What You Can Learn From Your Horse
What You Can Learn From Your Horse

What You Can Learn From Your Horse

by Hartmut von Jeetze
reprinted with permission from “Biodynamics” November/December 1999

The following letter was written to Anne Gairdner-Trier who, with her husband, lived at the Camphill Farm in Scotland for many years in the middle of this century. At the time, the author managed a one hundred-acre dairy farm in Scotland. His tasks there included teaching youthful offenders how to work with horses. Mrs. Gairdner-Trier has lived with horses for most of her life and plans to publish a book entitled Mankind’s Relationship to the Horse. The piece was written in answer to her questions regarding the author’s experiences working with young people and horses. – Kimberton Hills, September 1999

Dear Anne;

Thank you very much for your two letters, asking if I could share some of my experiences with horses, especially with respect to their role in aiding juvenile delinquent boys in coming to terms with themselves.

I am indeed happy to share with you what I can. But before doing so, let me first of all apologize for my tardy response to your request. The two recent conferences in Ireland and Germany did not help in catching up with my letter ‘debts’, including yours. Please forgive.

Yes, I remember very well the role horses played on our Camphill Farm in Newton Dee. They were an indispensable part of the daily work. However, horses played an important role already in the early years of my childhood and youth, both in our home village and later, in my training years as a farmer on several farms in Germany. I doubt that without these experiences I would have been able to help the deprived young men who had come into trouble with the law and later were placed into my charge at Newton Dee farm in Scotland. Therefore, let me first share a few fundamental lessons about horses I learned in my youth that horses can teach you. In this context, I am for the most part, referring to draft horses.

I grew up in a German village of some six hundred inhabitants. Several farms and smallholdings had been our family farm in the first part of this century. Besides a large dairy herd, pigs, poultry, and sheep, it also had several teams of horses and one or two teams of oxen. It was often an impressive sight, on the way to or from school, to see these teams going out to work in the morning and returning back at noon. The same recurred in the afternoon. Such experiences meant a great deal to us as children. My experiences also included observing some eighty to one hundred children suffering from developmental disability who lived right next to us, in a home that was one of the first places for Curative Education and Social Therapy based on the insights provided by Rudolf Steiner. This home was under the guidance of some of the founders of the Curative Educational movement, including Dr. Karl Koenig, the founder of what is now the worldwide Camphill Movement.

These experiences showed me how much human beings, especially children and young persons, learn from observations and depend in their actions on models. They are very careful observers of the world. Nothing escapes them. Every sense impression has meaning for them, often for the rest of their lives. This truth becomes even more evident in children and young people who are afflicted with mental disabilities of one kind or another. Like us, they are careful observers, wishing to learn from the world. Underlying this is the truth that all of us, to begin with, assume that the world is good.

This fact becomes of greatest importance if you live in the proximity of persons in need of special care with their heightened need for understanding and sense of dependency on the world.

What You Can Learn From Your Horse

Now, as to farming: In the first half of this century there existed a definite hierarchy in the practice of farming. Horses were no exception. In the process of learning to farm, it was general knowledge that being entrusted with a team of draft horses constituted a privilege that had to be earned. As a rule, you had to reckon with doing at least three years of handwork before you were eligible to be entrusted with a team of horses.

This might sound severe and arbitrary. However, little do people today know the reason for this. In order to understand it, we must remember that the science and practice of farming as an art is not as easy to attain as one believes. It is a part of other arts and sciences that are directly related to the domain of life. They all are very finely tuned disciplines belonging to the vocations that require the meticulous acquisition and mastery of many human faculties. These have to be acquired by anyone wishing to gain competence. Their acquisition took every bit as much time and effort as that which today is still expected or invested by medical doctors and other specialty professions. So it was fifty years ago. Let me give an example.

Take the ability to plow a straight row across a field with a plow. It requires a certain degree of self-control. While this may be a challenge for some tractor driver of today, imagine the same thing being asked of you with your horse plow and the team of horses in your charge. Add to this the same discipline required of you in the subsequent steps of tilling the soil, right up to the act of sowing seed, and the word cultivation and agriculture will gain its meaning.

In all this, we must remember that farming in the early part of this century was still very different from now. There were no weed killers to speak of, no synthetic pesticides. The right preparation of your soil depended entirely on the exactitude with which you as a person tilled and prepared the seedbed for the particular crop you were about to plant. Everything depended on the harmonious interaction of soil structure, composting where indicated, the proper spacing of widths between rows to be planted, and the distance from seed to seed within a row, thus affording the seed, placed into the soil, the optimum symbiotic environment possible to assure its successful growth.

