Stephen Smith


Dr. Stephen J. Smith, Associate Professor, Simon Fraser University

Presentation Summary

Riding in the skin of the moment: An agogic Practice

The art of riding imagines the human-horse relation in the image of the centaur. In synchronous motions, riding is a dance of sorts, contact of bodies in the skin of the moment. Yet always there is the possibility of fussing, flailing, falling and failing in moments of resistance, evasion and contrariness.  Through phenomenological reflection on such moments, riding can be understood not simply in terms of its difficulties of centaurian mastery, but in terms of the postural, gestural, expressive nuances of interspecies communication.  It is on the off beats, and within the syncopations and momentary stresses of riding, that resistance can be addressed through quiet insistence, evasions overcome through persuasion, and contrariness can be felt otherwise.  Through contemplation of such moments, we find the reminders of a sensual and essential intercorporeality and the configuration of an agogic practice.

Riding well requires much study, much practice, much preparation, and even more practice.  It requires cultivating balance, timing and feel over many, many years and under instruction that is so very demanding of horse and rider.  The best instructor is the ‘schoolmaster’ – the seasoned horse that knows the movements and their ‘aids’ and can teach a rider how best to apply them.  But all instruction, whether from a schoolmaster horse or a human coach, can only be preparatory for the moment of ‘judiciousness’ when rider and horse become more than one.  Acting on the spur of the moment misses this moment, placing metal to the horse’s flanks in a corrective move.  Riding in the skin of the moment, however, spurs horse and rider on to a synchronicity, a temporality, that is synergistically, intercorporeally constituted.  This is riding with skill, finesse, artistry and sensitivity for movements that, in the moment, enjoin rider and horse in the flesh.  Two beings becoming one another, becoming horse, becoming human, in elemental, kinaesthetic connection.

This agogic practice extends potentially beyond margins of human exceptionalism.  There is an ethicality to be discerned in the kinaesthesia of human-horse interactivity that need not be encapsulated within the realm of human virtues.  A kin-ethic is formulated daily in the company of comparatively rather large beings who inevitably question all assumptions of truthfully knowing and compassionately sensing them.  Horse riding can be the practice of lying to ourselves about the human benevolence shown certain companion animals.  It can also be the practice of truth telling with respect to the relations to which we aspire with small, and in this case large, animals in our care.  The difference lies in the degree to which we are prepared to work within and beyond the margins of horse lore (whether of a lay or scientific kind), and the practices of horse breaking/gentling, ground work and dressage that are the legacies of domestication, to engage an agency shown by particular horses in particular places and times.


Stephen Smith is Associate Dean Academic at Simon Fraser University.  His scholarly work pertains to curricular and instructional practices in physical education, health and vitality, and the somatics of teacher education.  Illustrative publications are the 1997 book “Risk and our pedagogical relation to children: On the playground and beyond,” and the 2004 book “The bearing of inquiry in teacher education.”  His recent work addresses teaching dynamics beyond classroom instruction and with ‘companion species.’  This scholarship remains grounded in movement practices that now circus arts, flow arts and equestrian disciplines.