Lessons My Horses Taught Me

Horse, Rider and caption, "Things My Horse Taught Me..."
Who and what we love defines who we are without us even being aware of it.

People who know me well know that I have always had an enduring “thing” for horses. They’re inherently beautiful in motion, even the ones with objectively imperfect hocks, with “unnaturally” high withers or with thin, scraggly manes that need to be roached, rather than grown out. I love feeding and grooming horses, picking out their hooves and yes, even cleaning their stalls. For years, horses, along with surfing were as close to obsessions as I get.

I haven’t always had horses & I don’t right now. I literally can’t afford them, never mind not having a place to keep them, here in Orange County, California. But the days when the beginning and ending of every day revolved around my horses are still vivid in my memory. There is something inherently satisfying about entering the barn first thing in the morning, just as the sun is rising to find your horse(s) heads craned out of their stall, bobbing as your approach.

I know what you’re thinking. Horses are nothing if not masters of associative learning. They’d learned to associate my approach in the early morning with a flake of hay and a generous helping of Omolene 200. They were just hungry, which is why Ran and Breeze always bobbed their heads at me when I entered the barn.

Admittedly, it’s probably just wishful thinking, but it always felt to me like it went beyond that. Breeze, my Appaloosa mare, for example, would invariably attempt to steal my hat when I entered her stall. Maybe she was just bored and found the game a distraction. Except she never did that with anyone else when my absence required me to find someone to fill in for me. I know because I asked. And when I let trusted friends ride her, she’d never crane her neck around to nibble gently on their jean rivets, as they picked out her hooves. She did that with me, regularly.

And maybe it was just anticipation of sharing a beer with me (Ran-Man LOVED beer) or an apple that would send him into a cavorting frenzy when I’d call his name while he was turned out. He’d amble up to the fence—treat or no treat—to renew the bond we shared. However either of them felt about me in their equine brains, I loved them both with that special affection that often grows up between horses and humans.

But as gratifying as these little interactions were—& whatever I or anyone else thought they meant—my biggest takeaways from being around horses was how much their communication is non-verbal. Over time, that recognition has spilled over into my interactions with humans.

To this day, I’m of the belief that one of the most important reasons to have and care for horses is to help teach us sensitivity—how we’re being received and to how we might be coming across to others. I have not and never will completely master either reading or controlling non-verbal communication. But I am certain that Ran, Breeze, and the other horses I worked with made me just a little kinder, more sensitive and a little better than I would otherwise have been.

Looking back on those days, I’ve come to believe that kindness, love and giving is perhaps best taught to us by our interactions with critters (or people) who so different from ourselves, that we can only relate to them meaningfully with conscious, continuous effort of heart. Perhaps it is that very effort that brings out the best of who we are, enabling us to see ourselves more clearly in others.

As 2022 winds down, I find myself thinking about those collective “others” who make up my immediate community—they who are part of my life and (more inclusively) that glorious, larger community that all life calls home.

Is it a function in part of my growing awareness of my own mortality? Of how much or little time I may have left to get me and my relationships right, whatever that means? Probably. There’s way more runway behind me now, than lies ahead.

I don’t know what life, however much I have left has in store for me. But acknowledging my own fallibility, I nevertheless hope to be true to my quiet pledge to myself for the coming year. As 2022 winds to a close, I pledge in 2023 to be kinder, within the limits of human frailty. Kinder with my eyes. Kinder with my words—even in the expression of sometimes painful truth. And my thoughts. Mostly especially in my thoughts. Namasté.

DB Sayers is a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel, former corporate trainer and two-time district manager turned full-time author with six books in print and two more on the way.

How Marriage Works-Or Doesn’t Time to Rethink?

Traditional Cathedral Wedding

Medium, one of the online magazines for whom I write, regularly publishes articles about marriage and relationships. The takes on marriage and relationships run the gamut, from what could only be described as “traditional,” to a proposed socio-political-financial re-think of what we have come to think of as marriage.

One take particular stuck in my mind. Written by Matt Sweetwood, the article was entitled,  “It’s Time to Change the Way Marriage Works.” It’s still there and I don’t think it’s behind the paywall, so you can read the whole post yourself. But summarizing imperfectly, Mr. Sweetwood opined that marriage as currently practiced was a failed institution, to which failure he proposed the following remedies.

  1. Marriage should have a two-year expiration date with an “automatic renewal option, provided both parties agreed within 60 days.
  2. The marriage contract should specify the division of assets and custody (as applicable). If you can’t agree, Mr. Sweetwood suggested, you shouldn’t get married in the first place.

This approach, Mr. Sweetwood concluded, would: “fix the fundamental issue with marriage, to wit: “…a lifetime contract that requires no performance.”

His post elicited comments and for anyone who knows me well, they will be equally unsurprised I was one of them. To my surprise, a gentleman commented on my comment, suggesting I should share some of my thoughts under a post of my own. Having more guts than brains, I took his suggestion. Here it is.

