The horse, in all her power and her fragility, has much to say to us about God. And God, through her flashing hooves and her quiet eye, has much to say to us through the horse. The spirituality of horses is a slow, quiet thing. It does not shout, it does not care for dogma. It speaks to something within us, a place badly in need of healing.
God And Horses: Archetypes and Truth
Human beings use archetypes to tell stories about Truth. And here we need to pause for just one moment and remember that truth and fact are not at all the same thing. Facts are an artifact of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. They are measurable, and quantifiable. Facts are used to create theories that can be proved or disproved, and experiments that can be repeated in a reliable way.
Truth is something else all together. When our ancestors (writing Jewish and Christian scripture) told sacred stories they weren’t interested in facts; they were interested in truth. And that is an altogether more difficult thing to pin down. I can tell you a story, the story of the first woman to be brave enough to ride the back of the first mare. And it will be true, blindingly, stunningly true. It will have (as far as I know) absolutely no basis in fact.
The horse has been with us for most of our history. She has carried us further and faster than we could have ever gone alone. The world we live in would be impossible without her strength, bravery, beauty, and friendship. And in this mechanized age we perhaps need the wisdom of the horse more than ever.
The horse has become for us a symbol of power, freedom, beauty, and grace. But there is far more to a horse than just those things.
#1 The Horse as Wise Woman
The joke among those who ride horses (and we are only half joking) is that you tell a gelding, you ask a stallion, you negotiate with a mare. (And if it’s a pony you pray to your god for mercy.) Human beings tend to blunder into things. We are so absolutely sure we know what needs to be done, how fast, and by whom. And off we go. We live in our own heads.
The horse, because she is a prey animal, cannot do this. She must be aware of the whole rest of her herd at all times. She must feel their worry or calm, she must be as attuned to their movement as she is to her own. Even before a herd-mate has fully realized why they are uncomfortable the rest of the herd has felt that discomfort, is moving before the lion fully appears.
Our horses, silent sages, remind us to listen. In our world this is a particularly feminine skill. To sit, to be quiet (for listening requires this) and to listen fully and deeply. This sort of deep listening is patient, it requires that we listen with stillness, not with half an ear while we formulate our response at the same time.
And we cannot just listen to our own goals and ideas, but to our world. Our wise lead mares invite us to listen to them, to the people around us, to the world as it speaks. Because in all these places we will find wisdom that will help us guide this great earthship we are on safely. The lead mare isn’t the only one, after all, who can sense danger. She relies on the instincts, experience, and senses of her whole herd.
In this way our horses are wiser than we are. Present, always in this moment, aware of the world around them, and listening to each other. Human beings spend our whole lives meditating and praying, trying to recapture that ability to stay present and aware and to listen.
#2 The One Who Leads from Behind
If you are not familiar with horses you might think that the stallion is in charge of the herd. It’s not an uncommon misconception. Whole movies have been based on the idea that a stallion “collects” a harem of mares that he leads and rules over. This is not the case. A herd of horses is led and cared for by a lead mare.
It is a sorority of mares who decides which stallion is worthy of siring their offspring. It is the wisest mare who chooses the pastures they will graze. Her leadership is not the flashy, rearing sort. The stallion looks the part of the leader by our human standards but it is the mare, quiet and persistent who keeps the family safe and together.
We stumble when we fall for the flash and pop of a stallion showing off. He is charismatic and exciting but how often do such leaders sacrifice their followers for their own gain? How likely is he to abandon us to predators while his vanity drives him to foolish fights with rivals? And who wants (really) to be ruled over by a testosterone driven sex machine who is so easily offended?
Human beings tend to make god in our own image. That isn’t to say we make up God, but rather than we see God through the lens of our own experience. And that means we all too often see God through the power mad window of human leaders.
How much better might we understand God through the horse’s eyes, as the mare who watches and listens, who nudges the new foal closer, who urges the herd to move on when old grazing has grown too short and thin? What if God (like the mare) is the One who leads from behind, quiet and faithful?
#3 Connection & Communication
My friends who have never interacted with a horse tend to not believe me when I tell them how well horses and humans can communicate. Our border collie is well trained (though stubborn). She responds to voice commands and hand signals. But horses need nothing so crude.
My little thoroughbred mare was so sensitive, and knew me so well, that all I had to do was think, and she responded. (Her story is here.) Through a saddle (leather and wood) and a saddle pad; through all of it she could feel the minute changes in my body that thinking about a specific movement produced. Horses spend their time seeking communication. Human beings avoid conflict, and we can be so self focused we completely miss what others are trying to say to us. Horses are far more direct, and subtle at the same time.
God, and horses, are seeking communication with us. Always listening, seeking, trying, asking. That doesn’t mean communication with horses (or God) is easy. Hell, it can be down right frustrating, but as every coach I’ve ever had will note: that’s not the horse’s fault. If you want to communicate with a horse you’ll need to slow down, get into your body, and listen. Not for words, but for something deeper, quieter.
Horses don’t lie, and you really can’t lie to a horse.
Our horses offer us always the chance to communicate, if we’re willing and open. And I have found in my relationship with the Divine that She is always there; waiting. The issue is usually me. I am so focused on myself, on my own thoughts, so preoccupied with what I expect to happen that I totally miss the quiet conversation that’s always there.
When I didn’t trust that my horse was listening and began “communicating” louder and louder she shut down. I was shouting at her so loudly I couldn’t hear her response to please, please stop a moment and listen. I suspect God spends just as much time wishing I’d stop shouting and listen.
