The Tao of Equus: A Woman's Journey of Healing & transformation through the Way of the Horseby Linda Kohanov
A deep exploration of the bond between humans and horses that includes compelling scientific research, cultural history, mythology, and first-hand professional experience.See more details below
A deep exploration of the bond between humans and horses that includes compelling scientific research, cultural history, mythology, and first-hand professional experience.
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The Tao of Equus
By Linda Kohanov
New World LibraryCopyright © 2001 Linda Kohanov
All right reserved.
This is the story of a woman and her horse. On the surface, it seems a bit of a cliché. Adolescent girls are, after all, the ones who go horse crazy, lining their bedroom shelves with plastic models of the different breeds and begging their parents for riding lessons. For many, the obsession strengthens with age. Horse Illustrated observed that a 90 to 95 percent female entry is not unusual in amateur dressage and hunter/jumper shows. The majority of equestrian magazines also note a larger female readership. Men still dominate the worlds of polo and racing, and a greater percentage of them show and train professionally. To a woman, however, horses often represent something more profound than sport or hobby. Among the picture frames lined across her desk, there's invariably at least one of her four-legged partner, and when she finds the right trainer, she'll often speak of him or her with the reverence usually afforded a guru. A feeling of quiet ecstasy surrounds many female riders and their mounts, as if they've resurrected a lost part of themselves while galloping down the trail, as if all the centuries that men went to war on well-trained steeds seem trivial compared to a single moment of understanding between a teenage girl and her first bay mare.
I've come torealize that women and horses are fully capable of weaving new myths into the future, perspectives based not on conquest and domination, but on harmony and collaboration. Truly feminine modes of interaction can't help but uncover artifacts of experience buried beneath the preconceived notions of our mechanized world, evidence of a time when horses taught people a thing or two and were respected for their inherent wisdom. Some of these treasures are physical and emotional, like the sensual union of strength and gentleness trotting against the skin,
like the rush of clarity and serenity unleashed when one's control of a thousand-pound creature begins to flow from the mind and not the muscle, like the flash of hope rising from the knowledge that the ones who live as
prey are fully capable of outwitting the ones who live as predators. Some of these treasures can only be described as spiritual, like mending the separation between mind and muscle, like the promise that the lion shall lie down beside the lamb in paradise. Or should it be the mare?
Perhaps these were the things I glimpsed when I first gazed into the black horse's eyes. She was standing in a box stall smelling of pine shavings, and she spoke to me more eloquently in silence than anyone ever had in words. I'd already been to every ranch and breeding farm in Tucson and was spending the weekend in Phoenix looking for the perfect prospect. I wanted a filly whose spirit had not yet been broken by the saddle and all the baggage that comes with it. I was unconsciously craving the kind of relationship between human and horse that had once been common among members of a distant clan - though at the time I had no idea who my ancestors were or that their ghosts had led me on this quest.
Still, I resisted falling in love with her. I'd dealt before with the problems that can result from buying a horse on impulse, and I wanted to do everything right. I made an offer contingent on a veterinary examination and decided I would walk away from this filly if there were the slightest indication of a problem. A week later, she passed the exam with flying colors. The week after that, she was delivered to the Tucson boarding facility where I kept an unruly thoroughbred ex-racehorse and a previously abused mustang ex-cowhorse.
The filly's breeders had christened her Black Beauty at the moment of her birth. She was named after the long-suffering equine hero of the nineteenth-century classic by Anna Sewell, the first book to bring widespread public attention to the tortures endured by horses at the hands of human beings. As a purebred Arabian with Egyptian bloodlines, her name was etched in stone as far as the registry was concerned. The papers that came with my new horse could not be changed, but I wasn't about to refer to the Black Beauty legacy every time I wanted her to come to me. I decided to call her Tabula Rasa - "clean slate" in Latin - or simply Rasa, a term in Indian music for the mood, emotional soul, or innate extramusical image expressed through an extended improvisation. It was my intention to protect the youngest member of my herd from the unspoken fears and injustices I saw hovering behind the eyes of my other horses, traumas I had tried and failed to heal.
