The Stable Group

The Stable Group by David Mathew.


This paper is a reflective account of a challenge that the author undertook, years earlier, as part of his M.A. in Psychoanalytic Studies. Given that the challenge at the time was itself a reflective task, this paper might be considered a reflection of a reflection. As part of his M.A. the author had to observe group dynamics in a work setting for ten weeks and present not only his report of what he saw and felt at the time of the observation, but also an interpretation of the report, as viewed through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. One further step on from that earlier material, this paper reflects on those previous reflections and interpretations, and questions some of the author's assumptions of the time. By challenging his earlier self in this way, the author also reflects on what a psychoanalytic exploration of the workers at a horse stable might tell us about our relationship with our learners.



Although much of my work is in the fields of education, psychoanalysis or writing, I was once duty-bound to conduct a weekly observation of the staff working at a stable for horses, for ten consecutive weeks. The reason for this is that I was working my way through a Masters in Psychoanalytic Studies and one of the modules dealt with institutional observations. The members of the class were each asked to choose a profession that they had no connection to - either professionally nor as a hobby - and to try to arrange a time and a day of the week that they could visit a group of people that met at this time and on this day regularly. While some of my classmates chose to approach (for example) banks or council offices, with a view to sitting in on team meetings for week after week, I doubted that this would be interesting to me, and I decided to attempt a group observation that might have the pleasurable by-product of getting me out into the fresh air for a couple of hours per week.

Approximately a twenty-minute walk from where I lived was a working stable for horses. One day I took a walk up the hill, where I was greeted warmly at the stable door by the woman who ran the stable; for the purposes of my weekly reports I changed her name to Ellie, and although the prospect of my visit on a weekly basis had no advantage for her or for her team, she agreed to my proposal after I'd explained that I was only there to watch and not get in the way.

For the purposes of this paper I have chosen extracts from two of the total-recall observation reports that I wrote at the time (my first visit and my eighth visit), and I have included edited commentaries on the same. By necessity the extracts contain people's names, but all of these names have been anonymised, and where a name appears for the first time I have included a brief description of that person's role in parentheses.


Extract from Observation 1: Visit 1: 'Here there is no weather ...'

As I approached the main building, the noise from the horses beyond was very loud. The horses were neighing and calling. At the door I paused and listened to them and heard them kicking their stable doors. I knocked on the front door and waited, standing in the rain and regarding the sign on the door that warned me that German Shepherd dogs patrolled the premises.

Ellie opened the door. She was on her own, not holding a dog. She said ‘Hi!’ and shook my hand. I was let in and I entered the building through a hallway that leads past where the dogs usually sleep. ‘Don’t worry,’ Ellie told me, ‘the dogs are up in one of the pastures with Rob [Ellie's husband]. They like to follow him about when he’s on his tractor. You won’t meet them. And even if you do, if you stay near me, that’s a sign of approval for them. Means you’re accepted.'

The other side of the main stable building is open to the weather but is roofed. It was under this roof that I conducted my observation. As I moved into the noise and the surprising warmth of the stable, a few of the women present nodded at me or smiled. Mrs N (horse-owner, volunteer worker) and Steph (worker) groomed a large white horse in the open space. Jasper (handyman) filled a bucket from a nearby tap.

Jasper walked out the back, swaggering slightly. Beyond the main stable building and the two other smaller stables, I saw a large barn. Its door was open wide, and I could see buckets, bags of horse food, ropes, harnesses, and tins of what turned out to be saddle care products. Jasper headed in the direction of this open door.

Lou (a worker) left this barn and walked towards us, carrying a bucket of food. ‘This is X, everybody!’ Ellie called out (meaning me). Lou said, ‘Hi there. I promise to be on my best behaviour.’ She walked towards a stall with a sign on the door that read SNOOPY. Inside the stall, a large horse kicked at the door. ‘All right, all right, I’m coming. Hold your horses!’ And she laughed loudly.

‘The old ones are the best, eh, X?’ Ellie whispered to me.

I smiled and nodded and returned the greetings of Terry (handyman), who was sweeping hay, straw and manure from a stable into a tidy pile.

