What the horse knows No. 3

12 03 2017

File 12-03-2017 17 09 15

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.

Sink or Sing?

9 03 2015

Michael leaping

My heart sinks when I go to turn on the laptop these days. If I can avoid turning on the laptop at all, I will now take that option and it feels like a painful rebellion against the tyranny of work. Just tonight I’ve realised that not turning on the laptop doesn’t mean that I’m not working. Avoiding coming home to my desk doesn’t mean that I’m not out there building something I can be proud of. Spending time with horses makes my heart sing on so many levels and when my heart sings I feel alive. I feel like my best self, and my best self is who I want to be without compromise.

Horses are never less than themselves. They don’t fret about all they have to do in a day. They take care of their needs naturally and easily. If they want to go for a walk, they take a stroll down to the far end of the field, only pausing to watch a raven lift off a tree. If they need a scratch, they find a fence post or a willing human to relieve the itch. Every action has meaning and purpose. As social animals horses spend a lot of time doing what social animals are meant to do – socialise with each other – and the more time I spend with them, the more I want to be with them.

To work I must sometimes cut myself off from other people and that is difficult when you are naturally sociable, when what you do best is learning through being with others. My work with people and horses never feels like work. It feels more like play. It feels like the work I’m meant to be doing.

Horses have profoundly changed me as a person. In the twelve years I’ve worked with my own Arabians I’ve learned more about myself than I ever could have believed possible. This morning I made a list of some of the key lessons I’ve taken from being with horses. Here are the first three:

That I can hold my ground and stand up for myself without fear or aggression

That respect comes from within

That I can live with honesty

I’m still learning especially since taking on two semi-feral Dartmoors over the past year who have taught me about more wildness and having fun than I thought possible. You cannot train a wild pony to be civilised or follow the rules because a wild pony thinks instinctively and acts out of self-preservation. A wild pony does not understand electric fence tape as I discovered in the second week when both ponies ran through a fence line that had taken me over an hour to assemble. They were just escaping horse flies. When I lifted the tape and waved my arms to try to get them to reconsider, they ran faster, pulling the tape with them which somehow pushed against my chest and flung me backwards on the ground.

It marked the end of a long time since I was floored by a horse. In my early days of learning how to work with highly spirited young Arabians there were a few trips to casualty. Even though I had ridden horses since I was a child, training horses was another matter altogether. Early on I realised that I had to up my game, or be killed. Discovering that there was a whole realm of horsemanship and way of being with horses that didn’t mean pushing them around or forcing them into obedience was the beginning of a completely new way of experiencing the world. Twelve years on, the biggest surprise is how differently I now view humans.

The idea that animals have something to teach us about being human remains controversial because humans are supposed to be the rational, thinking beings. Humans are supposed to have all the answers, but my experience of looking after large social animals daily over the past twelve years has taught me that my human actions are sometimes gross, offensive and excessive. It takes a more subtle, gentle intelligence to show us supposedly rational creatures that we don’t have all the answers. In this respect, horses have refined my thinking.

I’m fascinated when people change through their connection with horses, when the animal enables the human to learn something new, often in a wondrous, thrilling way. Looking at it Socratically, these lessons are insights, recollections of knowledge that we have forgotten as we have evolved. I remember one young man, who had little support in his life, lit up after working with an untouched pony on Dartmoor. He had learned how to help the pony to trust the touch of a human hand, an alien feeling for a prey animal, and in teaching that simple lesson to the pony this young man had learned how he could be valued himself. For the first time he had felt deep in his being the precious feeling of self-worth and he was radiant with it. He was dancing as he told us about it.

It still seems strange to me that animals can give humans, the so-called higher mammals, feelings of self-worth and of value. But if I turn to Socrates again for help, I’m less puzzled. Socrates believed that the way to fulfilment and happiness was through self-awareness.  Because they are both like us and utterly different to us animals can help us to study ourselves. Animals reflect back insights which we can so easily ignore from another person who may not always have our interests at heart.  Animals are self-interested without being self-absorbed, and this applies particularly to highly sensitive and self-aware horses. Horses know instinctively what feels good and that is of enormous benefit to us in helping us to know ourselves, and ultimately feel good about ourselves.

