Dancing With Horses: Environmental Stewardship

By Joanna Mendl Shaw, HRL Guest Author

(Previously published by Arts Climate Initiative)

October 2021. It is a bright, sunny, crisp October morning, and the cast of our documentary film IMPRINTED – two dancers, two equestrians, our sound man, second camera, and filmmaker Stefan Morel – are on a forest walk. As we pass under a canopy of magnificent autumn foliage, we pause to gaze upwards, noting the height of the huge tulip poplar and oak trees in this small New Jersey forest, now nestled between suburban homes. Our forest guide is Roger Smith, a forest ranger and lifetime lover of forests and trees.

Roger’s passion for trees is evident as he describes the stunning intelligence nature displays: the interdependence of root systems and ground cover, waning chlorophyll leaving brilliant orange leaves on the  sassafras trees and scarlet on the dogwoods.  The seeds of the trees, acorns of the oaks, nuts of the hickory and beech feed the squirrels and deer.  If uneaten they may sprout new trees for the future.

I am struck by the staggering intricacy of this ecosystem, the intelligence of nature going about its business, despite human interference. It is the same intelligence I feel in the presence of the horses. These large animals give birth to babies that can stand and nurse within 20 minutes of emerging from their mothers’ wombs. Nature has created an elegantly calibrated creature of flight in this equine, its offspring poised to flee within moments of being born. The elegant interconnectedness of our animal and plant ecosystems is ever-present in my mind as I direct a dance company – The Equus Projects – that creates performance works that bring dancers and horses into shared landscapes. Equus has created works sighted in National Parks, in equestrian arenas, on museum grounds, for arts and equine presenters.

In October 2021 we are in the final stretch of filming IMPRINTED, a documentary about how three dancers co-create a shared language with two young foals. The two mares in IMPRINTED are horses that we have been training and dancing with for well over two years. The two foals were born in the spring of 2021. This is how this project came about:

One of the mares is owned by our trainer, Carrie Christiansen. The other mare is owned by her close friend Terry Smith, Roger’s wife.  In the early summer of 2020, the two mares were impregnated. Carrie thought it would be interesting to see if as dancers we could imprint ourselves on the young foals. I thought the idea was magical and would offer rich material for a documentary film. And so, we leapt into the unknown. I hired a Canadian filmmaker, Stefan Morel, who is also a passionate equestrian, known for his equine films. We assembled a small cast of dancers and a production team and began filming myself and two dancers, both members of The Equus Projects company, in training with the pregnant mares.

The staging ground for our film is Roger and Terry’s small horse farm in Cookstown, NJ. Morel has captured the birth of both foals – not an easy feat, as mares tend to give birth at night out in a pasture. Roger and Stefan have engineered a lattice of soft lights hanging above a small paddock next to the barn. Both mares give birth in that paddock.  Are we humans interfering with nature? The question occurs to me many times throughout our filming.

As dancers, our desire is quite different from the objective of an equestrian, who is likely hoping to ride this animal at some point in the future, who must make sure that the foals’ playful behavior does not become dangerously aggressive as they enter puberty. Our desire is about finding shared moments of engagement, perhaps co-creating a shared movement language. Ours is quite a privileged position of simple curiosity. We are seeking synchronous movement conversations, an exchange of information rather than a desire to shape their behavior. But that conversation requires an understanding of equine behavior and the language of equines. This calls for some dedicated horsemanship training. IMPRINTED will include many interludes of us inside a dedicated study of horsemanship ground skills.

Returning to the forest…

Our guide, Roger Smith, is Terry Smith’s husband. Terry owns Roxy, one of our two mares. Roger is deeply committed to preserving the natural balance of these ten acres of forest bordering his property. He works hard to be a good steward for this ecosystem.

The horses on his small southern New Jersey horse farm are part of that ecosystem. They play a role in Roger’s grand plan for ecological stewardship.  Whether your forest is a few acres or thousands, we have been tasked to care for this plot of earth and to leave it in an improved state when we leave it.  Roger manages this forest for the native trees and shrubs as well as the resident wildlife or those just passing through.  But in doing so we use the forest for products to improve our lives whether it be firewood to keep the home warm, lumber to build with or the sap from the maples to give us “liquid gold”, aka maple syrup.  But foremost is the privilege of walking amongst the trees that remind us that without these trees where would we as living creatures be, whether human or equine.

As I walk through the forest, listening to Roger’s narrations about buds and nuts, ground cover and forest canopy, I feel a sense of awe for how powerfully efficient and intelligent nature is. It is the same sense of awe I felt watching Pegasa give birth to a jet-black filly, Lyra. The filly’s legs are still inside her mother when she opens her eyes, ears seemingly to immediately tune into her surroundings. Within 15 minutes of birth Lyra is standing on her long spindly legs, gingerly walking around her mother, finally after 20 minutes finding her mother’s nipples. We sit quietly, witnessing the aftermath of the birthing process in awe.

Our process of joining up with the foals ….

As dancers, we are using our improvisation skills to create a kind of shared physical language with the foals. mostly the foals choreograph us. Their movement gently carries us along next to them, their object of interest – mostly grass – directs our gaze as well. We shape the angle of our arm to drape gently over their backs, as our fingers pick up the tempo of their biting and chewing. Occasionally we offer a flexed foot or wiggling fingers, actions that capture their attention momentarily. I explore simply freezing, holding a shape like a human statue.

Lyra finds this fascinating, unusual behavior for a human being – and she touches her nose to my elbow. I move just my elbow. She touches my chin and I shift the position of my chin. Lyra is curious. My frozen game presents unusual human behavior. I hope that she is enjoying this, if only for a moment. These inventive improvisations with the foals, alternate with lots of scratching itchy places on their hunches and withers. Over the trajectory of the film our foal interludes gradually integrate some basic natural horsemanship communication: I flap my arms to say do not crowd me please; a gentle guiding with our hands as a polite request to back up; a small rhythmic shooing motion to send them away.

Our goal for this film: Perhaps we will find some new ways of interacting with young horses that gently shapes their behavior? Our team of filmmakers and dancers have been a constant presence in these young equines’ lives. Who knows – perhaps our foal dancing will bring some magical innovation into the horse world.

To be sure, this journey has transformed each one of us.

Veteran choreographer and dance educator, JoAnna Mendl Shaw has been devising performance works for stage, rural and urban landscapes since the 1980’s. Her body of interspecies performance works embody visceral engagements with the natural world and immersive engagement with diverse communities. In her research into the human-equine dialogue Shaw has been expanding the parameters and strategies for dance-making, since 1998. Her company, The Equus Projects, has toured throughout the States and Europe for over 20 years, creating site-specific works in collaboration with local equine and arts communities. An internationally recognized dance educator, Shaw has taught on faculty at NYU, The Juilliard School, Alvin Ailey, Princeton, Mount Holyoke and Montclair State. Shaw is the recipient of NEA Choreographic Fellowships and multiple NEA grants for Interdisciplinary Performance. She has brought her somatic practice of Physical Listening into elementary schools and academic think tanks, into the Strategic Studies group at the Naval War College and NYU Medical school. She is a certified Laban Movement Analyst. She is the author of the 2021 book, Physical Listening, A Dancer’s Interspecies Journey.