When it comes to finding a really effective villain for a story or novel, there’s nothing quite like mining the psychological texts for appropriate personality types. Your common or garden psychopath makes an easy target–serial killers are a staple, along with Evil Overlords and Crazed Monsters. But if you’re looking for something a little more subtle, you’ll find more useful fodder among the sociopaths.
These are people (and horses, but we’re focusing on the human element here) who may seem to function within the norms of society, but who are adept at undercutting it, sometimes in ways that can be far more pervasively evil than straightforward slash-and-burn slaughter. Such personalities seek out the vulnerable, the gullible, and the defenseless–and that includes animals and the people who love them.
I’m not talking about blatant animal abuse here. I’m talking about the kind of thing that you may see in a classroom, in an office, or anywhere else that humans congregate. It gravitates toward children and animals, and it seeks out students of all ages and persuasions–anyone who is eager to learn an art or a craft, and anyone who wants to improve his or her life and knowledge. There’s a class of predator that preys on this eagerness, that for fun or profit will use and abuse the desire of the person or animal to work together and learn, and in the process, do a great deal of psychological or physical damage.
In horses, this type of predator is sadly common. Horses attract it. They’re large, powerful, and potentially dangerous, but they’re also highly dependent on humans for survival, and they are, as a species, very willing and cooperative. It’s easy to abuse them, to exploit their trust and damage their minds and bodies. And the same applies to the people who live with and work with and love them.
I’m not talking about outright abuse here–whip welts, bloody spurs, horses beaten and broken by human aggression, though that’s more than bad enough in its own right. I’m talking about the soft-spoken charmer, the “teacher” who inveigles his or her way into the barn by saying all the things the people in the barn want to hear, who pretends to be a “master” of the art of horsemanship, and who purports to teach things that if not new are still wonderful and amazing and revelatory, that will raise the humans’ awareness to new levels and transform the horses into marvels of cooperation and accomplishment.
At first it may seem that the “Master” truly does have a handle on the great secrets. The disciples will learn a few things that seem like great revelations, and the horses will seem to benefit visibly from them.
But then over time the gold will turn to ashes. The lessons will be wonderful while they’re happening, but afterwards, when the Master goes away, the students won’t be able to duplicate what they thought they learned. They’ll feel stupid; incompetent. They’ll blame it on themselves, or worse, on the horses. Then they’ll have to bring the Master back, because clearly they did not learn the secrets well enough, and they have to pay the Master more money and worship at the Master’s feet even more assiduously in order to eke out a few scraps of progress.
It’s a great racket for the Master. For the students, not so much. A really adept Master will reduce her students to near-total incompetence, and total dependence on his every golden word. That way, the students never see the limits of the Master’s often very constricted real skills, and remain forever in her power. It’s a bonus for this kind of Master–versus the one who “only” damages humans–that the horses follow a similar trajectory. At best they may never get past a very basic level as riding horses. At worst, and all too often, they end up physically and mentally damaged, to the point that they may not be rehabilitated. In some cases, they may die of it–or be killed at the Master’s insistence, because “he’s not worth anything, he’s useless, put him down.”
This is not fiction, or dark fantasy. This happens everywhere. Saddest of all is that when horse people tell war stories of Evil Masters, each one may be talking about a different Master. The horse world is rife with them, and they include some of the biggest names in exhibition and competition–all the way to Olympic gold.
For a writer, this is grist for a very bloody mill. Mysteries, thrillers, pyschological dramas. Fantasy–not only the cruelly destructive villain but the psychic vampire who feeds on the goodwill of the horses and humans under its thrall. It’s all there in the “real” world, to be studied and applied to fiction.