I found this clip of Ulrika Jonsson working with a horse and I’m sharing it because it’s so brave and moving. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnb0eM8WohA

A short clip showing some of the work we’ve been doing at the Dartmoor Pony Training Centre Community Interest Company. http://youtu.be/5QzKHjNaeN0

Wonderful year

30 12 2013

It’s been a wonderful year. Looking back over images of the past twelve months I see how new themes have emerged in my work and become threaded into all that I do. Just before Easter, I moved my horses to a new field and I see just how inspirational the Devon landscape has been to me. Living closely with the rhythms of nature has helped me to appreciate simple unfolding beauty, such as the unfurling of new oak leaves, or the appearance of the first bluebells, the changing colours of the fields and the sky.

I’ve shared warm and thoughtful times with friends both in the landscape and in the classroom and learned from every encounter. In the summer, I made new friends with the launch of Thinking Through Philosophy in my home town of Teignmouth and was heartened and encouraged by the generous and open-minded response of all those who came to the seminars. It has helped me to see that philosophy is most relevant and life affirming when it is grounded in every-day living.

Being grounded in what is real has made my year wonderful. As with every year, there have been challenges and sorrows and disappointments; it hasn’t always been easy. Looking back, though, the disappointments have already faded and I see that there have been many more new opportunities and experiences than I anticipated at the start of the year when I was still limping and depressed from a severe knee injury.

Twelve months on and due to regular walks and rides I feel fitter than I have ever been.  I feel joy each time I connect with my horses. They have helped me to be patient and to focus on one step at a time by doing only what I felt physically capable of.  Halfway through the year, I still needed someone to come out with me as I felt too insecure to ride alone. Now when I look back I see how far I’ve come. I can remember the first time I lay on the ground and the feeling of being connected to the earth and knowing that my body was going to get stronger as long as I didn’t push it. Of all the lessons of 2013, the most significant for me is taking note of when I need to rest.

It’s been a year of recovery and recuperation and reflection. Nonetheless, it’s been an active and productive year.  Ideas that I have long wanted to put out into the world are now beginning to take shape. In the autumn I was privileged to help with the training of untouched ponies on Dartmoor through my association with the community interest company the Dartmoor Pony Training Centre. In handling these highly sensitive and reactive feral ponies, I learned to listen even more closely to the signals from my own body language and came away deeply moved by the experience. Those days of silent communication in a light-filled cold barn were thrilling and transcendent. 

In January I am launching Thinking Through Horsemanship, a long-nurtured project that brings together my twin passions for philosophy and for horses and develops ideas I have been thinking about for over a decade. The pilot will launch with a group of young people at Sirona Therapeutic Horsemanship.

Choosing images from the year was difficult, but I was guided by the theme of wonder, one of the key preoccupations of philosophy. To do philosophy is to adopt an attitude of wonder. Here are some wonder moments from the past twelve months.

I wish all my readers a warm and wonderful start to 2014.


New oak leaves


Bluebells in the wood



Cattle though the hedge


Lisa with Dragonfly


Marian with Sheranni


Philosophy in action: Gordon with Naomi


Jet on Dartmoor



Pippa with Stanley on Dartmoor 



July sky




I remember me

4 12 2013


picture: commons.wikimedia.org

Ask someone who he is and he will probably point to his body and say something like: ‘I’m John and I’m tall, of slim build and bright eye, and I have long grey hair. I was brought up in Somerset.’ He might go on to say where he went to school, what he studied at university, and who he married.

Who we are is a question that preoccupied the English philosopher John Locke, who was tall and slim with long grey hair and went to Westminster School and then on to Oxford University.  Locke who qualified in medicine and who had many friends and no wife was puzzled about the problem of human identity.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Locke considers the problem of how consciousness relates to identity with some delightful examples that range from a remarkable parrot that can speak Brazilian to a philosophical fairy tale about a prince who exchanges places with a cobbler. Locke also muses on the effects of cannibalism on the continuity of the soul and the attributes of his little finger.

Eccentric as this may sound, Locke was known as a common-sense philosopher and his wide-ranging interests and philosophical work covered almost every area of human thought from politics to freedom, education, human rights and property. His views were hugely influential and informed the writing of the American Constitution.