Ellie said, ‘Rob’s in top field. Ms J [worker] and Miss V [horse-owner] are bringing in the rest [of the horses]. They won’t be too long, I shouldn’t think.’

While we listened to the horses screaming for their food and water and kicking at their doors, Jasper returned, carrying a stool. ‘Sit anywhere you like,’ said Ellie. ‘But you’ll probably see best if you’re there.’ She pointed at a point on the threshold between the main stable and the open air. Jasper said, ‘Here you go, mate,’ and handed me the stool.

There were fourteen stalls in total: ten in the main building, four in two separate buildings out the back, all within view. All fourteen stalls were occupied.

Ellie said, ‘Terry: could you see to the north fence, please?

Terry looked disappointed by the request, but he leaned his broom against the wall and abandoned his pile of straw and manure. ‘See you in a bit,’ he said to me. ‘Have fun.’

The workers continued with their tasks: combining their work about the yard and stable (cleaning, sweeping) with their care for the animals.

Ellie sent Jasper out to take a look at one of the fences that had been damaged in the dog-pen which had been built for Zack and Puppy but into which they hadn’t moved yet. Jasper sighed but did not argue. He picked up a hammer and a jar of nails that were on the floor near one of the stalls.

Ms J and Miss V returned to the stable, each holding a horse on a rein. The horses walked quickly and Ms J and Miss V had to stride to keep up.

Jasper told me that he was going to give Mrs N and Miss V ‘a lesson’ – they had only recently moved their horses to this particular stable. He began his talk by explaining that everyone had their own storage space in the barn. Meanwhile, Ms J started to fill up the first in a long line of buckets with water. Miss V began combing and brushing some of the worst of the mud out of the horses’ hair, one by one, with the horses tied loosely to fittings on the walls; the horses were allowed to dip their heads in order to eat from large plastic bowls of dry feed. There was little conversation apart from Jasper’s voice; everyone was busy and the operation was extremely streamlined, with everyone present well aware of what needed to be done. Ellie swept up the pile of straw and droppings that Terry had left behind when he went away to fix the fence.

Ellie then strode out into the rain and walked to the other side of an enormous pile of horse droppings, out of my line of sight. On the way she deposited what she had just swept up. The other workers worked efficiently in her temporary absence. Buckets were filled; bowls were filled with different amounts of different kinds of food (in the barn) and the bowls were brought back so that every horse was fed in turn. All of the women took turns at the taps, filling buckets and then pushing the hose into the next bucket when they were finished. The horses accepted their interim gifts of carrots and sweet pellets with good grace, but what they wanted were the bowls of food, which looked like a cross between wet cement and porridge. Such conversation as took place was deceptively cursory – almost rude – to one another; the workers went about their business, doing what needed to be done before it got any darker.

Gradually the horses, as they were fed, became quieter and got on with the business of eating, which required their full concentration. Some were given football-sized plastic toys half-filled with a different kind of edible pellet (for mental stimulation). The horses were treated with love, attention, kindness – and the tasks the workers were involved in were set to with a mixture of enthusiasm and can-do. Ms J swept the floor and carried dustpans of wet straw and manure to the dung-heap outside. Steph turned off the tap once she had checked that all of the buckets by the wall were full. Then she took the buckets, one by one, to the stalls for the horses. Jasper led Mrs N and Miss V out beyond the storage barn, where I could see an even bigger barn.

When Ellie returned she rubbed rain from her hair and stamped her boots. As I was preparing to leave I thought I might offer a simple observation. ‘It can’t be nice to work in these conditions,’ I said, indicating the downpour. She replied, ‘Here there is no weather. Horses have to be fed. There’s no weather.’

I told her that my time was up and that I had to go. ‘I hope you found it useful,’ she said, and I answered that I had indeed and that I’d see her next week. I called goodbye, and Ms J, Steph and Lou (who was standing in a stall, watching Snoopy eat) all said goodbye to me and waved.

As I left the main building, stepping out into the rain, I heard the dogs barking somewhere behind me. I walked down the drive, and not knowing whether or not to close the open gate behind me, I left it open.


