A Lived Literacy: A Q & A with author JuliAnna Ávila

Purdue University Press spoke with author JuliAnna Ávila about her new book, Fine Horses and Fair-Minded Riders: Modern Vaquero Horsemanship. Fine Horses and Fair-Minded Riders: Modern Vaquero Horsemanship is the most recent addition to the New Directions in the Human-Animal Bond series. Published in collaboration with Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, New Directions in the Human-Animal Bond expands our knowledge of the interrelationships between people, animals, and their environment.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

A: I would describe it as a scholarly exploration of what we have come to know as ‘horse whispering,’ In the book, I focus on a group of riders who spoke with me about how they came to learn Vaquero horsemanship over time, and I present those findings; in a way, it is a collection of stories. I began by being interested in this relatively small subculture of horsemanship in the southeastern United States simply because they are so far from the roots of Vaquero horsemanship, despite clinicians who travel and teach it. Vaquero horsemanship has evolved from its historical roots and practice, and I am focused on the modern version of it, which has opened up–and because of that opening, recruited more interest, especially from those who started out, or also ride in, other horsemanship disciplines. Overall, even though I am an academic, I tried to write it for a general audience who are interested in horses and horsemanship.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

A: I hope this book gets a few things done. The first is to expose this style of horsemanship to those who are unfamiliar with it–whose philosophy is potentially so fair to horses because of how they are treated in it. The second goal is to share the learning journeys of my study participants, which I found fascinating and hope readers will, too. My third goal, as a literacy studies scholar, is that my exploration of horsemanship-as-literacy might add to the more expansive definition of literacies we have now; horsemanship is unique because the learning space is shared equally with half-ton animals–so much weightier and trickier than books! Becoming literate in horsemanship is life or death for those who practice it professionally. Even for the rest of us, the stakes are dangerous and very often highly emotional, as well. It’s truly a lived literacy.

As I mention early in the book, I was motivated by a genuine curiosity with my own mare. While auditing one of Buck Brannaman’s clinics in South Carolina many years ago, I was struck by the gear of the those riding in it because it looked familiar to me as a Californian of Latina descent. I wondered about that and took that wondering on my own learning journey, which resulted in this book.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

A: As far as I know, this is the first academic study of Vaquero horsemanship and the only one that is focused on horsemanship as a sort of literacy practice. I rely heavily on thematic and narrative analysis because it is a study about the stories told around Vaquero horsemanship by these people in this particular place and time so that is unique, too.

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

A: I didn’t set out to study the philosophical or spiritual aspects of Vaquero horsemanship, so I was pleasantly surprised that those aspects came out in interviews and required consideration. I think this was just because we don’t often foreground those in discussions of learning and literacy but, of course, when you have adults speaking about their life’s work, rooted in passion and engagement, those elements are there, informing the physical work of horsemanship.

Q: While it has gained some visibility in popular culture, Vaquero Horsemanship as discussed in your book is a less well-known practice. Is that endemic to the culture and/or the process? Is it uncommon for people not raised in proximity to it to become practitioners? Can the visibility of Vaquero Horsemanship change? Should it?

A: The funny thing is that everyone knows the phrase ‘horse whisperer’ but not the history behind it, which is much richer than just a pop culture reference. Historical Vaquero horsemanship was a more guarded practice, and another challenge to learning it, then and now, has to do with how many years it takes to create a bridle horse, which was the ultimate goal. The patience and humility required are not necessarily nurtured by our current society—or more mainstream forms of horsemanship that might treat horses as an easily-replaceable commodity.

It’s not necessarily uncommon now for those not raised in proximity to its geographical and cultural roots to learn it, but practitioners in, for example, the southeastern U.S. won’t likely have close-by communities to nurture them, so they have to rely on other means of support, which I discuss in the book. I think Vaquero horsemanship might attract people who are more self-reliant and independent anyway, so they figure out ways to develop their interest in it.

My feeling at the end of this study is that Vaquero horsemanship can absolutely help to support the well-being and development of both horse and rider, physically and emotionally, so it would be wonderful to see it become more visible to those living and working with horses. I hope readers, especially horsepeople, become curious and seek out further resources about Vaquero horsemanship.

You can get 30% off Fine Horses and Fair-Minded Riders: Modern Vaquero Horsemanship and any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.