Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Of language and horses and bankers

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Huge breaking news: I found the mare’s sweetest of sweet spots today. In the process, she taught me something, as she does every day.

We had done some excellent, rather gentle work. She was being as good and sweet as I could wish, pushing the adorable dial up to warp ten. Suddenly, she stuck her head right up in the air, jaw skywards. I tried to get it down again, but no. Up, up, up it went. It took me a moment to work out what was going on.
She had an itch. She was desperate for me to scratch the soft skin under her head, the delicate part that runs up between the hard, carving lines of the jaw and cheek.

Once I got it, she was in twenty-seventh heaven. Yes, there, she was saying; there. Once she was sure I knew what I was doing, the head came down, and I went on rubbing and scratching until my arm ached. Her eyes went into their pleasure trance, delicate red eyelashes fluttering with joy, wibbly lower lip wobbling and bobbing with happiness.

I thought about this for a long time afterwards. One of the things all the good horseman say is: watch your horse like a hawk. If you learn to read them, they will tell you more than any book. I might have thought the throwing of the head in the air was being naughty, that she was acting bolshie, or offering some kind of stubborn resistance. In fact, it was a request, and she was asking for something in the only way she knew how.

The more I get back to horses, and remember their rhythms and cadences, the more I think the word naughty is an incorrect one. Language matters. I have a fatal tendency to pedantry. I get very cross when people say refute when they mean reject, or disinterested when they mean uninterested. Accuracy in language matters acutely when it comes to animals and people, because the labels you put on them affects the way you behave towards them. If I decide my horse is naughty, then I risk marching out with a corrective mindset, on the lookout for some example of bad behaviour, set on a hair trigger of crossness. I could find myself getting grumpy over a transgression which is not a transgression at all.

Unless horses have been badly treated by humans, they are unlikely to be naughty. Generally, their desire is to please. Almost all their behaviour comes from fear, or confusion, or hard survival instinct. I remember, when I first got the dogs, reading somewhere that there are no such things as bad dogs, only bad owners. If a dog is left alone all day and it chews up the furniture, it is not necessarily being naughty; it is more likely saying help, help, don’t abandon me or I shall die. I wonder if it might not be the same with children. Often, what is described as naughtiness is a cry for attention, or a signal of exhaustion, or the brain overload that very small people sometimes get.

I have been thinking about accuracy in language lately in quite another sphere. I am very cross about the Barclays scandal, and still livid about the banking crash of 2008, with all the credit default swap bandits bringing entire countries to their knees. In my crossness, I made a sweeping and derogatory statement about The Bankers. I am not alone in this. Even such an intelligent programme as The Daily Politics, my favourite political show, will have everyone from the presenters to the guests to the daily experts talking of The Bankers and their iniquity.

The lovely Stepfather picked me up on this. ‘What do you mean by The Bankers?’ he said. ‘Surely not all the bankers? There are some rogues who have behaved very badly but there are also many people who work hard and make money for their companies and pay taxes.’

He was quite right. The economies of practically every country I can name, apart from possibly Norway, are still in dire straits, struggling for air, gasping for breath. The shattering acts of four years ago, now compounded by the unending Euro crisis, still echo and reverberate. Cuts cut, but deficits do not seem to fall; growth remains elusive. The human longing is for someone to blame. The Bankers will do; the evil plutocrats with their yachts and their houses in the Hamptons and their obscene bonuses are the perfect bogeymen for our time.

But this is dangerous for two reasons. All economies need a robust banking sector; if fury at The Bankers gets too populist and out of hand there is a danger of babies and bathwater. (Occasionally, I can even defend bonuses on purely utilitarian grounds: the tax on them may build a new school or hospital, so from the Treasury’s point of view, the bigger the better. Then I remember about the Cayman Islands, and wonder if that argument holds water.)

On a very human level, I think it is unfair on the individuals who go to their desks every day with the single idea of working hard, making money to support their families, behaving in a perfectly decent manner. Not every banker has a boat. Not every employee of Barclays is bent on testing the capitalist system to destruction. Some of them, perhaps most of them, are perfectly nice humans who are kind to children and animals. If I worked in an industry which was routinely subjected to wholesale demonisation because of the acts of a few selfish idiots, I might become very demoralised indeed. (Very fortunately for me, no one goes around shouting, Oh, the bloody writers.)

