Dan Maxwell, Fielding's School of Human & Organizational Development
This study examines the essential features of human-equine interaction as present in classical horsemanship. The method I used to explicate this interaction is a variant of kinesthetic empathy, a phenomenological approach to human-animal studies developed by Ken Shapiro and grounded in the continental philosophical tradition, Merleau-Ponty specifically. The analysis presented in this study is based on my interaction with three classical riding instructors and three horses, as captured on video during five riding lessons. Using the video as a starting point, I first wrote a series of lived experience descriptions, one for each performance, as well as a biography of each of the agents who participated in the study. I then analyzed this initial round of writing to create a set of phenomenological vignettes which deal with the various somatic and existential dimensions of human-equine interaction.
My findings are reported at three levels: the somatic or biological, the existential, and the cultural. Each level presents a unique form of physical or existential intertwinement, as reflected in the wide variety of discovered themes. The themes presented in the findings chapter vary widely and include discussions of anatomical fit between horse and rider, asymmetrical bodies, clothing and tack, biomechanics, balance structures, horizontal and vertical planes, the classical horseman’s precise frame of mind, freedom, reversibility between intertwined species, and the acquisition of perceptual grip.
The analysis presented reveals a highly nuanced and multi-faceted interactional space between horses and humans. Indeed, the findings advanced in this dissertation ought to be considered provisional, awaiting further confirmation by future researchers working in this area. At least two things, however, are clear from this study. Merleau-Ponty’s conceptual framework provides an ideal set of concepts for analyzing human-animal interactions, especially in situations where communication across species lines is mediated via the body. And second, phenomenological approaches such as kinesthetic empathy work well in human-animal studies, provided one has a good grasp of animal behavior.