The Final Word Less One - on any subject anywhere any time that the author finds interesting -

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Compassion & Empathy & Why Christ Was Born In A Stable

It's a funny story. Years ago, I sprained my right knee in a horseback riding mishap and in the course of getting physical therapy for it other problems were discovered and treated. My physical therapist, a woman who rode horses herself, sat me down with the air of imparting bad news and had the following conversation with me:

PT: You understand that the damage to your right knee means you won't be able to post a trot, right?

Moi: Yes.

PT: And this condition that we've discovered with your lower back and pelvis, you realize you won't be able to sit a trot, correct?

Moi: Yes.

PT: So you know what this means concerning horseback riding, correct?

Moi: It means I need to get a gaited horse.

The physical therapist slapped her forehead. "That's not the answer I had in mind, but it might work."

For the non-horsy people who may be reading this, a trot is a gait of medium speed that bounces, and can only be ridden by posting (moving up and down to miss the half the bounces) or sitting (absorbing all motion in pelvis and spine). A gaited horse is an animal belonging to one of several breeds of horses developed to carry the smooth sequence of the walking gait to higher and higher speed. This kind of horse has smooth paces and does not need to trot under saddle.

A few months after this conversation, I purchased an unregistered Tennessee Walker gelding, named him Rudy and found him apt for training. He learned quickly to come when called by his new name, to stand at a mounting block and also aided me in other ways. I could grab his mane with my right hand, say "handrail!", and he would adjust his pace to mine and allow me to lean on him to support my weak right knee.

I had him only a few months when I went with a couple of friends and their horses to try out a place that had some beautiful trails. Unfortunately, in the parking lot, Rudy spooked and collided with me as I came around the corner of the horse trailer into his forward blind spot. I felt my LEFT knee pop and give way. I insisted that my friends go ahead and ride. Rudy was put in a small holding pen. I sat on the back of the horse trailer, holding ice on my knee, listening to my friends whenever a bend of the trail in the forest brought them close.

I knew that my life would never be the same...but I didn't appreciate how severely this injury would affect me. Humana, the HMO that my then employer used in the state of Kentucky, tried to convince me that a woman in her mid-forties did not need to be able to walk. They would not authorize the surgery to repair the damaged ligaments until after I "tried a knee brace" but although the brace could have been ordered directly from the manufacturer and been delivered in two weeks, I had to order it through a local supplier and the brace was delayed for months.

My left knee would almost heal but then something ordinary such as climbing up the single step to my front porch would re-injure it. I was reduced to petting Rudy across the fence. He acted worried and anxious and would rush to the fence when I arrived--I told myself he could not possibly feel guilty, but he was certainly missing attention.

Four months after the injury, it seemed hugely improved. I paid a visit to Rudy who had been confined to the diet pen because he was getting too fat with no one riding him. I drove almost down to the gate and decided to go into the field to reassure him that I was truly on the mend. Also stuck in the diet pen was Mo, an Arabian gelding belonging to my best friend.

Mo had a great personality and is still mourned by all his friends, of whom I was proud to be numbered. I had trailered Mo to horse shows and endurance rides, held him for his owner and for the farrier, ridden him on occasion and he had every reason to regard me as one of the special people in his life. Mo came up for treats and petting and jealously chased Rudy away. I told Mo how rude he was and shooed him out of my personal space. As Mo departed, he flicked his heels at me -- a certain tit-for-tat was part of his personality, but he didn't mean any harm. I had to take two quick steps backwards and stepped into a depression with my bad leg. The knee buckled under me and I fell hard. The pain was agonizing and swift--worse, the knee joint didn't respond to the muscles that should control it. Later an MRI would reveal that two of the three ligaments in the knee had been completely snapped.

However my first problem was that I had fallen in a field where several horses were and I needed to get out. Horses are lovely, gentle creatures but they can't see where they are putting their feet and they are also curious. A notable trainer once described falling in a field, being surrounded by curious horses and getting knocked around under their hooves--a terrifying experience that could have been fatal. I started to crawl to the gate--not far, maybe twenty feet away, but my progress was slow.

Normally horses are attracted by anything curious that humans do...just try to mend a damaged fence or do any work in a field where horses are. I was surprised that none of the horses seemed to notice me and looked over. I saw Rudy, standing between me and the herd, his body perfectly positioned to screen me from their sight.

"Odd," I thought and continued to crawl. Halfway there, I looked again. Rudy had moved with me, as if deliberately blocking for me. Furthermore, although he was the lowest ranking horse in the field, he was pinning his ears and shaking his head in threat.

I was astonished. This couldn't be an accident. I crawled faster as I did not know how long Rudy could block for me. I reached the gate and started to pull myself up on the bars. With a gentle whuff, Rudy shoved his head beneath my left armpit and tried to help me stand. I was thunderstruck. I had trained Rudy to act as a handrail for my weak RIGHT knee but he had correctly determined that I needed support on my LEFT side. Furthermore, he maneuvered his body to help me open the gate. I believe he would have taken me straight to my truck, but I told him to stay in the field. He leaned against the gate holding it closed while I latched it and remained leaning against the gate while I crawled to the pickup truck.

Rudy has since proved this was not a fluke--in our years together he has come to my aide in other situations.

Rudy has changed my opinion of horses as rather unintelligent creatures, just working for the next treat.

Consider what his actions show: he accurately placed himself to hide me from the other horses and moved to maintain the screen. Then when that was no longer necessary he came close and attempted to provide support where it was needed--and considering the different body shape between horses and humans what kind of compassion and empathy was needed for Rudy to do this?

I know I remain humbled by this experience. This is a challenge my own horse has given me that I strive to rise to: to feel and show as much compassion--to have as much empathy--to see beyond the differences...if a horse can have feeling for a human, can not human beings see beyond the differences of culture, religion and politics? How many human beings can show this much empathy and compassion for others?

This explains why Christ was born in a stable... and thus ends the sixth blog of Christmas.

Rudy - July 11, 2001
I took this picture about one year after the events detailed here. Rudy's rescue 
of me took place in September 2000.
My left knee was repaired by surgical graft in November 2000.

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