Horses have an unbelievable ability to reflect our internal experience in a way that allows us to grow and learn about ourselves. When we work with horses we have the opportunity to do more than train them to perform for us. If we are willing, we can also go on a journey of self-discovery. Horses relate with people in a very raw and honest manner, completely attuned in the moment. Why are they so good at mirroring individuals? What about horses allows them to interact authentically with humans? How can we learn from horses to be more authentic ourselves?
It is easy to summarize the horse’s ability to read and reflect an individual’s mental-emotional state by explaining that horses do not lie, remain in the present moment, and are forgiving. This is true to a degree. If you dig deeper, you will see that horses do not lie, not because they are altruistic, but because they are incapable of deceit as an animal who cannot concoct an alternate tale of reality. They remain present because they are not identified with an ego that is attached to the past or fretting about the future. Horses are not actually forgiving – we perceive them as forgiving because they do not harbor grievances. In truth, the horse does not need to forgive because the horse does not pass judgments that would require him to forgive.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at the way humans process interactions with others in comparison to the way horses process interactions with others. I believe that humans filter all of our experiences in life through a multi-layered system that makes up the full perception. Through this multi-faceted perception we act, react, and interact. For more information on my thoughts on the human’s system of interaction, please read The Layers of Ego. We will look at a comparison with the horse below.
I believe horses’ perception of the world, that influences the way they interact with people, goes deeper than the difference between predator and prey. I think part of the difference could be attributed to a less developed frontal lobe in the horses’ brain. “The frontal lobe is involved in functions such as creative thinking, planning of future actions, decision making, artistic expression, aspects of emotional behavior, as well as working memory, language and motor control” (NCBI). In addition, horses do not experience all of the emotions of humans because they are missing some key elements in their system of perception – namely the superego and the ego. “The main difference between animal emotions and human emotions is that animals don’t have mixed emotions the way normal people do” (Temple Grandin). The horses’ layers of interaction are a simplified version of the one above.
These charts depict our true self, full of light, at the core. Surrounding this core energy are layers of increasing density culminating in the physical world that we experience as our reality. The farther we get from the core of who we are, the dimmer the light of our soul grows. We carry these rings around us like an armor protecting the precious cargo within. Unfortunately, these layers also keep us from knowing ourselves. We filter everything that we communicate and everything that we perceive through all of the layers. Ultimately, spiritual awakening or self-actualization is about knowing our God-self. As we come to know our true light, we shrink the size and intensity of our outer armor to act more directly and authentically with the world. We perceive the world differently than the horse because of the nature of these layers. A comparison of horse and human perception follows.
This is the soul, spirit, or divine self – however you relate to your understanding of the spiritual, eternal aspect of living beings. I believe that the essence within us is the same essence that is within the horse. At this level we are one and the same. This is the truth of who we are. Horse and human are ultimately seeking the same thing – peace.
For horse and human, this is our conscious awareness and presence. For humans this is the bridge between the God-Self and the persona. Humans have a split mind – the mind that is identified with the divine and the mind that is identified with the ego. Horses do not have an ego to split the mind. Therefore, horses can remain connected with the spiritual realm and fully present. They know what they want and follow their primary goal of finding peace. Horses therefore have constancy. Humans, on the other hand, are conflicted by having a mind that is trying to serve the soul and the ego.
Humans are also more heavily reliant on the mind for verbal communication, creativity, and expression. We go to school to learn how to think. We live in a society that heavily revolves around thought processes, thinking, and verbal language. Horses are not caught up in all this speaking, thinking, and mental projection. For this reason, they remain consciously aware and present in the moment. They do not have to quiet the mind through meditation or train the mind through practicing mantras because there is no thinking that has gone awry. Horses do not have the constant chatter in the mind that humans are accustom. Horses live in silence without the internal critic constantly berating them.
The body is our physical manifestation. It is the temple in which all living forms reside on Earth. The body is experienced differently for horse and human. While humans are more related to the mind, horses are more related to the body. Humans are often out of touch with our bodily experiences as though we stand separate from our bodies and feelings. Standing apart we judge and control the body without really listening and getting to know it. We compare the way we look and detach from our emotions, which are energetic information felt in the body. We also try so hard to control our id, our instinctual drives, to remain within the boundaries of moral behavior.
