The Pony in the Dung Heap, Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt and You

Ronald Reagan. "The Gipper"

A friend of mine recently told me a joke popularized by Ronald Reagan.  It makes a useful statement on what to do when things look bleak in your life.  I looked it up and thought you’d enjoy the full context: 

An excerpt from “How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life” by Peter Robinson: 

Chapter One
The Pony In the Dung Heap
When Life Buries You, Dig
Journal Entry, June 2002: 

Over lunch today I asked Ed Meese about one of Reagan’s favorite jokes.  “The pony joke?” Meese replied. “Sure I remember it. If I heard him tell it once, I heard him tell it a thousand times.” 

The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities — one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist — their parents took them to a psychiatrist. 

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist.  Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys.  But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears.  “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?”  “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.” 

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist.  Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure.  But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist.  Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands.  “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!” 

There must be a pony in here somewhere!

“Reagan told the joke so often,” Meese said, chuckling, “that it got to be kind of a joke with the rest of us.  Whenever something would go wrong, somebody on the staff would be sure to say, “There must be a pony in here somewhere.'” 

As we looked at in my previous post “Joan of Arc on Living” (, your outlook on life is colored by your underlying beliefs about  life.  Whether you call yourself an optimist or a pessimist is a matter of perspective, then, as life is life and the facts of the situation are the facts of the situation.  What you emphasize in the situations you encounter will determine the nature of your experience.  Again, it’s not so much what happens to you that matters, it’s how you handle what happens to you. 

If you were able to take snapshot of every aspect of your life – your work, personal situation, home, family, friends, finances and your sense of self – and look at them one after another like flashcards, what words would you use to describe them?  Some aspects of your life may appear more promising than others, but no matter what the factors are, you can always stand to improve your outlook and consequently your approach to handling your life. 

Eleanor Roosevelt in Canada (March 1949)

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”  Everybody makes choices every day.  How effective do you feel you are in that realm of your function?  “I wish I could make better choices,” you might say, and I would say that you can.  

How?  By making sure that you are looking in the right direction and the right place.  Rather than entering a room and immediately jumping to conclusions about what is wrong, what isn’t working, what you don’t like, what you wish was different, go into the same room and ask yourself what is working here, what could you use as a step to the next goal and what can we agree on now?  I can assure you that our Founding Fathers put that approach in the forefront of their minds when they summarized the principles upon which our Great Nation was built.  

They found the pony in the room, but the more important question is, will you?

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22 Responses to The Pony in the Dung Heap, Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt and You

  1. Marcia Reid says:

    What great examples! I have always loved history and what I can learn from it – especially what makes people successful (or not).

    I have found that success is so often seen in such shallow terms. I look at it as being happy about the present moment (not living in the past), having a positive influence (give, give, give), always looking to see how you can help others (never looking to get something), being merciful and kind (not mean and vengeful) and caring about how you spend your time (not wasting the gift of your life) as it should be a cherished commodity. Even in tough times (tsunamis, earthquakes, the world economy, personal tragedies, etc), we can find the pony in the room.

    Everyone makes their own choices every single day and is responsible for them. This is one of the most important lessons that I teach my children and my goal is to always be a good example of this to them.

    Thanks for your blog, I was excited when I found it and finally got the courage to write.

  2. Mary says:

    Thanks Gregg for a great blog today! I’m ready to take responsibility for the fact that there is always available to us a way to look for the pony in the room, and we just have to stop following the majority of humanity that are so in awe of the manure!

  3. Chandra says:

    “And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” WOW that cuts right to the quick! The one choice we always have is the attitude towards our circumstances – let’s be looking for that pony and not just feeling we are buried in ‘our’ dung heap, or worse trying to bury others into it. We wouldn’t have our great country today if that had been the attitude taken by the Founding Fathers and it is the same opportunity present for any one in a position of leadership be it global, national, local, teacher, parent, employer, supervisor, friend, neighbor… me!

