The Tao of Equus
by Linda Kohanov
Einstein knew exactly what he wanted in life. For fifteen years, he had worked diligently to master his craft, and though he wasn't ready to retire, he desperately needed a change of pace. He refused to jump over any more hurdles. He couldn't stand teaching the basics to a bunch of trendy dilettantes who had no real appreciation for the subtle insights he tried to share. What he craved was a sensitive, well-educated, female companion who at least had the potential to match his talent, someone who was more interested in acquiring knowledge than amassing fame, a patron willing to support him in exchange for private tutorial sessions in his area of expertise.
The problem was Einstein had four legs and didn't speak any of the local human dialects. Instead, he became what is known as a "difficult" horse, and his owner wasn't sure if she'd ever find him a good home. People came to admire him, and some even brought large wads of cash, but Einstein wasn't impressed by expensive clothes and shiny new horse trailers. He didn't give a hoot about other people's visions of glory or their hard-won show records. In fact, the flashier and more self-involved his prospective buyers seemed to be, the more likely Einstein was to give them hell during the test ride. He would shy and bolt and sometimes even succeed in tossing the offending party, methods he had perfected during a short but frustrating career as a school horse. Other times, he would sidestep, rear, and fidget before anyone could get a saddle on him, especially in the presence of men who had aspirations of jumping him.
Finally, his owner solicited the help of Tamara Solange, a trainer who was not only skilled in the classical riding style known as dressage, but was also versed in various intuitive techniques. After spending some time gathering information on his background, silently meditating in his presence, and using a method called "muscle testing" to confirm her insights with Einstein and several other horses around him, she wrote up the following ad with the horse's "blessing": Dynamic Imported Holsteiner Gelding. Beautiful presence in arena. For educated dressage rider or professional. NOT a schoolmaster. Only skilled, sensitive horsewomen need reply.
When Allison Randall saw the notice in a national equestrian magazine, her heart raced. As a trainer with twenty years' experience in dressage and eventing, Allison felt she had arrived at a crossroads in her career. She needed an advanced teacher, someone who knew all the upper level dressage moves and was patient yet demanding enough to hone her skills, someone who could instill a refined sense of precision, timing, and balance in her technique that she could then transfer to the younger horses she was hired to train and show. She had been searching for a horse like Einstein.
The day Allison arrived at the gelding's stable, she endured an hour-long interview before she was even allowed to see him. The owner and the trainer who had written the ad wanted to know everything about her, including her intentions toward this horse. Ultimately, however, it was up to Einstein. By the time she stepped into the stirrup and swung her leg over the saddle, Allison was so nervous she wasn't sure if she was up to riding a horse of his caliber. Yet despite her vulnerable emotional state, perhaps even because of it, Einstein seemed to second-guess what Allison wanted and graciously compensated for her lapses in concentration. The horse responded to her clumsiest aids, and though she made several mistakes that would normally have thrown Einstein into a rage, the two were able to perform the intricate movements of a highly skilled team. When Allison finally dismounted, Einstein followed her around the arena as if he had known her all his life. After watching this spectacle, everyone in attendance had tears in their eyes, and the owner went out of her way to help Allison finance the deal.
For nearly a year, Einstein had systematically developed a reputation as a troublemaker, and some people even thought he had gone completely crazy. Still, he had a certain genius for getting his point across. Though he has since become more demanding of Allison as she continues to perfect her skills, he remains a consummate gentleman in her presence and seems to take his job very seriously. Each day, after Einstein has been ridden, groomed, and fed, he stands outside his stall, facing the arena, watching Allison train the other horses as if he's mentally taking notes.
Do horses make choices? Do they have strong wills of their own? How do they seem to know what people are thinking and feeling? Are they psychic, or do they simply read the body language of their owners at a highly sophisticated level?
Are horses spiritual beings with a destiny all their own? If so, how is this destiny intertwined with humanity's future, especially now that machines have taken over most of the functions these animals previously fulfilled?
What would the history of civilization look like through the eyes of a horse? How does the equine mind compare with the human mind? What aspects of horse behavior might people benefit from adopting? What do all great equestrians have in common, regardless of riding style or nationality?
Why are women so attracted to horses?
These are some of the questions The Tao of Equus attempts to answer. Because equestrian pursuits have long been identified with conquest, nobility, and competition, much of the horse's innate wisdom remains untapped. These sensitive, nonpredatory beings respond to the world in ways that are traditionally associated with feminine values, yet many amateur horse owners and a surprising number of professional trainers have trouble grasping these subtler facets of equine behavior. A spirited stallion ten times the size of the average human being inspires feelings of awe and even fear in observers, but first impressions can be deceiving. This kind of horsepower is not effectively tamed through intimidation or coercion.
