Yard Philosophy

18 04 2013


I studied philosophy as a mature student at Middlesex University and since graduating in 1999 I have been teaching some form of the subject as my main job. I love teaching philosophy. Sometimes it is difficult and demanding and requires me to concentrate harder than I think I can, but the rewards are always worth the mental effort.

 I’m now branching out with my teaching and leading philosophical enquiries in new settings including farms, barns and yards. Often in philosophy sessions the group ends up talking about animals. This week in a session with my A Level students I just happened to drop in a reference to cats and the room suddenly became electric as the students, well trained philosophers as they are now, furiously debated the merits of dogs over cats.

One line of argument was that dogs care more about humans because they share a house with us and rely on us to supply their needs whereas cats can come and go as they please. Cats don’t need us in the same way as dogs. So, my students argued, it seems that need is an essential ingredient in the devotion of dogs. Perhaps need is essential for devotion itself, but we didn’t get that far. We could easily have become absorbed in this topic. In the same way that we have been absorbed in the pressing philosophical question of whether Cheryl Cole is the epitome of female beauty, but we had to move on.

Given the delight and enthusiasm that animals provide as a focus for discussion, I’m starting a new philosophy project that invites people to think about animals in a deeper way. We live with our animals and they are part of our human community. The question that intrigues me is why we are so drawn to other species. What is it about a horse that compels us? A lot of my gifts at Christmas were horsey ones. I got a blanket, some horse mints (for when I’m feeling hoarse…) and a Spirit of the Horse calendar from my Mum. I’m not so good at flipping over the months. I feel comfortable with the familiarity of each particular month and get slightly stressed by going from one to another, but April’s quote was worth turning over for:

Wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside it. – John Trotwood Moore.

Aside from loving that ‘Trotwood!’ I keep looking at the quote and wondering whether horses are still continuing in some way to civilize us. Compared to carriage horses of earlier centuries, farm horses, not to mention pit ponies and draught horses of all kinds, present day horses have lives of comparative ease. My horses largely do nothing all day while I toil away to keep them. Why do I go to all the trouble? What have horses given me? Bear in mind that I am asking this question five months after a severe knee injury meant riding my horse was off limits.

I’m going to argue that horses help us to understand what it means to be human. Horses complement our lives with their beauty, their power and their grace. We admire horses because they are a source of wonder to us, and that makes them perfect philosophical partners.

It was sluicing with rain for my first formal equine facilitated philosophy enquiry at Sirona Therapeutic Horsemanship and so contact with the horses was somewhat limited, but we still had plenty to puzzle over. Our chosen question: Do we have the right to tame animals? generated an enquiry that was rich, stimulating and varied.

Interestingly at the start of the enquiry we assumed that we did have the ‘right’ to tame animals merely by the fact that all the horses on the yard had been tamed and were animals working willingly with humans. So, the animals that we have tamed do not seem unhappy about it and therefore there was little scope for debate, but as the discussion deepened we asked a more nuanced version of the question which was: Do we have the right to educate animals? We wondered whether educating an animal still involved ‘squashing its spirit’ and some members of the enquiry thought that this was inevitable whereas others wondered whether animals even needed us around to educate them. Don’t they do a better job of it themselves?

Given ultimate freedom, would animals choose to be with us at all? Post enquiry, I’ve been mulling over this question during my brushing and muck clearing duties. I’ve been educating my horses for longer than a decade and my role remains a blend of teacher and slave. We’re pretty content in our small community of three and all get along well and take each other for granted as happens in many long-standing relationships. I’ve known my horses from birth and can track the arc of the first ten years of their ‘schooling.’

I know that they could have spent ten years in a field and bought themselves up, but if they had they wouldn’t be the horses they are today: they wouldn’t know how useful humans are for a start. They wouldn’t know that a human could climb on their back and take them somewhere they’ve never been before. They wouldn’t know how to trot at the click of a human voice. They wouldn’t know what it means to be friends with people.

Philosopher Mary Midgley argues elegantly that we live in a mixed community and that our ‘experience of animals is not a substitute for experience of people, but a supplement to it – something more which is needed for a full human life.’

I wonder whether this is also true of animals, especially horses in whose hoofprints we have walked for many years. Do they need us for a full animal life?

That question requires a longer philosophical ponder. I can feel the need for some more brushing and muck cleaning coming up.

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