Original Commentary on Observation 1

I felt nervous on my approach to the stable: much more so than I had on the evening when I had walked there on spec to ask for permission to observe. My anxiety, I am sure, had much to do with the fact that I had never been further than the main door and that I had little idea of what I would find beyond the door. In essence, I arrived at a ramshackle building, where all I could see were fences and paddocks (at that time unoccupied); not a single person was visible, as they were all ‘behind the scenes’ working. Added to this was my apprehension around barking dogs.

I was warmly received, which was a relief. Not only did I not appear threatening to the group, there were even obvious attempts to make me like individual members of it. For example, when Ellie whispered that the old jokes were the best (sarcastically), she was mocking one of her team but simultaneously attempting to get me on her side. Similarly, the use of the word ‘mate’ to me throughout was an attempt at bonding. The fact that I was offered a stool to sit on made me feel welcomed as an observer. I formed the impression that Ellie and her team were happy for me to be there – proud to show off their work, in fact – and the general sense of good-natured humour, despite the weather conditions, helped enforce this.

If the primary task (Bion, 1961) was to look after horses (their feeding, their grooming, the cleaning of their environment), I would say that this task was adhered to with professional aplomb, and achieved. With the single exception of an unvoiced complaint from Terry when he was asked to abandon one chore (sweeping) in order to take on another (fixing a fence in the rain, nursing a bad arm as he did), the group undertook their jobs with grit and determination. There appeared to be no hierarchy of tasks or of personnel: everyone was there to get the jobs done so that they could all go home. This made me impressed with Ellie as a leader: she has built a solid group, no doubt strengthened by the fact that she is ‘hands-on’ as well and does not only issue orders. I believe that it is largely because of Ellie that the group maintained and maintains its stability: having established herself as a good leader, Ellie is able to request supplementary tasks of her team (e.g. fixing the fence, or even fetching the stool) as means of reducing and containing group anxiety.

My presence did not have an obvious effect on the work rate of the group. The workers were friendly to me, and it is possible that Ellie and Terry (in particular) were attempting to curry my favour; then again, perhaps this is the way they are with every visitor. There was an absence of competitiveness among the group, and no sense of female rivalry. There was no sense of their waiting for me to leave; on the contrary, I gained the impression that they would have been content for me to have stayed until the stable was completely clean and tidy. Cleanliness and tidiness would have equated to the primary task having been fully achieved.

Look at the surface, I jotted down in my notebook on my return home. What is under? Look at boundaries: the electric fences. They are to keep intruders out, but also to keep the horses in; they are the boundaries of the container. Each paddock is a sub-container. And then I underlined a question that I hoped to answer in the following weeks of my observation:

In the absence of palpable tension or anxiety, can this absence itself create and brew up tension and anxiety? I thought of the novel (Ballard 1988) in which the children of rich parents, stifled by too much love and ‘idyllic’ surroundings (a state-of-the-art walled compound) go on a murderous campaign and kill their caregivers. And while I knew that this was exaggerating anything that would ever occur at the stable, there remained some comparisons. Not only is the work group containing its own anxiety; it is also obliged to contain the anxiety of the horses so that they do not spook.

A horse’s anxiety is contagious: it spreads to the whole herd. A horse can be spooked by the smell of blood, the smell of the vet; by a crisp packet blowing in the breeze across the bridle-path.

All of this must be contained by the working group.


Contemporary Response to Observation 1

Years have passed since I wrote this observation and my commentary on it, and although my circumstances have changed, my impressions of that time remain vivid. I look back on a happy time and I recall the positive feedback that the observation earned (we were obliged to read them aloud in class).

I remember being challenged on my use of pseudonyms, and in particular questioned on my system of first names versus 'Miss' or 'Mrs' plus the first letter of the surname. Reflective accounts are only as strong as one's memory, but if memory serves this choice was a simple way of distinguishing between those who worked at the stable (but did not own their own horses) and those who owned their own horses (and volunteered their labour). I believe that my naming structure was an attempt at conveying an (unconsciously experienced) sense of respect on the horse-owners. I wonder what this says about me.

Personnel notwithstanding, the stable is much the same as it was then. For the purposes of this article I made a return visit, and was surprised to be granted access: Ellie had stayed in the same position all of this time and she remembered me after a few seconds.