His thinking on identity follows on from his arguments on how ideas are formed from experience. Locke claim is that we are born knowing nothing, our minds are tabula rasa, blank slates upon which we chalk the marks of experience. There is no such thing as innate knowledge. We are all born equally ignorant.

For Locke, human and animal minds have a starting point of existence, and that remains fixed as part of the identity of that specific mind. Aristotle was born in 384BC and that means that his mind existed then and only during the period that he lived. His mind can’t transmigrate to the 21st century. If you happen bump into someone tomorrow in the Post Office who claims to be Aristotle, you probably aren’t going to be inviting him home to discuss human happiness. Bodies are another matter, though. For we know that bodies do change, and some bodies become unrecognisably altered.

Locke’s enquiry poses many questions. He wonders about oak trees and asks whether an acorn that develops into a great tree remains the same tree. He also muses on horses and considers whether a playful young colt that grows into a mature horse is the same animal even though he now looks completely different. The oak tree is more than its roots, branches and leaves. For Locke, its identity consists of the rather wonderful phrase ‘the vegetable life.’ An acorn, a sapling and an old tree have all partaken of the same life. Young and old are entrained in this life.

My horses now have a completely different shape to when they were born, at present  massive grass bellies, and the particles and cells of their bodies have all renewed themselves many times over. Similarly as the oak trees in their field, they have partaken of the same life; the young colts and the mature horses are on a continuum; young and old have lived the same animal life. When I look at them I see them as they are, but I also remember them as young colts. The arc of their lives is knowable only to someone who has experienced them through time.

When it comes to humans, though, Locke’s ideas get a bit bizarre. He argues that when we say ‘man’ we really just mean human-shaped container. If that human shape had no more reason than a cat or a parrot we would still think of it as a man. A reasoning super-intelligent parrot who spoke not only English, but French, Dutch and Portuguese would still be thought of as a parrot and not a man, however uncanny its powers of speech.

“It is not the idea of a thinking or rational being alone that makes the idea of a man in most people’s sense, but of a body so and so shaped, joined to it; and if that be the idea of a man, the same successive body not shifted all at once must, as well as the same immaterial spirit, go to the making of the same man.”

For Locke, man and person are two entirely different things. Locke’s definition of a person is a ‘thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking…’

Locke goes on to say that ‘when we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so.’

In other words, we are our present sensations and our perceptions, and this is what Locke calls the ‘self.’ There is no inner ‘us.’ We cannot be conscious of what we are, we can only be conscious of what we are thinking about, or feeling, or experiencing.

Locke argues that what makes us the same person is not just our body, but consciousness. We need to be aware of our own experiences in order to form a sense of self. Our memories of our childhood form part of our identity, but what we can’t remember is not part of us. The blank parts of our unremembered lives remain inaccessible and don’t form part of who we are.

In order to demonstrate that identity is rooted in consciousness, Locke describes a thought experiment in which he imagines the thoughts, memories and life experience of a prince entering the body of a cobbler. This cobbler would have a prince’s memories, hopes dreams, fears, all of his recalled experiences. Wouldn’t that cobbler then become the prince? Similarly, a prince wakes up with the memories and consciousness of a cobbler, and he feels that he is the cobbler. The fact that he still looks, talks and walks like a prince does not matter. If he has the memories of the cobbler, then he is the cobbler. If the cobbler had committed a crime in his original embodiment and remained unpunished then it is the prince who will go to prison. As Steve pointed out during last night’s seminar, if you are inhabited by someone else then you are no longer you.

Our enquiry touched on beliefs and values as markers of identity. As our beliefs and values can change, it seems that so too can our identity. Most adult people are not the same ‘person’ as they were at six. When I look at a photograph of myself as a twelve-year-old, I’m looking at almost another version of me. What links me to that younger version is a sense of having moved and grown on, in oak tree terms, a branching out. As we grow older we habitually distance ourselves from childhood. As Gordon memorably put it: “when I look back on my life, I remember me.”

