A Horse of a Different Color

by Carolyn Burch
The Internet Writing Journal, March 2002
Dumb Animals

Having spent many years in the quiet solitude of the wild herds of horses I studied in my younger years, I find that so many of the things I later learned in psychology and sociology class and then in the corporate world were lessons first learned in the simple and sometimes brutal, circumspect world of the horse. You've heard of the story that goes, "All I ever really needed to know I learned in kindergarten"? Well, for me, everything I ever really needed to know I learned in a field covered with clover in the back country of Northern California.

Horses Like Me

Something many writers don't know is that an Arabian horse is the writer's equivalent of himself, in personality, in attitude, in style and overall character. He also fits the psychological profile incredibly well of almost any highly sensitive person. In the horse world, Arabians are often attributed characteristics such as difficult, cocky, temperamental, eccentric, even neurotic, because of their amazing ability to be both so human and so sensitive to everything in their surroundings. Arabian horses have even been known to have nervous breakdowns. This also has given them a reputation of being one of the smartest breeds, depending of course, on whom you ask. Arabians in fact, are one of the few breeds and species of animal that has defied in many tests the standardized assumed profile of animals not being able to reason, see color, and other paradigms that animals are not supposed to do. Perhaps I am slightly biased, having trained, bred, shown, and raised this favorite breed of horses for many years before I started raising children. But, personally I hate it when a rather ignorant human says that horses (of any breed) are dumb animals. In the truest sense of the old phrase, "Open Your Mouth and Remove All Doubt," they have shown me who truly the dumb one is.

But a horse of any breed is dumb in one way and that is that it cannot speak, and therefore, if the human wants to communicate, one must use other means. And perhaps it is because I feel a certain kinship with this underdog of the horse world, and because I understand him and find it simple to communicate with him that I find a ready comparison between these animals and us "artsy folks" as a relative of mine calls us. (I hope you're reading, Mom!)

Members of a Different Herd

As an artist and a writer, I long ago accepted the fact that we are different from the rest of the species. It is something that teachers at elementary schools have known for generations: the artistically inclined children can be seen and identified on playground the first week. They are the ones the other children are either taunting, chasing, or ignoring. They may be shy or they may be the class clown, but they are definitely different: something no other child can ignore entirely.

And while people often say children are mean, it is a fact that it is merely instinct that takes over. Children are, if nothing else, very instinctive creatures, only overcoming their natural-born instincts as they age and are taught, as we all are, to ignore our most basic of programming. In a group of children therefore, the one who is different must be singled out and if possible, cast out, just as in a herd of horses. In a band of horses, this is a survival technique brought down by hundreds of years of range life that intensifies the need for the instinct to ostracize the different ones. One who doesn't keep up, one who is too brightly colored, or one who limps may endanger the whole herd, so out of need they push them out to fend for themselves and in so doing, often preserve the entire herd. In a band of free-range horses, there is very little time spent thinking about a fallen comrade. He is wolf-bait, and you, quite simply, are not.

In the corporate business world where I worked for many years, we had another word for this phenomena, or instinctive response to the different. It, often applied to sentences with my name in it, even has a name. Among Fortune Five Hundred raters, and discussed in quiet circles of those who've learned that this form of ostracizing can actually injure the herd, it's called "The Urge To Kill The Innovator."

We Are Ugly Ducklings

I often tell my students in my creative writing classes, who come to me from all corners of the earth with an astoundingly similar yet diverse array of life-horror stories a simple fact that they must learn to live with: The simple truth of the matter is that we all must remember that to create any form of art, we must first remember that in the natural world there are rules to all things, and we are subject to those rules. And one fundamental rule is that like diamonds, which are a mere chunk of black coal-like material before their miraculous transformation, we too must undergo extreme pressure to create the most beautiful forms of art. And writing is one of those forms. Rule of the Writer (or perhaps life in general) #1: We only know true joy through the measure of it against tragedy, adversity and our personal triumph over it. The more adversity, the more ultimate joy. The more, the better, and the clearer the final form of art. The more clarity in our lives, the more we can give. So the next time you go to cry out "why me?", now you know.

Unfortunately, life comes with no rule books. When we sat on the playground alone and dejected, we had no way of knowing we would eventually become famous writers, artists, or songwriters. We only knew the pain. But the pain, like the birthing of a child, is temporary and in direct proportion to our future ability to love, to give, to create. We must not get stuck in it, but remember at the time it is in fact temporary and a part of the experience. Call it yin and yang, or look at the tides and call it high and lows, or look at the society and realize you are blessed to be one of about 2% of the population. Whatever and however you look at it, nature's example is that we are also often the ones that lead the herd, once we realize and find our own true herdmates. We are ugly ducklings that haven't realized who and what we are, but once we are fully fledged, or nearly so, we come to be what we were meant to be, and guess what happens? The flock of our kindred suddenly appear.