She asked me how my 'project' had gone, and I reminded her that I had visited once shortly after I knew I had passed my exams. Her eyes told me that she did not remember this visit, but it was a long time ago, so it is probably not surprising: I had visited the stable to say thank you one last time.

'Do you want to start watching us again?' Ellie asked. 'I don't think there's many you met last time. All fresh blood.'

For the last time I set foot into the stable. Two dogs barked, but they were different members of the team as well. The dogs I knew had long since passed away. These new dogs were no friendlier to casual visitors!



The second observation that I will present was that of my eighth visit.

In the intervening weeks I had good reason to support my own views that Ellie had strong leadership qualities. ‘[I]t’s very hard to describe what makes a really good manager,’ says Isabel Menzies Lyth:

There is … a lot of courage involved; you’ve got to be able to do things which, on the face of it, may seem unpopular, upset people … You are not kind all the time … Integrity is very important … the capacity for containment: [y]ou don’t panic and you are able to reflect and digest and think … The other thing about being a good leader is being a good example to the troops and sharing the hardships. (Pecotic 2002, pp.4-9)

Ellie had certainly had cause to share the hardships. Her beloved dog Puppy had been taken seriously ill (a brain tumour) and had had to be put down. Personally, I had become fond of Puppy, and to watch her physical decline over the two weeks preceding my eighth visit had been painful. No longer the bouncing, playful Puppy, she had become a clumsy burden to herself and to others. She frightened the horses (I think they sensed something of her condition) and she was apt to walk headfirst into gates that she must have seen as open even though they were closed.

The putting-down of Puppy had occurred a few days earlier. The surviving guard dog, Zack, had been introduced to a new partner – another puppy named Bonnie – and they had moved from the room by the stable’s front door, to a shed with its own enclosed running area. Zack was teaching Bonnie how to fight and to bark with more aggression.

Two new horses had been moved in: a tiny Falabella and a regular-sized companion, which shared the same stall.

Ellie’s young children – a boy and a girl – were in attendance for this following observation. It was the first time that I had seen the children.


Extract from Observation 2: Visit 8: ‘There’s always something sad around a stable…’

The horses were neighing and calling for their food, as is usual when I arrive on a Sunday. Some of the horses were kicking their stable doors. A few of the horses stuck their heads out of their stables to see who had come to see them but then they did not pay me much attention.

When I entered the yard, Miss V and Ellie immediately said hello to me and I returned the greeting, moving off into my corner where I usually watch from. I sat on my stool. I had not known it but I was to witness the instruction of one member of the team by another member of the team. Ms N was taking instruction from Ellie in the ways of easing the horse into having its hair clipped. In the meantime, Terry started to fill buckets with water from the tap.

Steph was preparing her horse to go out riding with Lou, to give the horses exercise, although this was late in the afternoon to take a horse out. She explained where they would be going – and also told everyone how long they thought they would be gone. ‘Where’s that tractor?’ she asked rhetorically. Then she explained to me: ‘The horses can’t go where the tractor is because it’s frightening to them and they spook. I won’t be a second … ’ By walking out to the gate with the horse tied up, Steph established where the tractor was and called back to Lou: ‘It’s fine, he’s way out.’ She then opened the gate and led her horse through.

Jasper arrived back at the stable, having been to collect the horse food for the week; he put it in the hay-barn and filled a couple of horses’ hay-nets by strolling from stall to stall with a handful of hay each time.

Mrs N also moved almost wordlessly from stall to stall, beginning to put down straw, checking beds and removing droppings. She also changed the water in the buckets, carrying the buckets from the tap to each stall. She carried the droppings in a bucket out back to the dung heap.

The radio was on in an attempt to keep the horses quiet – but the main way of keeping a horse quiet is to invite it to eat, which Ms J and Mrs N were doing, filling buckets full of feed and water and distributing them around the various stalls of the stable. While Ellie instructed Ms N, Ellie’s children walked into the stable, each of them carrying a broom that seemed huge next to their small bodies. Both of them looked at me on my stool and the boy said ‘Hello’ but the girl appeared shy and turned away.

Mrs N explained that the children were waiting for their father to come up the main drive and pick them up so that they could go on a tractor ride. She also told me that many of the horses had been inside all day, even though it was sunny, because Rob was fertilising the fields and killing weeds like ragwort because they’re poisonous to the horses.