When accomplished, this preparation guaranteed that the crop itself was in a strong enough position to crowd out most weeds. In general, the success of a crop, besides proper selection of seeds and timing of planting and its genetic harmony, was much more dependent on the proper cultivation of the soil in those years than is realized today. All this, in no small way, was dependent on the proper handling of your horses. The horse was man’s best friend in accomplishing this.

To be entrusted with a team of horses presupposed that you had acquired a certain degree of inner stability and self-control in farming activities. Even then, success was not necessarily guaranteed. For it required a degree of encompassing reliability of a person in the domain of farming that could neither be thought out, nor pretended. You had to be able to represent the farm on which you worked with a certain degree of inner and outer accomplishment that others would recognize in you, often earlier than you did. This was important for several reasons.

What You Can Learn From Your Horse

Firstly, because among the group of people working on a farm, it was a privilege to be entrusted with a team of horses. Secondly, everyone knew, and you sure found out fast, that it needed three weeks for both the horses and you to become mutually acquainted with each other to the point that you were a team. Success was by no means guaranteed. I remember to this day the time when I was put to the test of having my first team of horses, thinking I knew farming pretty well, as sure as one is at seventeen!

However, I had not reckoned with the consequences of a few things. At that time I had not yet sorted out a few things with myself. One of them was whether or not I really wanted to stick with farming as my vocation. Neither was I very inspired by the particular farm I worked on, though I had not talked about this to anyone.

So here I was with my first team of horses. Everything went well. The horses did what I asked them to do. They followed the instructions and commands I gave them, the same everyone else used, for two weeks or so until one morning, out in the field, these two horses suddenly went on strike. They just stopped and stood still. They simply were not listening to my orders anymore. Someone else had to come to my aid. The result – the team of horses had to be taken on by another person. It was an embarrassing situation for me, and for all to see.

This incident, and a corresponding lesson of a similar kind with a team of oxen at about the same time, caused me to earnestly review my motives for farming. A few more months of handwork along with a good dose of “humble pie” caused me to reappraise my motives for farming from the ground up.

Several years of working with horses followed which I will never forget. Ploughing, harrowing, and doing general field work year ‘round until you worked with your horses to the extent that they would almost follow thoughts. This is a very gratifying experience. Sometimes, in situations of apparent danger, like during a thunderstorm for example, this was essential. On another occasion I had to drive home with a team and wagon on what for the horses was an unfamiliar road through the forest. It was late and had gotten dark. I knew the road but the horses didn’t. They were a bit nervous. So, with reins in hand and my mind at all times with the horses on the road and its immediate surroundings about fifteen to twenty yards ahead of the wagon to reassure the animals, all went well. Who thinks that horses and oxen do not know what goes on in your mind? It is of immense value to have the chance to learn from such events.

This may be a somewhat lengthy introduction to the subject. Its purpose is to point to the fundamental changes that have occurred in human social life in this century. Without addressing this, I believe it is impossible to understand some of the aberrations we face today and to get to the root of some of the ills in our present social life, such as when children kill others in school. Perhaps it is no coincidence that we should focus on issues such as you have asked me to address.

In this context I remember a situation in Newton Dee. I don’t know whether you were still with us on the day, I think it must have been 1957 or ’58 when there was a terrible triple railroad accident in England. The following day the front-page article of the local paper described this accident. We had just finished lunch on the farm. While I was doing the dishes, two gentlemen in civilian clothes came to the farmhouse, asking whether they could see me. They identified themselves as police, saying one of our young men had just tried to derail a train by throwing a railroad sleeper on the track. You will remember that at the time the railroad from Aberdeen to Breamar was still in use. Its tracks went right through our property.

The police gave a description of the boy. As it turned out, it was indeed one of our delinquent boys who had done it. When I called him and confronted him with the facts, he admitted that he had done it by nodding his head. When I asked him what made him do this he didn’t say anything. So I asked him, showing him the picture in the paper – “Is it because you saw this story in the papers?” He very quietly nodded and said yes. Thank goodness the engine of the train that passed shortly after his deed still had a snow plow in front, so the railroad tie was thrown to the side and no derailment occurred.

Some people will say that this is an extreme situation. It is. Yet, how many other incidents are there that point to the same malaise which affects children and young people today? How many of the motives human beings adopt for what they do are based on what they have been presented with by us adults? Often, many years may elapse before situations of such extreme nature as the example I have given will occur. The question is – what lies at the root of it, and what does it have to do with horses? It is worthwhile to take note of the deep impact that examples have on us human beings, and what often, by their mere presence, horses can do. In order to show and appreciate this, let us look back into rural life some sixty years ago.