A hundred-pound woman can successfully train an unruly mustang with methods that aren't nearly as flamboyant or forceful as those a burly, six-foot-tall cowboy might employ, yet the horse will respect her more, not less, for her gentle, collaborative spirit.
When I began researching the intricacies of horse-human relationships in 1993, I was amazed at how little had been written on the subject. Bestsellers like The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts and The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans have since emerged, confirming my belief that a large number of people are fascinated with the subject, but these books barely scratch the surface of the strange and miraculous things that can happen when the two species get together.
Early on, I took this work into the field, observing and interviewing gifted trainers while employing many of their ideas with my own horses. I studied the physiology of the horse brain versus the human brain; I collected myths about horses and compared them with reality. I noticed that some owners experienced increased creativity and intuition as a result of their interactions with these animals while other riders exhibited only frustration. I slowly began to figure out why. I volunteered at a therapeutic riding facility and saw stroke victims increase mobility, cerebral palsy patients gain balance and muscle control, "unreachable" autistic children speak to their horses. In the process, I stumbled upon some unexpected and extraordinary realizations. First of all, I discovered that horses are more intelligent than we give them credit for, and I mean a lot more intelligent. When allowed to exist in a relatively stress-free environment, a horse's mind is literally swirling with the nuance common in creative geniuses. Just by associating with their equine partners, riders can tap into this stream as well. I also found significant evidence that mankind didn't intentionally domesticate the horse; rather, the species may have chosen to associate with members of early agricultural settlements and eventually lured some of these people into a nomadic lifestyle influenced as much by horse behavior as human behavior. In the process, I gained perspective on the nature of human intelligence (and our widespread misconceptions about the same) as well as behavioral quirks and historical blunders that led our ancestors down an unnecessarily destructive path.
For general audiences, this is arguably the most valuable feature of The Tao of Equus: In order to decipher the myths we hold about these animals, in order to clear the fog of our own preconceived ideas, we are ultimately forced to take a long hard look at our own species. In the process, we can't help but uncover a few secrets about ourselves, artifacts buried under thousands of years of masculine domination and the accompanying tendencies to emphasize thought over emotion, logic over intuition, territory over relationship, goal over process, and force over collaboration.
As I researched The Tao of Equus, I was continually impressed with the powerful bonds women and horses instinctually develop, relationships that emphasize the potent healing qualities inherent in respectful interactions between the two species. The Taoist thread running throughout my book is the unifying factor in explaining how these animals nourish their riders physically, mentally, creatively, and spiritually while inspiring increased sensory and extrasensory awareness in people from a variety of backgrounds and belief systems. Though I originally intended The Tao of Equus to be a working title, my editor, Jason Gardner, and I felt it was ultimately the best description of the book's thesis: that horses relate to the world from a feminine or "yin" perspective. As a result, the species is a living example of the success and effectiveness of feminine values, including cooperation over competition, responsiveness over strategy, emotion and intuition over logic, process over goal, and the creative approach to life that these qualities engender. Taoism is unique among both Eastern and Western philosophies in that it offers a sophisticated model of how feminine wisdom operates and how these habitually neglected qualities can be used to temper the more destructive aspects of human nature.
The Tao of Equus essentially translates as "the way of the horse," while emphasizing the healing and transformational qualities of this path. Interacting with these animals can be immensely therapeutic physically, mentally, and spiritually, helping people reawaken long-forgotten abilities that are capable of healing the imbalances of modern life. At a time when horses are no longer required to work in our fields and carry us to war, they can do something arguably more important - work on us. The logistics of how horses are currently being employed for this purpose and how we can expand on this model in the future are significant topics of discussion throughout The Tao of Equus.
Over the past five years, I've developed a series of programs based on the concepts outlined in this book. These workshops and private sessions employ horses in teaching people of all ages and backgrounds how to achieve a state of greater physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual balance. Through my business, Epona Equestrian Services, a Tucson-based collective of trainers and counselors exploring the therapeutic potential of equestrian pursuits, I've come to understand how talented horses can be in facilitating the work of human development. Epona Equestrian Services is one of a growing number of equine-facilitated psychotherapy and experiential learning programs springing up nationwide. The field, which has already attracted some of the most creative and compassionate people in the horse business, has amassed thousands of anecdotes showing horses to be highly effective in helping people reintegrate mind and body, increase awareness of unconscious behavior patterns, and develop the self-confidence, stress management, and assertiveness skills that lead to increased success in relationships, career, school, and parenting. Since 1997, Epona Equestrian Services has offered empowerment workshops and private lessons to women who've suffered from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and the results have been impressive. We've also helped Vietnam War vets, substance abuse victims, sex addicts, and adolescent boys with anger management problems make significant changes through this work.