Ms J groomed the horses one by one as Ellie’s lesson with Ms N continued. Ms J washed the horses’ tail and feet; the horses are losing their winter coats and there was lots of hair everywhere. As Ms N and Ellie’s lesson continued, Ms J picked the stones out of the horses’ feet and polished their hooves. This all took place in the area directly outside the main stables.

For the purposes of the lesson, Ellie was carrying a switch (similar to a whip) which she has been using for several weeks to train the horse into not being frightened of the hair-clippers. She was teaching Ms N to hold an electric toothbrush and the switch in the same hand and to touch the switch gently over the horse’s body, to get the horse used to the tickling sensation and the noise of the toothbrush’s motor. She explained it to Ms N every step of the way: she explained that the clippers would be much louder for the horse and that this was the way to get her prepared.

‘She has to get used to routine,’ I overheard Ellie telling Ms N, tracing the switch underneath the horse’s body, and in places where it might be tender. She kept talking to Ms N throughout the training, but as she explained, she was also talking to the horse, which occasionally swished its tail with dissatisfaction and stamped its back leg. When these signs of disappointment or discomfort arose, Ellie backed away, stopped for a while, and waited for the horse to calm down. Then she started again, keeping her voice level and calm at all times – trying not to spook the horse – and then repeating the process on both sides of the horse’s body. ‘The idea is to get the horse used to the noise and the feeling. Move the toothbrush nearer,’ she instructed, while doing so to illustrate her point.

Shortly afterwards, Ellie started with the real clippers. In the meantime, Mrs N had been back to inform Ellie that there was a ‘hot bale' in the feed barn. Ellie produced the horse clippers; they were the size of a brick. She turned them on and the horse quickly moved away from the loud noise. Immediately Ellie turned the clippers off and showed the horse the clippers, allowing the horse to sniff the clippers; then she tried again and said to Ms N, ‘Give her a treat for being good.’ Ms N fed the horse a spearmint pellet.

From where I sat I could just see the corner of the dogs’ new home. The dogs continued to bark throughout my visit.

Suddenly Jasper started to laugh, somewhere outside the main barn, where the other stables house four horses. His laugh was booming. We all went towards the edge of the main barn to see what was going on, and there was the smallest horse imaginable, which I hadn’t seen before now. It was a two and-a-half year-old Falabella (a miniature horse). The reason that Jasper was laughing was because the other horses are very nervous of the Falabella; they don’t know how to treat her or react to her. Looking over their stable doors, one horse shied away from it as if afraid. Now, everybody laughed, and a discussion ensued about how the other horses were reacting. ‘They don’t know if it’s a pony or a dog,’ Jasper told me. The horse in question is about 2.5 feet tall to its shoulders.

From where I now stood, the dogs in their run could see me. Zack barked at me but was also apparently confused by the Falabella and started barking at the horse as well. Zack gradually became less aggressive as we remained in the area for a minute or two.

We returned to the main stable and I sat back down on my stool.

Ellie’s lesson with Ms N came to an end. By this point Ms N was able to advance on her horse slowly with the switch and the toothbrush in the same hand; the horse was jumpy but it allowed Ms N to stroke her flanks and underbelly. ‘Not even your hubby gets it so nice, I bet,’ Ellie joked.

Ms N laughed.

Lou called from one of the stalls: ‘Are you coming running on Tuesday night, Ellie?’ Lou was doling out straw from a large flat plastic container: preparing a bed for the horse that would occupy the stall when it had been brought back from the fields shortly.

While Ellie’s children continued to move their sweepings out to the dung-heap, the adults made plans for their evening of exercise. Lou, Ellie, Ms N, Ms J and Mrs N would all be participating.

‘We all need to lose some weight,’ Ms N confided in me.

‘Speak for yourself!’ said Ms J.

‘So you’re intending to arrive on time this week, Ellie?’ said Lou.

The women had a laugh together – a semi-regular running session, weather permitting, which would also constitute both a team-bonding activity and a get-fit campaign in one. Last week Ellie had been late to join them.

‘All right, all right,’ Ellie said, acknowledging the chiding. ‘Last one out, lock the doors,’ she instructed. ‘I’m off.'

