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  • Writer's pictureMaude Ouellette-Dube

Children, horses and philosophy

"Children, from the ages of about three or four to about seven or eight, raise almost all the basic questions of philosophy in some form or other." This is a quote from an interview with the American philosopher Gareth Matthews, who dedicated most of his career toward promoting philosophy with children. I certainly, as a child, asked a number of philosophical questions, especially about the meaning of our existence, or what brings meaning to our lives. As Matthews then emphasizes, the thing is that philosophical questions have no age boundaries. Given that they are open-ended and puzzling, that they wrench one out of confortable habits of mind and can also, through a form of puzzlement, instil in us a sense of wonder, philosophical discussions position all, children, teenagers, adults, within a common space of exploration.

Precisely, it is a form of wonder that I experienced this past week, during a week long horse and riding camp. 17 girls, ages 8 to 15, 15 horses ages 5 to 30, 5 cats, one fox, lots of sun, enthusiasm, quiet, but strong passion and 7 adults dancing around all day, trying to make things happen. This is the third summer that I embark on this lovely adventure. During Pferde Pur, at the farm Sellenhof, children not only learn to ride and do ground work exercises with horses (serenity, trail guided and ridden, lunging, circus and liberty dressage), but they also do philosophy. And they are very happy with this little extra.

When I show up for these camps, it is with my boots, barn clothes and a small binder packed with ideas and philosophical questions.

Every day, generally in the evening, we sit together, around the fire, in the grass, somewhere cozy, and we do our 'Question of the day' - our daily philosophical question that helps us deepen our understanding of horses and of our lives with them. We talk about what horses mean to us, what it means to encounter them as singular individuals, what it means to ask them to work and to be ridden. We talk about equine needs ranging from physiological needs to social dynamics. We talk about relations, friendship, and responsibility. Ethical questions, questions about the nature of horses and of our relationships with them. We raise a daily question that opens up a discussion, and we let the discussion run where it brings us. My role, again as Matthews puts it, is to be "a sounding board for them" and to help the discussion flow.

In other words, during these discussions, I learn as much as them, I discover, wonder, embrasse forms of puzzlement with them.

One day, 11 years old A, came to me in the evening, a bit wary because we didn't have our Question of the day, that day. Experience shows me, to my profound delight, that it is important for them to have this discussion space, and to be able, not only to hear these questions be raised, but to have the space to discuss them. To speak their minds, and to hear others' perspectives.

Children come to horses because they love them. Many have told me that they trust horses more than humans. That it is often easier to be around horses, because you don't feel judged by them like your are judged by other children at school. During our discussion on friendship, they often say that although they want to be friends with horses, this will take time. More time than a week, many acknowledge. I'm always amazed in these discussions how deep and serious a conception of friendship these children share. How well they understand the importance of trust. I asked, how might we start building friendship with horses? I had in mind that horses should learn to trust us. Here one of the girls raised her hand, and suggested that we should first start with humans trusting horses, that friendship could only start there. She turned it around. There was something very sobering in her view of things. We put a lot of time trying to have horses trust us, but when do we question where we stand? Do I trust the singular horse I spend time with? If not why, and how does it impact our relation? And what does it mean, at a deep relational level, to give one your trust?

Bringing children in the space of philosophy is something I do because I love it. But it is also something we do at the Sellenhof because we think it is important: constitutive of building a healthy and ethical life with horses. We want the children that come to us to have the opportunity to start there, in this more open space, allowed to wonder and ask their questions. It is a form of empowerment for them, and I would say for the horses who will come to share their lives.


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