Most equestrian programs remain competition-oriented and encourage students to "leave their problems at the gate." While this is a valuable skill to develop for the show ring, the continued suppression of personal issues, which horses tend to magnify, leads to the frustration, tension, anger, and abusive outbursts exhibited by some riders under pressure. Many riding instructors are not equipped to handle the psychological and emotional difficulties their students bring to the stable, and riders at all levels of expertise invariably get triggered by the behavior of their mounts. Riding lessons offered through Epona Equestrian Services capitalize on the horse's uncanny ability to bring this material to the surface, using time-tested therapeutic methods and mindfulness techniques to help people recognize their own contribution to so-called "horse problems" and move beyond the challenges that arise when the two species interact. The Tao of Equus explores how riders and their trainers can move through these difficulties by treating each and every challenge or setback as an opportunity for personal growth.
The ideas presented in this book will also be of interest to the fields of psychology and consciousness studies as I've found that many of my equine-based experiences support some of the more adventurous scientific observations of mind, emotion, and behavior. To this end, I discuss theories concerning telepathy, human vs. animal consciousness, and autonomous, archetypal matrixes of wisdom that make themselves known to receptive members of our species. In my case it's a free-flowing "horse knowledge" I use when training these animals to give me intuitive yet highly specific insights into problems I would have no way of grasping through conventional thought processes. I've shared my experiences with other women horse trainers who admit they also feel this force when working, and the anecdotes are amazing. Until I was able to gain their trust, however, I never would have been given this information. Most trainers experiencing this (some men have admitted to it as well) have never attempted to put it into words before. In fact, they've avoided doing so, fearing they might be perceived as crazy. It is a significant part of the Big Secret whispered back and forth between horse and human, yet I believe it is possible to demystify the process without taking away from the extraordinary perspective it affords.
My original motivation for writing this book came from a series of seemingly irrational yet ultimately transformational experiences with my own horses. These events motivated me to do extensive research both within and outside the equestrian field, even as I became a trainer and equine-facilitated therapy practitioner myself. In most circles, such experiences would be classified as "psychic phenomena," though I've since come to realize these supposedly supernatural events stem from mostly unrecognized natural processes. My initial reaction was to keep my own experiences out of the book so as not to compromise the integrity of more acceptable studies on horse-human interactions. Then I realized this was exactly what the majority of trainers and equine researchers were doing, even though this unspoken element was a part of the lore historically associated with the "horse whisperer." Once I got over the fear of being condemned as crazy, I set about the task of examining this dynamic. My openness subsequently led to even stranger territory, but in the long run, I reached the point where I could successfully argue that the so-called sixth sense is a legitimate phenomenon with certain parameters and attitudes that foster it, and that horses can kick it into gear, often leaving their owners confused and frightened until they learn to integrate this new perspective into their lives. I also realized that my reactions followed an archetypal pattern of intuitive awakening. That's when I decided to weave the information I had collected into the telling of my own story, allowing readers to take the journey with me, giving them the same emotionally charged sense of discovery I felt when my objective research turned into a desperate search for ways to explain the unexplainable. As I became active in the field of equine-facilitated psychotherapy, I also realized that the most efficient episodes of healing between humans and horses hinged on processes that defy conventionally accepted scientific and psychological theories.
The Tao of Equus is about horse therapy, horse training, and horse behavior, but it's mostly about what these magnificent creatures are ceaselessly, patiently teaching us. It's about the courage and humility, focus and flexibility it takes for a human being to listen to those messages. It's about the quiet pools of reflection we experience in their presence. It's about the transformations that await us when we embrace our seemingly irrational sufferings with the same grace and dignity that horses exhibit in the face of adversity.
Human responses to trauma range from an overwhelming sense of fear to feelings of personal failure, denial, resentment, and mistrust in the universe. These and other powerful emotions run rampant in the equestrian arts as the best intentions, aspirations, and preparations are routinely thwarted by unforeseen circumstances and injuries. It's not uncommon for riders to go through horse after horse, trying desperately to find that rare animal physically and mentally capable of fulfilling some lifelong competitive goal. Are they missing something vital as they discard all these "mistakes"? Certain people just seem to attract problem horses. Is it bad luck, bad karma, or is there another, more benevolent principle at work? Is there a light hidden in those moments of darkness we try so often to avoid or ignore?
Lao-tzu observed that "it is upon disaster that good fortune rests," pointing to what is perhaps the most potent Taoist paradox, one that my own herd has brought home to me time and time again. Throughout The Tao of Equus, I weave my journey with the odysseys of many two-legged and four-legged teachers who repeatedly reminded me that the mysteries of life, the most potent gifts of existence, quite often arrive on the backs of black horses.
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