My way to and from school led past the blacksmith’s shop. Often, on the way home, we boys would stop at the blacksmith’s to watch him shoeing horses. As was the custom in Germany then, contrary to Scotland as I later found out in Newton Dee, it was the farmhand’s job to hold up the legs of the horse that was being shod. This was not always as easy as you’d expect. For some horses, getting new shoes was much like it is for some of us when sitting on the dentist’s chair. Not every horse is inclined to take kindly to the blacksmith’s cutting its hooves straight. Or for that matter, having the ‘smith test-fit the red-hot new iron horseshoe on the trimmed hoof before being cooled, custom-shaped, and nailed to the hoof. For some horses this procedure is quite unnerving.

Already as a child, I could tell very well simply by watching, who was in control, the farmer of the horse, or the horse of the farmer. I myself have been in that situation many times. However, you don’t have to do the things grown-ups do in order to appreciate the effort it takes. So does a horse! It knows very well who has courage and self-control and who has not.

I hope the vital place which horses held in rural life and in the economic running of a farm, where draft horses were the order of the day (along with oxen in many a place and country to this day), will have become obvious. In fact, all domestic animals played an essential role as companions to people on the farm within the setting of a rural village. The value of their mere presence cannot possibly be overestimated, if for no other reason than showing the contrast of farm life fifty years ago. Let me give you an example.

What You Can Learn From Your Horse

Our present civilization increasingly relies on sense impressions and pictures that are produced as electronic images emanating from electric outlets running on 110 or 220 volts, as the case may be. This is not meant to condemn them. But it is hard, to the point of being ever less possible, for human beings, especially those living in a city, to realize, let alone being able to compare, the effect these images have on the human being to the thousands of real-life experiences that sixty years ago surrounded human beings who lived in rural settings. A multitude of living impressions shaped the character of every child and youngster by virtue of the natural surroundings from which they emanated.

Whoever had the fortune of growing up with these real-life experiences through their senses, did so where the events took place. In most cases, these experiences were from the life in the countryside. They shaped people’s character. How does this manifest itself? A small example comes to my mind as I am writing these lines. Several years ago, I was on a trip through the Midwest with an acquaintance who told me, as we were passing one of the large automobile factories, “if you want to buy a good car, look for one that’s made in that and that factory.” He was referring to a factory in Ohio, where many people worked who came from the surrounding Amish country. You may ask what has this to do with horses and their role in aiding young persons who have come into trouble with the law?

Every human being who comes into the world does so with the inborn expectation that the world is good. It finds expression in the fact that children love and trust their parents, and young people, while growing up, tend to live by examples given by their elders. They may not always find what they are looking for, but they certainly look for them. In our teenage years we form our own judgments about the world.

If we do not find as adolescents what we expected in the way of ideals worthy to be imitated, a void often arises in the seeking soul. Despair, depression, boredom, loneliness, and other symptoms of uncertainty belonging to their age may appear. Many young persons will take refuge in a number of acts to help numb the disappointment with the world. Often, even our parents cannot help to bridge the void of identity which we may experience in our soul during the “teens” of our life. It is of immense importance in those years to have a horse one can take care of and talk to. Acts of stealing, formerly called juvenile delinquency, are but another example of disappointment with the world. Why do these human beings steal? They actually steal for love.

Now, what about horses and the juvenile delinquents in our care? As you will remember from your time and life in Camphill, a great deal of our task as teachers and helpers depended on extending to those human beings, entrusted as teenagers into our care, the opportunity of trust. It consisted in letting them participate in actual situations that daily life provided, giving opportunities to them to prove that they were capable of doing what was needed. The tasks on the farm I was entrusted with had a great deal of work which depended on horses. They included teaching these young men, who had come into trouble with the law due to their delinquency and consequently had been sent to us for remedial education, the daily tasks of providing the general care of a horse, including proper grooming and feeding. Learning how to plow or harrow fields and do other work with horses, such as carting hay, straw, manure and compost, were further steps that served as a proving ground for their self esteem and sense of worth.

It is still hard for me, even now, to describe the impact the introduction of the proper care, handling and working with our draft horses had on almost every one of those young men! At first it was not easy to make these young men realize that one trusted them as human beings and that these animals were “not just the means to gallop around the country or through the River Dee.” It took some careful counseling. But, by and by, they began to realize that a horse is a friend one can trust, to whom one can talk, is a living creature that will do for you what you ask of it, and that if you respect a horse in its way, it could become your friend. A friend that would understand what lives in you as unresolved worries, but also a friend that at the same time would ask for your understanding and care of its needs. By degrees, these young men began to experience their own worth, their own human qualities.

Not that they would talk about it. Neither did we as their mentors. In their conduct, however, they began to express their appreciation for being allowed to be themselves, appreciated and understood for who they were. It goes without saying that the obvious needs of the manifold farming jobs that had to be done provided the indispensable and self-evident objective background that these young men needed as basis of reference for their own motivation of action. The work was now done with enthusiasm. These situations also provided learning experiences for me which I will never forget. One of them was, after some months, that I was not allowed anymore to take care of “my” horses. They had become “their” horses.

