The Blog

Horses and People: Who's Whispering?

The lore and the legend of the horse whisperer honors a whisper heard, not spoken. That all of us could learn to hear and understand horses better might matter to some more than others. That we might all learn to hear and understand one another better matters to us all.
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This column is undeniably a departure, and perhaps downright quirky. It derives from the juxtaposition of two seemingly quite unrelated things: writing for The Huffington Post, and acquiring a horse.

As advertised, rather unrelated at first blush. Wait for it!

Writing for The Huffington Post for many months now, I can't help but have noticed I have many adherents who provide commentary unfailingly supportive, and often quite illuminating. Please don't stop, and thank you.

I am equally aware of their counterparts, my detractors, who leave comments unfailingly critical and at times excoriating, although also potentially quite illuminating. In fact, if we are going to learn something important it is far more likely to be courtesy of someone with a different point of view. So I thank you, too. Most of you...

Among this latter group are those who have already started drafting their comments about this column, presumably: "more horse sh@# from Katz!"

In other words, there is the "assume someone with whom I am inclined to disagree is spouting drivel with which I am going to disagree, and just go ahead and beat the holiday rush and don't read the damn thing and disagree already" crowd. The shoot-first-and-never-ask-questions-you-don't-want-answered gang. I would worry about hurting their feelings, but they stopped reading long before now.

This is a recurrent theme, reprised most recently in response to my post about soda and regulation. Those who read the piece know that I argued for an alternative to regulation. Many of the most critical comments blasted me for espousing the very regulation I was arguing against.

Which leads back to my horse.

The archetype of the horse whisperer -- an alluring blend of aspiration and legend -- calls most particularly, no doubt, to those of us who love horses. It calls out to us about being better horse people, and indeed better people, than we tend to be.

But I believe it calls out to everyone. It hints at getting past noise and clutter, and finding truth. It hints at better understanding, better relationships, fewer unintended consequences. It is redolent with the kind of secrets we want shared with us, and reaching the reassuring bedrock of genuine reciprocity.

The horse whisperer message is enticing and compelling. And, based on years of close observation and reflection, I think it -- or at least the common perception of it -- is wrong. Altogether wrong. I believe getting this right has implications for how people treat people, and thus health -- and that it consequently resides, if barely, in my purview.

I am one of those people who love horses.

I grew up riding only occasionally, mostly out West despite living in the Northeast. Family vacations would often include some riding, and eventually evolved into a pack trip into the Grand Tetons for several days. On one occasion, my sister and I helped some cowboys round up horses loosed to roam what passes in the modern era for the open range -- riding, chasing, and turning at a full gallop.

From the moment I was near a horse, I felt affinity. And from having ridden rambunctiously and living uninjured to tell the tale, I inferred that I knew how to ride.

I did not. I knew how to stay on a horse -- but that's quite different.

I first learned that I didn't know how to ride years after my childhood adventures on horseback, and quite a few years ago. One of my co-workers, a lifelong equestrian, graciously invited me to ride her Thoroughbred show horse.

I accepted eagerly, and arrived at the ring expecting to impress. But almost immediately, Beth started fussing at me about everything I was doing wrong. I was tempted to get irritated -- I'd ridden in a round-up, for crying out loud! -- but it was her horse, so I forced myself to stay calm and try to do what she told me.

And when I did, it was a revelation. She was absolutely right about everything. When I did what she advised, I felt instantaneous reactions from the horse -- calmer, more balanced, more responsive. At its best, the feeling approximates telepathic communication.

As noted, that was quite a few years ago, and since -- I've learned to ride. I've had thousands of hours of lessons, participated in quite a few horse shows, filled the family mud room with ribbons, and of late, ridden "to the hounds" and gotten a horse of my own. I've spent a lot of time around horses, and horse people.

I've learned the world of horses is filled with rules of two kinds. There are rules about horses that actually matter when interacting with horses -- rules like those Beth first revealed to me. And then there are rules people make up so they can populate the scripture of their particular equestrian faith. These rules don't matter to horses, they just matter to people who hang around horses.

Every barn I've ever been in has rules of this latter kind. Ways of holding this, placing that, walking here, or standing there. Ways of washing, storing, tacking, organizing, and handling horses and the myriad contrivances associated with them. And since what one barn adamantly insists is the only right way, another barn emphatically tells you is wrong -- and neither based on anything other than the conviction handed down to them -- you know you are in the realm of rules for the sake of rules. Equestrian ideology.

Why do we generate communities of rules that are of no intrinsic value? Perhaps it's like joining a club, or even practicing a particular religion -- it provides a sense of belonging. Maybe people are afraid of being wrong, or of someone else being right -- and are thus adamant about the impossibility of either. In general, I'm quite convinced we are most emphatic and incapable of listening to other perspectives when we are least sure, least secure. The best-run barns I know have the fewest rules.

The horse whisperer archetype conveys the message that some people have a knack, almost mystical, for reaching these creatures. They "whisper" in some language horses speak. And that inspires the rest of us to wish we could do it too.

That message is wrong, because horse whisperers don't have some amazing ability to speak a whispered language horses understand. People who communicate uniquely well with these ~1500lb beasts are not speaking in mystical whispers; they are hearing whispers most of us ignore. They listen better than the rest of us. The horses are the ones whispering.

When important things go unheard or ignored, it invites misunderstanding, and all of the bad consequences that generally ensue. This is true with horses, and just as true with people.

People are hostile with us when they are afraid. Impatient with us when at the end of their tether. Defensive when worried about the tactics of our offense. And most adamant about what is true and false, right and wrong, when least sure. Least able to listen when most needing to do so.

We're all like this. But while we know the kinds of things that motivate our own most regrettable behavior, our capacity to allow for it in anyone else seems to be dwindling to nothing in a modern culture that values shouting -- and denigrates the whisper. The result is rampant misunderstanding, pernicious stress, and ubiquitous impasses from schoolyards to cyberspace to the halls of Congress that ensue when we drape around us an ideology impermeable to whispers.

Stress, and variations on the theme of mental strain, figure very prominently in the causal pathways of all of the maladies that most plague modern society. They figure prominently in the chronic diseases that justify my day job. And these factors are slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which, by and large, we hurl at one another. There are stressful factors in life beyond our control -- but overwhelmingly, our sources of the most acute, most insidious, must erosive stresses, are one another. (See "Edgeless.")

The common cause of our most implacable impasses is the disinclination to listen, the pre-emptive dismissal of all views we don't already hold. Repudiation of common ground, or middle path.

The lore and the legend of the horse whisperer honors a whisper heard, not spoken. That all of us could learn to hear and understand horses better might matter to some more than others. That we might all learn to hear and understand one another better matters to us all. Understanding fosters health; misunderstanding conspires against it.

There is, I think, a whole world of opportunity, understanding, and neglected solidarity -- just a whisper away.


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