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.





What the horse knows No: 2

5 03 2017

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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.





What the horse knows No: 1

26 02 2017

dsc_0315Ready for Resilience: Sheranni in action.

Life lesson No: 1: Resilience

There was nothing out of the ordinary about this Sunday. It was drizzling and the ponies were waiting for their feed on one side of the field while the horses were on the other side. Then I noticed Dragonfly waiting right up against the gate and, unusually, Sheranni, standing in the middle of the field. Further up, the hay bale had collapsed on its side. As I looked over, I sensed that something was wrong. Sheranni’s rug was gone and his head was low. Instinctively I scanned his body and saw a dark patch on the top of one of his hind legs. When I reached him I was already looking for further injuries.

The damage looked pretty extreme – long gashes and slashes down the inside of both hind legs, and a deep cut on his fetlock. Bloodied and wounded as Sheranni was, he lifted his head and called to me in recognition, but did not move. Trying to stifle my panic, I realised what had happened; he had caught his rug in the galvanised metal feeder around the bale and had tried to free himself by dragging it, probably at high speed, down the field.

Everything became very clear and simple. I needed to see if Sheranni could move and I needed to call the vet. Walking might be easier for him if I brought down his food. As I turned to go, Sheranni began, painfully and haltingly, to follow me. With relief, I saw that he could bear weight on his ambushed leg, which meant that it was probably not broken.

The vet acted swiftly. He was loading the syringe as soon as he left his vehicle, not stopping to put on a coat against what was by now heavy rain. Sheranni took two ten-inch needles without flinching and fulsome praise for his stoicism and co-operation. After handing me an industrial-sized bottle of antibiotic, a dozen painkilling sachets and advice to keep Sheranni moving, the vet left.

Over the next week, I relived the accident and lay awake at night imagining that I was entangled in the feeder. I was weepy and forgetful. I felt oddly bereaved. Each morning and evening as I bathed Sheranni’s wounds with salt dissolved in boiling water, I was grateful and relieved that he was still standing. The accident showed me more than anything how much I value him and how important he is to the work we do. Each day I noticed some small improvement. Even so, I still thought that he would take months to recover, and need my careful nursing for a long time. I projected his journey to healing into the future, imagining all sorts of scenarios and setbacks. Infections, chronic lameness, post-traumatic shock, I went through them all.

Sheranni showed me something else that is easy to forget under the pressure we so often feel to do something when things go wrong. He showed me how to prepare for recovery. After the accident, he took the day off and stayed quietly with his herd members who gathered around him. His favourite mare Bella nosed his wounds and breathed gently over his injuries. Tinker, who had become quite excitable, was moved in with the goats. Watching their active concern, the feeling I got was something like: this is unusual and we can tell that you are not yourself, so we will stay close until you feel better.

As the days and weeks have passed, Sheranni has got better and better. He is healing. Within ten days of the accident, he was back to work with people. His wounds are less livid and he is sound in body and mind. His resilience is remarkable. Such an accident could so easily traumatise a horse. I took longer to recover emotionally than he did. Now, I’m able to reflect on what happened, I think that he has overcome this experience because he is ready for resilience. As a strong, powerful herd leader, he is built for survival and that is as much his character as his physical status.

Sheranni got through this because he has courage and determination and is cool in a crisis. He’s been called Iron Man and James Bond. He’s the kind of horse Napoleon liked to ride into battle. The lesson for me is to recognise that resilience for him is innate. Once I stopped the all too human compulsion to make a catastrophe out of an accident, I caught a glimpse of my own inner resilience too, waiting to work with me to truly help him out. He continues to inspire me in ways I never thought possible.





Body Talk

25 10 2016

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Goats know about presence. An irritated goat lifts her chest, arches her neck, stiffens her gaze and may tip her horns toward the source of irritation. An irate goat tucks her chin to her chest and charges with her forehead, horns angled to wound. She might also stomp with both front feet and grunt. Get on the wrong side of a goat and she will use persuasively powerful body language to insist that you change your mind.

When she is not sleeping in the sun, staring at the feed shed or snatching blackberries from the brambles, the life of a goat is pretty much taken up with power, influence and control. Observing Betty, as I do most days, and her companion Bill, I’m often amused by the sheer physical energy they will display when riled. ‘Back off’ in goat language means feet planted and head held high. What’s interesting is that ‘back off’ in human language also amounts to pretty much the same thing. We talk of ‘standing our ground’ when we want to get our point across and it turns out that a simple occupation of space can be far more effective than a strongly worded argument.