Horses, on the other hand, fully embody their experience. They live, communicate, express themselves, and relate to the world through their bodies. They do not have the cognitive structure to judge their bodies, feelings, or instincts. Horse do not wonder if they are too fat, or the wrong color, or if their tale isn’t full enough. They do not second guess or detach from a feeling of fear when they sense aggression in another being. They do not have an ego or superego to squelch or balance the drives of the id. Horses are in touch with their instinct and intuition and react accordingly in the moment. Horses listen to the feedback that they receive through their body and communicate freely with their body as an authentic response. They have no concept that their buck will come across as too big of an expression – they simply allow their bodies to react to the information they receive. Horses strongly relate to the body and the id – this is part of their survival mechanism as a prey animal and the way they sense emotion.
Each of us is born with innate strengths and weaknesses which are unique expressions of the soul. Our personality involves our innate temperament, personality traits, talents, likes, and aversions. Some of us are detail oriented while others see the big picture. Some of us have an eye for art while others have the body of an athlete. Some of us are very patient and caring while others are quick to frustration and distant. Each person has their own innate personality that is nurtured into a positive or negative expression depending on conditioning and beliefs.
Horses also have personalities and each will express themselves in a unique manner based on the characteristics that make up their gifts in the world. Horses are dominant or submissive, playful or shy, built to sprint or cover distance. They, too, have their own unique personalities and express themselves based on who they innately are. The big difference is that without an ego, or sense of “I,” horses are free to simply be who they are. Horses do not attach any specialness or meaning to their strengths or weaknesses – they just are. They do not gloat with pride or shrink in shame over who they are. If a horse is born to be a leader, he is simply a leader without a commentary on why that is good or bad.
Conditioning comes from our interaction with our environment. It is purely cause and effect. Some conditioning is generalized and affects everyone. We put a hand on the hot stove, we get burned, and we learn through our physical reaction to no longer touch hot stoves. Some conditioning is specific to the environment in which you live or the individuals in which you come in contact with. For example, someone with no knowledge of a dessert environment may not know to be cautious of scorpions. Someone who grew up with an alcoholic parent may be conditioned to stay quiet in the morning because talking too loudly makes Mommy angry. It is cause and effect – A results in B.
All animals rely on environmental conditioning for survival. You can think of it as training and molding the id, the survival instincts. Conditioning is necessary to mold behavior to sustain life. Traditionally, we trained horses using conditioning. We teach horses to respond based on cause and effect. If you pull on the reins it causes pain and the way to stop that discomfort and fear is to yield to the pressure by turning or stopping. We use pressure to get the horse to move in a desired manner and release the pressure to reward the behavior. Horses learn to yield as a means of self-preservation just as the child learns to be quiet when Mommy is hung-over.
Beliefs are societal conditioning – they are the things that we learn from others about the world, other people, and ourselves. Our belief system, the superego, is about right and wrong, good and bad, should and shouldn’t. All of our morals, social mores, religious teachings, ideals, and belief constructs are wrapped up into our view of the world and the way we interact with the world. Beliefs are not cause and effect – rather they are informed by societal/family views and values. ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ is a belief that we are taught and is reinforced until we have a mental-emotional construct around that idea that becomes part of our truth through which we filter information. We often have a hard time recognizing beliefs as beliefs because they are so ingrained that we think they are the truth.
It is thanks to the superego that we have thoughts and feelings such as guilt, pride, shame, embarrassment, blame, judgment, or condemnation. We feel these things based on our beliefs which encourage us to act morally rather than realistically. Horses are without beliefs. Horses do not have a concept of right and wrong, good and bad, should and shouldn’t, the way that humans do. Horses do not feel guilty or proud, nor do they judge anything within the framework of a belief system. This is a key difference in how horses view the world and why they are so good at acting authentically.
