Been Around the Barn

Spring 2015 St. Lawrence Magazine

Been Around the Barn

The guide in Paris left the message to meet at the statue of Charlemagne by Notre Dame Cathedral. No matter what grand city, it is easy to find on horseback a marble king or a bronze general to mark the place of rendezvous. We had earlier been in Normandy’s medieval city of Rouen to visit St. Lawrence students, a city known by a fixed Napoleon on a rearing horse. In London, where other St. Lawrence students attend class and theater, the Duke of Wellington rides again after Waterloo in three-dimensional stillness. Closer to campus, a visit to the capital city of Ottawa usually begins at the War Memorial, a vivid freeze frame of 1915 that captures a scrum of exhausted combat soldiers, one of whom rides a draft horse, an eye-riveting large animal with brute shoulders pulling a big gun on a muddy road.

When we come back to Canton, however, there remains a subtle sense of a living past. The North Country is still frisky as horse country. The “rush hour” on Main Street signals the familiar whir of passing cars (and pick-up trucks), but then there is the occasional clip-clop cadence as old as the rhythms of a Roman road. At home, I hear daily the Amish buggies on market errands. It makes me think of the pictures kept in our archives of college professors on horseback and the children of the farms who brought their trunks to campus by horse cart.

St. Lawrence’s widespread reputation reaches many admirers of our accomplished liberal arts alumni in every field of work and service. We have numerous reasons for the world to know St. Lawrence. And yet, we should also be known as a place that cares about horses. This is not a personal appeal to nostalgia or “back-to-the-land restorationism” inspired by a historian’s active imagination. Yes, I know that if Napoleon had installed a reliable supply chain of fodder, he might have reached Moscow sooner than the first snowfall.

The fact is I never learned to ride, though my mother, wife and daughter can be found in family albums sitting a horse confidently. I grew up in a city with more than two dozen equestrian statues, but now I live in a setting with more than two dozen active equestrians (almost all women) who manage a liberal arts education accompanied by an equal number of school horses owned by St. Lawrence.

My appreciation for St. Lawrence as an appropriate home for horses is not drawn materially from the great good our riding team has done for public awareness, though being national champions twice in the last three years merits more than a footnote mention. This proposition does not require wreaths and ribbons to clear the jump: The horses on campus and the students who care for them exemplify the liberal arts philosophy that so many of us are giving our lives to perpetuate.

When I visit the Elsa Gunnison Appleton Riding Arena, affectionately known as “the barn,” for a horse show or an impulse drop-in, I observe qualities that I wish every student at St. Lawrence will find in equivalent ways. I notice the constant atmosphere of patience and pace while walking the corridor of stalls. Its whispered air resembles the feeling of a library. The French scholar Arlette Farge once wrote, “To feel the allure of the archives is to seek to extract additional meaning from fragmented phrases found there…an unplanned glimpse offered into an unexpected event.” The barn has the pull of an unfinished story at the pen’s nib, a first draft taking patience to trace and write down.

I have witnessed in my barn tours a way for students to be emotionally connected to an activity without being foolishly emotional. We expect the sciences to teach a cool detachment in front of the facts as presented; we also expect that literary texts will cause human feelings to stir in class, but without losing the capacity to analyze what things mean or matter. I marvel at the mature emotional intelligence being developed around the horses by an experience for students that shows the grace of trust and the gift of being trusted.

Years ago, I spent a day with a St. Lawrence alumnus at his workplace on a Hudson Valley farm.  A world-renowned breeder and trainer of Arabian horses, he took me into a round barn, told me to stand quietly against the wall as he worked the paces and turns of a young horse. It was a truly sublime and beautiful moment to see this man and magnificent horse communicate so effectively in a language that approached something mystical.

It takes tremendous athletic balance and intellectual poise to ride a horse, a creature that is both extremely powerful and remarkably gentle. While I couldn’t achieve that myself in exactly the same way, I can take its example and use it to explain a college’s purpose, in making clear how we want all our students to turn out, bringing gentleness out of power, equilibrium out of speed. Socrates once had a student who wrote knowingly about horses. He maintained that in looking at a horse, the key is to pay attention to the feet. And in the liberal arts, too, the show is never the same as knowing the source.