Marriage…what is it today?

Can we start by agreeing on what we mean by marriage? Because like so many other things, in the the 21st Century, it has become something of a moving target. To illustrate what I mean, consider the following definitions from my “go-to” dictionary.

Merriam-Webster’s Online dictionary defines marriage as: “The state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship as recognized by law.”

Alternatively, my older, hardbound Merriam-Webster dictionary (circa 1998) defines marriage as: “1 a: the state of being married. b: the mutual relation of husband and wife. c: the institution whereby men and women are joined in a special kind of social and legal dependence for the purpose of founding & maintaining a family.”

Traditionalists & free thinkers alike recognize the needle has moved with respect to marriage. After reflecting on both Mr. Sweetwood’s post and the responses it elicited, I caught myself wondering if we aren’t collectively chasing the butterflies while all the elephants get away? Is there maybe a deeper embedment at work that most of us miss with respect to habits of thought? 

 

Marriage and Myth.

Even if you’re not an anthropologist or historian, it the thought experiment of how partnered couples (and groupings of partnered couples) might have formed isn’t much of a struggle. procreation and protection. Given our relative individual frailty as a species & unusually long maturation process, procreation and protection seem like blinding flashes of the obvious, even setting aside any emotional component. But many of us can’t resist coloring the bunny.

Quote attributed to Plato on Love with hearts in the background

Plato seems an unlikely source for this flowery quote, but it serves to illustrate how deeply myth and magical thinking have become embedded in our notions of marriage. As empathetic humans, the foregoing quote, whoever was responsible carries a lot of truth in it, despite how ephemeral that truth proves in the harsh realities of life. Isn’t there more going on besides attachment? To a former organizational man, the answer seems obvious.

As societies grew more complex and we settled down around fixed crops rather than simply following game and gathering as we went, it’s easy to puzzle out how our fondness for stories and myth might have become interwoven with our pragmatic relationship options. Nor is it much of a reach to see how a relationship we now call “marriage” might become first expected, then codified to protect the social fabric.

Marriage...Fortress of the Establishment

Are not those myths (including the religious myths to which many of us fearfully cling) so ingrained in us now that we are simply blind to them? Or (alternatively) did priesthoods and “divine emperors” weaponize our vulnerabilities, exploiting until we began to believe our own propaganda? As a retired Marine officer, former corporate trainer, and sometime Board member, that’s been my experience.

Organizations irrespective of size are self-protective, not unlike the individuals who gave rise to them. Organized behavior almost certainly arose out of the notion of safety in numbers. But I’ve come to believe that over time, organized behavior evolved to serve a broader social purpose. Do we not now join organizations to leverage the power of many to ncrease our own?

Is this rather cynical interpretation open to alternative spin? Perhaps. But in many of our socio-religious, economic & political traditions, it’s hard to miss reason and change are amending our view of many of our most time-honored traditions and habits of thought. Habits at least in part responsible for the internecine strife of America’s culture wars. Maybe it’s time, as Mr. Sweetwood suggests in his post, to re-examine what we mean by marriage.

Marriage and Shifting Paradigms

The simpler societies in which our antecedents lived and died (often within walking distance of where they were born) were radically different than the society we have now. And if you’re anything like me, you may already be muttering under your breath, suggesting we really don’t have to go back very far to make that case.

And arguably, it not just the contextual realities of our times that have morphed. It’s both the paradigms that gave rise to marriage as we’ve traditionally thought of it and marriage itself. So in defense of the question Mr. Sweetwood raised, might we be better off acknowledging the validity of the author’s question, while also recognizing that traditional marriage still has a place?

Someone commented in response to Mr. Sweetwood’s post that social expectations have led us  to see marriage as what mature, productive members of society do, encouraging many to marry who (maybe) shouldn’t. If you’re one of those who have been single “too long,” I’m sure you can relate. Marriage has become a kind of default, and many those opting out will invariably characterized as “commitment-phobes,” irrespective of how well-reasoned their decision to opt out may be.

Marriage and the Ecosystem

With 7+ billion humans on this planet, with many, if not most apparently doing everything they can to render it uninhabitable, might not some of the reasons we used to marry now be counterproductive?

Yes, we need children, and yes, they tend to do best immersed in the love and nurturing traditional marriage often but not unfailingly facilitates. That said, if with fewer children overall, might we be (collectively) better at loving and nurturing them?

But if we remove children from the marriage context, what is the pivotal argument for marriage as we’re inclined to practice it? Perhaps marriage for the childless becomes an aesthetic choice with profound practical implications. Perhaps there’s valid place for Mr. Sweetwood’s modest proposal in some form.

