Thursday, December 30, 2010

I'll Meet You There

People who look through keyholes are apt to get the idea that most things are keyhole shaped. ~Author Unknown

What we see depends mainly on what we look for. ~John Lubbock

What seems like a lifetime ago I pursued my Masters Degree in English Philology at the University of Helsinki. An avid reader since my childhood I had always wondered if my experience of a story was the same experience for every person who read that particular story, no matter where they lived and who they were. Could someone in Africa read Bronte's Wuthering Heights and feel the same way I did?

Common sense told me that each reader would interpret the story from their own backdrop, but what did science say? As it turned out, empirical studies on reader interpretation were extremely rare. This finding merely made me want to know more. So - true to my nature - I decided to embark on my own journey on discovering the answer. The subject of my final thesis was " Literary interpretation and cultural context: An empirical study on women readers from Finland and the United States."

The results were intriguing. In a nutshell, it was possible for readers from two different countries to read the same story (by Raymond Carver, if someone is interested) but experience it completely differently. It was not what happened in the story that was important, it was what people perceived happened that mattered.

And perception is reality.

About a year back I visited a new barn in the area where I live. I sort of found myself there by accident, as I was riding in someone else's car and they wanted to stop and see how the construction at the site was coming along. I had heard people talking about the new place and was fairly sure it was not anything I would be interested in. I was right. Gorgeous as it was, it was just another place humans could trap their horses. The person who had taken me there- let's call her Kathryn- had a completely different view.

"Wow, isn't it gorgeous," she gasped as she looked at the vaulted ceiling, the horse solarium, the pristine tack room, the double sized indoor arena adjacent to the stable. "What horse would not want to live here?"

I could think of several horses.

Kathryn's reaction was a classic example of anthropomorphism i.e. assigning human characteristics to animals and other non-human agents. She was impressed with the lighting in the barn, the large stalls and wide aisles, the warm tack room and the fact that you could walk your horse from the barn to the indoor arena without having to outside - all details a human would appreciate. But a horse? I don't think so. If horses could choose, they would rather live outside in a herd than stay in a cozy (from the human point of view) stable. In fact, many of my friends whose horses live in a place where they can go inside or outside as they please, report that their horse will usually choose to be outside in the elements, even when the weather is less than desirable.

I tried to share my view with Kathryn. She looked at me like I was a crazy person. Which I possibly was - in her world.

But again, perception is reality. Here we were looking at the same thing, but not seeing the same thing. What she thought was horse paradise looked to me like another horse prison. Our horse care belief systems obviously didn't match, not even close. I could certainly argue my point of view (and she could argue hers), but in the end it would have made little difference - we were looking at the same thing through two different lenses. To change either one of our perceptions would have required a significant personal shift in ideology - an impossibility at that time.

Horses more than any other domestic animal seem to be removed from the animal world (dogs do get their fair share of anthropomorphism as well). This fact is perhaps one of the reasons people eventually run into behavioral problems with their horses. Paul Mc Greevy and Andrew McLean write in their newest book Equitation Science that "we might say that a horse is naughty, but we must question whether our notion of human naughtiness can possible apply to horses. Perhaps the naughty horse is merely confused? The problem that then arises is what are we going to do about it? Do we have the right to punish the naughty horse? Clearly, there can be serious welfare problems in attributing human characteristics to horses because of the consequences for them."

We anthropomorphize horses because it works so well. It is convenient for humans to keep them in their stalls covered with blankets and let them out only in solitude and when the weather conditions are great. That is how we would like to live, were we horses. I now believe that this is not what horses want, but once upon a time I was out there at the barn making sure my horse had "everything it could possibly want" (of which, in hindsight, it cared not an inkling about).
For example, I used to be a stickler about keeping my horses clean, because clean horses were happy horses. Thanks to Little Love I have since changed to see this matter differently, but I am aware that this belief lives strong among most equestrians (including her owner). And not just horse people, but ordinary people who know nothing about horses, too. If you took a group of non-equestrians to two separate barns, one where the horses were running around a semi-muddy field in a heard and another where horses were stalled with blankets covering their short, clipped coats, which one do you think the majority would see as humane? I'm fairly confident when I say they would choose the latter barn.

Contained, clean, warm and dry - aren't those the four attributes that make a horse (owner) happy?

I am doing my best to rid myself of the "anthropomorphic lens". Horse are horses are horses. How could I ever think they were something else? How can anyone else still think that? So here I am, as usual, wanting to make sure everyone around me sees the world the way I do. And, if they don't, make sure to judge them for what they are or aren't. But -as I said in an earlier post this month, I am trying to exercise compassion and understanding. I think I need to try harder, we all do. We should all want to understand why and how we can have arguments over things like animal welfare, childrearing, horse training - all subjects I find quite black and white, but am starting to discover have this grey area I cannot even see, having the wrong lens to work with.