They say an elephant never forgets. The same is true of horses, which is why it's important to treat them with the utmost sensitivity, and above all, to strive to do things right the first time. Most of the animals I'd encountered at public boarding stables in Tucson exhibited behavior problems stemming from some form of physical or emotional trauma. The retired cowhorse I acquired for my husband, Steve, was a classic example. Noche initially acted as if I was going to rap him across the head with a two-by-four every time I walked into his stall. Carrots were alien objects, and it took weeks of coaxing before he consented to take a sample from my hand. (The look on his face was one of stunned pleasure, and he's been addicted ever since.) Yet even after we spent months slowly gaining his confidence, Noche's memories of rough handling would suddenly resurface at the slightest provocation. One hot summer afternoon, I arrived at the barn with a handful of apple slices, and the old mustang refused to come near me. In fact, he snorted and raced around the corral as if I were the devil himself. It took me half an hour to figure out what the problem was. For the first time since we'd met, I'd worn a cowboy hat to keep the sun out of my eyes. When I took it off to wipe the sweat from my brow, the frightened horse immediately calmed down. To this day, Noche still expects the worst from people when their heads take on that strange shape.
I was adamant that my new filly would have nothing to fear from the human race, no matter what style of hat was involved. Unlike Noche, who cowered at the back of his stall whenever anyone on two legs looked his way, Rasa was gregarious, curious, affectionate, and always ready for the next escapade, whether it involved sizing up new people, teasing her stablemates, or chasing stray coyotes across the arena. She was a tabula rasa only in the context of adverse human influences. Otherwise, her character was clearly defined, and it was a pleasure to watch her actions and emotions arise out of pure abandon. The challenge was keeping her that way as we proceeded toward formal training.
In the meantime, I made sure Rasa associated me with the good things in life - not just carrots, but adventures. Together, we hiked for miles through the open desert searching for that rare patch of fresh grass. When the rains came and the washes flowed, we splashed around in the rushing water like a couple of kids. Back at the stable, we chased each other around the arena and engaged in mutual grooming sessions. As I rubbed her withers, she massaged the small of my back with her powerful lips. Eventually, she discovered how to use her nose to point to whatever place on her body needed a good scratch, and I was happy to oblige.
My fellow boarders thought I had taken leave of my senses. Some warned that Rasa would lose control and run me over, or at least give me one hell of a bite. Others verbally chastised me for treating my horse like a dog. Yet the affection we openly expressed had nothing to do with canine sensibilities. I was encouraging Rasa to treat me like another mare. Still, the line I crossed made everyone nervous. The vast majority of riders I encountered at that time thought horses were incapable of even the most rudimentary forms of discrimination, as if these creatures couldn't help but take a mile if they were given an inch. Some trainers continue to insist that hand-fed horses develop dangerous biting habits, but Rasa never mistook my finger for a carrot, nor did she leave bite marks on my shoulders during our little grooming episodes. Even so, I didn't allow her to nuzzle me the first time I met her in Phoenix or dare her to chase me along the fence line the day she was trailered to her new home in Tucson. We didn't take liberties with each other until we had reached a level of mutual understanding that came about incrementally. Whenever Rasa became careless, the games stopped and she was returned to her stall. Whenever I did something that made her nervous, she swished her tail as a warning, and I backed off long before she felt it necessary to bite or kick.
I treated Rasa with respect and expected the same from her, and no one was going to make me feel foolish for it. Besides, the boarders who made the most ruckus over my misguided ways were the same people who came out to ride their horses twice a month, smacked them around when the animals showed signs of being barn sour, and took off whooping and hollering into the desert at a brisk, bucking gallop. Barn sour horses become unruly and sometimes even panic when taken beyond sight of their stalls because they've been confined for weeks on end with little human interaction and sporadic exercise at best. Yet I rarely observed an owner acknowledging his horse's frenetic confusion as a legitimate reaction to being cooped up for too long. Instead, these people would shout and curse as they forcibly tried to restrain their jittery mounts long enough to climb into the saddle and head for the trails. The ones who returned with broken arms and collarbones were the first to shake their heads when they saw Rasa quietly rubbing my neck.
At the time, I wasn't entirely conscious of what I was doing, so I wasn't able to justify my behavior to other riders. My playful excursions outside the boundaries of the stable and its conventions tested a long-standing protocol between humans and horses that other people never seemed to question. Since I couldn't express this to my critics, I simply stated that my goal was to help Rasa feel secure in my presence away from the barn and the other horses before I attempted to get on her back. I felt vindicated when I finally did begin riding her and we had little trouble crossing streams or exploring the trails alone, two seemingly simple feats known to cause horse owners a great deal of trouble.
