Horse sense for politics

Only by not resorting to violence can you develop a relationship built on trust and respect.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Wild horses spar at a sanctuary in Lantry, S.D.

The day of the midterm elections in the United States, I was reading a book that seemed the furthest thing from American politics. The story of how a man domesticated a wild mustang, after all, stirs the thought to contemplation of wide-open vistas and cowboy chaps, not control of the Senate. Yet as I read, one thought kept recurring to me: This is about more than horses.

“Shy Boy: The Horse That Came in from the Wild” is essentially a plea. Author Monty Roberts has spent his life trying to convince anyone who will listen that the old way of training horses – coercion and fear – is cruel and ineffective. His book shows how he taught a wild horse to take a saddle and rider in a few days solely by understanding its view of the world and working with it.

There’s a parable in that, I think. Yes, humans are not horses. But what is the model of action we often see in politics today? I would argue that it is not many degrees removed from the old-school ways of breaking a horse. When we can’t persuade others of our view, politics can become not an open hand, but a whip.  

In some cases, this is breaking through into actual violence. But more often, I would argue, it is a latent mental violence – the poison of intolerance, anger, impatience, frustration not overcome and bubbling below the surface. The question of politics today – from the US to the Philippines to Brazil to Germany – is this: What do we see as the most effective way to respond?

That’s where Mr. Roberts’s approach struck a chord for me. At the core of his philosophy is something that seems simple and logical but is actually hard. Only by not resorting to violence, he says, can you develop a relationship built on trust and respect. Then a horse becomes “a willing partner instead of your unwilling subject.”

How much of politics today is driven by the willingness to make those holding opposing views “unwilling subjects”? In his book “Non-Violent Resistance,” Mohandas Gandhi writes that the “belief that there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake.... Your reasoning is the same as saying that we can get a rose through planting a noxious weed.” 

Whatever mode of thought is present in the motive, he argues, will be present in the result. Martin Luther King Jr. makes the same points in “Strength to Love.” The only way to the “blessed community” is higher motives and actions, he writes: “We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

Roberts’s most difficult horse, which had suffered catastrophic trauma from previous handlers, nearly killed him. But he never had a thought of giving up, though it took him 80 days to “gentle” the horse. 

Each election is a reminder of the need for similar persistence in love for members of our own species.

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