A Horseman's Mentality

Father Jim Schmitmeyer reflects on the idea that horses respond and react according to how they were trained. How then, he wonders, may a horse trained by a terrorist accept and work with a rider?

If Americans are stirred by the sight of an eagle, Arabs thrill at the sight of a horse. The Quran sings the praise of the magnificent creature, and Muslims tell stories of Mohammed ascending into heaven aback a white steed.

After the tragedy of September 11th, we Americans quickly learned about the terrorist group, al Queda, and its leader, Osama bin Laden. Among the video clips flashed on TV news screens was bin Laden astride a vigorous horse, loping across the barren landscape of Afghanistan. Given the high honor of the horse in Muslim history and religion, bin Laden's horsemanship may have served as an effective propaganda tool as he recruited men to his group. How, though, can a man capable of such devastation, also have the patience necessary to become a horseman?

I train young horses in my spare time at a barn west of Cincinnati, Ohio. As I work with my horses, I find myself wondering about bin Laden and his horses. After the events of 9/11, I decided to donate my training fees toward the relief efforts in Afghanistan. Like many other Americans, I felt a need to respond to the terrible events of 9/11 in a personal way. Also, like many Americans, I continue to wonder how someone could plan such a ruthless attack. In my mind's eye, continue to see and wonder about bin Laden-and his horse.

As I work with colts-patiently calming their frantic fears, gently placing first saddles on their backs, gingerly stepping into the stirrups for the first time, working with them as they learn to respond to the pressure of my legs and the shift of my weight-I wonder how a true horseman could harbor the fierce hatred that must live in the heart of a terrorist, such as bin Laden. I wonder how someone with such rigid extremism could understand horses' ways and master the delicate interplay of communication necessary between a well-trained horse and an experienced rider. I would like to know how bin Laden starts his colts. I would like to know his methods, and see how horses respond to the confusion and anger, which must be present in the trainer. It puzzles me how bin Ladin could work with horses and not learn respect and gentle give and take-necessary traits of a true equestrian, and traits which carry over to relationships with any animal or person.

As I watch the rhythmic dance of my horses running in the paddock, I find it hard to imagine how the arresting beauty of the horse, so eloquently sung in the poetry of Islam, could fail to infuse compassion, wisdom, reverence, and love. I suspect that bin Laden's horses would be jealous of the colts I train with love and respect-traits any horse, if given a chance, would readily learn and return to his owner.

Father Schmitmeyer is a priest in a Cincinnati, Ohio parish. For more information on this priest and horse trainer, visit www.catholiccincinnati.org. His "Horse Tales" story was featured in the August, 2002 issue of Horse & Rider.