I wonder too, if the opprobrium is spread over an entire category, whether individual offenders might be more likely to get away with it. If they are all at it, in the popular imagination, then are the real rogues less likely to go to jail, where they clearly belong? It’s just a theory.

I don’t think that it is possible to be absolutely accurate in every sentence one speaks. If one qualified every statement it would lead to very dull conversation. Sometimes, a sweeping generalisation is fun. But it’s not a bad thing to take care with language, and not hurl it about without thought. I think it can have more consequences than one realises.
Pictures of the day:

11 July 1

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11 July 5-001

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11 July 10

I love this picture of Red. It’s very slightly fuzzy, not sure why, so that it looks almost like a painting:

11 July 12

The same effect happens in these two pictures:

11 July 13

11 July 13-001

The Pigeon is clearly saying – do you really think this posing in the undergrowth is a good idea?:

11 July 14

The return of the hill:

11 July 19

I can’t say it was sunny today, but at least the clouds lifted a bit and I could take the ponies’ rain sheets off. As I write this, the clouds are gathering again.


  1. Torrential rain and sunshine here in Richmond.
    We had a lovely horse treat today, it was the last day of term so school finished at lunch, after a rain halted picnic I had three 6 year olds in the car. The sun started shining so we decided to go to the Park and look at the Olympic rings, delight of delights the shire horses were still working in the circles.
    The gentlemen who were in charge stopped the horses and let the girls pet them. It was marvellous, theses huge, gentle, majestic creatures letting these little people pat them and being so patient, I am just in awe of them and completely head over heels.

    1. What a lovely story. Thank you so much for telling me. I adore working horses; they really are gentle giants. What a wonderful thing for your girls. I bet they will remember it always.

  2. I totally agree about "naughty" I spoke, many years ago now, to a teacher friend who was presented with a "naughty" boy in her classroom. He had been treated that way in all the many other schools he attended. She gave him time and patience and it transpired that he simply could not read and was embarrassed. He later started to read but then sadly was passed on again through being in foster care. I do hope he escaped the "naughty" tag in his subsequent school.

    The bankers thing is spot on too. Not all of those who work in banking were in on it. But I do think there was a cultural shift in the banking sector that started this whole thing. That needs to be investigated and reflected upon as I think it encouraged those who knew but were not involved to turn a blind eye. I don't know what to do about it though. It is all so big. But I do believe in banks, and I do believe in people. That latter part will not change.

    1. I love that story. Your friend sounds wonderful and may have changed that little fella's life.

      And I do quite agree about the need for a cultural shift, but, like you, am at a slight loss as to how that might come about.

  3. Another thought provoking post both about horses and banking. As far as the weather is concerned things are mad. Here in New Zealand where it is winter we had the driest June since records began in 1971 while in your summer it keeps pouring with rain.

  4. Am shaking my head over how you got from scratching Red to the banking crisis, but you made it work and what you said is well-put and very wise. Good points all around.

    Also shaking my head at how the Pigeon, unerringly, poses so beautifully every single day. Amazing.

    PS Cultural shift, I agree. What we saw was not just a banking problem, but a societal change. What to do about it is another matter, very likely involving generations, so probably it all rests on the Small People.

  5. Am so glad you are learning to speak "horse". So often we expect our dogs and horses to understand our human language, yet we make little effort to understand their language. I read somewhere that a dog's first language is body language, the same for a horse - as Red mentioned today, and which you translated. Really enjoyed reading blog.

  6. Is "cultural shift" a euphemism for GREED?

    In an opinion piece by Anand Giridharadas in the International Herald Tribune (June 30-July 1, 2012): "It is at least plausible to think that,if you select high financiers according to their willingness to work 100 hours a week and ignore their families and outmaneuver peers, that you are going to get a disproportionate number of self-serving, less-than-empathetic people managing society's money."

    (Giridharadas was writing about Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in The Atlantic about alpha men and women and "having it all".)
    Food for thought....


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