Rasa's initiation into the world of bits and saddles proved to be a pivotal experience in many ways. I was pushing the envelop on an informal basis, but when it came to helping her accept a rider, I wanted everything done right the first time, and I knew I wasn't the one for the job. Yet of all the trainers I interviewed, those who specialized in "breaking colts" employed methods I was determined to avoid. I didn't feel it necessary to tie an energetic youngster to a fence post and make her stand there for an hour under the guise of teaching self-discipline. I didn't want someone belting her across the face if she mistakenly tried to groom him, and I certainly didn't want some hotshot spurring the bucks out of her for sport. I also knew I couldn't argue my case with trainers who had been in the business for twenty years, especially when they already treated me like a silly, sentimental woman. Still, I sensed there was a better way to relate to these animals as surely as if I carried a hidden blueprint for such an alternative in my blood.
Mirror, Mirror in Your Stall
I had already come to the painful realization that a trainer's confidence, experience, and successful show record did not necessarily justify his methods, and that even techniques approved by second and third opinions could be disastrous. My first horse, a beautiful thoroughbred I called Nakia, had been trained at the track and then passed along through a succession of amateur riders. By the time I bought her, this seven-year-old mare had developed a nasty habit of pulling back from the hitching post, breaking the lead rope, and running off. Her previous owner was careful not to mention this to me, even when I asked him about any behavioral quirks she may have acquired. She was a little barn sour, he said, because he was working two jobs and didn't have time to ride her. Though I later learned from a mutual acquaintance that Nakia's fear of the hitching post was the main reason he decided to sell her, the man actually performed some clever ministrations to avoid a scene when we were saddling her up for a test ride.
Crystal Angel was the name listed on her papers. I thought the phrase smacked of new age sentimentality unbecoming a registered thoroughbred, and it seemed a wholly incongruous image for a willful, dark bay mare. At the time, I wasn't sure what Nakia meant - it was something I had called one of my childhood equine friends - but the strong, lyrical quality of the word seemed to fit the horse's personality. Nakia had definite notions about what she would and would not accept, and I had to come up with some creative ways to get her to cooperate. This proved a bit unnerving at first. I was raised to believe that human beings were higher life forms, but this mare had no intention of indulging me just because I walked around on two legs. I had to gain her respect every step of the way, and I often felt that she was training me. Still, Nakia was a remarkably forgiving creature, even as she remained an intelligent and spirited mare. She took good care of me on the trails, but for all my efforts she remained paranoid about being tied. Nothing I tried, short of giving her a pile of hay to nibble while she was being saddled, seemed to help.
Looking back on the episode, I'm certain that under the tutelage of the right trainer, we could have worked through this difficulty and made an exceptional pleasure horse of her. The problem was I had been adopted by the local cowboy contingent, consisting of several older men who had actually ridden the range and a number of younger adults dressed like Garth Brooks who wished they could quit their desk jobs and rope cattle for a living. While we all had a lot of fun galloping through the open desert trying to lasso coyotes, kicking up dust in the moonlight on extended evening rides, and chasing steers around on team penning nights, these men and women discouraged me from enrolling with the English riding instructor who was also based at the stable. Stacey Kollman taught an antiquated style, they insisted. Studying with her would be a waste of money and get me all confused in the head besides. At the time, I accepted the advice of my friends and suffered immensely for it. Here was one of the most conscientious, most progressive trainers in town, right under my nose, and I never made a move to study with her.
In the meantime, Nakia's habit of breaking her lead rope and running off was becoming dangerous, especially at a public boarding stable where children were a constant consideration. I began seeking the advice of some "trainers" recommended by the cowboys and some clerks at the local feed store. Several came up with the same solution. I was to buy a thick, soft rope about twenty feet long, toss it over the horse's back, and tie a special knot under her girth area. Then I was to bring the longer end of the rope through the gap between her front legs, attach it to her halter in a certain configuration, and then secure it to the hitching post. The idea was that eventually Nakia would pull back, expecting unlimited freedom at any moment, and her efforts would be thwarted. She would jerk and rear and twist and squeal until she was exhausted. Then she would be cured forever. The thickness of the material was designed to minimize rope burn and withstand the pressure of the horse's attempts to break free, while the extra length running around her belly and between her front legs would keep her from injuring her neck. No matter how she struggled, I was warned not to release her until she stood quietly for at least thirty minutes.
To say this method backfired would be an understatement. As Nakia pulled with increasing vehemence, the rope stretched until it had the consistency of a thin, hard lasso twice its original length. This made it possible for the enraged mare to lunge around the post, slam into the tack room door several times, and leap into the air with one final, emphatic gesture of revolt, only to fall flat on the ground and moan in pain. The knots had tightened beyond my ability to loosen them by hand. The insides of Nakia's legs were raw, and at first I thought she might have broken some bones.
Excerpted from The Tao of Equus by Linda Kohanov Copyright ©2001 by Linda Kohanov . Excerpted by permission.
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