Room, if you will, for more than one paradigm of love/passion/marriage - if we can all get over our own prejudices. And maybe taking the pressures of financial ruin and (in my opinion) misguided notion that marriage necessarily should be forever, maybe we can save a lot of unnecessary angst and heartbreak. Just speculating out loud…

D.B. Sayers is a decorated Marine officer, former corporate trainer/manager, and unredacted multi-genre author of thought-provoking contemporary fiction, whose characters are all dealing with the maelstrom of change that is our age.

Diversity…?

Nobody asked me, but...

Actually, in this case someone did…ask me, I mean.

Recently, someone posted a question on a forum I follow that struck me as being tragic while also being painfully emblematic of our time. I’m going to share it here along with an extended version of my response on that forum. The question was:

Is it true the US cannot escape from a violent racial clash as white-non-white power balance is changing?

On the surface of things, the answer to the question seemed almost laughably obvious. But after a moment of thought, I got our interlocutor’s point. I’m still disturbed that it’s something we need ask in the second decade of the 21st Century, but if we’re honest, the news in 2020 doesn’t favor a more optimistic view. That we have not yet embraced the essential kinship of us all is not simply a stain on our soul, it is a missed opportunity, even while it’s understandable, in light of human nature. 

I think it was my sophomore year in high school when one of my history teachers (who remains in my personal pantheon of heroes/heroines, btw) made an incredibly insightful observation that has stuck with me my entire life. She said,

“Nothing is but thinking makes it so.”

It was, she confessed, an adaptation of a line from Shakespear. Hamlet. (Act II, Scene 2.) At the time, I’d had my first rudimentary lessons in epistemology, so my first reaction was, “wait a minute, facts exist independent of our opinions. I was about to raise my hand and object when she spared me the embarrassment of outing myself as having taken her literally. 

“Often,” she went on to say “we construct an alternate reality that has consequences the echo in history, sometimes for centuries.”

Her observation wasn’t about race or racism, it was about the break-up of the feudal system in Europe during the 19th Century, post-Napoleon. Many of the nation-states emerging during that period did so, she pointed out, because of their shared perception that they were one people. They “perceived” themselves as having “kinship.” It was that belief, she said, as much as anything else, that shaped post Napoleonic Europe. And my subsequent experiences have led me to believe she was right.

My thoughtful history teacher’s point was that for those formative nations, the indispensable accomplice of their unity was their belief in it. In the United States, we are an incredibly (& in my opinion, beautifully diverse) collection of people unified by a commitment to the best version of ourselves.

It is a vision we often fail to realize, but at it’s best, it is underpinned by law and a delicate balance of citizenship & stewardship. It’s intellectual bedrock is the notion that all men and women are created equal, however poorly our stated philosophy manifests itself action. There’s a temptation if you’re aligned with this vision and its undeniable promise, to conclude it’s universally shared. Most of us know, better, unfortunately, especially men and women of color. Or any difference, for that matter.

Nothing is but thinking makes it so.

Recall my observation earlier, that my history teacher made my sophomore year in high school. We are what we think. If the photos following bother you, is it time to ask why? 

Love is not blind to difference...
It celebrates it...
with joy & conscious gratitude!

What does your visceral reaction to them say to you and (if you’re honest with yourself) about you? My own reaction to the question with which I began this post and my online answer to it was mixed, as I have already noted. Let me cop here and now to my own prejudices conscious and unconscious.

All of us have them to some degree, I suspect. If you’re like me, (read that white, middle class…ish but the first to go to actually graduate from college)  you grew up in a home that gave lip service to tolerance and respect. But (perhaps) also grew up with an unconscious, sense of entitlement. An “I’m white, so I must be right…” sense of certainty about things, though if asked, you might (as I would have) denied it with an indignance that proved the point.

It’s possible to overcome that…to abandon unconscious self-deception, but most of us need to have it brought to our attention, first. For me, I had to go halfway around the world to overcome it. It wasn’t a conscious pilgrimage. It came to me courtesy of Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (USMC). 

It was in Asia that I got to know you, first brothers and sisters of color and it was from you that I got my first lessons in an alternate view of “American Exceptionalism.” It took a little longer to appreciate the nuanced messages I was sending without meaning to. (I’m still struggling to learn, btw).

In the end, what we see or what happens to us is not what makes us who we are. It is what allow ourselves to think that determines our attitudes. It is the conscious choice to be better.

For me, the partial, imperfect solution to racial, ethnic or religious prejudice has not been tolerance. It has and remains a conscious effort to see the beauty in all of us. And the more I look the more beauty and merit I see.  

Someone about now is thinking, it’s going to take more than that. Yes, it is. It will take engagement, honesty and continual honest, self-examination. It will take conscious engagement, patience and a measure of painful honesty both with ourselves and about ourselves. It will require humility and vision and above all a reverence for the vision that was the basis for our nation.

Yes, that’s asking a lot, especially if you’re not already convinced of the necessity. But there is no alternative if we are to survive and thrive. We are one. Not some of us. Not the privileged few. We are all one. And in the final analysis, isn’t that a good thing. Isn’t it?