When I tell people I teach philosophy and I also work with horses, they often ask whether there’s a connection. How do you get from philosophy to horses? I understand the link is not that obvious. Philosophy is an abstract indoor sport practised mostly by men in book-lined rooms. Horses, on the other hand, are physical creatures of the outdoors that require a lot of looking after mostly by women in muddy wellingtons. Indeed, it has taken me many years of practising philosophy and horsemanship side by side to properly see how the two connect. Once I made the connection, though, I began to see links everywhere, and that’s when life started to get really interesting.
Plato says that philosophy begins in wonder, and that was my starting point with horses. Early in my life I was drawn to horses because they were something to wonder about, to think about and dream about. The quality of my wondering about horses was very different to the quality of my wondering about dogs and other domestic animals, including the cats and rabbits and guinea pigs I grew up with. Horses enabled me to think and feel more deeply. Horses opened my mind to imaginative possibility, which changed as I developed and matured from someone who just wanted to ride horses to someone who considers horses as valuable teachers for humans. I recognise this opening as the beginning of an intense philosophical journey.
It’s tricky to talk about animals meaningfully. For some reason people get prickly about it. The usual defence mechanism is the charge of anthropomorphism. It is considered wrong to talk of animals as if they have human characteristics and human emotions, but as the philosopher Mary Midgley points out every new thing we meet has to be understood in human terms. We can’t invent a special language to discuss animals any more than we can invent a special language to discuss God. She notes that the concept of anthropomorphism is very old, and applied to early Christians who believed that God morphed into a human shape. The understanding of animals was added on to the end of the early definitions of the concept and is not really central, more of an afterthought.
As Midgley says ‘Anthropomorphism is a remarkable concept. It may be the only example of a notion invented solely for God, and then transferred unchanged to refer to animals.’ Nowadays the term is used quite forcefully against those who would like to open up the debate about our relationship with animals. It makes me think of how we humans like to have everything so neatly categorised: us in one box, animals in another.
Perhaps the reason is to maintain our superiority. We humans think we’re so special. We invented language and art and comedy. We invented science, sport and religion, but not necessarily in that order. We can climb mountains, visit the moon and design buildings that stagger the imagination. Let’s not forget the internet, the new wonder of the modern world. Our achievements are living proof of the genius that calls itself humanity.
Except that only a tiny bit of us is actually human. A little over one per cent of a human being is human. Think about it one point three per cent of you is responsible for your human achievements and for your human mistakes. One point three per cent got you to where you are today. The rest of you belongs to the chimpanzee.
We share an immune system with our closest relatives chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans, the structure of our blood proteins is the same and the circuits of our brains. We are much more similar to animals than we think.
Which brings me to horses. The limbic system in the mid-brain of a horse, (that’s the mammal bit) is nearly identical to the limbic system of the human brain. The Limbic system is responsible for social and emotional responses, as well as blood flow and heart rate. What is remarkable about horses is that they can mirror our emotions and ways of thinking back to us very accurately indeed. Horses are very good at showing us what we don’t want to know! Which is why they are such valuable teachers in the field of human development.
Animals are part of our continuing human story. Understanding animals can take us beyond anthropomorphism and into new arenas of thought and, yes, wonder. Over the past year of developing a social enterprise which connects socially isolated people to horses, I’ve been exploring this story and getting people to think of themselves more as social animals in order to develop wisdom, wonder and well-being in their lives. The stories they have shared with me have inspired and challenged me to think differently. New thinking always feels like a gift and this is one that I hope to share with you over the coming weeks and months.
Imagine being seven again and finding wonder in every encounter.