall retire to the palace of pearl and to the couch of thy beloved. And in the gardens of heavenly beauty thou and she shall walk, hand in hand, amid the love and splendours of an endless May. And there, among the flowers and the trees, shall unseen dancers dance; and singers – unseen too, but heard – shall send forth sweet harmonies which shall reach you and her upon the perfume of the breeze. Magical melodies, bearing inner truth, shall drift through all parts of the gardens in perfect harmony, finding spontaneous union with the light which in all directions radiates intelligent rays of many delicate hues, filling the whole atmosphere with waves of colour and sound, nowhere found on Earth.
And there, from the splendid gardens of thy beloved, the great performance complete, Arturo shall lead thee both by the hand, along the starry path to the Mountain of Gold and Self Supreme.