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Aesop’s Fables, The Horse and the Ass

Aesop's Fable, The Horse and the Ass
Aesop’s Fable, The Horse and the Ass

In this lesson, we will study Aesop’s Fable of “the Horse and the Ass”.  To complete the objectives of this lesson, complete the following tasks:

  1. Read through the fable once to become familiar with its content.
  2. Study the fable carefully, seeking to learn all of its details.
  3. Study the exposition below.
  4. Complete the lesson assessment.


A War-horse, gaily caparisoned, with arching neck and lofty tread, the ground ringing beneath his hoofs, overtook a patient Ass, slowly walking along under a heavy load. He called upon him in a haughty tone to move on one side, and give him room to pass. The poor Ass did so, sighing at the inequality of their lots. Not long after, he met the same Horse in the same road, and near the same spot ; but in how different circumstances! Wounded in battle, and his master killed, he was now lame, half blind, and heavily laden, driven with many blows by a brutal carrier, into whose hands he had fallen.


In this fable, we read of two characters: a War Horse and an ass. We read that the War Horse is “gaily caparisoned”, which means that the horse is dressed with colorful fabrics and armor that displays his great status among the animals. We read that the War Horse walks with arching neck and lofty tread, proud and tall. On the other hand, we read of the ass who is described as being patient, that is, suffering. We read that the ass is walking slowly under a heavy load. As the horse approaches this slow moving ass, he calls for him to get out of the way. The ass has no choice but to obey. As the War Horse struts past the ass, the latter lets out a sigh, discouraged by the inequality of their lots. The War Horse seems to have every advantage while the ass has none.

This, however, is only the first part of this fable. In the second part, we find a very different scene. The ass continues in his ordinary work. The War Horse, however, is found in a very different state. The War Horse has been injured in battle, and his good master has been killed. After being injured, the war horses value is lost and he was probably put up for sale through an auction and bought by one who was looking for a cheap animal to make use of before it died. Trying to get the most value for his money, the master loaded the horse and drove him along the way with beatings. We can imagine that when the ass saw the war horse this second time, there was no more sighing.

What is the moral lesson of this fable?

As always, we can look at the meaning of this fable through the eyes of the different characters, and when we do so we will find different moral lessons.

Let us first look through the eyes of the ass.

The ass was being used according to his nature as a beast of burden. His situation in life was difficult but not beyond his strength. The work he did was not rewarded but taken for granted. When he sighed at the inequality that appeared to exist between him and the War Horse, he was influenced by the appearance of things at the moment. At that moment, the War Horse appeared to have the better lot in life. What he failed to consider, however, is that the circumstance for which the War Horse was trained and dressed was one filled with danger. On the battlefield, the War Horse was in constant danger, And in the case of this horse suffered the consequences of the battlefield. The ass did not enjoy the benefits of the War Horse, but he also did not face his dangers. In the end, the ass learned that his humble state, in the long run, was better than that of the War Horse. This teaches us to be careful not to judge according to appearances. This teaches us not to be deceived by present conditions. This teaches us not to covet the benefits of others when we are unaware of their costs.
Now let us look through the eyes of the horse.

It is possible that the horse had been trained and dressed for battle, but had never yet experienced the fight. The horse may have looked at his condition as superior to that of the ass and imagined the ass to be a miserable creature. The horse failed, however, to consider his own end and the dangers that awaited him. Like the ass, the horse judged things based on appearances, the appearances of present conditions. The horse considered his advantages, but not his dangers. The horse did not consider the stability of the life of the ass. While the horse enjoyed an exalted position and the ass labored in humility, the condition of the horse was subject to change, while that of the ass was not. In the battlefield, the horse found himself surrounded by horses of equal strength, not by inferior animals like the ass, where there was no room for boasting. Once injured in battle, his status dropped even lower than that of the ass. His end was most miserable, teaching the horse to respect those who are in humble conditions because their ends may be more desirable.


When we pray the Rosary, on mystery we meditate on is Our Lord’s carrying of the Cross.  Here, we see our Lord like the patient ass, walking slowly along the road.  He is being mocked and shoved along by the gaily caparisoned soldiers who take pride in their apparent superiority.  Those same soldiers had already scourged him, beat him, spit upon him and pressed a crown of thorns into his head.  In their eyes, Jesus was worthless, a slow ass in their way.

When we meditate on this mystery, we pray for patience–that God would give to us the virtue of patience that Our Lord taught us when He carried His cross, slowly and quietly to the place where He would triumph over the world.  Jesus taught His followed that they must “take up their crosses and follow Him”.

Many are attracted to Jesus because of His great virtue. There is no one in history like Jesus.  Many are eager to become His followers, and join His Church.  If the Christian life lasted only a moment after conversion, it would be easy, but it is not so.  We must take up our crosses in this life and imitate Our Lord’s virtue, often for many years. The Christian life can be humiliating, painful and slow.

Like the ass in the fable, we can look around at those who are not Christians, and feel inferior.  We will be tempted to think as the David did in the psalms, where he sang,

“Behold these are sinners; and yet abounding in the world they have obtained riches. And I said: Then have I in vain justified my heart, and washed my hands among the innocent.”

We can feel as if God has abandoned us and favors those who never obey Him.  We can feel that everyone goes badly for us, while all goes well for evildoers.  Like the ass, we can be led to sigh at the inequity of our lots.

However, David did not continue in those sad thoughts for long.  He continues and sings:

“I studied that I might know this thing, it is a labour in my sight: Until I go into the sanctuary of God, and understand concerning their last ends. But indeed for deceits thou hast put it to them: when they were lifted up thou hast cast them down.  How are they brought to desolation? they have suddenly ceased to be: they have perished by reason of their iniquity.”

Under the heavy load of God’s discipline, we often forget about the rewards God promises to those who love Him.  We forget that “God gives grace to the humble”.  We forget that God is purifying us by the trials of this life as gold is purified with fire.  We forget that God is asking us to voluntarily suffer in this life so that we may be made worthy of everlasting happiness.  When we lose sign of our last end, we can be discouraged and we must pray for God to give us the grace of hope to never lose sight of heaven.  The virtue of hope allows us to persevere through the trials of life and reach our goal. Jesus comforts us with these words in the Gospel:

“Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you.”

In the fable of the Horse and the Ass, we are reminded of the deceit that left the horse most miserable, and the happiness of the ass in the end.  The fable teaches a good lesson of human morals, but the Gospel brings this wise lesson to perfection.

William C. Michael
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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