What the horse knows No: 2

5 03 2017


Friendship between species is special. Sheranni with Rebecca.

Life Lesson No 2: Friendship

For most people, life without friends would be a treacherous place. Social species need others not simply to survive, but also to thrive. Our friends and companions enrich our lives in ways that can surprise us. A close friend once cycled from Kent to Devon because he missed me. Stamina aside, we value friends who show loyalty and kindness and with whom we can be at our best and worst.

Horses are especially skilled at friendship. As herd animals, they need to live in groups in order to feel safe, and like us their capacity for friendship goes beyond survival. Friendship for horses is as much a matter of preference as it is for humans and horses display their sociability in myriad ways. Some bond for life with one companion while others might easily make new friends wherever they happen to live. We have a pony who is close buddies with a goat.

Sheranni happens to be a highly sociable horse and when he was younger I used to play a game with him to try to get him to ‘unfriend’ me. This was in the days when he used to come into a stable at night and if the horse in the neighbouring stable got too interested, Sheranni would direct mean looks at the intruder. If I happened to be in the way of the grrr-get-lost gesture, Sheranni would immediately switch to being charming. The first time this happened I was amazed at the speed at which he could navigate between the two emotional extremes. Back and forth his expression would go: nasty-nice-nasty-nice. Smile-scowl-smile-scowl. No matter how quick I was, he was never caught out and he was never neutral either. I like to think that this is because we were such fast friends he wouldn’t or couldn’t unfriend me.

Not a game I would recommend with one stallion I knew whose super-mean gestures told me to give him a king-size berth. I led him out to his field a few times and it was like taking a cobra for a walk. One day he lunged over his stable door and grabbed a young woman by the neck. Her injury was shocking, as if someone had pressed a hot iron against her skin. Even more shocking was the seemingly random nature of his attack. She had not spoken to him or looked at him as she passed. She had simply been in the way.

Not long after this incident, I happened to walk past his stable. Normally, he would be hanging over the door, snaking in his beautiful, venomous way. The stallion wasn’t there. From my position, I could see that he was inside and, with a quickening in my stomach, that he was not alone. Another young woman was grooming him. She smiled up at me. ‘I just love this horse,’ she said. ‘When I come, I really love to spend time with him.’ The stallion was at ease, his head low with a soft and dreamy expression in his eye. It was the most relaxed I had ever seen him.

Over the years I’ve often thought about this scene. The young woman just happened to be someone who was born with Downs Syndrome. Of course, this made no difference to the stallion just as it made no difference to him that the young woman he attacked just happened to be a qualified horse professional. He preferred the young woman who wanted to spend some quiet time with him. Most people were too scared of him to try, and that meant he was condemned to a lonely life. It was incredibly moving to witness the tenderness between him and the young woman who trusted him and who had his best interests at heart.

We currently work with another young woman who also just happened to be born with Downs Syndrome. She is shy and has learning difficulties. She also recognises that friendship with animals is incredibly special and that horses respect all kinds of people.

A short time ago, she played her own game with Sheranni by taking his rope when she thought no one was watching and inviting him to partner with her. He moved so sweetly. They were completely connected and synchronised. It was one of those moments when my best friend surprised me, as if he had slipped off to dance with a professional.

Being and time

4 01 2015

Spending time with friends is the reason why I’ve not been writing as prolifically as I thought I needed to. During my career as a professional author and teacher I have at times considered spending time with friends to be a luxury. When the time came for me to go deep into a new work then my friendships were rationed, to be indulged only on special occasions.

I splurged on my friends this Christmas and New Year. Instead of buying expensive presents that I could not afford, I wanted to be generous with time instead. If a friend called or texted and asked whether I wanted to meet for a walk or a pub lunch, I replied with an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ and ignored the scrooge voice that urged me to sort out my end of year accounts or respond to work emails. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve committed to a social life that reminded me of how carefree I used to be in my teens and twenties until I got seriously into writing books. Breaking my self-imposed limits has been liberating and has made me appreciate the benefits of keeping friends closer and made me think about how I might live more spontaneously now that the holiday is over.

The temptation is to return to the grind, to fall back into work and lurch towards the next holiday. Teaching in schools encourages this mentality and I know that some of my colleagues will be jokingly counting down the days until half-term. Instead of pushing on regardless, I’d like to create some more room in my life for the people who matter most to me and the people who interest me the most. I realise that this requires an adjustment in attitude. Spending time with great people is not indulgent, it’s a privilege. It’s essential for a full and vigorous life.

I haven’t really understood how not being able to afford time for people is the ultimate poverty. I suppose I just thought that I would make time to catch up when I had more time to give. I now have a better insight into how much more productive and creative I can be when I have spent time in ways that enrich my life, whether that is long frosty or windy walks and talks while out and about with much adored dogs, playing Happy Families after having feasted and drunk champagne at New Year or a lunch at an old-fashioned pub in Dunster when my friends instead of complaining about my lateness simply ordered for me and then navigated our way across Exmoor so that all I had to do was to enjoy their company.

At the start of 2015 I’d like to say a huge thank you to my friends from all elements of my life for reminding me what life is for. And for showing me that the work-holiday dichotomy is a habitual way of thinking. This time has made me realise that I don’t need to ration or be mean with my friendships. The demands of work and other daily commitments will always do that for me. Ever since hearing Jonathan Rée lecture on Heidegger and hearing him say that the greatest gift that anyone can give to another person truly is their time and full attention I’ve understood this intellectually. But I don’t think I’ve fully got how to go about it until now. Allowing myself to actually afford time is the best gift I’ve had in years.

