Can horse people get along without engaging in collaboration, consultation and compassion?

Can Horse People Get Along? Tips from Six Blind Men and an Elephant

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It is possible for horse people to get along?

Horse people! We have a reputation for being a bit, well, crazy. But not just in the eccentric way. I mean in the way that we don’t get along very well with one another. It’s quite ironic that if anyone was going to understand our level of crazy, it would be one of our own.

Sadly, however, we are often thought of as know-it-alls who can’t get along. Even amongst a group of horse people united by a discipline, guru or philosophy, there will be disagreement over something and, chances are that it will be met with conflict rather than curiosity.

This is, of course, hardly surprising. If your way of doing things has given you great results, it is only natural that you want to share your way with others…

The trouble is that they might be trying to do the same, with the same good intentions, but with a different way. And so instead of listening to them and reconsidering your own views and practices, you become defensive.

And the more you have invested time and money into an approach, the more likely it is that you will staunchly defend it, possibly even suppressing doubts that try to surface or ignoring inconsistencies.

The one thing you think would unite crazy horse people is the love of the horse. But no. There are too many different ways of ‘loving’ horses to reach consensus here either (think of rugging, feeding, housing). In fact, it is because we want what is best for horses that we find ourselves in all states ranging from externalised conflict to internalised frustration.

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Think for a minute about rollkur (also known as hyperflexion). If we are not blaming riders and trainers, we blame judges for rewarding overbent horses with high marks. We blame stewards for not enforcing rules.

We want our horses to be happy and healthy and we want our sport to be respected. But do we really want a judge to suggest that they are not?

We complain that the same judge who rewarded another rider for unethical riding dared to suggest we are too unbalanced/uncoordinated/old/overweight etc., to ride our horse, that our horse is too old/skinny/unhappy/unsound etc., to be ridden or any other horrible comment you would be mortified to have directed at you.

So – for the sake of horses – how on earth are all the people supposed to get along? In this article, I take some pointers about consultation, collaboration and compassion from an ancient parable about six blind men and an elephant.

Various versions exist of The Blind Men and the Elephant but there is a well known version by John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887)1:

The tale of Six Blind men and an Elephant

It was six men of Indostan,   

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, -”Ho! what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ‘tis mighty clear,

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!”

The poem goes on to describe how the remaining four men each feel various parts of the elephant, likening it in turn to a snake (the trunk), a tree (the leg), a fan (the ear), and a rope (the tail).  The men then have an argument about what the elephant is like. However, as Saxe states, each man was “partly in the right, And all were in the wrong”.  None of them had the final answer on what an elephant is.

The moral of the tale is revealed in the closing lines:

“so oft in theologic wars/ The disputants…Rail on in utter ignorance/ Of what each other mean; And prate about an elephant/ Not one of them has seen!”.

It is not so difficult to replace the elephant with a horse, the true nature of which riders, trainers, vets, ethologists, punters, jockeys, breeders and advocates can all argue over with equal conviction.

It is also easy to replace the elephant with a horse-related issue such as brumby management, horse slaughter for human consumption, laminitis interventions, training techniques, shoeing, jumps racing, etc.

But what exactly can we take from the parable of the blind men and an elephant to help us understand the bigger picture and improve our horse’s lives which requires getting along with one another?

The blind men give us some tips for consultation, compassion and collaboration. It might help to think of a horse-related issue about which you feel passionate and get frustrated when others disagree.

As you read, keep your issue in mind and relate it to the following points.

Consultation

Have you consulted everyone? The more views you can add, the better your picture will be. Farriers, veterinarians, nutritionists, trainers, ecologists, locals, activists, can all contribute to the same discussion and provide different perspectives. Try to delay coming to a conclusion, making a decision or acting on your own opinion until you have considered all the possible perspectives.

Have you involved the very group you expect will have a different view to you? They could hold the missing piece of the puzzle, or you might be surprised to find out they weren’t what you expected. It’s not so much about seeking an answer from them, but how their perspective or knowledge informs your understanding of the issue at hand.

