Horses, Dancers, and Environmental Stewardship

By JoAnna Mendl Shaw

THE EQUUS PROJECTS FILMING OF IMPRINTED, APRIL-OCTOBER 2021

October 2021. It is a bright, sunny, crisp October morning and the cast and production crew for our documentary film, Imprinted â€“ three dancers, two equestrians, our sound technician, our second camera person, and our 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, nestled between suburban homes. Our forest guide is Roger Smith, a forest ranger and lifetime lover of forests and tress.

Roger’s passion for trees is evident as he describes the stunning intelligence nature displays: the interdependence of root systems and ground cover, waning chlorophyl leaving brilliant orange leaves on the sassafras trees and scarlet on the dogwoods. The seeds of the trees, acorns of the oaks, and 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– which creates performance works that bring dancers and horses into shared landscapes. Equus has created works sited in urban and rural parks and even in a National Park – Pullman National Monument in far south Chicago. The company has performed in equestrian arenas, on museum grounds, on hillsides and in urban parks. We shot a full-length documentary film deep in a Swedish forest. The Equus Projects’ work has been commissioned by arts and equine presenters throughout the United States.

For most performance projects the company creates the works with local equestrians and their horses. For every project, the physical and emotional well-being of the animals comes first. The equine choreography is calibrated to showcase the individual animals’ strengths and personalities. The rehearsals are planned to keep the horses curious and engaged… which means no tedious repetition and drilling.

In October 2021, the company was in the final stretch of filming Imprinted, a documentary about how three dancers co-create a shared language with two mares and their young foals. The two mares in Imprinted â€“ Roxy and Pegasa – are horses that we have been training and dancing with for well over two years. 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.  Friends since they were teenagers, Carrie and Terry have shared their mutual love of horses through multiple phases of their lives and these two mares have been integral to that history. In the early summer of 2020, the women had Roxy and Pegasa inseminated, and a plan was hatched to investigate how the dancers might kinetically imprint ourselves on the young foals. While not hoping to literally imprint on the foals, we thought of this imprinting process as a gradual co-creation of a movement language with them. Carrie wondered if perhaps the foals would naturally take to the dancers, seeing as their mothers had been dancing with them in utero. I thought this entire idea was magical! 

In January 2021, I decided that our foal research would offer rich material for a documentary film, and I set about finding a compatible filmmaker. Within a week I had found the perfect candidate: Canadian filmmaker Stefan Morel is a passionate equestrian, known for his equine films. I assembled a small cast of dancers and a production team, and we began filming in April 2021. We first filmed dancers-in-training with the pregnant mares, and by end of June we filmed our company dancing with the foals. The staging ground for our film was Roger and Terry’s small horse farm in Cookstown, NJ. We took a huge leap of faith and propelled ourselves into truly uncharted territory.

Stefan was determined to capture the birth of both foals – not an easy feat. Mares tend to give birth at night out in a pasture. To make sure the births were captured on film, Roger and Stefan engineered a lattice of soft lights which they suspended above a small paddock next to the barn, and Terry introduced Roxy to this dimly illuminated paddock as her nighttime space well before her delivery date. Carrie followed this strategy with Pegasa. Both mares gave birth in that paddock, with the humans gently assisting when needed but otherwise watching this miraculous process in silent awe.

Are we humans interfering with nature? The question continuously occurred to me throughout our filming.

Kat and Roxy

For thousands of years, horses have played pivotal roles in human societies, helping early farmers plow their fields, and giving warriors a competitive edge in battle. Over 4,000 years ago, horseback riding allowed people to travel farther and faster than ever before, spurring migration throughout Europe and Asia. Human domestication of these animals is evidenced in archaeological finds in the steppe lands north of the Black Sea from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, indicating that the domestication of horses began approximately 6,000 years ago.

Today horses are used for sport. For some owners, horses are expensive possessions – much like sports cars – used for competition, fox hunting, and eventing. For others, horses are companions, cared for as members of the family. For folks like Terry and Roger, horses are part of a vision for environmental stewardship. Roger has a strong vested interest in keeping the forest adjoining his farm healthy and vibrant, protected from developers. His equine pasture thrives in part because it is adjacent to a thriving forest ecosystem.

Terry and Carrie take care of their mares and new foals with vigilant attentiveness. They provide on-going physical training for the mares and gently teach the foals to respect the human space. Like all equines, the foals began to test our human leadership early on by crowding and barging into our space. Our objectives as dancers are different from the objectives of a horse owner. An equestrian is most likely hoping that their foals will grow into ride-able horses. Carrie and Terry must make sure that their foals’ playful behavior does not become dangerously aggressive as they enter puberty. Our desire as dancers is about finding shared moments of engagement, perhaps co-creating a movement language. I fully acknowledge that our goals occupy the rather privileged position of simple curiosity. We are seeking synchronous movement conversations, an exchange of information rather than a desire to shape the horses’ behavior.

A human-equine conversation beyond simply hanging out together requires an understanding of equine behavior and the non-verbal language of equines. To reallydance with a horse calls for a fair amount of dedicated horsemanship training. Imprintedwill include many interludes of dancers engaged in horsemanship ground skills training. All three of us are experts in our own field, dance. We are relative beginners in the world of equine training. The journey is a humbling one.

Improvising with foals

Roger is deeply committed to preserving the natural balance of the ten acres of forest bordering his property. He works hard to be a good steward for this ecosystem, and 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 the forest is a few acres or a few thousands, he believes that he has been tasked to care for this plot of earth and leave it in an improved state. He manages the native trees and shrubs as well as the resident wildlife or those plant species just passing through. He uses the forest for products to improve his life – firewood to keep the home warm, lumber to build with, or the sap from the maples which yields “liquid gold,” aka maple syrup. Foremost, is the privilege of simply walking among these trees. 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 immediately tuning to her surroundings. Within 15 minutes of being born, Lyra is standing on her long spindly legs, gingerly walking around her mother. Within 20 minutes, she has found her mother’s nipples. We sit quietly, witnessing in awe the gentle and gradual bonding of mare and her newborn foal: Nature functioning magnificently, without human intervention.

As dancers, we use our improvisation skills to create a kind of shared physical language with the foals. In truth, the foals mostly 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.

Stefan, JoAnna, Lorenzo 

I explore simply freezing, holding a shape like a human statue. Lyra finds this unusual behavior for a human fascinating – 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. 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 haunches and withers. Throughout the filming process, 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 is a polite request to back up; a small rhythmic shooing motion sends them away.

Perhaps with this film, we will find new ways of interacting with young horses that gently shape their behavior. Our team of filmmaker and dancers have been a constant presence in these young equines’ lives. Who knows, perhaps our foal dancing will bring some magical innovation to the horse world. To be sure this journey has transformed each one of us.

Lyra and Stephan

(Top image: Peg in birthing paddock.)

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JoAnna Mendl Shaw has been choreographing performance works for stage, rural and urban landscapes since the 1980s. Artistic Director of The Equus Projects, Shaw tours throughout the States and Europe creating site-specific performance works that often bring dancers and horses into shared landscapes. Shaw has taught on faculty at NYU, The Juilliard School, Ailey BFA Program, Marymount, Princeton, Mount Holyoke and Montclair State. Shaw is the recipient of NEA Choreographic Fellowships and multiple National Endowment for the Arts grants for Interdisciplinary Performance.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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