Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horsemanship

Horse Plaque - Emerson Saying

The wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson is artfully engraved in cast stone: “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Nice indoors, as a garden stone accent piece, or on the barn wall. You can order this 8" square plaque from the Back In The Saddle On Line Catalog - Gifts and Apparel for Horse Lovers
Click here or on the illustration and find out more by typing in the item number - B70995, in their search box.


English Lit was not high among my favorite classes in high school but I thoroughly enjoyed the assignments to read several of the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I always intended to have a book of those essays for my own and after many ( many, many) years of procrastination I bought a his book of essays not long ago.

I enjoy them as much now as I did then.

Emerson didn't say much about horses. Of course in his day nearly every one was transported from place to place on the back of or behind one. Maybe somewhere in his writings he talks about horses - I'm not sure. But, in reading his essay "Compensation", I thought there's much about horsemanship here, even though Emerson doesn't mention horses specifically. It's a good essay for the horseman or horsewoman to read.

In Compensation, Emerson discusses the dualism of nature and the forces of equilibrium that in effect rule our lives. There are basic principles that we are either unaware of or choose to ignore in our daily pursuits. When we "go with the flow" (my words not Emerson's) we tend to be rewarded, when we don't, things come back to bite us.

Horses understand the laws of nature far better than we do. Being prey animals they aren't risk-takers. They're happier in the herd than being the "individual contributers" that we tend to prize so highly. To be an "average" horse is likely not shameful as far as the horse is concened, where for us to be satisfied with being "average" implies we have a bit of the "slacker" in us.

What comes out of all of this, is the reward granted (compensation given) in learning to live in harmony with the horse. The horse after all instinctively tries to maintain equilibrium. We also try when we're first learning horseback riding, but in general we end up doing things which upset the equilibrium which the horse has already established. Then we blame the horse!

We haven't yet learned to "go with the flow".

In halter training a foal we find that the best way to get it to initially follow a lead is to put a rope around it's hindquarters and gently tug, pushing the foal towards us. With this gentle pressure applied to its hindquarters, the foal yields to restore equilibrium.

If we try to pull the foal physically by the lead rope, it probably thinks it's being forced to heaven only knows where and it doesn't want to go there. Equilibrium is being upset and the horse isn't sure how to get back to normal except to resist.

What we've done is learned something - how to achieve equilibrium. Having taught the foal is almost a by-product of this exercise.

In the saddle a horse naturally yields to very slight pressure. We're the ones that have to learn that - not the horse. The horse is just reestablishing equilibrium by yielding to pressure, be it tension on a rein, pressure by a leg or a subtle shift in body weight.

In the round ring, the horse responds to what I like to think of as visual pressure. Our location and movement in the center of the ring influences the actions of the horse, even though there is no physical force exerted. Again, the horse is responding to this pressure to get the situation to where it "should be" - that is, equilibrium.

In Compensation, Emerson states that if we do something (e.g. train a horse) poorly, we end up with a poor result (e.g., a poorly trained horse) because we've messed up equilibrium and will suffer the consequences as the world seeks to get back in order. We get our just rewards, our compensation, and have to live with it.

Deal with the horse harshly and you'll always have to deal with it harshly to get it to do anything. That's it's new state of equiibrium and it costs.

Had Emerson devoted an essay or two to the art of horsemanship I'm guessing he'd be regarded as the 19th Century equivalent to Xenophon, Lyons, or Parelli. I could be wrong but I'm guessing that Ralph Waldo Emerson believed his own stuff and he'd have been a pretty effective trainer of horses.

I encourage everyone to give Emerson a try. Recommending his writings on my equine-oriented website probably doesn't make much sense - unless I add a section titled "Other or Misc.".

I don't promise reading his essays would make you a better horseman or horsewoman - but it probably wouldn't hurt any either.

You might even get to like Ralph Waldo.

From the March 2005 Issue of "Nose to the Ground"

Copyright © 2005 W. Savage. All Rights Reserved.

William "Bill" Savage, a retired, engineer lives on the Goose Bay Ranch in Montana where he spends time with family, horses, and his web site. You can read other articles of his including those on horsemanship on his web site

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