Dee Chadwick
10 Jan 2021
This is a proverb or idiom used for many years, being first recorded in English in 1520, though an earlier medieval variant existed as ‘don’t put the oxen before the yoke’. Even though horses and carts are not such every day sights for many of us, a proverb that we continue to make use of.


I admit to loving the sight of an occasional horse and cart, though I can’t recall seeing one put to use as in the photograph for many years. However, I do remember, as a child, seeing them used in this way on holidays away from my urban home. I have though seen them on holidays spent much further afield, in more recent years; being put to similar practical uses rather than merely as tourist attractions. Lovely to see, except when the poor horse was toiling in the heat of the day whilst I sheltered under a big sun hat, sipping a cool drink; or even worse when the horse or pony showed other, greater,  signs of mistreatment. I have been known, by use of much pointing and gesticulating, to point out to the human in charge the sores or obvious weariness of the poor animal. I could but try, whilst accepting that my efforts were almost certainly in vain. For me, I put the welfare of the horse simply before that of the owner – and certainly of the cart!


There are quite a few variations on the theme of the translation of this particular proverb or idiom.  However, for me, I choose to consider the spin of not doing things in their ‘proper’ order , the ‘wrong’ way round or with an ‘incorrect’ emphasis. I guess the most obvious of translations as that poor old horse would struggle to push the straw laden cart rather than pull it.

However, just as we have very much moved on from horse and cart transportation, so we have also moved on from considering how people tackle tasks. There is no one size fits all. I used to find it fascinating watching a class full of pupils tackle a practical problem that I had set. So many variations on a theme, hence my use of apostrophes around the words proper, wrong and incorrect. OK, we learn from others, but we mainly carry our preferred way of working through life with us. What is a proper, wrong, incorrect order of doing things for Joe could well be a difficult way for Jane to complete the same task. Maybe for some that metaphorical horse may well be pushing the cart of old.

There will be those who will work at a task from what is perceived as a top down way whilst others choose a bottom up approach. Then comes the question –would it be better for people to work with others who choose the same approach as them, or a mix. The dynamics of group working are fascinating! Throw into the mix whether someone prefers to imagine the big picture – the finished article as it were,  and work back from this, or begin with the minutiae of the small picture and build on from this.

A quote from Dr Frederick Lenz, American spiritual teacher, tells us that ‘Most people put the cart before the horse, which is an interesting way to go through life. They approach everything directly. In Zen we approach everything backwards or inside out.’ I have to say that I love the concept of backwards and upside down approaches to life, its tasks and problems. Out of the box thinking for sure. It reminds me of the response I received when I asked one child if he could name one thing for me that would not be attracted to a magnet. After only a moment’s hesitation, he named his object – an upside down scarecrow. You can’t fault his answer, but understanding of how he reached it would be fascinating. Maybe a young Zen thinker there.


On a personal level, I am lucky if I am actually completing any task – I have so much started crafting – quilting, appliqué, knitting, sewing .. you name it, I’ve started it. There are some small projects, whilst others are larger and more daunting ones – they are all there. ‘There’ being a heap hidden behind a chair in my sitting room. A chair that was gradually inching its way further and further away from the wall – no matter how hard I pushed it back!

It sort of feels that both the horse and myself have taken up residence inside the cart. A residency full of excuses and too comfortable to encourage any change despite that inexorably forward creeping chair.... Then a friend, who had a similar predicament, came to my rescue. She had read an article by a well known crafter which she shared with me. Said article had stated that it is OK to have more than one crafting project on the go at once – in fact, up to 12 she said. I come in under that number, so I am ok. The stipulation however was that the projects were in separate containers, and were neatly stored – so my haphazard jamming had to be changed. I now boast containers with each task separately folded within and as nobody comes into my sitting room, said containers are neatly stacked in full view. The theory being that out of sight being out of mind has now been replaced by order and accessibility to encourage me to dip in and do!

That relayed message gave me the kick in the pants that I needed to take a step forward. Surprisingly for me, I didn’t beat myself up for not having come up with such a simple idea by myself. Instead, I reflect on the notion that as both the metaphorical horse and myself shared a cosy space, it gave time for reflection on life and living in this weird old world of ours. Probably time that was much needed in order to be ready to move on with the much delayed tasks. I did things in a way that probably wasn’t what most would consider ‘right’, but nobody was hurt by this and said wrong way has been ok for me.


A more widespread concern of mine is about the COVID virus and where the horse is in relation to the cart in this. Great that centres for inoculation have been set up, but to my mind, we have known about the virus for too long and have know about the development of the vaccines for some time. So why have the arrangements for vaccination centres not been established in preparation rather than after the vaccines have been signed off for use. I know it is a huge task, but it is also a hugely important task with the time element a vital part in order to be getting as many vaccinations carried out as quickly as possible. I keep checking my surgery’s web site and it seems that they have joined forces with 6 other surgeries to provide vaccinations in premises other than the surgeries themselves. Something that could have been sorted whilst the waiting for the out of their control vaccine signing off and production? Maybe I am being naive here, and certainly other areas are already up and running with their vaccinating.

As for those receiving the vaccine – how I wish that all health care workers and carers were the first to receive their inoculation. Something I tell to clients who put a lot of effort into caring for others and little into self-care is a reminder of the message given out on planes. A message given in the case of an emergency and the oxygen masks coming down – to always put on your own mask first then help children, the elderly, any others in need of assistance. If not you will not be in a position to help. The same goes for those who selflessly have been caring for the sick, at a time when so many of their colleagues are succumbing to the virus. Where is the cart in relation to that exhausted, hardworking ‘horse’ here?

I recognise that it is a complicated situation even within this small country of ours. Setting up of supply chains, vaccinators and helping volunteers thrown into the mix of the above considerations. It will not be a case of one size fits all, rather using a saying involving horses of a different breed from cart horses – it’s horses for courses.

I am not sleeping well at present and my mind has been running riot with various scenarios that could be involved to allow for the passage of socially separated people through the arrival, vaccination, and rest period involved in the vaccination. As most of my ideas were, to put it mildly, very much off the wall and wouldn’t even be included in a Zen way of thinking, it’s a good job that the army have stepped in to help rather than this long-time ago service wife! My ideas were definitely more sci-fi than sci-fact, but they gave me some chuckles, even if they didn’t lull me off into the arms of Morpheus.

Stay safe and well – and be grateful that if/when you receive a vaccination that it isn’t by one of my methods. Do get in touch if I can help - whilst I cannot offer a vaccination, I can offer support via phone or Skype nomatter where you are reading this. 

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