Can Your Mediator Find The 18th Horse?

By: Philip G. Thompson
Florida Supreme Court Certified Circuit Civil Mediator
Florida Supreme Court Qualified Arbitrator

There is a great proverb that illustrates how vital it is to be able to think outside the box as a mediator whenColorful herd of horses galloping across the range in front of the mountains you are faced with a difficult fact pattern. It goes like this:

A rancher died leaving behind three sons. In his will, the rancher left the sons his stable of 17 horses. According to the will, the eldest son was to get half of the horses. The middle son was to get one third of the horses, and the youngest son was to get one ninth of the horses. But the sons quickly realized that they could not divide the horses this way. If you divide 17 by two, three or nine, you are not left with a round number. So, the sons reached out to their father’s rancher friend. The sons considered this other rancher to be very wise, so they asked him what they should do.

The rancher friend read the will over, then leaned back and gave it some thought. After a few minutes, he told the sons he would be right back. He returned with one of his own horses and added it to the others. Now there were 18 horses. The rancher friend then divided the horses according to the will. Half of 18 is 9, so he gave the eldest son 9 horses. One third of 18 is 6, so he gave the middle son 6 horses. One ninth of 18 is 2, so he gave the youngest son 2 horses. If you add 9+6+2, it = 17 which is the exact number of horses that the sons were to split. This left one extra horse, so the rancher friend took his horse back. Problem solved!

I love this proverb because it teaches us that there are no limits on how to approach a difficult issue. I always say, more often than not, mediation isn’t about finding a solution. It’s about identifying the problem. Once the problem is identified, the solution will present itself. In this proverb, that’s exactly what the other rancher did. He identified the problem then the solution presented itself, albeit in an unconventional way. He just needed a way to make the math work. Adding his own horse which he was able to take back, made the math work for the sons and everyone was happy.

Sometimes after you identify the problem, the solution that presents itself is an unconventional one. But, if you rigidly limit yourself to think only in conventional terms, you’ll miss it. You have to be willing to think outside the box and approach a problem in an unconventional way. This applies to difficult issues encountered at mediation, especially those with rare and unusual fact patterns.

So, what’s the moral to the story? You need a mediator who can not only identify the problem, but, if need be, think outside the box and find that 18th horse!