  4. Kayla Davis says:

    As a young leader I think some of Gregg Hake’s posts will be helpful for our High School Service Club. Sandy Farris, a CHS Alumni, recommended one of your other posts for us to read, but a few of us are liking the video and poems and other posts as well. The purpose of our Service Club is to help members develop character, responsibility, and the skills necessary to become productive, contributing citizens by helping those in need in our surrounding community. We have studied the character of some of the Founding Fathers and other leaders, and spent a lot of time looking at our environmental responsibility and our responsibility to future generations.

    • Ms. Newell says:

      That is great Kayla – you beat me to a reply! Make sure Lauren and Emily let Mr. Hake know about the inspiration for their choices for their biography assignments. There are a lot of historical and contemporary people referenced on this blog who merit further research by any student.

  5. Lady Leo says:

    I think optimism or pessimism are habits. One of the great things of being an adult is we have choices.

    I was not brought up in a home that made nutritious food choices. I do now, but I had to study the subject and then really think when I started to look for something to eat. If I wasn’t thinking I’d grab whatever was convenient, usually “junk food”. Now I don’t even purchase it. Why keep it around if it isn’t going to make me feel better.

    I find the same works for optimism I don’t surround myself with those I have to keep reminding myself to stay positive. There are plenty of positive people, books, movies etc. It’s my choice.

    Thanks for the Go-Giver connection. It should be suggested reading for all teachers. It’s perfect for our teens too. I’d love to see the premise adapted for middle school children. They are at the perfect age to learn to make choices that nourish their life not deplete it.

  6. DeeDee and Mark says:

    Thank you for your inspiring words each day especially with the catastrophes of late. We were talking about your blog with our pastor and today he included some of your uplifting words in light of the earthquake yesterday in Chile and the worldwide tsunami warnings which had everyone on the edge of their seat. Praying for those who were in the earthquake.

  7. Ms. Newell, CHS says:

    The students in our high school service club have been enjoying your posts! There are some great resources to be included in lesson plans here. Keep posting!

  8. Janice says:

    I love to learn about history through the voice of the person who lived at the time. Thank you for sharing the voices of the past which are just as pertinent in facing some of the issues today!

  9. Brenda Ruppright says:

    This is the most amazing Blog! I love how each day there is such a relevant and significant point that is being communicated in such a variety of contexts.

    The choices I make today are mine, the responsibility which lies solely on my shoulders, yet they will affect so many that I touch and so many that I don’t touch directly. Where are my thoughts coming from to make these choices, who am I considering, just myself, those that I do touch, those that I don’t even know? This Blog has given me a place to see how so many people in our past, not only historical significant people (Presidents, First Lady’s), but every day people who respond and post their thoughts and uplifting points of view affect our lives and the lives of those yet to come. These positive people and their daily reminders is what gives some of us the little nudge to be a better person, to consider what they are communicating; it reminds us to look for the Pony in the Poo! I am glad that Marcia shared her thoughts and I too will continue to share my thoughts and remember each day I am shaping the life that is only my life to live but is shared by all!

  10. Janice says:

    Eleanor Roosevelt’s “You Learn By Living” – a great read! I think everyone can take something meaningful from its pages, as we can take something meaningful from Gregg Hake’s blog post today. Thanks again!

  11. Mark says:

    Thanks Gregg, my wife and I very much enjoy your daily posts.

  12. Teryl says:

    I will look to read Eleanor Roosevelt’s book “You Learn by Living”, thank you Janice, there is always more to learn and more to appreciate about the world we live in. The world is filled with amazing people who care about others and the planet that we live on. It’s a pleasure to share these pages not only with someone like Gregg, who paves the way with this amazing blog, but with all the others who are lights along the path. Thank you !

  13. Tim says:

    Reagan’s pony joke: he seems to have got it from How To Live With Yourself
    or What To Do Until The Psychiatrist Comes, an LP by Dr Murray Banks, released in the late 60s I think. Or perhaps there was an older source.

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