My world lights up when I go to Fiore Farms and find Ben there. Our horses, Mystic and Buddy, are pasture-mates and best friends. I like to think Ben and I are best friends too, though we don’t share the same hay pile.
Ben has a capacious heart—I think it may be the same size as Buddy’s, which means it’s seven to eight times the size of an average human’s. Ben quietly helps wherever he sees the need, whether it’s feeding 23 horses in pouring rain or driving 12 hours round-trip in a day to attend to his ailing parents.
In his civilian life, Ben is an associate professor of religious studies at UNCG. His areas of specialty include feminist religious thought and the intersection of psychology and religion. He was Cornel West’s teaching assistant at Union Theological Seminary, and they remain lifelong friends. Ben taught at Hamilton College before coming to UNCG; his resume also includes teenage ER assistant and zookeeper.
I often ask Ben about his classes, and his answers make me wish I were one of his students. When teaching Introduction to Religious Studies to a huge class of freshmen last fall, he arrived one day with more than 100 fresh oranges. The students read Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Mindful Eating,” which includes this gentle advice:
The students then peeled and ate their oranges as mindfully as 18-year-olds are capable of. Ben cackled as he recounted their impatience and bafflement. A professor for more than three decades, he knew the mindfulness concept might take root in a few students—and that would be enough.
At Fiore Farms, Ben has taken on the job of cleaning the sheds—a polite euphemism for manure-scooping—as well as feeding the herd several times a week. Not every farm has a Ph.D. recipient wheeling barrows of horse dung, but then, Fiore Farms is not just any place. Ben performs his chores with a Thoreauian appreciation for the pleasures of humility and simplicity.
For all his hard-working, self-effacing Puritan qualities, Ben is a softie when it comes to Buddy. He loves that horse with the fuzzy gaze of a doting parent—to him, Buddy, part Clydesdale, part mystery, with his scrubby tail and long, pink-nosed face, is perfect. Together they ride with the Sedgefield Hunt, barreling through the countryside in non-lethal pursuit of coyotes and foxes. It’s a sport for daredevils and adrenaline-junkies, which apparently Ben and Buddy qualify as, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at them.
Ben and I often ride the trail together: sharing life philosophies and barn gossip while we journey through woods and pasture brings the same kind of joy as mindfully eating an orange. Maybe even more.
Loving horses has brought gifts like Ben into my life. In my experience, horse people are always people you can count on. They tend to be kind, generous, thoughtful, and refreshingly down-to-earth. So thanks Ben—and Angela, Amanda, Jane, Elizabeth, Joanie, Jeanne, Marina, Pat, both Margarets, Jeannette, Emma, James, Kate, and all the rest of you. You bring me a lot of happiness.