A Horse Of a Different Color

Once I did a study of my own band of barn-raised horses. I decided to place them on natural forested pasture to do one of the first comprehensive and documented studies of domesticated horses returning to a wild environment. The mares were placed on the area and though fed, were otherwise left pretty much to their own devices. I studied them, and though I tried my best to hide, they knew I was there mostly thanks to the lead mare who took up her post as leader pretty early on.

She was a horse of a different color, and though slightly younger than some of the other mares, she took control and crowned herself queen of the fields. Usually, in past studies of horses, it was the general belief of researchers that the oldest mare would lead, even over stallions and younger horses, which generally is true. But this particular mare was jet-black, and color occasionally, when coupled with the right attributes and attitude, can make a leader of any mare. And this mare wanted to be the leader. She, it turned out, was uniquely suited for the job. She was, even in her more domesticated former life, very highly strung and sensitive. And in this position as leader, her former challenges as a riding and show horse became her greatest attributes in the wild environment.

The other horses didn't like her much. She never played with them, she was too serious and different for that, and they didn't even try. No one got near her patch of grass, and she didn't share scratching or fly-prevention activities with the other horses. She always took up a stand nearby on a high little knoll or area just above the bunch and kept her ears pricked and her eyes open to the slightest sound of danger. On more than one occasion, she led her bunch with a mere shake of her head into a bolt to safer ground. And they always listened. Once when I snuck into the field on a windy day, crawling with camera and binoculars upwind in the tallest grass, she heard or saw me somehow and charged directly at me at a gallop, thinking I was a coyote or bear or something no doubt. At the time there were foals in the field, and in her instinctive need to protect the herd, I fully believe she would have charged a real threat, had there been one. I sheepishly rose from my apparently bad hiding place and offered the remainder of a snicker bar, and we were friends again.

Not unlike many of the famous and infamous people of our time who are idea people, she was one to think outside the box. Generally, when a dog chases a horse, instinct tells it to run, or flee the attacker, and this flight response can be, as most riders know, a very difficult and dangerous thing to encounter. Any 1200 pound animal caught up in the flight response is not only a danger to himself, but to anything and anyone in the way. She however, and a select few others I've observed over the years, had mastered the fine art of pattern interruption. When a dog chased her, she would stop, turn tail and charge the animal who, being surprised, now found himself being chased by a really large creature that he hadn't anticipated doing turning to face him.

In people, changing patterns, or the response that people expect at any given time, can be beneficial, but most often in our day and age results in the innovator being labeled an oddball. If your contemporaries, for instance, expect you to do as most of them do and go to work each day mindlessly, watch the clock, and try to get out of as much labor as possible, and instead you are a go-getter who gets there early and leaves late, comes up with ideas on how to improve things, or in general are happier person than they are, you will be the black sheep in the herd. Almost automatically, instincts to ostracize you are at work and you cannot imagine why. And what has happened is that you broke the ongoing and usual psychological pattern of the group, and in doing made yourself stand out.

Sometimes our mode of dress, the way we do our hair, the standard shoes we wear, or the way we react to a crisis situation causes these little cracks in the standard operating procedure of the rest of the world, and when that happens, look out. Pattern interruption will cause most people to phase into their own fear and flight response. And for some it may even result in the attack response.

Common psychological theory, twenty years ago, went that the patient should be labeled and then trained to fit in by denying his "differentness", whatever form it so took. As if by lurking around in the day-to-day world disguised as everyone else would do you some good. Guess what: It won't. What it will do is detract from who you are as a person, create a response within you that says that what and who you are is bad, unacceptable, etc. and make it very easy for you to begin to dislike yourself.

What You Are

Stand up and be the artist you are. Be all you can be. And be all that you were born to be. And if that means joining the army, than do that. If that means painting graphic impressionistic renditions with your bare toes while standing on your head, do that. If it means that when you go to work tomorrow, you wear a sterling loop in your nose, hey, if there are no rules against it, do it. If it means that you decide, like many writers have, that you must become a lone torch and never marry because relationships mess up your writing or art, then do that. If it means you must seriously think about your life as it is and make some changes, then do that. If it means you must get real and sit down and force yourself to get back to your first love, the work which you were born to do, then do that.

You are a horse of a different color and a member of a different herd. You are a diamond in the rough, perhaps still under thousands of pounds of pressure, molding you and shaping you into the work of art you are destined to become. You are both a fledgling ugly duckling, and a horse like me.

And you are a writer. So writer, take up your pen and write.

The words you write may be the Hippocratic oath, The Night Before Christmas, the Declaration of Independence epic poetry or novels of the future.

Carolyn Burch **Carolyn Burch is a fulltime freelance professional writer, author, and columnist for several online writing, parenting, and career sites online, and is the 2002 lead instructor for the Cornerstone Creative Writing one-month intensive workshops. She also is the editor of Write Angles, an ezine for writers and authors, and teaches courses for Absolute Write University online. For more info on Carolyn or to subscribe, please see www.cornerstoneconsortium.com.

More from Writers Write