‘Me too,’ I told her. ‘Thanks as ever.’

When I left I was offered waves and goodbyes.


Original Commentary on Observation 2

‘Management, if practised unimaginatively,’ writes Anton Obholzer with Sarah Miller in ‘Leadership, followership, and facilitating the creative workplace’ (Huffington et al., 2004, p41), ‘is leadership without the vision, and therefore, to a degree, the management and administration of the status quo.’

But when applied to the stable, can this view be squared? On the one hand, we might argue, Ellie is maintaining the status quo; but does this mean that she must also be an ‘unimaginative’ leader, as Obholzer suggests? I do not believe this is the case. The fact is that many of the tasks that mesh together for the group to achieve its primary task are repetitive; but this does not mean that her leadership style is without ‘vision’. Indeed, I believe that an atmosphere has been created in which humour both bonds the group together and fends off group anxiety. In Obholzer’s phrase, we might even regard the Stable as a ‘creative workplace’ – at least in the sense that anxiety seems contained and the primary task is achieved on a daily basis.

We might contend that the group at the Stable follows the theory that Freud posited in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (Freud 1922, Standard Edition 18, p116): that groups are ‘a number of individuals who have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego.’ While it is probably true that the horses help to act as adhesives in the ego-integration of the group, I think this integration is also a result of Ellie’s leadership.

In this eighth observation, Ellie showed further signs of being an authority – she was listened to by Ms N – but she did not show signs of being aloof in any way. Humbly, in fact, she accepted the jibes of the others when the subject of running came up: she became ‘one of the girls’ who had tried to shirk her exercise commitments in the past: she effectively said sorry without saying sorry! But is this all that is present? In a paper entitled ‘Some unconscious aspects of organizational life’ (Obholzer and Roberts 1994, p11), William Halton offers an interesting interpretation of complaints: ‘a staff group talking about their problems with the breakdown of the switchboard may at the same time be making an unconscious reference to a breakdown in interdepartmental communication. Or complaints about the distribution of car-park spaces may also be a symbolic communication about managers who have no room for staff concerns.’ Given these remarks, perhaps we can dig deeper for a ‘true’ interpretation of the group’s comments about Ellie’s lateness when it comes to running. Perhaps they are unconsciously frustrated with her being slow to react to any number of other matters.

Returning to Obholzer, we read: ‘(M)anagers fall into states of increased bureaucracy, both “in the mind” and “in the system”, and the managed fall into states of denigrating management. This can either take the form of casting managers as parasites who live off the work or creativity of the workers, or else for management not to be seen as real work... At an unconscious level the leader is perceived as giving the group a message: “I think I’m better than you are…” Leaders and managers are experienced as siblings who have reached “above their station.” (p41)

It says much, I think, that this appears not to be the case at the Stable. There is unconscious recognition of the fact that although each member of the group knows his or her own roles at a basic level, more explicit task-giving, involving chores that deviate somewhat from the norm, is the responsibility of the leader. This is not challenged. Nor, however, do I believe that this behaviour should lead us to assume basic assumptions are in place. The Stable is work-focused; there is no sense of basic-assumption dependency...

As I have throughout the process, I felt comfortable at this observation. In ‘Bion Revisited’ (Trist and Murray, 1990), J.D. Sutherland writes: ‘As in psychoanalysis, the observer learns to attend to two levels of mental activity: the manifest conscious and the latent subconscious and unconscious.’ (p120) By this point in my observations, I was hopeful that I had gained some insight into what was occurring: into the counter-transference, as it were: and the process was becoming more and more natural, I think.

But what of the group’s notion of me? What of the transference?

I had long since become someone who happens to attend on Sundays (no questions asked, or few of them anyway); and although I was accepted from the beginning, it was always with relief that I observed with little attention paid to me. Though occasionally someone would speak to me, it was only ever a sentence or two, and usually in a spirit of helping me to understand something that might otherwise have gone unexplained.

