What the horse knows No. 3

12 03 2017

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Life lesson No. 3: Truth

One of the most honourable qualities about horses is their inability to tell lies. So remarkable is this quality that two renowned horsemen authors chose to highlight it in the titles of their books. Interestingly, both titles of these two excellent books expressed the idea in the negative. Horses don’t lie and horses never lie because, obviously, horses tell the truth.

Horses always tell the truth. Perhaps this is because they don’t have to lie. They don’t have to file tax returns, phone in sick or fake ID documents. Horses don’t have to return items to shops or buy tickets or order online. They don’t meet people in secret or make phone calls they shouldn’t. They never put anyone down out of spite, insecurity or envy. They never complain or write snippy emails. In comparison to most egocentric, digitally-distracted, sensation-seeking humans, horses live lives of simple harmony.

Given the vast differences between them and us, it’s extraordinary then that we can learn so much from each other. Yesterday, Sheranni marked his fifteenth birthday, and while I filled the hay-nets in the spring sunshine I reflected on some of the lessons he has taught me along the way to this milestone.

He was born true and good. He was born to run and indeed as a young colt whenever he got up from his straw bed after a long afternoon nap he would canter over to his dam for another feed. One truth he taught me early on was how important physicality is for young male animals. He also taught me that horses need more space than I ever realised. The idea of an acre per horse is ludicrous as is the idea of educating any young male in a confined space for long periods of time.

Looking back over a decade and a half together, it seems that we spent the first two years of Sheranni’s life simply allowing him to let off steam. I’ll never forget those times he enthusiastically charged towards me just missing me by a paper-breadth because I had just walked up the hill to visit the yearlings. I’ll never forget advising one of his early riders to hide in the cowshed because he would become extravagantly exuberant at the sight of her holding the halter. I’ll never forget him running around the lanes with my step-dad and pausing to take a nap on the second lap because he had released all his pent-up energy. I’ll never forget the daily fly-pasts and races with young Dragonfly and the times I stood in churned up clay and decided it was time to move yet again to bigger pastures.

I learned from looking after young Arabian horses that physicality is as essential to them as air. They need to stretch and grow and run at their own pace, which means often that they need to go for the burn. I think the horses were around eight years old when I finally admitted to prospective land-owners that they were full (on) Arabians. Previously, if anyone enquired about their breeding I’d say they had a ‘bit’ of Arab in them, and hoped that the ‘bit’ of them that needed to explore any new territory at top tail-high speed interspersed with impressive rearing play-fighting, dubbed horse-wrestling by one stunned observer, would be miraculously subdued the day we moved in.

In respecting their need for physicality, I looked for homes where they would not be bored and when I saw that they were getting fed up with a place for whatever reason, we moved on. This meant that over the years we moved about twelve times and that in itself was another revelation: horses like variety and change just as we do. Too much down-time dulls their spirits. Too much time, in the words of one of our students, ‘spent staring at the walls is not good.’ All active, intelligent animals need to move because to move is to be true.

dsc_0318Sheranni and Dragonfly on the move.

But Hitler was a vegetarian

3 11 2015


People who want to find flaws in the arguments for not eating animals will often, semi-jokingly, point out that Hitler was a vegetarian. Their anti-vegetarian logic flows something like this: if a carpet-munching, insane mass murderer loved animals enough not to eat them then sane, rational people should not do so because that makes them affiliated with him, the tiny nasty Fuhrer.

In response, it’s likely that Hitler almost certainly ate bread as part of his diet, but few people would give up eating sandwiches or baguettes to avoid being associated with the eating habits of the Fuhrer, so why does his preference for vegetables provoke such an emotional reaction?

Perhaps what stirs people is not so much what Hitler decided to put on his plate (or not), but the effrontery of Hitler taking an ethical position. For many, Hitler cannot be ethical because, of course, Hitler was evil. Ethical positions held by evil people are suspicious therefore we shouldn’t trust them. This curious line of reasoning conveniently lets people off the hook of considering the difficult, embarrassing problem of whether to eat animals or not.

Like many people who grew up in the seventies, I ate animals. Favourites from my childhood diet included crispy bacon sandwiches with spicy brown sauce, sausages cooked to dark sweet stickiness and sandwiched between the crackling crusts of soft white bread, steak and kidney pie, especially those flabby ones in the tin that puffed up to a glorious golden crispy wonder, liver and bacon and onions.