Presence is now a subject for serious academic study. Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy’s TED talk

 how our body language shapes behaviour has been viewed by millions and her ideas have been shared by individuals and in colleges, schools, sports teams and businesses. Amy Cuddy showed how adopting power poses including the dynamic Wonder Woman hands on hips pose alters our thinking and improves performance. Her research shows that just a couple of minutes adopting this expansive pose especially before a stressful situation such as an audition or job interview is enough to prime the body to feel strong, grounded and present. On the other hand, collapsing the body by hunching over a device (labelled the ihunch or text neck) has the opposite effect. Constricting body language, it appears, limits our ability to think clearly, act decisively and even has an impact on working memory.

According to Cuddy: ‘The Body shapes the mind, and the mind shapes behaviour. But the body also directs itself.’ In her book Presence, Cuddy tells the story of how she nearly missed out on an academic career after a car accident left her with a devastating brain injury. After months of physical and cognitive therapy, she was told that she shouldn’t expect to finish college. She ‘never in a million years’ expected to become a Harvard professor. ‘I just wanted to make it through each week without losing hope. To make it through a class without thinking about dropping out…I had no concrete goal in mind. I just wanted to feel a bit more like myself, a bit sharper, a bit less like I was watching from inside a glass bubble and a bit more like a participant in what was happening.’

As children, we participate in the world naturally, partly because we don’t find it nearly as difficult to fully inhabit our bodies as we do when we eventually become adults. Children walk, run, climb, swim, dig around and throw things with much less effort and deliberation than their more self-aware adult selves. As adults, we are generally more careful and less spontaneous with our physical movements. For example, it is rare for a grown man to throw himself on the floor of a supermarket and demand a chocolate bar, even when he is desperately hungry, or lift his legs and swing between the arms of two indulgent friends just for the fun of it.

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed that the world is more problematic for adults because grown-ups mostly have to take into consideration other people’s perceptions. The child has ‘no knowledge of points of view. For him men are empty heads turned towards one single, self-evident world where everything takes place, even dreams, which are, he thinks, in his room, and even thinking, since it is not distinct from words.’

At some point children learn that they are separate from the world, and this separation creates distance and a point of view, coloured and shaped by many different experiences and influences. Instead of living within the world, fully enfolded in being in the world, adults become more detached from the world. Perhaps one of the many reasons why we enjoy watching children and animals at play is that this reminds us of what we have lost. Often as adults we must relearn how to fully experience the world and we often choose to do this through ‘play,’ physical and creative means such as sport, dance or music.

Merleau-Ponty reminds us that we experience the world primarily through our bodies. Indeed there would be no perceived world without our bodies to experience it. All our thoughts, perceptions and experiences are filtered through our senses, which are embodied. We don’t have to live in our heads all the time; we can recognise that the body gives us direct access to the world. Merleau-Ponty’s arguments are revitalising because philosophy and much of psychology have long been viewed as disciplines of the mind alone with the question of the body being side-lined. Philosophy in particular has found it hard to escape the straitjacket of thinking that regards minds as pure and bodies as messy.

Plato’s solution to the problem of the body was to claim that it corrupted the mind and needed to be controlled like an unruly horse needing the guiding hand of the charioteer of reason. The body was inferior because it couldn’t think in the abstract; the body couldn’t understand the nature of goodness. The body was simply the vehicle for the highest part of us: the indestructible soul, which would eventually be reborn with another body. In other words, we didn’t need to bother with the body because we could always get another one.

As he sat in his dressing gown in his Bavarian cabin one cold winter, French philosopher Descartes infamously separated mind and body through a process of elimination that reduced the fundamental part of all that makes us human to thinking itself. The body was cast off like a snakeskin, an inconvenient truth that Descartes chose to ignore, stepping over it on the way to the more scintillating ideas of the mind.

Merleau-Ponty returns the body to the human condition by reminding us that the body takes us through the world. We cannot navigate without it. We experience life through our bodies and what we come to know and understand is lived experience instead of reflections or abstractions of the intellect. If I understand him correctly, and his work is not easy to read: there is no little us inside our heads doing all the mental processing of our daily experience like a superfast computer delivering data. There is only us in the sitting room or the car or the bath. ‘Truth does not inhabit the inner man, or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.’

