Opinion

How Do We Talk About Politics at the Barn?

An essay on the Horses of Upper Wacker

©Liz Lemon/Flickr CC

“What if what we experience close up is real, and what we hear on the news from the mouths of those jockeying for power needs to be questioned? It is not easy to hate close up.”

—Brene Brown

The sorrel’s coat glittered under my fingers as I scratched his neck. Reaching over the horse’s chest and then up again towards his ears I searched, like many horse-crazy people do, for that itchy spot that once scratched would make him lean into my hand with satisfaction.

“What are the second reins for?” I asked the police officer on his back.

“Extra breaks,” he replied with a grin.

This man, and the men on the horses around him, were a stocky group, strong and capable. Each sat with that strange heels down, straight-backed slouch of those who spend a lot of time in the saddle.

I admired the group’s wide calf boots, envious of how perfectly they fit after my own fruitless trips to the tack shop where nothing did.

“Where did you find your boots?” I asked, explaining my wide-calf dilemma.

Two other officers joined in, and the three men rattled off names of boot makers as if I were in a circle of riders at a horse show lunch truck.

Happily, I listened, adjusting my bag at my hip. The bag was heavy. That January day was unseasonably warm and my winter coat and my lunch were stuffed inside. A poster board rolled up in the bag also tapped against my elbow. Inside it read an Abigail Adams quote: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion.”

Behind me, 250,000 people paraded across Chicago’s Upper Wacker Drive—chants and protest signs streaming past.

Behind that line of men on horseback, the cylindrical glass floors of Trump Tower reached 98 stories high.

Many other people more powerful and more eloquent than me have written about the 2017 Women’s March and the inauguration of President Trump the day before. They have written about the millions of people who attended and the events’ flaws and virtues and the many meanings those two days held.

Those police officers and I represented two opposing sides: I was the disruptor, and those men maintained the a status quo. If we merely saw the black and white world we have often been told to see, we should have been against each other. However, my clearest memory of that day was how much those men and I had in common.

Since then, I have been trying to figure out how to write about horses and politics. I’ve thrown away stacks of misguided ranting garbage and lost hour after hour to the vacuum of research. It was as if I too couldn’t crawl out of the crack between liberal and conservative.

I have also beaten my head against my desk trying to understand why it is that sometimes my relationships with fellow equestrians stayed steadfast even though we disagree, while with others, these same disagreements were an acid that corroded the relationship until there was nothing left of it.

During the last year a few truth keep rearing their heads.

One is that horses and the equestrian industry will always be impacted by history and politics. Even if it is easier to think of our barns and our pastures and our tack rooms and our arenas as untouchable bubbles, this is simply not the case. Every breed, discipline and rider has been touched and affected by policy and identity, and everyone will be touched and affected again.

The other thing I have learned is that listening to those who think differently than us is hard. Just as horses are biologically programmed to run away from a Snickers bar wrapper caught in the wind because it moves like a predator, the human species is evolutionarily formatted to react negatively to ideas that scrape against our beliefs.

In fact, there is even a part of our brain that designed to do this—it is called the amygdala. We create a set of core beliefs to protect ourselves. Originally, a core belief was something like lions will eat us avoid them. Now it is more based on ideological or political perspectives. If a fact or figure doesn’t consigned with that core belief the amygdala makes us react as if we were getting attacked by a lion.

However, like horses that learn to quietly trot over a tarp folding in on itself, we can learn to listen to each other. If we are going to make it through all of the mess, that skill is essential. As I read and wrote and threw out, I knew I wanted to learn how to listen.

To help me do that, I discovered that I had to understand that the people I disagree with probably had a different hierarchy of moral values than I did. This went beyond just the talking points of our beliefs but looked at our core ideals and even our personality types. Not only did this understanding give me a sense of who people were politically, but also who they were as horsemen.

The work of social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Robb Willer are helping us understand why we think differently and how we can do a better job of talking and listening to one another. There are six primary moral values for both liberals and conservatives. How we rank these six values often shows which way we usually vote or interact with the world.

Rank the following from most to least important based on your worldview. Then ask your friends both in the barn and out to do it too. When I have done it, it was funny how even when our lists weren’t alike we were able to talk about them without punching each other.

