9/11 and the lessons of horses

If you want their cooperation, you can’t hurt them.

On September 21, 2001, ten days after the World Trade Center tragedy in downtown Manhattan, Alexandra Kurland posted her thoughts to her Clickryder List.

In it, she describes what horses teach us, about living in the world, and with one another. Here is what she had to say:

Tuesday, when all this was unfolding—was it only Tuesday? It’s hard to put something as ordinary as a name to that terrible day. Monday we were an innocent nation, children thinking we were safe and protected. The rest of the world might be filled with madness, but we considered ourselves to be an island, safe within our borders. Tuesday our innocence was blown away. Today we are part of the world. Our actions matter, and they come home to us, just as they come home to everyone else.

So Tuesday, in the midst of all of this, I had a blacksmith appointment. I always hold my horses for the farrier, an old habit that developed years ago with Peregrine’s mother. She was a wobbler, and she needed my help to keep her balance for the farrier. The custom has remained, though the need is no longer there. It gives me a chance to chat with my farrier, and to learn more about trimming feet.

Usually that’s what we talk about, but on this visit I got a gem about training. My farrier was telling me about another of his clients, an Indian who lives in the back woods of Massachusetts. This man was sharing some of his handling techniques with my farrier, showing him how he asks for a foot. In the course of their exchange he said: “If you want their cooperation, you can’t hurt them.”

Metaphors, that’s what our horses give us: metaphors and an understanding of how to get along in the world. “If you want their cooperation, you can’t hurt them.”

When I was little, I used to wonder at the news reports from abroad of people shouting their hatred of the US. Why were we so hated? I didn’t understand it. We were the nation that sent plane loads of food overseas to help with famine relief. We were the nation of Peace Corp volunteers. We were the nation of freedom that others flocked to. Why were we so hated? When I was six, I remember asking those questions. I couldn’t understand it. I still don’t understand it. How can any of us watching that terrible image of the plane slicing through the World Trade Center understand this kind of rage?

I live in a comfortable world. My horses enjoy a lifestyle that would anger many people. Everyday, the news is filled with images of people living in poverty and hunger, crowded into tiny shacks. And yet, my horses live a pampered life. Is this wrong? I don’t know. But what I do know is the lessons I learn from my horses are important. And I know that even small things matter. What we are doing here on this list, sharing our love of horses and our interest in clicker training, is not trivial, though when you look into the faces of the rescue workers, or the families desperate to find their loved ones, it can at times seem that way.

The lessons our horses give us are for the tomorrows that are coming. We need to remember the terrible cost of punishment. We need to understand that punishment always, always has negative side effects. Let us hope that those who are making the decisions now, understand that, and consider those consequences carefully. The effect of punishment is unpredictable. Let us hope they understand that, as well.

Our horses teach us that if you choose punishment, timing is everything. And they teach us that it must be delivered it in a decisive and effective manner. If you nag away with your punishment, you will desensitize your horse. That means you’ll have to hit your horse harder the next time, and harder still the time after that to have any effect. You may reach a point where your horse is so desensitized to pain that no amount of threat has any effect on him. Ask the owners of aggressive horses how unpredictable and terrifying their horses are. These horses have lost their fear. They will charge through any level of pain you can inflict.

That’s another metaphor for these events. Is that what we have created? It would seem so.

Humans want justice. Let us hope we also want solutions. In the days ahead there will be many voices crying out for vengeance. Those of us who train horses know that we must not get angry in response to our horses’ outbursts. Instead, we must get very quiet, and very clear. We must focus on what we want. We must find the one piece of good behavior in the midst of all their rage, and focus only on that. We must hold a clear image of what we want to create, and as we do, that image will take over. The rage will turn to interest, and then to cooperation, and finally to partnership.

Those of us who have trained difficult horses know this. We understand the truth of these lessons, and many of us have learned how to translate them into other areas of our lives. That’s why this is not trivial. I know our country is going to take punitive actions against the organizers of these terrible acts, but I hope we also remember to focus on what we ultimately want to create. It is up to us on these lists, through the internet, through our families and our community groups to focus on what we want to create. What kind of a world do we want to live in?

As you watch these terrible images flooding into our lives, step back from all of that. Go stand out in your horse’s field. Run your hands through his mane, and let him tell you that all is well. His father’s grandfather may have died on the battlefields of the Civil War, an innocent victim of that great tragedy, but he does not want vengeance. He lives in the now, not the past. Let his lessons help us shape a future where six-year-old children do not have to wonder why the world hates us.

About the Author

Alexandra Kurland is the author of Clicker Training for Your Horse and founder of The Clicker Center. She is also a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

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