Taoist teachings often come in the form of a story. These ancient tales are entertaining and illuminating. The messages they offer are as relevant today as they were during the Han dynasty. The story, The Horse Expert, is about assessing the character of an animal, but it applies to everyone who touches our lives. Evaluating the merits of a new puppy, an employee, a boss, or a friend-to-be is not easy. What we see is not always what we get. Is our response to outward appearances reliable, or do we need to look deeper?
The Horse Expert
A king was searching for a horse to give as a gift to his daughter. He asked his trusted court adviser to recommend a horse expert. The King's adviser said, "You can tell a good horse by looking at its muscles and outward appearance, but the best horses are the ones that cannot be judged by appearance alone. You must be able to see their inner nature. Only a few people have this ability. In the next village, there’s a farmer who can differentiate a great horse from an average or poor one."
The king asked the farmer to begin his search for a special horse. Three months passed. Finally the farmer sent word to the king that he had found such a horse. "What kind of horse is it?" inquired the king. "It's a yellow mare," came the answer. But when the horse arrived, it was a black stallion. The king was angry, and sent for his adviser. "The farmer is not a horse expert at all. He can't tell a mare from a stallion, or a yellow horse from a black one."
The king's adviser gasped in admiration, “The farmer is even better than I thought. He's not influenced by the outer appearance of the horse. He doesn't judge by whether it's male or female, or by what color it is. He is not deceived by its outer appearance, but looks beyond that to its very essence. He sees only its inner nature. In this way he sees its potential for greatness."
The king gave the black stallion to his daughter and discovered it was the greatest horse he'd ever had.
How we judge character – the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual - is as challenging today as it was when this story from Lieu Tzu was written. It’s easy to make the mistake of being too quick to assess people by how they look and speak. According to the king's logic, anyone mistaken about the gender and color of a horse could not be an expert. The court adviser had a deeper perspective.
In the same way as the farmer had horse sense, the king’s adviser understood people. He knew that it takes time to go beyond outward appearance into the inner beauty of their character. And when we do, it inspires trusting and enduring relationships.