When my wife Virginia and I first came to Wyoming Catholic College in 2013, we had only notions about horses. Each of us had been astride some poor rope-led nag or other at a childhood party many decades ago, but the memory was dim. When we thought about riding, we imagined that it was more or less like driving a car, a matter of sitting there and steering. A few months in Wyoming began to correct our folly. At Don Rags (the professors gather to give advice and encouragement to each student), we listened to the horsemanship instructor, Mary Murray, talking in very precise detail about each student’s handling of a particular animal with particular traits. It began to dawn on us that we understood as much about horses as most bachelors know about babies.

The next summer, the college’s great friend, local rancher, and horsewoman, Patty Trautman, brought two horses to our place outside Lander to graze the overgrown pasture, and the real education began. What struck me most was that I hadn’t truly understood the classics I’d been teaching for thirty or forty years, because I hadn’t known enough about horses. From Homer to the present moment, the greatest books of the Western world have relied upon the knowledge of these animals whose natures have so influenced and symbolized our own.

When I’m teaching the uses of poetic meter, I emphasize a few lines that Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare’s contemporary) wrote in “Hero and Leander”:

For as a hot proud horse highly disdains

To have his head controlled, but breaks the reins,

Spits forth the ringled bit, and with his hooves

Checks the submissive ground; so he that loves,

The more he is restrained, the worse he fares.

Read those first two lines aloud, and at the word “highly,” you feel the “hot proud horse” violently wrenching his head; in the last two lines comes the shift from proud horse to the impatient lover: “the more he is restrained, the worse he fares.” If you want an image of ardor—but also intemperance—there it is: the unbridled inner stallion. But you feel the image much more intensely if you’ve tried to bridle a powerful and unwilling animal much larger than you are.

That’s why controlling horses has so much symbolic resonance. The more heroic the man, the more he can master—or become one with—his horse. As I write this, I’m looking across the room at a book about Shakespeare’s English history plays. The cover depicts an English King—Henry V, no doubt—astride a rearing horse, gesturing with his sword. What would he be without the horse, whose force and power he has appropriated? “My kingdom for a horse!” cries Richard III.

In the Iliad, Hektor is called hippodamaio, ”breaker of horses.” But there’s an even greater hero than Hektor. At one point in the poem, a poor little guy named Dolon agrees to spy on the Greek camp if Hektor will promise to give him the horses of Achilleus later as a reward. Two Greeks, Diomedes and Odysseus, capture the terrified Dolon, and when he tells them what his reward was going to be, Odysseus smiles and says to him:

Surely now, these were mighty gifts that your heart longed after,

the horses of valiant Aiakides. They are difficult horses

for mortal men to manage, or even to ride behind them

for all except Achilleus, who was born of an immortal mother.

The horses themselves are immortal, and only the greatest of heroes can control them. It’s hardly a matter of sitting there and steering; it’s a matter of rousing and guiding what’s noble and spirited.

Not that all horses have the same nature! Plato has a famous allegory in his dialogue the Phaedrus about the soul as a charioteer with two horses, one of them lofty, upright, cleanly made, and the other “a crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow; he has a short thick neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark color, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.” The charioteer of the human soul has to deal with both animals. I’m reminded, on the one hand, of Traveler, the famous horse of Robert E. Lee, and on the other of Don Quixote’s comically homely Rocinante.

I’m also reminded of what it takes to win over a horse. Lorine Allen Sheehan, a 2014 graduate who now teaches horsemanship at WCC, spent hours last summer patiently teaching our granddaughters to ride. She showed them how to brush the horse, how to talk to her (Farley, I think it was), how to tie the knots and lead her—all this before trying to mount. And just yesterday, two of our recent alumni, Dominic and Murielle Blanchard, just back from graduate school in Austria with their new son Leo, happened to mention how crucial horsemanship had been to their education at Wyoming Catholic College. “A horse isn’t like a machine,” Dominic said. “You’re having to work with another nature.” The stories of horses began to flow, just as they flow in the Great Books.

Three years ago, we couldn’t have known how crucial horsemanship is to the education for heroism that WCC provides. But it’s an expensive part of our curriculum, and we’re looking for donors and underwriters who can help keep it going. Please help us if you can.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s Weekly Bulletin (June 2016).

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Editor’s note: The featured image is by the United States Bureau of Land Management, and is in the public domain.

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