Compassion and Protection:

For, many compassion is at the very core of being a good equestrian. It is defined as concern for those less fortunate, and it dictates what we should do help the less fortunate. As equestrians, compassion is often illustrated by what we choose to do with a horse that is too lame to be ridden anymore. Do we see the horse as a pet or as livestock?

Protection is usually the more liberal of the two ideas and typically refers to how we, as a collective group, take care of the vulnerable population. Conservatives still value protection, but often believe it is something we should care about on an individual level.

Fairness and Equality:

How important is it we are all treated fairly? Is justice an essential part of a well-run society? Is it vital that we make sure that everyone gets an equal shot at a good life? Those who answer yes to these questions with a firm yes, rank fairness high on their list of moral values.

Both liberals and conservatives value fairness at about the same rate. However, liberals usually rank equality higher than the traits below. Equality is also a divide in horse training methodologies as well. I have also met equestrians who believe that their horse is a partner and that the act must be equal while others believe that the rider must be the leader.

Paulina Tufvesson a liberty trainer from Sweden is a good example of a trainer who would rank fairness and equality high on her list of moral principles. She often writes about how much she values a horse’s agency over a situation and then trains the horse accordingly.

Purity and Faith:

Those who put purity and faith on the top of their list of moral values are often deeply religious. Spirituality is an essential way of seeing the world. They often follow that religion or belief structure in a very specific way, with relatively strict rules. Tradition is also an essential part of this value. They value an uncomplicated and pure way of living.

Equestrians that value purity and faith often value a strict breed or discipline standard, and feel deeply connected to the history and age-old practices that go along with that breed or discipline. Conservatives usually value this higher than liberals.

Authority and Order:

Authority and order are important to those who see great value in strong leaders and like a lot of structure. They find comfort in routine and like things neat and tidy. Those who value authority and order often see the essentialness of the military and value those in power as important working parts of life.

We will notice this in our barns when we see those who value a perfectly organized tack rooms or those with a very specific schedule. Those who value authority and order are usually more conservative.

Creativity and Expression:

While creativity and expression often symbolize how an individual views the arts, it is also a way an individual may choose to live their lives. Those who value creativity and expression, find great value in having lives that are their own and not completely dictated by the trends and norms of society at large. Creativity and expression is also usually a more liberal value.

Loyalty and Patriotism:

When we talk about Patriotism on horseback, we can almost feel the flag streaming behind a galloping horse. Conservatives often place this higher on their list of moral ideals than liberals do. Loyalty and patriotism are usually deeply rooted in the sense of duty and honor and pride in one’s country. Those who value loyalty often feel a deep connection to things like their neighborhood, church, workplace, or cultural identity.

So, what do we do with this information?

Those of us who have spent time around horses understand that just because something worked for one horse, doesn’t mean it’s going work for another. The same thing also applies to people when we disagree on something. The problem that we often have when we talk about hard topics is that we try to explain it as if the other person were a reflection of ourselves. Robb Willer argues that instead, we should try to explain it ways that applies to the moral values of the person we are talking to.

It is also easier to have those hard even painful conversations—about race, class, and our divided world—if we first develop respect and even share a little joy like bragging over a good pair of boots. It is only then up close that we can listen without just leaning into our tired old talking points.

“We are like Scalia and Ginsberg,” I texed my best cowgirl friend on afternoon.

I had just read that Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Chief Justice Antonin Scalia were best friends. Chief Justice Ginsberg had even written the introduction to his biography. These two chief justices had stood completely against each other politically, but their friendship was legendary.

My cowgirl friend is conservative. I, as you have probably guessed, am not. She is one of those gifted horse people that can ride just about anything. With horses, she exhibits, grit and humor and honesty.

My life is more vibrant because she is a part of it. We have been beside each other through the loss and joy, and through a challenging and changing world. She was even there to see me get my hood for my Master’s degree.

This cowgirl and I have had frank conversations about politics, religion, and work. It always strikes me how carefully she listens to my side seeking to better understand it. She makes me strive to do the same for her.

It is because of her and because of those cops on that bright winter day that I think that we can learn to get up close. Because of them I think we can learn to listen and understand. We can bridge, the often-unspoken divide at our horse shows, our boarding barns and in all other equine spaces. There are many hard truths to face ahead of us, so let us find the courage to speak and let us find the curiosity and compassion to listen.