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My maternal grandfather, who was born in the late nineteenth century, owned many horses and extensive acres. He rode until he was past 80 years old. His was a life on horseback. Though he owned cars and trucks, he still kept a one-horse buggy. In my childhood one of my aunts would drive various grandchildren in the buggy to visit other family members a mile or two up a country road. Horses (and mules) were a part of everyday life for those who lived in rural areas. Though of course horses are still used as work animals on cattle ranches and elsewhere, in the United States, they are not the ubiquitous part of life they were in my youth.
In the twenty first century, horses, for many people, are relegated to the periphery. Horses are raced or used for polo or for the fascinating long rides, but they are frequently perceived as exclusive and even rare. In the Western world, this separation, except for specialized use, limits contact
with the horse by many Americans to Kentucky Derby parties in front of a wide screen TV.
2 . Do you ride?
I rode as a child when I visited my grandparents and at camp. Later I had no access to horses.
3. Do you own a horse?
4 . Who is your favourite horse in history?
Bucephalus (sometimes spelled Buchephalas), who belonged of course to Alexander the Great, is my favorite. Even if the story is a legend Alexander’s behavior toward his horse illustrates the need to understand the temperament of the animal to create trust.
5. Who do you think was the most influential equestrian human in history and why?
Genghis Khan comes to mind first. With his armies on horseback, he conquered the largest land empire in the world. According to DNA research, Genghis Kahn also has descendents numbering in the millions. I have lived in a ger (yurt) in Mongolia and can relate, from personal experience, that even in the 21st century his people, as is well known, are still largely a horse culture. Inherent in the nation building that is ongoing in Mongolia today is the societal and legal framework laid down by Genghis.
Yet because Genghis Khans’ empire was divided immediately upon his death, it is also possible to suggest that the longest lasting influence of a horse culture, both militarily and culturally is perhaps that of the great Moghul ruler Akbar. The legacy of the synthesis of Mongol/Central Asian/ Persian cultures, the architectural innovations and the religious debate which characterized Akbar’s reign survive in the matrix of modern Indian society.
6 - What was your greatest equestrian influence from books or cinema when you were young?
I used to get cheese and Dromedary dates from the kitchen and fill my father’s old army canteen with water. Equipped with what, I then perceived, as the necessary supplies for survival, I would go outside, sit under a tree and read one of Walter Farley’s wonderful Black Stallion novels and daydream of Arabian horses and the desert sands. When the Black Stallion film was first exhibited in 1979, I was transported back to my childhood.
I am certain that my desire to help eliminate the mistreatment of horses, which I describe in my answer to question seven, stems directly from reading Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell. Because of my father’s preference, I seriously doubt that I missed more than a handful of the cowboy movies that were ubiquitous when I was young.
7 - What equestrian book would you recommend today and why?
I would recommend, Dark Horses and Black Beauties: Animals, Women, A Passion by Melissa Holbrook Pierson. The title is a bit off putting, but I think the book has some merit. Pierson describes the terrible fate of many horses and thus either gets raves from those who read it or is castigated for some of its sad depictions.
This quote about the book from Publishers Weekly, indicates that there are three kinds of women who are fascinated by horses: "[T] hose who want something out of them, personally or professionally; those who anthropomorphize them; and those who are seeking a higher knowledge about horses and humans and the mysteries of their intersection," The reviewer maintains that Melissa Pierson is in the last category, where I would also put myself.
Because I am developing Photoshop graphics for two short video presentations for www.whhrescue.com, the Whispering Hearts Horse rescue group, I think that any work that brings attention to the plight of abused horses is worth the read.
8 - How did you initially become interested in your specific equestrian specialty?
I teach university classes on the Middle East, Central Asia and the Silk Road. It is the evolution, the society and customs of the world’s surviving horse cultures, which is part of my focus. I turned the childhood fascination I have already described into part of my adult vocation.
9 - What prompted you to enter that field?
I am a professor of international studies and have been intrigued by disparate cultures, as I have indicated, for as long as I can remember.
As to why I ended up in this profession, perhaps it’s rather like Louis Armstrong said when he was asked to explain Jazz, “If you got to ask, you never get to know” – but I keep on asking anyhow. Possibly how I have led my life and how I accomplish my work may be explained by one of my favorite anecdotes. A man asked his rabbi, "Why do so many unusual things happen in the world?" The rabbi pondered a moment and said, "God loves a good story."
