The Horseman’s Mind II: Shoshin Inside Out

att173_bvcThis past week was rather interesting from the writer-rider-teacher point of view. I had opportunity to watch a beginning rider discover an entire new world of kinesthesia, and there just happened to be a discussion of the “Beginner’s Mind” in the trainer’s blog. One commenter who does Aikido called this “Shoshin.” It is, from context, the ability of the master or the experienced artist to find the beginner’s state of mind again–to see the art fresh and new and to understand it more deeply in the process.

Another commenter noted briefly in the blog and later in person that as a musician, she understands highly concentrated mental effort, but combining it with concentrated physical effort was a new and mind-blowing experience. A martial artist or a dedicated athlete combines the mental and the physical in ways that a more sedentary or non-athletic person might not have imagined. Add a second living being with a mind and body of its own and its own opinions as to how to use them (not to mention a completely non-apelike view of the world), and your little grey cells, they can sizzle.

But that’s not all I got to thinking about. A writer has an additional challenge in writing characters whose skills and backgrounds are different from hers. She has to find the Beginner’s Mind when writing a character who is new to some skill or knowledge that she has mastered–that goes without saying. But what about writing the character whose skill or knowledge are greater than or even alien to hers? How does the Beginner find the Master’s Mind?

This means research. Lots and lots and lots of it. Talking to masters, and listening carefully to what they say–and examining the assumptions that rise from the words. Many of them won’t even be conscious. Words are endlessly malleable, and when they’re part of the vocabulary of a specific set of skills, they may not mean what they do in more general use.

With horses, that includes terms like tack (the tackle or equipment–saddles, bridles, and accessories), Thoroughbred (not a purebred in general but a horse of a specific breed and ancestry recorded by the Jockey Club), or cinch (a length of leather, woven rope, or fabric that attaches to the Western saddle and secures it to the horse’s back). These terms are second nature to a horseman. He uses them in casual conversation, and he means specific things by them. The Beginner writer may salt the text with such words, but if the words aren’t used exactly right, the attempt to sound like a Master ends up sounding like a Noob.

The sense of experience goes down through numerous levels. A horseman sees horses in their own context. He’s not constantly thinking about ZOMG BIG ANIMAL, though he never forgets that the critter next to him weighs in at half  a ton or so, is yay strong, and has distinct flight-animal tendencies. What he’s not doing is thinking of it as something alien or massive or scary. It just is, and he moves and thinks and plans accordingly.

Here’s an example. I had a photo shoot last week for the Frumious Author Photo (oh nooes!). I hate being photographed–but I love showing off my horses. The editor cooperated by asking for two photos: one mug shot and one shot with horse. The solo shots? Meh. The mug shot we ended up with was cropped from one of me grinning adoringly at my horse.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about why I chose a specific horse for the shoot. Horses can be camera-shy–the big shiny thing with the looooong thick nose and the clicky noises could be, you know, a predator. My horses think a camera is awesome–it means adoration, attention, and striking poses. You know, like this:

sillypooka_bvcThere was however a further addition that needed careful thought: a reflector screen to catch just the right light. We’re talking large, white, rectangular, ZOMG SHINY, and worst of all if you’re a prey animal, moving around all over the place and even pushing in your face.

For most horses, that’s a dealbreaker. They’re leaving. This thing is not found in nature, therefore it must be dangerous, therefore they are taking themselves Elsewhere. At speed. See above re. half-ton monster chicken with sledgehammer feet and super strength.

Which meant I needed a horse who trusted me enough to suppress all those instincts, stand with me through endless takes (another difficulty for a running animal that really would prefer to stay in motion in case there are wolves in those bushes, thank you), and just incidentally, look awesome doing it. I’ve got several of those, but I picked the one with the most love for the camera. That’s the silly guy above. He’ll do anything for a photo. I call him Zoolander. We ended up with this:

(c) Lori Faith Merritt

(c) Lori Faith Merritt

That expression by the way? A little “Mooommmm, there’s ZOMG SHINY THING in my face, can we go now?” I’m holding on to the noseband of the bridle so he doesn’t leave, but not so tightly he gets claustrophobic and leaves anyway. He could lift his head and pull me easily off my feet, but he doesn’t. There’s a strong social contract there.

So there’s the horseman’s thought process in an anomalous situation. Can the horse handle it? Is he calm or focused enough to stay with me? And above all, does he trust me enough that when I say Mega-Scary Monster is OK, he believes it? (And I’d better not betray that trust, either, because horses remember. Oh, do they.)

Note one more thing, too. The horse is a person. I say this often, but I see horse as machine so often in fiction that I think it bears repeating. To a horseman, this is a partner, someone he works closely with and entrusts his life to. The horse gives him size, strength, speed, and stamina far beyond what a human can claim, and the master horseman never forgets to give him full credit for it. He thinks of the horse first–feeds and waters him first, cares for him first, medicates or stitches him up first–not just because his life is dependent on it, but because he honestly cares about the horse as a fellow sentient being.

That Master’s Mind, when there’s a horse involved, is also the Partner’s Mind. That’s one important to key to understanding how a horseman sees the world.

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The Horseman’s Mind II: Shoshin Inside Out — 2 Comments