The White Horse

This might be the most important horse story you read all day, or at least one of the top three.

I know a man who frequently visited Scotland as a child. His extended family there owned a business delivering milk in horse-drawn carriages.

Among the horses in the stable, one was particularly prized by the family: the white horse whose name the man couldn’t recall.

This clever horse had learned his route so well that he could walk it with minimal guidance. He even knew which houses to visit. (I don’t know if he could recite each customer’s order. The man didn’t say.)

The white horse was also unusually even-tempered. Unlike other horses, he was never stubborn or oppositional, and he didn’t demand breaks. He simply hitched up each morning and did what was expected of him.

The white horse made life easier for the family, and they loved him for it — or so they said. Their actions didn’t align with their words. They gave him the heaviest workload. They neglected his health. They ran him constantly and gave him little attention.

I’ve heard that neglected draft horses can develop debilitating bone problems. Maybe that was the white horse’s demise. Whatever the case, the man said the white horse died young. The family had simply worked him to death.

Question: do people train horses, or do horses train people? Any good behaviorist will tell you it’s a two-way street. The less agreeable horses in the stable lived longer than the white horse, in part, because they were more demanding of their owners.

The man who told me this story recalled the white horse with some sadness and kinship. “I’ve been the white horse my entire life,” he said. Many of the people closest to him have exploited his industrious and accommodating nature. (He has had enough, and he’s changing that.)

Countless men play the role of the white horse. Breaking the pattern means retraining people, which isn’t rocket science. If a horse can memorize a delivery route, then a man can learn to say things like “yes please,” “no thanks,” and “fuck off.” It’s simple, though not necessarily easy.

The white horse was merely following its nature, but the man who acts like the white horse has two natures: one that insists on giving, and one that resents those who accept. Half of him says, “Let me pick up the tab!” The other half thinks, This is the third time I’ve paid. The selfish pricks. He is a house divided against itself.

Resolving that conflict is challenging, but it is no coincidence that anyone who has the strength and resilience to be the white horse also has the means to overcome the habit once he decides he has had enough.