Had I not in my own training years come to appreciate horses and oxen for their sensitivity of response to our human care and perception of their own needs and corresponding willing assistance to our human requests, I would have lacked a great deal of understanding of the vital role these domestic animals can play in our human society.

As I am reminiscing about the days with horses in Newton Dee, a story about food quality and horses comes to my mind, a story that really struck home. It concerns the quality of biodynamic produce and horses as connoisseurs of quality food. It’s about the day when the horses refused to eat their oats! I don’t know if you remember that situation? Anyway, it’s a lesson that taught me something about the quality of biodynamic food more than others did.

We had run out of our own homegrown oats that we used to grow on the biodynamic farm in Newton Dee, Scotland. Since no one else around us grew biodynamic grain, we had to purchase some oats from the local feed supplier. As was to be expected, on the actual day when our own supplies had run out, the boys who looked after the feeding of our five horses fed them some of the just-purchased new oats.

It was after lunch when the boys, having fed the horses before having their own lunch, came into the farmhouse saying “Hartmut, the horses won’t eat their oats!” I must confess, I hadn’t given this matter much thought. In fact, I remember thinking when the oats were delivered that if anything, these oats looked as good, if not better, than those we had grown. So I didn’t take the story seriously, thinking – “tell me another story; horses not eating their oats.” But when the boys persisted, I did go to the horse stable.

There, believe it or not, I found five horses, all standing in their stalls with their heads up! Not one of them had eaten their oats, not even as much as a mouthful. All they did was nudge the oats a little with their muzzles. They were simply refusing to eat their oats. It took them well into the next day to accept the fact that this was all there was.

However, there is a sequel to that story. (I believe it must have been in 1953/54 when this occurred.) When we did have a new crop of our own oats, I took a few hundred pounds to the local gristmill to have it hulled for our own use as hot oatmeal cereal for breakfast. When I came to the mill a few days later to collect the oatmeal, the miller asked if he could see me for a moment. “Sure,” I said. He asked me, “Where did you get these oats from?” A little taken aback by his question I replied that we had grown them on our farm. Shaking his head, he said, “No, you couldn’t have.” So I repeated the fact that we had grown these oats on our own farm in Scotland, situated about three miles from where the mill was. Then he said, “I haven’t seen such oats since 1942, when we used to get Prairie Oats from Canada.” But that is not where the story ended.

When my wife placed the usual pot of hot oatmeal on the breakfast table the following morning, the cereal was solid in the pot. I asked what happened. She said, “I don’t know, I took the same amount of oatmeal as always.” The next day, the same thing happened. When the hot cereal was brought to the table, the cereal was again solid stiff. This time she had used half the amount of oats. Only on the third day, when she had used about one third of the amount of cereal compared to the commercial oats, did the consistency match what we were used to!

This is to say nothing about the taste. Not only were we astonished by the sheer difference in volume required by the commercial oats as compared to that of the biodynamic oats, but the taste was also so much better. Not until we had eaten the oatmeal grown on our own biodynamic farm did we have a base of comparison to know what real oats can taste like. These two episodes taught us a great deal more about the superior value of biodynamic farming than we could have gained in any other way.

The years of working with juvenile offenders and horses on the Camphill Farm in Scotland were not just lessons about teaching others how to work with horses. They were living proof of the fact that nothing we have experienced is ever lost. Often the horses assumed the role of teacher. A window was opened on what human social situations and teaching are in reality all about; a matter of trust and confidence. It was this ability, the ability to listen to the true needs of others and to convey confidence and trust to other human beings, prompting them to free action, that was a focal point of these years of learning lessons from the horses.

I hope, Anne, that this is what you wanted. With much love, and best greetings, yours,


Growing up in Silesia, Germany, Hartmut von Jeetze became acquainted with the agricultural teachings of Rudolf Steiner on his family’s farm, which had been converted to biodynamic practice by his parents after they attended Steiner’s lectures on agriculture in June, 1924. In 1950, upon graduating with certification from a state-approved four-year agricultural training course, he moved to Aberdeen, Scotland. As the farm manager, he joined the Camphill Rudolf Steiner Schools, Ltd, at Newton Dee, a residential training farm for juvenile delinquent boys and youths with mental disability. Through his work there, he became involved with curative education and participated in a two-year training course in Special Education at the school. In 1961, he emigrated to the U.S. to help establish the first Camphill Village in Copake, NY. Over the past four decades, his interests in biodynamic agriculture and curative education have shaped his life and work in the Camphill communities in Copake, Sauk Centre, MN, and Kimberton, PA