Lately in conversation with horsewomen I have heard many say they got involved in equine activities because they were “called” by the horses. It struck me that this is not a common description of how one becomes involved in a sport or recreational activity, or even, for that matter, in a career. Linda Kohanov, author of The Tao of Equus and an innovator in the evolution of horse human relationships, speaks powerfully of being called and the profound change that occurred in her life – because she listened.
I was drawn to horses slowly and almost by accident. I always loved horses and did the occasional trail ride in my youth. It wasn’t until I read The Horse Whisperer in 1998 and discovered what I had imagined in childhood was true: the violence humans did and do to horses in the name of training, the so-called “breaking” of horses, was unnecessary and was indeed bullying at best, at worst it was sadistic.
Later I read the story of Seabiscuit and was profoundly curious about the description of Tom Smith’s life-changing moment when he met Seabiscuit over a fence at the track. He said it was the look in the horse’s eye that convinced him this one had something special. They had a moment of communion and in that moment Tom saw “the Biscuit” for who he really was. I was curious about that simple horse-human connection. I really wanted to know what passed between horse and human in that glance. How could a person look into a horse’s eye and take the measure of the beast. Although I have always been an animal lover and pet owner, I hadn’t experienced that connection and I very much wanted to.
The horse human bond is an ancient and mysterious one, more mysterious than the connection between man with dog or cat. Canine and feline predators share characteristics with us that enable us to readily understand each other at a basic level. Carnivores and predators together, we see the world with many of the same instincts.
Horses are quite different. They are prey animals and yet have miraculously partnered with us over many hundreds of years, providing us transportation, shelter, and indeed even food. It has been suggested that civilization could not have happened without the horse’s contribution. And now that we have no more need of them, they perhaps can offer humans another enormous contribution. They can teach us about ourselves, about how to live together in peace, how to communicate with each other, how to connect with our innermost selves.
In 1998 I decided to try learning to ride horses again. I wanted to be able to go on one of those romantic Rocky Mountain horseback vacations and I didn’t want to spend the whole time being scared witless. I signed up for some riding lessons and I was more than a little frightened, especially when my mount craned his head around and bit my arm as the instructor tightened the girth. At the end of 45 minutes I was hopelessly hooked. Being with that horse I was forced back fully and wholly into my body. I had to forget work and finances and technology and schedules. I could not yet express in words what was going on inside but I knew I had to learn everything I could about these amazing beings. And I knew they had much to teach me – and people generally. I realized I had found a way to connect to my own intuition again. I realized I wanted to understand what was going on behind those big soulful sentient eyes, that we humans were not the most evolved creatures on the planet and that I was being drawn into something that was very special.
Over the intervening years horses have taught me much. For one, I have learned to follow my instincts: I have sought out teachers and learned that horses are much more than big dumb animals. I have found masters who have taught me to how to speak their language, and I have come to understand and appreciate what Tom Smith knew when he looked into the eye of Seabiscuit for the first time.
I have also learned about the importance of emotions and that they cannot be denied. I have seen that our reliance on technology and our expectations of instant results can limit our growth as emotional and spiritual beings. To confront the problems man has created we must understand we are not the centre of the universe. We humans have no special right to alter, consume or dispose of without consequences. Our world has become so instant and fast-paced we have lost our understanding of what is real. So much of our awareness is mind-centered. Perhaps it is because we have almost no connection to the natural world, the night sky or the seasons.
Horses can teach us many things: we can relate to them because of our similarities and learn from them because of our differences. Horses live in the now in physical space with a mind-body connectedness that is to be envied. They have the same range of emotions and complex relationships that we have. They rely on their emotions and instincts for survival. It takes just as long to acquire their trust today as it did 10000 years ago. And perhaps the most fascinating thing of all is that they want to communicate with us and do if we are willing and able to speak their language and to listen. They, like us, want to be seen, heard, and understood. Eddie Sweat, groom to Secretariat, some say the greatest horse who ever lived – was renowned for his ability to work with some of the great champions of the racetrack. His philosophy was simple: I respect my horses and my horses respect me.
It has been some years since I started down this path and as I rise on a Saturday morning and think about my day ahead, I am overcome by the feeling of privilege and responsibility – I am going to spend the morning with my horse and his herd! What could be more perfect? I am not so much a horse owner as a person with the responsibility and respect of a magnificent creature. I am his human as much as he is my horse. I am privy to the secret spiritual world of communion with one of God’s most magnificent creations. I am able to communicate with them and what a privilege that is.