The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Joining the Club and Dropping Out

My big brother, who is clever like that and knows all sorts of queer stuff, taught me a new word: egregore.

This is not a word found in the dictionary, although I gather it has a history of use in the esoteric arts, dating back to the French occultist Eliphas Levi (about whom, as it happens, my brother has written a book).

Now, I'm not one for the esoteric arts, but the concept of the egregore seems to be a very useful one, applicable to all sorts of circumstances, including the equestrian world. An entry on Wikipedia gives a definition of egregore as "an autonomous psychic entity made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of a group of people."

An egregore has its own tropes, customs, accessories, language, costume, expectations, values, slogans, and so on. An egregore with which we are all familiar is the zeitgeist  or spirit of the times, which gives each era its distinctive flavor and colouring - the Gay 90's, the Roaring 20's, the Sixties. Egregores should not be exactly equated with institutions or even traditions, although there are certainly overlaps. Institutions are more deliberately formed, and traditions are often passed from generation to generation with some thoughtfulness and care. Both can be modified by their adherents in response to changing circumstances or to better fulfill certain goals. The egregore, on the other hand, is characterized by the unconscious hold it exerts over its votaries and seems to possess a life of its own, growing and morphing according to some law of nature.

An individual taps into the egregore by adopting one of more of its characteristic traits; it is thought that by thus connecting to the egregore, a person will be swept up into and become part of the entity, even without their explicit intention or consent. You don a prison guard uniform and become tyrannical; you put on an apron and feel like you're in Ozzie and Harriet. Similarly one may begin to opt out of the egregore by rejecting even one of its attributes. It is  hard to imagine a Nazi who refuses to use the "Heil Hitler" salute, or a hippy choosing to wear a twinset and pearls.

Clearly there are beneficial, and neutral egregores as well as malevolent ones; the myth of Santa Claus is a pleasant egregore. However, casting around for examples reveals that most instances of egregores are negative. I'm reminded of what Tolstoy said about families: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Anna Karenina, Chapter 1) In other words, the confining and defining limitations of the egregore are fundamentally anti-human. It is perhaps counter-intuitive that those who adopt complex and distinctive mores are less happy and free than those who are more "alike." However, elaborate costumes conceal; nakedness reveals. 

One of the elements of the horse world egregore is the tack shop - the tantalizing pages of the Dover catalog, the racks of beautiful smelling leather bridles, the brightly coloured brushes. All these things used to attract me like a jackdaw to a shiny coin. But I notice, with something like regret, that the tack shop's luster has dimmed. I still need to buy brushes and buckets and all that stuff. I still need to buy a saddle. But pondering which saddle I plan to acquire is no longer the ooh-ah experience it once would have been. It's a pragmatic thing now - choosing which saddle will fit the best and optimize horse and rider's comfort. I used to use tack as a way to pigeonhole myself and my horses - to deck us out in the trappings of the egregore. But the horses don't care about looking the part, nor do they desire shiny new things - except to chew on - and I find I've lost my own interest too.

I was lead to reflect further on all this by today's entry over at The Journal of Ravenseyrie, where Lynne Gerard has posted an interesting and valuable response from Kris McCormack and Imke Spilker to some questions raised about their approach to horses, questions asking for more detail and how-to advice.

Both Kris and Imke are emphatic that they cannot and will not provide any kind of formula for others to reproduce their approach. The only way along the path, they insist, is to follow the horse's lead and reject all preconceived rules, techniques, and instructions. Here is Kris clearly articulating an anti-egregore sentiment:

By studying the human experts, learning their formulas and methods, diligently imitating them -- we make ourselves blind and deaf in our interactions with horses. We forsake the reality of here and now and cling to the abstract -- someone else's words and gestures.
The traditional horse world comes complete with sub-egregores - the English world, the Dressage World, the Western World, the Natural Horsemanship World, and so on. The world described by Kris, Imke, Lynne - a world which others of us aspire to inhabit also - is not so easily described. It's a challenge to tell people what we're up to - at least not without having a long conversation. We have to exchange real thoughts about real things in order to describe our activity - there is no shorthand: "Oh, I do Hunter Jumpers." The conversation we are forced to have requires us to refer to ourselves as individuals, with our own feet on our own spot of ground, searching for real answers - not just to "training" questions - but to questions concerning ultimate reality.

Imke Spilker's book, Empowered Horses, does contains one important piece of concrete advice, which was the only thing I had to hold on to as I tried to follow in her footsteps. She said that when you go to fetch your horse out of the pasture, you should put the halter on, with no leadrope, and invite the horse to follow you. If the horse declines, you find something else to do.

Nowadays that doesn't always work for me, as the mares are often intimidated by George if they're not attached to me by an umbilical leadrope; they're not actually free to follow along wearing only a halter. However, Imke's advice was very important because it was a first step in escaping the egregore, an all-important tenet of which is: You Don't Let Your Horse Go On Strike! Sure enough, "disobedience" in one strand of the egregore gradually leads to an unraveling of the whole thing.

A recent entry on this blog was inspired by Ephesians 5:13. Once again St. Paul comes to our aid in Ephesians 6:12, where he talks about what I believe to be egregores:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (New KJV)
Horses are immune from egregores. The only "autonomous psychic entity" which they are plugged into is the mind of the Creator. We are certainly able to enslave them to the same powers and principalities which hold sway over us, by subjecting them to our behaviour under the influence of these rulers, but in themselves they are incapable of being subsumed into such alien collective thought-forms. Like members of a happy family, they are not so different one from another, every horse grounded in the one truth, each unique, but all connected. 
When we meet with our horses, we should come alone and unarmed - the posse and paraphernalia of the egregore should be left behind.


  1. For some reason I'm reminded of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin reads, "Religion is the opiate of the masses," while a TV in the corner snickers and says something like, "They haven't seen anything yet."

    I once asked my ex-trainer why she used a standing martingale on her hunter, she said her horse didn't need it but everybody else wore one so she did too. Hmm...

  2. Fascinating post, lots of cud to chew and ruminate over.

  3. A good word, June. "Alone and unarmed", without the mental baggage far more than the physical. From my point of view, that means without day to day stresses also.

  4. Yes, the physical baggage is only an outward form of the inner baggage anyway, isn't it?

  5. I like the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon!

    My oldest daughter's 4H pony came to us with a running martingale, a dropped noseband, and a twist bit - all "just in case." It wasn't long before we got rid of the martingale and switched to a French eggbutt snaffle and cavesson - and nothing bad happened! Nowadays I've gotten rid of the cavesson too, as I noticed that even relatively high on the nose, it interferes with chewing.

  6. Also, for me, the egregore is being part of a riding club, a le trec club, even a new group starting to discuss barefoot trimming. All movements, all talking shops and none of which I have energy for any more.

    I defend myself by saying "I am just a 'happy hacker' these days", which implies that 'happy hacker' is the lowest form of rider. I probably need not defend myself but do it to keep former companions happy.

  7. Oh Maire, I know what you mean.

  8. It's so funny you said that because just today in the car I said to my daughter, "I'm tired of everyone, I just can't be bothered." Of course she said, "You're tired of me???" and of course I said "No!" (and meant it). And then she started mentioning names, and each name elicited a reaction which involved thinking and talking and worrying. I've decided to go on mental strike and just not think or worry or anything else. And then we started giggling, and it was very liberating.

  9. June, I always say that I have horses to keep me sane. It stops all further comments and it is the truth!

  10. Thanks, Sandra, I'll remember that one!