This raises the intriguing question: who is the person that we remember? How can we remember ourselves when it is us doing the remembering? And if memory is such a strong indicator of consciousness and identity, as Locke held, then people who suffer from false memory syndrome are condemned to a false consciousness. Locke’s theory of identity led him to conclude that people could not be punished for crimes they could not remember committing. We wondered last night how it would be possible to tell whether someone was lying or not about what they remembered and the implications of this in the law courts. Locke does not consider that forgetting is also part of human identity. Indeed it could be argued that what we forget is perhaps as important to making us who we are as what we remember.


my horses enjoying the vegetable life

more on memory and forgetting here:


Last rights

26 07 2013


We are living in a social age. Never before have we had so many opportunities to connect with others. Daily through an ever-increasing range of media people enjoy making links. Even something as inconsequential as ticking a ‘like’ box is a show of approval, a tiny endorsement. A smiley face at the end of a directive email can act as a small encouraging cheer to help to brighten the trawl through the imperative inbox.

We are good at the social niceties. The sparkle dust of social media can be sprinkled around quite liberally, and it makes us feel as if we are in touch with each other. Social media taps into our innate need for connectivity, and simultaneously gets us off the hook of really taking the time and trouble to actually be with someone.

I’m not attacking social media. Blogs are a wonderful way of reaching out to people around the world, and I feel a thrill each time I discover a new reader in India or Iceland. Social media is part of the new world we have created, and it is going to take a while before we really understand the best ways to use it. For now, it still feels to me a little like a delightful new toy that we are slightly obsessed with – the old favourites: hand-written letters filled with news; calling each other for hours on the phone; long lunches that become supper, maybe they will make a comeback once we’ve had our digital fill.

This week as preparation for a series of social philosophy seminars I’ve been reading Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, the follow up book to Emotional Intelligence. As is often the case with books that make me think differently, I’ve noticed its central theme cropping up everywhere.

According to Goleman’s research, ‘neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain – and so the body – of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.’

In other words: we are always affected by other people, for good and for bad. Intuitively we know this. There are people who nourish us just with their presence, and people who bring on an anxious knot in the pit of our stomach. There are conversations that leave us feeling enlivened and valued and those that bring us down and leave us feeling worthless. There are touches that help us to soften and touches that cause us to bristle.

It is clear that we know how to be sociable- we can’t help it, being sociable is a large part of what makes us human – what matters more, though, is an attention to the quality of our social interactions. Of course this has wide implications, especially when it comes to caring for each other. It is not enough to build hospitals and fill them with patients and care staff. It is not enough to design care pathways, as the case in Liverpool has shown. Staff won’t care about their patients unless they feel a connection with them. If patients are presented to staff as out-of-date commodities on the conveyor belt of life they will be treated without respect, denied basic needs such as a sip of water to moisten parched mouths or fruit to take away the gnawing hunger pains. One man spoke of his father, a victim of such ‘care’ as looking like ‘someone out of a concentration camp.’

The question, as I see it, is not how can we get staff that look after the dying to care more, but how can we get them to connect with the other human beings around them? There should be daily reminders in all care homes that the most important thing you can give to someone is not your rushed efficiency, but your time and your attention, not your detachment, but your engagement.

Poignantly, the other evening I was given a lesson in taking the time to care by a group of horses. As intensely social animals, horses develop strong bonds with each other and help each other out. During these hot days my two horses will stand nose to tail, flicking flies from each other’s faces, or one will position himself so as to shade the other. They will eat from the same feed bowl and share a stable. In the paddock next to us is an ancient horse of forty or more, who has bonded with them, and comes into graze with them sometimes.

It is rare for horses to reach forty and the thin old horse is at the end of his life. He is half blind and deaf and unsteady on his legs. Some days when he gets down on the ground to roll, he groans deeply, and his head droops between his splayed legs. More than once I have stopped whatever I’ve been doing, convinced that I’m about to witness his last moments.

The old horse has appreciated the social time with his new young friends and when he returns to his paddock, he is more rested and a wonderful sense of peace passes through the whole herd. The other evening one of my horses spent a good forty minutes gently grooming the old horse, nuzzling and licking his poor old ribs with such tenderness it brought tears to my eyes. The reverence shown to that old horse was joyful to watch. When he returned to his paddock, he felt so light he was almost weightless. Instead of his usual deep groans, he gave a long relieved sigh.

If it is so natural for other social species to care for their elderly, why I wonder is it so difficult for us?

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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