Avoid polarising a debate into right versus wrong. Sometimes, our fear of being wrong is the very thing that stops us from learning, being better and doing better.

Collaboration

Right and wrong does not have to be an either/or binary. Just because your opinion differs from someone else’s does not mean they are wrong and you are right (or vice versa). You may both be wrong or both be right.

Be aware that the human urge to be right is fundamental to feeling safe and OK in the world. Feeling wrong can be deeply uncomfortable for us. No one wants to think that they have done or have been doing the wrong thing by their horse. However, trying to remove that discomfort by immediately defending or justifying our actions, can lead us to cling to unhelpful behaviours and beliefs. Give yourself and others permission to be wrong and to change. It is OK for you to be wrong because these are just pieces of a much larger puzzle.

Appreciate that most (if not all things) are dynamic. The situation over which we have opinions changes, as does our understanding, so we SHOULD change our opinions, practices and behaviours over time. We are – as reality TV never fails to remind us – on a journey.

Compassion

The blind men had much to learn from one another’s opinion of the elephant. When you find someone giving you advice that you resist, ask yourself if your resistance comes from how the advice makes you feel. It may make you feel uncomfortable, unheard, misunderstood, shameful and all of those horrible things. That doesn’t necessarily reflect what they think. Do yourself a favour and make it about your horse – not you.

Assuming the best of intentions is the best way to go. And it works even better both ways. Assume the best intentions of the person disagreeing with you. Assume the best intentions of the person sharing their opinion.

Opinions are always best received when they are solicited, but when it comes to serious issues like horse welfare, that is not always possible. Finding common ground is one way to reduce outright conflict. Make it about the horse, not the person.

Now, all of this elephant thinking has its limits. Those with a social science leaning are fairly comfortable with the idea of multiple truths. Those with a more natural science leaning are forever in search of the one single truth they believe can be found2.

Nonetheless, there are times when we need to get together and decide what is right and wrong. Cruelty and welfare are such instances, although we know from the brumby debate that even horse welfare is open to interpretation, which is why the blind men have so much to teach us.

Consultation, collaboration and compassion are often easier explained than practiced and whilst I am under no illusion that we can all get along, I’m sure we can all get along better.

This is where it can be useful to approach the horse as if it were an elephant, with the same curiosity and open-mindedness.

It is important to be curious about our fellow horse people too. Just be sure that in your efforts to get all the different views on horses or a better understanding of other humans, you provide opportunities for them to reveal their own opinions and contribute equally to the discussion.

Acknowledgement

The parable of the elephant and the blind man was first brought to my attention when I attended a three day Future Search Workshop in Philadelphia in 2017, run by Sandra Janoff and made possible with the generous support of friend and colleague Verna Blewett (who is more comfortable with camels than horses).

Future Search meetings are designed to encourage participants to explore ‘the whole elephant’ before they address just one part of the system.

For more information on this collaborative approach to organisational change, please see: https://futuresearch.net/resources/booksandvideos/

References:

  1. The full text of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’ by Saxe can be found on Wikipedia
  2. Apples and Oranges, by Dr Kirrilly Thompson was published in the July-August 2019 issue of Horses and People magazine.

This article appeared in the July-August 2020 issue of Horses and People Magazine.

Kirrilly Thompson PhD (Social Sciences)
Dr Kirrilly Thompson

Kirrilly Thompson, PhD, is Participation Manager at Pony Club Australia, Vice Chair of the Horse Federation of SA and a freelance qualitative research consultant. She has more than a decade of experience as an equestrian social scientist and has published over 100 journal articles, chapters and industry reports. Together with Lynda Birke, she is co-author of the book (Un)Stable Relations: Horses, Humans and Social Agency (Routledge Human-Animal Studies Series) which considers the role of horses in human-horse relations.

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