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Killacky: Horse Sense

There's a tradition in the Vermont House of Representatives for someone to speak briefly at the start of every session with a few inspirational words. Today I had that honor and shared some lessons I’ve learned - for legislators’ amusement, and I hoped, edification. First I explained I'm the owner of a Shetland pony that I’ve trained to pull me in a cart. She’s boarded with thirty-three other horses at a stable in Williston.

Equines are herd animals. Group dynamics and hierarchy are important to them. There’s always a top mare, and horses are quite content to follow the leader of the pack. However, reconfigure the group in any way, and leadership is up for grabs. Size, tenure, and age don’t matter; taking charge with a few nips and kicks delivers the appropriate gravitas.

During the session, many legislators will be in a leadership position one day and a supporting role the next. I urged them to challenge each other to accomplish even more and when necessary to step up for issues important to constituencies - even if they have to elbow their way in.

Horses have eyes on the sides of their heads and see the world peripherally with 350-degree vision. When driving my pony, I put her in a bridle with blinders to focus her on the work ahead. Our representatives will have their own blinders on when dealing with the bottom line, but I encouraged them to embrace the periphery and not forget those who live outside their chamber. “As you charge ahead,” I told them, “Remember those alongside and behind you.”

Training a horse requires patience, consistency, taking the long view, positive reinforcement, changing patterns so as not to get stale, getting out of your comfort zone, and reaching for new achievements. Failure is an essential component of learning. This was familiar to many legislators, since they can toil on bills for years before passage. My message was simple, “Stay the course.”

Horse training used to rely mostly on domination; now we seek to learn the animal and understand how it perceives the world. With tough decisions ahead on balancing expenditures and revenues, I reminded legislators that these line items represent real people struggling with real concerns and asked them to seek authentic input and dialogue, listen intently, and adapt accordingly, since their realities may be quite different from those of the people they seek to serve.

A lot of my time with the pony in winter is drudgery: mucking out stalls, chopping ice in frozen water buckets, cleaning hooves, and exercising her in the unheated drafty barn. But when I sit in the cart and our drive goes well, all the effort is worth it as we glide through space.

I wished our elected officials joy in their daily chores. I hope their efforts come to fruition, and more importantly, that they contribute to a just and civil society where all Vermonters can have safe, healthy, robust, and expressive lives.

John Killacky is the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington.
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