Horses have no real impulse control because there is no voice that says, “Wait a minute, it is wrong to kick out at that human.” That thought process is not there. If they have been conditioned to learn that kicking out results in punishment, they will adjust their behavior to avoid pain. However, they have not learned that they are bad for kicking out. Horses do not have rules about how to act based on morals. Horses do not feel embarrassed for reacting authentically. They do not wonder what you will think. They are not concerned with hurting your feelings. Horses can respond as a mirror to your behavior and beliefs without judgment as a clear reflection because they have no beliefs about your beliefs.
Our mood is our current interface between the self and the world. It is the mental-emotional state which bridges the interaction between our inner and outer worlds. We perceive the things that are happening around us, filter them through all of the layers of interaction to inform us of how to respond, and project an energy based on that information. Our mood reflects our current perspective. It is the energy that you are projecting into the world and onto other people at the moment. We all know that moods can change rapidly based on internal or external changes. Horses also have moods. Horses may be grumpy one day and frisky the next depending on their perceived experience in that moment.
We have already touched on the ego quite a bit in prior sections noting that horses do not have an ego and therefore experience their mind, body, and personality differently than humans. The ego is the moderator between the id and the superego. The ego insures that the id’s physical desires are satisfied in a socially appropriate manner. The ego ideal forms the rules for good behavior. The ego is also the part of us that develops a sense of “I” and “my” that creates the specialness of who we are. The ego utilizes the mind, body, and personality to reinforce the “me that is me” who separate and different from you. It is the ego that must be quieted to once again use the mind, body, and personality in a divine manner.
Horses are without this concept of ego. They do not try to balance the physical needs of the id in a socially responsible manner. They also are not concerned with how they are different or special. Without an ego to quiet, the horse is always capable of relating with you in a divine manner. Horses do have a sense of “I” as related to the desires of the id, not the labels of the ego. For example, fear in horses is due to self-preservation whereas fear in humans is due to either self-preservation or, more commonly, the concerns of the ego. For example, horses never have fear because of the negative discourse in their minds. They do not ask questions like: “Will I fail?” “Will they like me?” “Am I worthy?” “Am I right?” Without ego’s attachment, horses are free to live honestly and interact authentically. Horses are not worried about offending you, being embarrassed, or doing the wrong thing. Horses simply “speak” the truth.
This is the space where we relate to the world and all of our interactions with others occur. This is where all of our layers touch all of another’s layers through the energetic output of our individual moods. This is the space in which we are able to learn, grow, and relate. Working with horses gives us an opportunity to learn about who we are because through our interactions horses are going to react authentically to us – if we empower them to do so! They each have their own personality and mood – we have to understand and respect them as individuals. They also have past conditioning from working with humans and will be affected by that in their interactions with us. They will be affected by what they have learned in the past. That is why it is so important to bring them back to a neutral place before you begin to move forward with them in training. We have to teach them that we are going to interact with them in a different manner.
We are trying to train horses which is to teach them to do something based on a stimuli that we are providing. We are training them to work with us in a certain manner and to allow us to handle them, ride them, and have them perform tasks based on cues that we are providing. We are conditioning them and building mental constructs outside of their normal realm. We are teaching them to work with us. That teaching and training is filtered through all of the layers of who they are and who we are. That is why it is so important to understand the feedback the horse is giving us about who we are.
We bring all of our layers of interaction into the arena. If we are willing to listen, horses can help us learn more about who we are. Because horses can react honestly and authentically in the moment – without the need to filter information and think about whether or not it is right or wrong or whether or not it is going to hurt your feelings – you can get an honest reaction about what you are projecting into the world. Your loved ones or coworkers may not tell you that you are acting like and angry jerk because they think it would hurt your feelings or would be inappropriate to tell you such a thing. Horses, however, are just going to tell you how it is.
“The real world is beyond our thoughts and ideas; we see it through the net of our desires divided into pleasure and pain, right and wrong, inner and outer. To see the universe as it is, you must step beyond the net. It is not hard to do so, for the net is full of holes” (Sri Nisargadatta). I believe the horse has a holier net than humans. As such, the light of their souls can shine onto us and illuminate our own holiness. They shine the light for us to walk our path to self-awareness. We must empower them to live with such freedom and peace.