chapter  8
My Horse is Not My Therapist: Embodied Communicative Practices and the Construction of Meaning in Dressage
Pages 14

In a recently published article titled “‘My Horse Is My Therapist’: The Medicalization of Pleasure among Women Equestrians,” Davis et al. (2015) identify three distinct types of narrative that emerged from interviews with women who are long-term and in many cases lifetime riders. First, the majority of their informants stated, simply and straightforwardly, that they ride for the pleasure of riding and being with horses. A second group described the pleasures they experience as “therapeutic.” The authors’ analysis of these narratives shows that pleasure, in order to be culturally legitimate, cannot exist only for itself, but has to be framed discursively and experienced in medicalized terms as therapy in order to justify significant investment of time and money in equine activities, and to deflect resentment of this investment by non-rider spouses, partners and family members, who often see horses as an “addiction.” A small minority of informants, however, characterized riding and the time they spend in the company of horses as a form of therapy in a literal sense: as a kind of alternative medicine. Engaging the equine therapy literature to argue that in contrast to approaches (see Kruger and Serpell 2010) that overdraw the distinction between therapeutic and recreational riding as well as between popular and biomedical healing systems, the authors argue that the narratives they collected reveal the complexity, fluidity and ambiguity of the boundary between therapy and recreation, impairment and well-being. This chapter raises serious issues. We live in a world in which the concept

of addiction has expanded outward from chemical dependency to structure our understanding of a wide range of human behaviors and experiences. People are described as being addicted to their work, to exercise, to the Internet, to sex, to food, to fashion, to gambling; addiction has become one of those “metaphors we live by” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Metaphors of this kind not only affect the way we talk about what we do; they structure, systematically, how we go about these activities and experience them, and they are so deeply naturalized that they are invisible to us as metaphors. This is precisely what is ‘cultural’ about them. There is an inescapable cultural logic at work here. If normal, everyday horse human relationships and attachments are therapy, it is because normal, everyday experiences of grief,

worry, distractibility, stress and pleasure have been pathologized, and not only by DSM-V. As Davis et al. (2015) point out, this process operates socially not only from the top down, but also from the bottom up; the notion that the pursuit of pleasurable activities amounts to “obsessions or self-indulgent behavioral addictions” is present in popular culture as well as in medical discourse. Through an autoethnographic account of riding, in this chapter I want to

challenge the notion that “my horse is my therapist.” For years, I had kept my riding life separate from my professional life as a kind of preserve, although I had subjected other dimensions of my life to the anthropological gaze: initially, factory work (Mulcahy 1976, Mulcahy and Faulkner 1977), and later on, serious illness. Developing a life-threatening disease was what made me a medical anthropologist, and my early publications in this field were autoethnographic (DiGiacomo 1987, 1995). But perhaps because the only analytic strategies suggested by colleagues for the study of riding were Foucauldian disciplines-of-the-body approaches with their overtones of regimentation and coercion (see Hearne 1986), I resisted it. It wasn’t until a few years ago in my graduate course in phenomenology, when I began, tentatively, to use what I do with horses to illustrate the related analytic concepts of embodiment (Csordas 1990) and what Csordas (1993) has called “somatic modes of attention,” that I began seriously to entertain the possibility of writing anthropologically about my relationship with horses. I am one of those people born with the “horse gene” (Davis et al. 2014,

2015), an attraction to horses that ontologically precedes reason or memory, though for long periods until the age of 31 I was a self-taught rider depending on books and irregular access to horses. From the age of 13, however, I knew what I wanted, and it was dressage: classical horsemanship. ‘Dressage’ is a French word that simply means ‘training,’ and its object is to transform the horse into the best possible version of himself. In 1964, the Spanish Riding School went on international tour for the first time, and I saw them perform in the Boston Garden. I was transfixed by the beauty and balletic quality of the spectacle, by the complete at-oneness of horse and rider. I wanted with every fiber of my being to do that, and was crushed to learn that the Spanish Riding School accepted only male students (in 2008 the school admitted its first two female students). It was not until I was in graduate school that I finally had the opportunity

to be trained as a rider, and in unusual circumstances. In 1980, near the end of my dissertation fieldwork in Barcelona and after months of steadily worsening ill health, a doctor diagnosed Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. When I finally emerged from the vortex of surgery and treatment six months later, I felt alarmingly old at age 29, with a body I could not use. Climbing a single flight of stairs left me gasping for breath, my legs trembling. Initially I tried alternating walking with jogging over short distances, always on a level surface. Eventually I was able to do this for half a mile, but it left me drained of energy and nauseated with fatigue, and I gave it up. Two

years later, in 1982, I applied for and was awarded a university fellowship to support the writing of my dissertation, and attached to it was the privilege of being able to take any course I wanted without having to pay for the credits. So I signed up for a place in a riding class, and for two years my life was perfectly balanced between writing and riding. I was lucky to be trained by one of the best. In 1982 the director of riding at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was Sue Blinks, who would later go on to help the US equestrian team win a bronze medal in dressage at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. All my teachers were sensitive and tactful. I explained my medical history and its consequences, and they made it possible – remarkably, in classes of ten horses and riders – for me to participate normally, stopping to rest when I needed to. Riding was the only physical activity I was so deeply committed to that I

would keep at it despite pain, breathlessness and exhaustion, and it gave me back the use of a body badly damaged by radiotherapy, and restored my sense of being alive in the world of the living after having sojourned so long in the twilight world Susan Sontag (1978, 3) memorably called “the kingdom of the sick.” When my cancer returned after a four-year remission, I found I was unable to go back there, to volunteer for the most horrible form of sickness I could imagine. I resisted diagnosis for almost five months because I could not give up the nearly normal life I had reclaimed at the cost of so much physical, emotional, and intellectual effort. Eventually my growing sense of dread made it impossible for me to lose myself in writing. This dread was not misplaced. I was facing major surgery to remove the tumor attached to my heart, followed by an extremely aggressive eight-drug chemotherapy protocol projected over 13 months. Riding, however, was the one thing I could do because it gave me the relief of true forgetfulness during those five months of self-imposed diagnostic delay. On a horse, I did not have cancer. I was simply a rider. Serious riding joins your whole body and your whole mind simultaneously in a paradoxical condition of unselfconscious self-awareness. Every perfect jump, every balanced transition, was the practical affirmation of life over death. More than thirty years after the fact, riding still retains this meaning for me (DiGiacomo 1995). Given my medical history, it would be very easy for me to accept the

my-horse-is-my-therapist approach to riding, and most readers would, I think, find this completely credible. Instead, in a move that will at first seem counter-intuitive, I will argue that my horse is not my therapist, and riding is not therapy. I am a medical anthropologist as well as a rider, and the anthropologist in me is all too aware of how medicalization invades forms of experience that are not self-evidently medical and transforms them into pathologies of body or mind. The condition of cancer survivor – independently of your actual disease – is one of these experiences, requiring psycho-oncologic therapeutic intervention to transform vulnerability into strength, and personality defects into character (DiGiacomo 1992; DiGiacomo and Sumalla 2012; Sumalla et al. 2009).