I seem to have what T. S. Eliot called an "experiencing nature." I believe, although others may not, that I cannot teach authentically what I have not personally discerned. The result of this conviction has led me all over the world in quest of those lost horizons that exist out there somewhere. To paraphrase Michel Peissel, (who is well known as the leader of the team that reached the source of the Mekong River), I have often been involved in travel and study that required putting aside reason in favor of passion. I have spent much of my life in cultures that are based in part on interaction with horses. These areas are what the early European travelers along the Silk Road called the back of the beyond – regions of the world that are increasingly and with strong reason finally coming to the forefront of the world’s consciousness.
10 - Did someone encourage your decision or inspire you?
My parents’ either bought for me or borrowed from the library nearly every book that I wanted to read. I was the kind of child who read the encyclopedia for fun. Although I was not clear about my focus at such a young age, I was given second hand copies of the Richard Halliburton books, The Royal Road to Romance, The Orient and The Occident. These books were old and out of date even in my childhood but filled with travel stories of intriguing places. I was inspired later to visit many of the places Halliburton described, in his fictionalized way, for myself. For me, the horse cultures were a part of a legendary world, which is still epitomized by the idealize life of the Bedouin.
11 - When did you begin your research, investigation, work?
I simply went from age five, when I started first grade, through my Ph.D. always fascinated by non-Western cultures. There was, as a result, no starting point per se. As an adult, I have had many opportunities to travel or work in countries from Morocco to China. Many of these societies are the ones where the horse has not been banished from day to day life.
12 - What do you think is your most important discovery, achievement or insight regarding your equestrian work?
My work of course is not directly with horses, but with the cultures that were or still are based on interaction with them.
When cultures abandoned their close bond with the horse, they also lost touch with a very necessary connection with this planet. I also teach a graduate class which examines why societies collapse. Abuse of the natural environment seems to be a vital cause. I have been on a soapbox about over consumption, since my first trip to India in 1968. I am not suggesting that we abandon technology, only that we temper it with a better understanding of our interdependence with all species, not just the horse. I am a great believe in Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa (non violence and respect for all living things). Except symbolically, even in his lifetime India was never going to return to hand powered spinning wheels, but Gandhi made a good sense when he pointed out that bullocks and horses, replicate themselves, and excrete useful by products which help avoid the ecological pollution and expense of petrol based fertilizers.
13 - What modern technology, techniques and media have you found most helpful?
I use a laptop computer a projector and Photoshop graphics, which I make, in every class that I teach.
14 - What part of your work do you find most fulfilling?
There are several things that make my work satisfying.
- I try to help students understand that they matter individually, in their attempts to grasp the underlying milieu of history, politics and the environment. They learn that their personal experiences relate to a wider context.
- I think that what I teach matters and I believe that many of the students learn that it is essential in the 21st century for people to overcome provinciality and see themselves as citizens of the world.
15 - What’s been your biggest disappointment in your work?
Though all other working conditions are supportive and pleasant, and I very much enjoy teaching, I work in a state university system that does not provide Sabbatical years. The lack of concentrated free time limits some opportunities.
16 - How do you explain the gulf between academic equestrian investigation and the average horse owner?
Non-horse owning academics are interested, in my experience, in the impact of the horse and rider on cultural behavior and process. Horse owners are involved in day-to-day contact and interaction with specific animals. They often have little or no interest in the historical and societal influence of the horse and in the case of the West, the impact of its disappearance, except for specific and narrow purposes.
17 - What equestrian subjects are in need of more research and investigation?
At the top of my list would be, research about the care, cure and prevention of leg and hoof injuries and diseases. Laminitis still defeats the most skilled veterinarians as the tragic end of Barbaro proves. The heartbreaking end of Eight Belles who, as is well known, was euthanized (where she collapsed) on the Kentucky Derby track, illustrates the cruelly fragile bones that have been bred into many race horses, in a desire for winning speed. Research to help prevent such sad results and to breed more robust race horses seems obvious.
18 - Which part of the equestrian world would you like to see reformed and why?