Puppy’s death was not remarked upon, which surprised me. One might argue: well, what can you say? – as Ms J had remarked in an earlier observation, with reference to a sick horse, ‘There’s always something sad around a stable’ – but all the same, I had expected a mention or two. The group had pulled together to overcome the anxiety caused by Puppy’s death, I believe; they had buried their sadness in their work. Perhaps this was why the mood of the Stable was so optimistic and why there was a lot of humour: it was there to protect the members of the group from hostile attacks to the ego. If we follow Freud’s theory to its logical conclusion, the very fact that a workforce gels and gets along is a constitution for unconscious tension and anxiety anyway. Add to this the combined sadness surrounding Puppy’s death, and we might conclude that this workgroup had unconsciously vowed to block these tensions and to concentrate on being exponents of Bion’s W (his conceptualisation of work).

‘Identification,’ writes Wollheim (1971, p.230) ‘is the source of the social tie. In virtue of it, members of a group model themselves upon each other, they tend to think and to feel alike, and it is only an extreme variant of this phenomenon that we find in the contagion epidemic in mobs or crowds convulsed by passions of the moment.’

The group at the stable have formed this links of identification, including the comparative newcomers of Mrs N and Miss V. Not only do the horses introject their good objects, the members of the group do too. And if Freud’s theory of it being impossible for society to rely solely on love, and that there must be a conflict with love (love being inherently subversive), then the group at the stable are able to endure these anxieties well, sublimating them perhaps into the care of their animals.

A line in my notebook from the day of the eighth observation reads, in total: What would happen if Ellie went? Would the place fall apart? Would the dogs get fed? Would the centre hold?

How swiftly would the group veer towards basic assumption inevitability? Who might pair? Who might be unconsciously coerced into a position of management, however temporary in tenure it turned out? After all, ‘a group will unconsciously appoint somebody to do some job they want doing,’ says Menzies Lyth in the interview with Pecotic (p.3). And everyone, on the surface at least, has seemed satisfied with Ellie as far as I have seen. As Obholzer writes in the same paper as above: ‘Followership is and must be an actively participative process’ (p.43). There are other stables in the area for those unsatisfied. Followership is a choice: the group has chosen.

‘Can a work group claw itself out of the clutches of basic assumption?’ I also wrote, the next day – where ‘basic assumption’ might be defined as something that the individual does on an unconscious level in order to be part of a group. ‘And if so, how?’ Who would exhibit high valency, in Bion’s terminology; who would exhibit low – where ‘valency’ describes an individual’s willingness to combine with someone else in order to act on the basic assumption. In other words, I suppose I was posing the rhetorical question: would the group fight or flee?

It is tempting to believe, in this case, flee. But whatever the true answer, it is useful to recall Bion (1961, p.118), who wrote: ‘there is no way in which the individual can, in a group, “do nothing” – not even by doing nothing.’


Contemporary Response to Observation 2

It occurs to me now that alongside observing the complex eddies of group dynamics and the actions of a competent manager, I was also watching a class in action. Despite the evidence of the lessons that were given at the time, it had always felt more like a place of industry than a place of learning; but now I see that this perception was wrong – or at least only half of the story.

Not only was there the obvious example of my presence there, the purpose of which was specifically to learn; and not only did occasional training sessions take place. It was more than this. It was an atmosphere of near-total immersion: not only was there 'no weather' and not only was it sometimes 'sad', the stable seems to have been (with the benefit of hindsight) a system in balance, not bothered by events in the outside world. It was more than a job or a hobby, it seemed; it was a metaphorical bubble. There were people and animals who needed more than care: they needed their education. Everyone learned from someone else, regardless of the weather or one's personal emotional condition.

It strikes me now that such selflessness is also well-used in a more traditional classroom or workplace setting (or could be). The creation of an environment away from the 'norm' is surely what good education should entail. And perhaps it is our duty to try harder to ensure this bubble holds.


De Board (1978, p.16) writes: ‘The basic question which Freud attempted to answer concerns the nature of the social instinct in man. Do human beings form groups and behave in a social manner because of a basic instinct that is “given” by man’s very nature and that is, therefore, not capable of further dissection? Or is the social instinct and group behaviour an expression of other, more primary, instincts?’

It is also important to include Civilization and its Discontents (Freud 1930, Standard Edition 21) in this context. Freud pondered on whether or not it was too simplistic to envisage ‘a cultural community consisting of double individuals like this, who, libidinally satisfied in themselves, are connected with one another through the bonds of common work and common interests’ (p.108).