This means – I think – that the world is not a blank slate upon which we project our carefully-constructed human dreams, dramas and demands, but rather a living field of existence of which the body is an expression. Perhaps given these ideas, we could adjust our mind-set to allow more priority to our bodies as a way to make sense of the world. Maybe we could even use this strange way of thinking to build a stronger, more resilient, less anxious and self-doubting way of life. I’m hoping that the goats will be my daily reminder not to forget my own body and to power pose when necessary. Thank you Bill and Betty





Life models

5 03 2016

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Aristotle believed that spending time with children was necessary and one of the ways to lead a happy life. Children could bring out the best in people, he thought. They could teach adults patience and kindness and deliberation. Aristotle’s no- nonsense practical philosophy encouraged people to look for activities that were good for their own sake rather than as a means to an end. Time spent with children was good and the parent, guardian or teacher who recognised this would feel the satisfaction of a job well done. No other reward was necessary.

In my early days of teaching before targets took the fun out of the job, I spent many lessons weeping not in frustration, but with the kind of helpless laughter that only a classroom filled with thirteen-year-old boys can generate. Their glee and game-for-anything attitude inspired me to take risks. One class acted out their own comedy scenes from Twelfth Night in makeup and hastily improvised costumes and I will never forget the boy playing Malvolio rolling around on the floor, school trousers stuffed into his pulled-up socks, so breathless with trying not to laugh he could barely speak.

Playing to the boys’ natural sense of irony and wit and wanting to puncture the competitive corporate male school ethos as well as liven up a drab temporary space, I put up fairy lights, lugged an old-fashioned typewriter into the room and set another group the task of making Valentine cards from Henry V to Catherine, the tackier the better, with chocolate prizes for the most schmaltzy. They went mad with red velvet, pink pens and glitter. Some of the boys were so determined to outdo each other they wrote their love poems in French. The cleaners complained all week about the mess, but we had the best fun.

Those boys have gone through university by now and some may even have young children of their own. I wonder if they remember those lessons as I do? It was not so long ago, but it seems to belong to a more innocent time when there was no guilt attached in allowing pupils to play and improvise. Now that I have been so well schooled in lesson aims, agendas and learning objectives I know that were I to meet those classes all over again I would be a different sort of teacher: less spontaneous, perhaps, less experimental, less good-natured. More efficient, more measured, more professional. I wonder which teacher they would prefer?

I’m interested because few children forget their teachers. I still remember Miss Hayes, my teacher from infant school, who patiently showed me how to tie my shoe-laces again and again and ignored my embarrassment and frustration at not being able to tell the time. Miss Hayes was soft voiced, smiley and super efficient, which combination of virtues made her not only sensible but safe. I worshipped her. I loved my junior school and Sunday school teacher, too, Miss Smith because she took an interest in me and acted as something of an early mentor, gently drawing me out on my reading and my ideas. I even spent time at her home, unthinkable now.

My early teachers weren’t so interested in my fun, but they were interested in my welfare and my development. They became role models because of how they conducted themselves and I admired them for this. Miss Smith was tall and wore big square glasses and long wool skirts and flat shoes and she was the most sensible person in the universe. As a wobbly ten-year-old she was everything I needed in a teacher. She had weight and grace and dependability. She was a woman of virtuous character and I knew that I could trust her to show me who I was meant to be. For this is the real purpose of teaching, as Aristotle understood. This is education as it is supposed to be.

In ancient Greece, children absorbed knowledge from spending time with adults who had enough experience of life to explain things properly and clearly. The philosopher believed that children needed the right role models if they were to develop good character and that education was much more important than wealth. Our modern system of education with its emphasis on passing exams in order to achieve success in a well-paid career would make no sense to Aristotle. He believed that finding fulfilment is our life’s work, and if we are going to reach our potential we need to know where we want to go. I’m grateful to my early teachers for showing me the way.

 





But Hitler was a vegetarian

3 11 2015

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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.





Wonder work

19 10 2015

Belinda with Sheranni

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.

Elen with Dragonfly

Imagine being seven again and finding wonder in every encounter.