On the top levels, as we all know, horse ownership is expensive and demanding. In that rarified equestrian society what is required are unlimited sums of money and superbly bred and trained horses that often cost more than a very upscale house. When I lived in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed built a $10,000,000 swimming pool for his racehorses. This is the highest level of horse ownership and very limited in the number of people who inhabit that world. This is the arena of horse ownership that gets most of the publicity. Even those who have no interest in horses know about the extravagant hats worn by ladies at Ascot.
In cultures which still depend on the horse and utilize free range grazing, almost all children learn to ride. This skill is not a luxury. It is a requirement.
Yet, in most non-horse dependent cultures, even affluent ones, the cost of owning, feeding and stabling even one ordinary horse is far beyond the abilities of most people. Many children, who have a natural affinity for horses, never have the chance to learn to ride. More publicity is needed about those in ordinary circumstances who own horses often at considerable personal and financial sacrifice. These are people who cannot imagine living in a world without equine / human interaction. This part of the horse owing world does not seem glamorous or exciting and does not sell magazines or get hits on websites. The horse has been relegated to a rarified place available just to the super affluent in the minds of many. This attitude needs to be tempered by more public observation of the positive role the horse can play in the lives of ordinary folks. Perhaps this publicity would also attract the funding necessary to allow some less affluent children the opportunity to learn to ride.
19 - How do you traditionally deliver your findings or message and how would you ideally like to do so?
I am a direct classroom teacher and I am working with a Canadian friend on the videos that I mentioned.
I am on the fringe of the horse word unless I am doing a field study. I rarely see a horse unless I am in Central Asia or Central Park. That is my point. The horse, (though clearly very significant to me even without daily contact), is not in the forefront of consciousness for most of the developed world because, in a typical American town or city, except for those who ride, the animal is almost invisible.
I wish for a resurgence of interest and understanding of the interaction of horses and humans among a much wider population in the western world. This expansion would offer a larger audience for those who appreciate and teach about horses based societies. I am in the process of reinserting myself into the external lecture circuit, to help create that kind of awareness.
20 - What intellectual, technical or ethical advances would you like to see in the horse world?
Since I am involved with a horse rescue group, I would like to
see more publicity around preventing the mistreatment of horses.
Public awareness has been elevated by interest groups about the dangers
facing endangered species. Similar high profile campaigns could raise awareness about the plight of abandoned and abused horses. One American NGO, the Animal Welfare Institute is an example of an organization which works publicly, “to reduce the sum total of pain and fear inflicted on animals by people.”
There are horse rescue groups in most of the American states and there are various pieces of legislation before Congress such as:
- Ban Of Double-Deck Horse Trailers (H.R. 305)
If passed into law these bills do address some of the most egregious issues. Unfortunately their statutory success is by no means a certainty
21 - Do you foresee any difficulties for the horse world in the immediate future?
The economic issues facing the world have had impact on even high profile areas like Dubai, which in turn affects the care and keeping of horses. In the US the number of abandoned horses due to the poor economy is increasing exponentially. For example, in Monterey County, California, the SPCA Executive Director reported that in the past they would rescue about five horses per year. In 2009, to date, there have been 26 horses abandoned or turned over to the SPCA. This is a growing and dangerous trend, which is not likely to improve until the economy begins to recover. (The Californian newspaper, December 4, 2009)
There are a number of other basic issues that I think also need to be considered. For example, certainly in the US, more training is needed in large animal rescue, in case of disaster. With increased urbanization, as even more horses are boarded, more careful attention needs to paid to animal welfare in these facilities.
22 - What is the greatest challenge facing the horse world in the long term?
More generally, and of the greatest concern, interest in the natural world is losing ground in the consciousness of many Americans. A recent study funded by the University of Illinois indicates that virtual reality is replacing outdoor activity in this country. If that is the case, then as involvement in external recreation declines, then more specifically, interest in horses will decline. People seem not to be able to cherish what they have not experienced.
23 - What books, magazines, websites, etc. can people read and review to learn more about your work?
I do not have any publications or research directly related to horses.
24 - Any final thoughts?
I am honored to be included in this list. The Long Riders’ Guild website is a remarkable archive and the World Ride site is equally interesting.
I will follow CuChullaine and Basha O’ Reilly’s upcoming ride around the world with fascination. They are poised to make a major contribution to a much-needed shift toward global mindedness.
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