But is it too simplistic a view? In truth, the stable group has perhaps reached something close to this; certainly the model seems to be working.

In a paper entitled ‘From sycophant to saboteur – responses to organizational change’ (Huffington et al, 2004, p.87) Linda Hoyle writes: ‘During any period of organizational change, there is the potential for heightened creativity.’ But what does this imply if there is no organizational change? A deadening of the creative spirits? Hoyle continues: ‘The anxiety evoked by the process of change can be a major barrier to implementing successful change and it is, indeed, the central tenet of the psychoanalytic theory of the sources of resistance to change.’

Could it be that the stable is something comparatively rare? An organization which attempts to eliminate the need for further decisions via the execution of ritual task performance; an organization in which the workers act as both caregivers and (in a sense) therapists – to one another and to the animals? Perhaps this sounds trite. It remains a fact, even so, that the place has the feeling of a kind of commune. While it is not the case that is share and share alike (as I first imagined for part of my first visit), it is indubitably the case that the people who have worked there for some time have clear impressions of what jobs need to be done and in what order. Much work occurs in silence; or to the accompaniment of the radio’s Heart FM. Thoughts that remain unvocalized are nonetheless shared ‘telepathically’: Freud’s theory of Group Psychology made fact, perhaps! The daily repetition of chores is the means by which we might endeavour to reduce psychic excitation; and the same goes for the collective store of excitation in the group.

Caring for horses – what used to be called grooming – is an old-fashioned industry, and it used to be a job for the poor to execute for the wealthy. Accordingly, perhaps, the stable is an environment of stark simplicity – the only amenities available are a flow of water and a few bare bulbs – where there is no telephone and where the only option for communication is face-to-face (or pensive silence). Could it be that these rudimentary qualities are what lend the stable its charms and the enrichment of its emotional life? For there is a lot of emotional life thriving in a stable – or in the stable, at any rate. The humans employ the work of identification, whereby they take an object – a lost object, perhaps, or one that they fear might be lost – into themselves and make it part of their individual and collective inner world, becoming enriched in the process. This object might be the group leader; it might be the horse. Perhaps this notion answers a question of why people keep horses in the first place.

However, might we also propose that the horses enter into precisely the same process of identification? Certainly it would seem the case that the workers calm the horses and vice versa.

But can the stable be a group therapy situation? As Rickman puts it (2003, p.133), ‘psycho-therapists are not the only people with a professional interest in the relief of mental pain …‘ And doesn’t Rickman’s definition of group therapy actually ring true of the life experienced at the stable: ‘a number of people are assembled together for purposes of explanation of their condition or for exhortation, or for that “companionate therapy” which comes when groups are formed mainly for the purpose of social amenity’ (p.134). Or most analogously of all: ‘the patient feels that the dignity of his personality and individuality is being respected’ (p.140).

That employees now talk to other individuals, rather than interact with a machine, was a fundamental descriptor of work in the post-industrial society; but it is easy to argue that we have gone backwards again, with computer work making long-distance transactions and interactions easy, but at the loss of face-to-face communication. The work done at establishments such as the stable is a return – idealised, impermanent – to a pre-industrial age: in which even the silences speak volumes. The following is from Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983, p.160), and it posits a bleak future:

If jobs that call for emotional labor grow and expand with the spread of automation and the decline of unskilled labor – as some analysts believe they will – this general social track may spread much further across other social classes. If this happens, the emotional system itself – emotion work, feeling rules, and social exchange, as they come into play in a “personal control system” – will grow in importance as a way through which people are persuaded and controlled both on the job and off. If, on the other hand, automation and the decline of unskilled labor leads to a decline in emotional labor, as machines replace the personal delivery of services, then this general social track may come to be replaced by another that trains people to be controlled in more impersonal ways.

In ‘Task and Sentient Systems and Their Boundary Controls’ (Trist and Murray, 1990), Eric J. Miller and A.K. Rice define a ‘sentient system or group (as) one that demands and receives loyalty from its members’. By this definition alone, but also with the weight of the other evidence I have already mentioned, I would have no hesitation in regarding the stable as a sentient group, and one which it was my privilege to observe and to learn from.



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