by RSE Guest Blogger: Douglas Allen
Until a friend recently introduced me to them more intimately in the barn and field, my encounters with horses have always been by means of the stories that my father told me when I was a boy. He would from time to time speak affectionately of his youthful days as a child and a young man growing up and then living on the Canadian prairies. The horse was often included in the story, and as a boy I was intrigued by its presence, sometimes as a main character, but also as a solid, but treasured, minor character, always there in the background as a means of getting work done and transportation.
One of the stories of horses that I will always cherish, however, came from the time when my father was in the last months of his life and living near Toronto. He was ill and one of his doctors gave him a cognitive test to assess his mental status. One of the questions that was asked of him elicited a response that has always intrigued me. The doctor asked him what did the expression “Don’t change horses in mid-stream” mean? I’m not sure of the age of the doctor, or that of whoever it was that introduced the question into the litany of inquiries that sought to probe and define the aged mind, but the question ended up rather testing the ability of one generation to understand its elder, than testing my father’s comprehension of a particular metaphor.
You see, what the investigator had not factored in when formulating the question was that my father had actually crossed a stream on a horse. And to my father’s admittedly slightly confused mind it introduced an entirely different question and dimension, that of how does one cross a stream or river on horse? That experience changed the terms of my father’s answer. My father’s mind took him back to his days as a young man when he had used the horse to travel through the Canadian prairies, days long before he had left the prairies for the large eastern city.
My father told his examiner that one must pause before undertaking such a crossing and take the proper time to assess the situation. It was necessary for one to try to examine the currents of the river and the nature of the opposing bank. He told the doctor that it was also a question of assessing the stream or river to ascertain its approximate depth.
I don’t think my father ever really answered the true question that was asked of him. It was clearly more enjoyable for him to recall his active days of travelling by means of horse, plus or minus a buggy or sleigh or caboose. Maybe it was my father’s way of showing the doctor that there were a few things that he knew that the doctor did not. It would not have been the first time.
What it taught me in the moment of my father’s recounting the interview was of how much technology had changed the way the world works, and of how we admit and then protect ways of doing things in our language and into our everyday thought and experience. The expression “Don’t change horses in mid-stream” is more than advice to not change tactics in the midst of trying to accomplish something. It also offers a glimpse of the time when people actually crossed streams on horseback.
“In a world… where we choose the touch of plastic over that of leather or cloth, perhaps it is important to remember just how close we still are to that world of leather, and that we lose it at our own peril.”
But it also taught me how close we still are to that world of my father when the horse was everywhere. We are just outside a generation between the routine use of the horse and that of the car and tractor. Historically speaking this is, of course, an extremely short time span, it is barely enough time to achieve an historical perspective, if it indeed is. And perhaps that is somewhat to the point. In a world where it is entirely possible for us to drift from the roots of our own humanity, where we choose to view the glow of the screen and communicate with others through it, rather than find pleasure in the face and voice of our companion beside us, where we choose the touch of plastic over that of leather or cloth, perhaps it is important to remember just how close we still are to that world of leather, and that we lose it at our own peril.
“What I hope to do in these pages is not only share some stories about how horses factored into the daily life in my father’s day, but to examine aspects of the relationship between individuals of all ages and the horses that enter their respective lives even now.”
We hear much of late about the way that horses benefit us psychologically and emotionally. What I hope to do in these pages is not only share some stories about how horses factored into the daily life in my father’s day, but to examine aspects of the relationship between individuals of all ages and the horses that enter their respective lives even now. We all at some point and to varying degrees need to heal. We each have suffered things which make us hurt and pause, and which at times make us cry. Indeed, it would seem that we collectively as a society need to heal from the stressors placed upon us by our own innovations.
I cannot help but think that the doctor did not really believe that my father had actually rode a horse across a river. There was, it seemed, a very real generational disconnect. But the disconnect can be conceived of more fairly perhaps in terms of what we might think of as that between a pre-modern and a modern world. (The word “modern” here used quite loosely to differentiate between the olden days and the “just now”.) They do not always understand each other.
Perhaps in the “pages” that follow, even the word “blog” seems out of touch with the dignity of the written word, by exploring both sides of the technological divide and their relationship with each other, we will uncover some interesting insights about the relationships between people and horses, their power to help us heal and their role in our struggle with a world that seems at times a little too given to plastic.
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Who is Douglas Allen?
Douglas is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. He is also a writer and is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.
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