Happy New Year.

Some of my happiest moments from the year were spent working with horses and friends.

Michael leapingBelinda with dusters

Dom with Trixie jumping

Jo with Dragonfly

Horses at Netherton3

Setting up

Friends for life

20 09 2013


Most people would agree that friendship is necessary for a good life. I can’t imagine living my life without my friends and some of my most precious friendships are with people I have known for forty years. Like most people I sometimes take my friends for granted and forget to call them for weeks at a time, and because they are my friends, they never blame me for my absences or my neglect. In the same way, I’d never dream of taking them to task for not calling me more often. With my close friends, I can assume that our friendship is worth preserving because there is so much shared history and humour.

Thinking about Aristotle’s ideas on friendship has made me wonder, though, about the qualities within friendship that I value most. For Aristotle friends are necessary at all times of life: to show us how to appreciate the good times and to support us when we fall on hard times. Dickens made a similar point in creating the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man too miserly for friends, who has to learn about benevolence from the ghosts of the past, present and future. The message of A Christmas Carol is that no matter how much money you have, without friends or people to care about, life is impoverished and not worth living.

Written more than three hundred years before Christ the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s series of lecture notes, develops this same theme. The Ethics develops the idea that friendship is essential in the pursuit of happiness or a flourishing life “for no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.”

For Aristotle, friendship goes beyond the functional. We don’t simply need friends to avoid the abyss of loneliness. “Friendship is not only necessary, but also fine. For we praise lovers of friends and having many friends seems to be a fine thing.”

Still, he says, there are many disputed points about friendship itself. For some people being friends means seeking out people who are similar to them. Hence the saying “Birds of a feather stay together.” On the other hand it is said that similar people are so alike that they are bound to fall out, “like the proverbial potters quarrelling with each other.”

In attempting to unravel these seeming contradictions, Aristotle wonders whether friendship is possible among all sorts of people, or whether ‘vicious’ or unpleasant people can be friends. He also wants to know if there is one species of friendship, or more.

He begins with a general account of friendship. The object of friendship is to find what is lovable in a person. For Aristotle, not everything is loved, but only what is lovable, and this is either good or pleasant or useful. He goes on to note that what is useful is the source of some good so that what is good and what is pleasant are lovable as ends.

This raises the question: “Do people love what is good, or what is good for them?”

In other words, do we seek out friends just because they will make us feel good? If so, doesn’t this mean that all friendship is a reflection of our own egoistic needs and desires? Do we want to be friends with people who will make us shine?

Aristotle’s way of thinking is that friends are necessary in helping us to become better people. With certain friends I feel that I can be my ‘best self,’ not my most arrogant self, but my true self. I’ve just, as it happens, finished a long phone call with one such friend who always has me reaching for my note book as we speak. She makes me think in ways that make my brain sparkle. Our friendship creates a space where we discuss (often quite mad) ideas, and we are entirely comfortable with this. We ‘get’ each other and we both share a sense of the ridiculous. At the end of the phone call she had me hooting with laughter as she told the story of a long-ago marriage proposal from a butcher.  The italics do not do justice to the outrage and incredulity in her tone, for my friend is a vegetarian and devout friend to animals.  I’m writing the short story in my head for her, and this helps to explain what I think Aristotle means when he tells us that: Complete friendship is the friendship of good people.”

For Aristotle a complete friendship is only possible with someone who is similar in ‘virtue,’ someone who holds similar principles, beliefs and values to our own. I’d have to add humour to that list to make it complete. Still, it makes friendship a matter of morality.

Now those who wish goods to their friend for the friend’s own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally. Hence these people’s friendship lasts as long as they are good; and virtue is enduring.”

The aim of friendship, then, is to strengthen the higher qualities in people. For the Greeks friendship was of primary importance for the functioning of a healthy society. People could practise noble values through reciprocated acts of generosity and loving and concern for others. If enough people do this then society becomes less selfish as a result.

Aristotle admits, though, that such mutual friendships are rare, since people who are concerned with higher values are few. Not everyone wants to live a fully aware life. Most people would rather just spend a pleasant time hanging out with their friends without over concerning themselves with their moral well-being. We might say that this type of principled friendship is impossible now that we have so many other distractions such as the internet and the demands of our families and jobs.

Aristotle recognises that friendships change over time.  Friendships formed out of utility can be easily dissolved and Aristotle says we shouldn’t worry about this.

“There is nothing absurd in dissolving the friendship whenever they are no longer pleasant or useful. For they were friends of pleasure or utility and if these give out, it is reasonable not to love.”

Friendship which matters most is friendship that helps us to understand ourselves. Aristotle is clear that we must be good to ourselves before we can be good to another person. If we are good to ourselves, we wouldn’t wish to be anyone else even if that other person had every good going for him. Aristotle claims that a good person “practically never regrets what he has done. Every action is useful feedback. This strikes me as a pretty modern idea as does his conclusion that friendship is the highest form of benevolence. If benevolence is an expression of our highest self, we are complete when we give our best efforts to others.

Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin (Hackett 1985)

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