Horse and Hawk

Art is the child of nature in whom we trace the features of the mothers face.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

My riding instructor said something last week which has been hard to shake from my mind: “Unlike other forms of art, riding horses is like sculpting with smoke.” He was referring to the fact that most musicians use inanimate instruments to perform their art, instruments which don’t change or change very little from performance to performance. An equestrian, however, works his art with a living, sentient partner who has the ability – through his superior physical strength – to affect the outcome not just once but over and over again.

I’ve found the same to be true of falconry, a system of hunting in which men who are out of their mind work with birds who are not of the right mind to achieve what could very well be described as a form of artistic expression. My fellow bow and gun hunters use an inanimate tool, which offers a predictable output for a specific input. I find it interesting that the hawks are even more independent than the horses, despite the fact that we’ve been working closely with both for thousands of years.

In both horse riding and falconry there is an interplay between nature and man and I am sure that any honest practitioner of either would tell you that it is quite difficult to recreate the splendor, majesty and beauty of nature in the practice and performance of the art. Mastery in both requires the cultivation of a deep respect for the natural state – the movements, predilections, language and patterns of behavior – of the partner, be it horse or hawk. Moreover, mastery requires the intelligent compensation for the effects of man’s influence on the partnership.

Adding a rider to a horse’s back, for instance, alters his balance. (Run with a child on your back for a few minutes and you’ll understand what I mean.) Sitting on a moving chair isn’t exactly natural for man, either, so the two must work together to create new balances which are favorable to both horse and rider. The result, when properly carried out, can be breathtaking.

I had the privilege a few months ago of watching what is arguably one of the most refined forms of the equestrian art, the Haute Ecole (High School) movements as performed by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. There is riding, there is equitation and there is dressage, but you ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve seen the riders performing at this venerable institution. The grace, balance and power with which the various movements are performed evokes the same sense of awe as a well-performed Beethoven sonata, if not a lily in full bloom.

Nature exists independent of art, but art cannot exist independent of nature. Given this, I feel it important to do everything within my power as an equestrian and a falconer to preserve the natural spirit of the horses and hawks I am privileged to work with. Every ride and every hunt begins with respect and ends with more of the same. We live in a beautiful world and we should act in a way that magnifies, not crushes its natural splendor!

4 thoughts on “Horse and Hawk

  • Beautiful post! I’ve been aware of this choice since early childhood when I was involved in one of the first anti-littering campaigns. With nature we don’t even have to try to leave it better then we found it. It would be a huge improvement if we just left it as good as we found it. I appreciate your reverence for the animals you work with. It’s a pleasure to read about your experiences with them.

  • This is a wonderful summary of a wealth of living experience. I appreciate the way you have deliberately challenged yourself in developing these magnificent relationships. Nature’s creatures don’t respond to theories. They can, of course, be “broken” or forced into certain patterns deemed useful to the dominant human, but this is such a limited and often cruel approach. Whatever we may believe about our origins,

    it seems evident to me that we were created as part of a complex and wonderful living entity. We may try to dominate the rest of that entity, or we may isolate ourselves from it to some degree, but to do so denies such a fundamental truth of our being as part of a living whole!

  • This explanation really encapsulates how it feels to work with an animal that might have desires that do not always totally align with the human’s. With falconry, at least, the falcon and falconer’s desired outcome is usually the same, but the path to get there is not always agreed upon. It is a beautiful thing to be able to balance your expectation vs. the hawks and get the right outcome in a way that does not diminish either of you.

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