#4 Be In Charge Without Being In Control
I am a little bit of a control freak. And while I intellectually know that control is mostly an illusion, it’s an illusion I want. And yet, the idea that we little human beings are in control of anything outside of ourselves is absurd. Modern theologians have posited that our obsession with control is a form of atheism. Only in a world where we are the most powerful creature must we always be in control.
Perhaps the thing I will spend the rest of my life working on in therapy is my need to be in control and independent. It’s a personality flaw. And it’s one that horses simply won’t allow you to indulge in. But. A horse needs a leader.
Leadership isn’t about control
My mare was an alpha, she was born to be in charge of a herd and to keep them safe. If I was not actively in charge, she took over. There was nothing malicious about her behavior, it is simply the only way a herd can be safe: a herd needs a leader. But we’re not a bunch of wild horses and to be safe in this world the human needs to be the leader, not the horse.
And yet, even when I took up that challenge and led I was never in control. With humans you can pretend to be both leader and have control. But perched on top of a thousand pound creature with more strength, speed, and stamina than any human alive that illusion of control shatters.
I could not physically force my mare to do anything. I had to be her leader without being able to control her.
And it struck me, finally, that the Divine treats us the way I treated my horse. She might seek to lead us, to guide us to good and healthy decisions, but never was She going to wrest control from our hands. There is no coercion. (In my case because it would be physically impossible, in the case of the Divine I believe this is a choice).
Leadership is imperfect
We are often deeply confused about what leadership means, at its most basic leadership is simply making decisions. The best decisions we can at the time. And if we’ve earned the trust of those around us they will go with us in carrying out those decisions. All my mare needed me to do was make decisions. She didn’t care if they were perfect. When I made a mistake, we went back, made a different decision and tried again.
This too was teaching.
#5 The Blessing of Work
After my mare died a friend at the barn asked me if I would please ride her horse two days a week (and then three). For a host of reasons their sweet little Arabian mare wasn’t getting ridden very often, and as my friend noted “she’s just so much happier when she has a job.” My own mare needed a job to be happy. If you wanted a miserable grumpy horse you gave her a “week off” where all she had to do was stand around and eat. She hated it. (Horses are extremely demonstrative, they make their preferences and emotions very clear.)
We poor humans have twisted the idea of “work” into drudgery. And we’ve been so convinced that work must be miserable that we’ve lost sight of the truth: work is good. Good honest work is fulfilling, satisfying, and gives us purpose and pride. Blossom (that was my mare) knew when she’d done well and she fairly puffed with pride. She was happiest and most satisfied after a good hard lesson, rubbing her sweaty face on her human (that’d be me) and munching her well deserved treats.
When we had ourselves together and I was being a proper leader, (and she wasn’t in season and distracted by that cute gelding) we made something beautiful together. And both of us could be proud of our partnership and our hard work.
My religious tradition has the audacity to say that human beings are made in the “image” of God, that we have a bit of the Divine within us. And I think one of the chief ways that is expressed is when we create, especially when we create beauty. That is work, and work is good. What if work was given to us not as burden, but as it is to the horse: a blessing. What might our world look like if our community values were so realigned that meaningful satisfying work became the highest value: not productivity, or profit?
Horses belong to one another. They are herd animals, and their survival depends on their herd mates. With domestication human beings have been rolled into that society. Domestic horses have their human herd members, and their equine herd members and they want and need both.
A horse all alone is a sad creature. And as much as we’d like to pretend it isn’t the case: the same is true of a human.
But horses, unlike humans, do not give a fig about your income, looks, skin color, religion, job, or all the other things we humans use to “sort” ourselves into groups. A horse knows only that you are familiar or unfamiliar; that you are a good member of the herd or not. But once you belong to them, that’s it. There’s a gelding at the barn who was aloof when I first arrived. His owner shrugged and replied that eventually, if I really interacted with him in a meaningful way I’d be on of his “aunties.” (And she was right. Once I was in, I was in.)
There is no default
I often hear people mangle the old saying about blood and water (the original saying means the opposite of how it is used today.) There’s no default relationship with horses. That gelding had no interest in me until I helped with some of his care while his rider was traveling. Once. And she was right, I’m one of his “aunties,” and a part of his herd now.
His full brother lives on the farm, but neither gelding cares about the other, genetics don’t really matter to horses. Their relationships are based not on some chance of birth but on trust, experience, and communication. There is an incredible gift and opportunity in that reminder. We aren’t stuck with the family we are born into.
We humans have also been given the ability to build community with people unrelated to us, the family we choose (if you will). We can forge bonds with those who value us, share our values, and choose us as intentionally as we choose them. You are no more bound to the “god” you were raised with than you are to your biological family. Someday you may meet God in a place and with a face you never expected. It might be that he becomes She, or They; that wrath and anger become quiet overflowing love.
Whatever the case our horses remind us that there is no default relationship; there are only those relationships that serve our better future and those that do not. There’s an invitation in that. At the same time, our sacred stories (both Christian and Jewish) are filled with examples of times human beings screwed up our relationship with the Divine and God came back for another try. Repentance and reconciliation are also important.
I firmly believe that God speaks to us through all parts of our lives. Through other people, the natural world, our animals, our relationships, and deep in the quiet of our own hearts. The key is learning the knack of hearing and seeing. Horses have their own particular wisdom to share, a piece of the story, a little fragment of the work of figuring out how to live into the imagination of God.