Just thinking about those meaty favourites makes my mouth water. If someone were to offer me a steak right now, I would have trouble resisting, which makes me, I suppose, an inconsistent vegetarian. Sometimes I tell people that I’m a pragmatic vegetarian, who sometimes eats meat, but that is a pretty indefensible position. In fact, it’s really no position at all.

Like many people, I suppose, I want to leave my options open. I want to enjoy the clear conscience that comes from only eating plants and not harming animals, but I’m also someone who loves to cook for people and eat with family and friends, and most of the people I love to cook for and eat with are not vegetarian.

I’ve got round this for a number of years by only cooking meat on special occasions. I believe that if I’m going to eat meat then it should be locally sourced, organic, free range, the best, by which I mean the least harmfully reared meat I can buy. Lamb I consider to be more ethical than pork or beef because at least lambs are allowed to live outside for most of their short lives. Last Christmas I bought from my local butcher a plump free range duck that was lovingly slapped as it slid into its plastic bag. This bird had been branded a ‘good bird,’ simply by the warmth of the butcher’s touch. It tasted delicious, along with the potatoes cooked to a crisp in the sweet clear duck fat.

A year on, and I’ve read more and thought more about the ethics of eating animals and now I’m not so sure I would enjoy the duck without more than a twinge of guilt. A butcher’s banter is no longer enough to reassure me that every bird had a decent life. Free range and local does not necessarily mean a happy bird waddling around by a pond with its friends before someone came along with a bag to whisk it away for slaughter. The duck might, indeed, have been a duckling only six weeks old and fattened up with growth-promoting feed to increase its breast so that it could adorn my Christmas table. Huh!

In preparation for a seminar on food ethics, I’ve been reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Much of his reasoning resonates. He believes that the question of eating animals is ‘not only our basic ability to respond to sentient life, but our ability to respond to parts of or own (animal) being. There is a war not only between us and them, but between us and us.’ By which he means that eating animals is part of the human story.

I’m at the beginning of a new story in how I work with and relate to animals and I want to start off on the right footing, so to speak. I would no more think of eating one of my animals than I would think of eating one of my brothers or sisters. It isn’t sentiment that stops me considering their flesh as meat, or romanticism, or even squeamishness. It’s a sense of morality. I wouldn’t eat my horse, or any horse for that matter, because it would be wrong to do so.

The reasons for this wrongness are many. Firstly and obviously, I have other options and don’t need to eat them to stay alive, but even if I were starving and had no other option then I would still choose to gnaw on bark or eat dried leaves than sacrifice my horses to feed myself.

How can I know this? During the two and a half years I spent researching the German and Russian occupation of Poland in the Second World War I read many accounts of people eating rats, cats, dogs, squirrels, pigeons and crows simply to stay alive. In one vivid account, people who had been imprisoned in cellars for months ran out and risked their lives to drink the blood of horses. Many horses perished to keep people alive.

I understand the desperation that would drive someone to kill an animal in order to stay alive. I have read enough about the effects of starvation to know that it drives people mad and convinces them to abandon their ethical principles. Under these circumstances, many people would think that they didn’t have a choice. It would come down to this: either my life continues or the animal’s, and my life is more important to me than the animal’s so unfortunately the animal must give up its life to save mine.

When Jonathan Safran Foer’s Jewish grandmother was offered meat by a Russian after coming close to starvation under German occupation, she refused. The meat was pork. It wasn’t kosher. The author was surprised by her decision. Why wouldn’t she eat pork to save her own life? Her response illuminates the ethical position so simply, so beautifully and so powerfully. ‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing left to save.’

If animals matter to us, to make them suffer in their billions worldwide just so we can farm them for cheap meat through the food industry is indefensible and certainly unethical. The question which intrigues me though is why a diet without meat is so difficult for many people to contemplate: why are so many people, and I include myself here, prepared to look away from animal suffering and heap their surrendered flesh on to a plate simply because it tastes good? It just seems such a flimsy reason. My thinking is that eating meat is so bound up with conditioning and habit and mind-set that taking an ethical position on animal suffering is nowhere near as straightforward as taking an ethical position on human torture. Most people aren’t implicated in torture, but most people are implicated in what happens to animals. I’m interested to know what you think. In the meantime, I’m sticking with eating apples for a while.

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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