So how about a column that starts out being about horse whispering and ends up being about leadership and politics? Trust me, there is a relationship (or don’t trust me and just read along for entertainment).
On a recent weekend, I went to Arizona to breathe in the desert air, soak in the unique light and sounds, and see what this horse-whispering thing is all about. You might remember the 1995 book The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans and the 1998 movie of the same name starring Robert Redford, but the reality and beauty of witnessing horse whispering in person is quite a bit different, and far more powerful.
Author, columnist, and good friend Martha Beck and an amazing young woman named Koelle Simpson were my guides. Koelle is one profound whisperer. She studied with Monty Roberts, author and world-renowned horse whisperer. My journey that weekend began with observing the horses as I wandered near them in a desert pasture and ended with my being able to touch an abused horse that was conditioned to hate human contact.
Along the way I learned to recognize signs of what a horse is feeling, whether it’s fear or acceptance. I learned about trusting your gut and what it takes for such a beautiful animal to be willing to come to you or follow you as you walk. You learn that pushing or begging when the horse doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to move only makes matters worse. You figure out quickly that a 180-pound person can’t make a 1,300-pound horse do what it doesn’t want to do unless you resort to tactics that in the end hurt the animal and lower yourself—and put you further behind your intention.
As I reflected on my soulful experience on my flight back to Austin, Texas, I realized that lessons from horse whispering can apply to our political leaders and our country, especially as we have watched the budget battle unfold.
The obvious lesson is that those in charge need to observe each other more, try to understand where each is coming from, communicate better, and encourage one another. We might actually be able to get more done as a country if our leaders in Washington and in our communities related to each other in this way. You got a hint of this kind of mutual respect in the gracious statements by President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid late on April 8 after a government shutdown was averted.
But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see our country as the abused horse I was finally able to communicate with. (I know, I can hear you now: “Oh, Lord; Dowd just called America an abused horse.” Stick with me here.)
In my lifetime, leaders in both political parties have made many well-intentioned promises and broken them once they reached office. In the past 10 years we have had two good and decent men elected president who promised to change the way Washington worked and to get past the bitterness that has marked our political discourse. The outcome has been greater polarization and rancor. Each president has pushed broad proposals that America didn’t accept, and as the country bucked more and more, the presidents and their political parties kept pushing harder or making bigger promises. Over the years, both political parties have shoved, yanked, and manhandled—and now nearly bankrupted—the country.
If those in charge viewed America as that gentle and kind, but confused and abused, horse, they might approach leadership and politics differently. The first thing they would do is recognize the public’s widespread lack of trust in our political establishment and in the solutions coming out of Washington. We need to acknowledge that trust needs to be rebuilt in small ways before federal solutions will be accepted.
As leaders push proposals and address the federal budget and deficits, they should be more observant of the country’s reaction. They should move forward when there is acceptance and pull back a bit when the country gets spooked and starts kicking. Each step along the way would be a process of building trust and recognizing signs indicating where America is emotionally, and then proceeding with that knowledge and understanding.
President Bush handled this process poorly when it came to the Iraq war and his proposals on Social Security reform; Obama found out the hard way when he didn’t use horse-whispering techniques in passing health care reform. In the aftermath of those efforts, we are dealing with a country that lacks trust in our leaders and feels alienated and “abused” by the political process. He has signaled in the past few months that he has learned some of these lessons, but it is going to take a long period of clear communications and building trust to move the country forward.
It would be much better if our leaders practiced a little of this horse whispering on each other, regardless of party. But more important, if they recognized our country as a beautiful, beneficent, though misunderstood and abused horse, and used the appropriate communications, there is no telling where they could lead all of us as we face an uncertain future.
This article appears in the April 16, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.