In Kerala of feudal times, before the coming of the automobile, people who owned elephants were considered elite. As figures in temple processions, as animals of labour in forest areas, and as playmates for children at home, the elephant was highly valued. If you had an elephant in your backyard, then you were somebody.
As a linguist, I find it interesting that the English language has scores of idioms related to the horse, but not many to the elephant. In fact, one can find only three common elephant idioms in English: “has the memory of an elephant”, “a white elephant”, and “an elephant in the room”. The second of these is linked to Thailand, which has the elephant as the national symbol. A “white elephant” is a gift or possession that is a financial burden to its owner. An “elephant in the room” came into common use in more recent times. It refers to a problem that is present but which everyone avoids mentioning, because it is embarrassing. Unlike the elephant, the horse has given rise to scores of idioms. Frequently bandied by our politicians this month is “horse trading”, a corrupt practice involving the purchase of votes. A “horse’s mouth” is both a source of reliable information, and a place where you do not count the value of your gift. “Putting the cart before the horse” is to do things the wrong way. You can ride a high horse or a dark horse but not a “Trojan horse”.
Believe it or not, the horse is now being engaged in HR projects too. “Horse-assisted learning” is the name given to this trend. One of the training institutions has the slogan “Horse sense, business sense.”
In a typical session, horses and facilitators together provide the learning activities. The learners are given tasks of various kinds, and in the process acquire personal skills. One task can be to make the horse walk in a circle, without the use of a rope or a lash, and without the offer of any reward or reinforcement. Another task is to create a track with four or five obstacles and make the horse overcome them, again without carrot or stick.
In the process, several management skills are developed. The organizers claim that communication skills, team spirit, problem-solving skills and several other management skills can be cultivated by this method of experiential learning. It is horses for courses in a literal sense.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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