My master's thesis proved that people from two relatively similar cultures could interpret an ambiguous short story differently. And culture was not the only thing that determined the differences in interpretation: age, religious background, level of education and previous reading experiences also played a significant role in how readers perceived certain characters and plot turns. My study was not extensive, but it was enough to convince me about the differences in literary interpretation. If written word can have so many meanings, isn't it obvious why we cannot agree on how to be with our horses?

Horse people, too, have different ethical standards, different views of the world. We each have our own individual life history that has shaped us to be who we are, to think the way we think and to value the things we value. We have a certain threshold for pain, for knowledge, for comfort, for courage. We have emotional baggage, psychological baggage and even physiological baggage. We have our own needs, hopes, dreams.

How could we ever look at an image and see the same image?

Perception is reality.

What is your reality? What is the lens through which you are looking at the world? Is this the reality you are comfortable with or would you like to open your eyes a little wider and discover another one, a new lens?

And if you are like me and want to show someone a piece of your reality, what would be the best approach? Perhaps when black and white seem too much of a contrast, it is best to meet in the grey matter?

~ K

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there. ~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Won't you come into the garden? I would like my roses to see you. ~Richard Brinsley Sheridan

PS. Can you see the baby in the picture?


  1. I could put my horses in the most beautiful barn in the world and they'd still resent me for shutting them in. I won't put my horses in a barn again but I can see why so many people are more comfortable doing that. In their eyes they are doing the best thing possible for their horses. Not using barns, blankets, horseshoes and grains are the abuses to them. It's too bad horses can't talk, they'd straighten us up really fast.

  2. Shelby in CaliforniaJanuary 2, 2011 at 8:45 AM

    The most amazing and misunderstood thing is, horses CAN talk. We just need to listen... not just with our ears and eyes but with our patience in observation. People generally want to do what is best for their horses, but if they (as Katariina so eloquently states...)have a different perception of what makes a horse happy from what horse ethology tells us, it's easy to see how humans can confuse the two. The current culture of the horse industry is about domination and control, methods that leave little room for observation of a horse in his natural state. I love that people are wanting to hear what horses have to say.

  3. Oh totally. Does anyone else find they don't really enjoy leafing through horsey catalogues any more?

  4. YES, June! Just two weeks ago I was looking at this catalogue and thought: "what am I doing, there is nothing in here for me." (actually, half of the stuff gave me anxiety).

    The thing about horses talking to us is so true, unfortunately most of the time they would need actual human speech to get through to their people, since those people aren't exactly in listening mode...

  5. Anthropomorphism hmmmmm....
    Dogs, hmmmmm....

    Ok- guilty as charged. I anthropomorphize my dog all the time! I swear sometimes she thinks she's a person (ha-ha)

    I actually started writing a post about Anthropomorphism on my blog, but it got so darned long -- I stopped. It's too wordy, so I need to go back over it and shorten it up a bit if I want to post it.

    I see Anthropomorphism as a double edged sword when it comes to working with horses.

    There are the obvious things like putting a horse in a "cozy" stall, with a "cozy" blanket, in a fancy barn...(because that's what we would want)

    -but then-

    I've also seen beginners being told not to anthropomorphize their horse by letting the horse walk all over them because they want to be "friends," and not hit the horse. I actually did see an instructor say this to a student once. I am sure the message was that horses are not humans, they are bigger then us, they get kicked & bitten by other horses, and therefore a slap from us is "nothing," and therefore it is okay for a human to hit them.

    I think the people that believe in this sort of thing are not realizing that it's not just the hitting that is the problem, but it's the intent behind it. When another horse kicks or bites, it is usually after several "warnings" first. When that kick does come, the horse knows EXACTLY what it was he did wrong and what he needs to do to prevent it in the future.

    Humans, on the other hand, often give no warning...AND they are expecting a horse to live by human rules (which are rarely understood in full by horses). What the human sees as being naughty may be just the horse saying he is uncomfortable...... and what is that same horse supposed to think when he is being punished for saying he is uncomfortable.

    Like you said, perception is key....and not just with people.

    Great post!

    P.S. That book you quoted, "Equine Science" sounds like a good one. I will have to check it out :)

  6. I think anthropomorphism per se is fine - it can take the form of ascribing to the horse things like cooperativeness, kindness, honesty, a sense of humor, the desire for self-direction, etc. Ascribing the desire for a couch and a blanket and re-runs of Star Trek, however, may not be so good.

    That's not so much anthropomorphism, though, as assuming the horse is just like you, without bothering to ask. The thing is, is to listen to the horse. If the horse seems to be kind, or cooperative, or making a joke, it probably is. If you just THINK the horse wants to lie on the couch because you do, it probably doesn't. But if you pay attention, and the horse actually seems to be saying: "Bring me some popcorn and the remote", then it may in fact be true.

    I think we have more of a problem with ANTI-anthropomorphism - the mindset that if you catch yourself thinking of the horse in human terms, you should shut down that line of thinking. Which is the mindset that leads to treating the horse as if it were a programmable robot.

    By the way, I DIDN'T notice the baby in the picture! Because I wasn't looking for it. So that's a good point. And it wasn't until I was looking for the - well, let's just call it - the baby in the horse, that I could see it.