Zen Mind, Zen Horse: The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses

Zen Mind, Zen Horse: The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603425650
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 262,969
Product dimensions: 9.76(w) x 7.08(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

Allan J. Hamilton, MD, is a Harvard-trained brain surgeon, a renowned horse trainer, a developer of equine-assisted learning programs, and the author of Lead with Your Heart and Zen Mind, Zen Horse (Gold Nautilus Award winner). He is a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Arizona and a medical script consultant for the hit television series Grey’s Anatomy. He raises Lipizzan horses on a small ranch on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona.

Read an Excerpt



The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on and the horse looks at him in silence. They are so silent, they are in another world.

* * *

D.H. LAWRENCE, The White Horse

LIFE SEEMED BARELY ABLE to contain my grandfather, who threatened at every turn to burst it at the seams. Blessed with an epic personality, he could charm, stir, or inspire every man, woman, child, or animal who crossed his path. He had fought with great distinction in two world wars, pioneered oil exploration in the Middle East and the ocean floor, and was an early leader in the Pan-European movement, a precursor of today's European Union. His friends inhabited the upper circles of society and influence: from Queen Victoria's granddaughter, the Queen of Spain, to Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of postwar Germany; from oceanographer Jacques Cousteau to inspirational architect Richard Neutra.

All of that meant nothing to me as a child. He was just my grandfather who, I was convinced, had magical powers.

When I was about six, he took me to visit the German Olympic Equestrian facility. He was known as a superb horseman, and one of his friends was the team's dressage coach. We drove through an ornate gated archway, passing manicured lawns and rows of barns. Horses were everywhere, trotting on paths, strolling out of breezeways, coursing over jumps. My grandfather instructed me to wait in the car.

Minutes later he came back astride a massive Thoroughbred. I could not have imagined a loftier human being than my grandfather at that moment. He called me to get out of the car and then swooped down and lifted me off the ground. Plopping me down in the saddle in front of him he wrapped a huge arm around me.

He leaned over and whispered in my ear: "Are you ready?" "Yes," I answered breathlessly.

Letting out a whoop, he put his spurs to the horse and we exploded like a rocket. The Thoroughbred soared over the ground, huge clumps of grass and earth flying out from his hooves. There was no end to his power and vigor. I heard his breathing get deeper and louder and faster, while the drumbeat of his hooves grew more urgent, more insistent.

Suddenly we turned in a wide circle until a jump appeared before us. My grandfather seemed possessed, unflinchingly urging the horse faster and faster. With each stride his arm tightened around my waist like a giant boa constrictor.

And then we simply leapt free from the earth. We were aloft. I felt as if I were being held in the air by the arms of Zeus himself. And this creature that bore us on his back? Surely, this could only be a creature for the gods.

That was my very first memory of a horse. It seemed to sear my soul. The next time a horse would carry me away, it would save me from desperate disgrace.

HOW DO ANIMALS SEEM to know exactly when we need them most, when we're hurting so badly we're about to crumble? How do they know the precise moment to come over to us, put their head next to ours, and nuzzle in close? Just as our tears are ready to come, they sigh. Or they rub against us or insert themselves under our hand for a pet. They offer a thousand different ways and gestures, all with the same message: "I'm here. With you. And, yes, I know why you're hurting inside."

There's a scientifically valid explanation for why our sophisticated human central nervous system developed to allow a four-legged, 1,000-pound herbivore ungulate to plug right into the heart of our deepest emotions. There's a reason why horses are able to connect so intimately with us, to instantly plumb the depths of our most personal feelings. And, yes, there's a solid, potent explanation for why these gifted animals know when we need to be saved.

The Presence of Horses

THAT HORSES COULD INSPIRE ME was improbable, because I grew up where there were none: well, practically none. I grew up in Manhattan. But it was not the absence of horses I felt as a child, but rather the power of their presence, no matter how remote. Even a trace was enough. I was born under their spell.

For some kids, it's monster trucks or great ball players. For me, it was always horses. When it came to Saturday morning TV westerns, I was never concerned about Roy Rogers getting shot; it was Trigger I worried about. What if they missed Roy and Trigger took a bullet?

My obsession with horses drove the rest of my family crazy. Whenever we strolled down a street, my mom stayed on the lookout, eyes peeled. If she saw a horse-drawn carriage or mounted policeman up ahead, she'd instantly reverse course and pray I hadn't yet spotted the horse.

If I had, she'd grab me by the collar so I wouldn't dart blindly out into traffic. And pity the poor driver who parked his hack outside the Plaza Hotel when I walked by. I'd jerk free, Mom yelling after me to remember to be polite. "Ask permission before petting the horse. Watch for cars."

I'd bombard the driver with questions. "Why's the horse have blinders?" To keep him from getting nervous about the cars. "Doesn't he need to be able to see the traffic?" Sometimes. "Can I feed the horse?" No. "How often do you change horseshoes?" Every six weeks. "Can I drive the carriage?" Hell, no.

I was such a pest, some drivers would rather giddyup out of there and lose a fare. They'd snap the reins and trot off just to be rid of me. Mounted riders in Central Park would politely excuse themselves, spurring their mounts down the bridle path, to avoid me. And the poor mounted police — I just could not stop pestering them. "Do you keep them next to your patrol car?" "Do you have to poop scoop?" "Can you tie them up to a parking meter?"

Deep in the DNA

I WAS DRAWN TO HORSES as if they were magnets. It was in my blood. I must have inherited from my grandfather a genetic proclivity toward the equine species. Perhaps there's a quirk in the DNA that makes horse people different from everyone else, that instantly divides humanity into those who love horses and the others, who simply don't know.

To be content, horse people need only a horse or, lacking that, someone else who loves horses with whom they can talk. It was always that way with my grandfather. He took me places just so we could see horses, be near them. We went to the circus and the rodeo at Madison Square Garden. We watched parades down Fifth Avenue. Finding a horse, real or imagined, was like finding a dab of magic potion that enlivened us both. Sometimes I'd tell my grandfather about all the horses in my elaborate dreams. He'd lean over, smile, and assure me that, one day, I'd have one for real. And if my grandfather, my Opa, told me something was going to come true, it always did.

In school, I mutated every homework assignment into an opportunity to write about or draw horses. In third grade, Mrs. Wainwright asked the class to draw a picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. Twenty-nine heroic depictions of the father of our country were turned in, showing him standing up in the bow of a rowboat. But not mine.

I drew a picture of Washington's horse waiting for him on the opposite riverbank. Washington was a general. Of course, he had a horse — a fierce stallion, no doubt. The only reason he would have made such a perilous crossing, I imagined, was to get to his steed. I nicknamed him "Dynamite."

In Mrs. Gross's fifth-grade class, we were asked to make a poster depicting a contemporary world leader. It was 1960, and internationally prominent figures no longer seemed to have the itch to ride around on horseback. A pity. The nineteenth century valued a heroic profile astride a mount — proof was the imposing figure of Teddy Roosevelt.

But I was faced with immortalizing Mr. Dag Hammarskjöld, the newly appointed secretary general of the United Nations. This would be my Waterloo, my moment of utter defeat. Would I be stumped and surrender my equine obsession? No; I refused to yield. I submitted my homework, handing in a poster that focused on my beloved mounted police, atop their trusty mounts, holding a surging crowd behind traffic barriers as the secretary general pulled up to the entrance of the United Nations. He, his limousine, and the UN building were far off in the distance, incidental and barely visible. My grade? An F.

A Door Opens

HORSES SEEMED DESTINED to thrive only in my imagination. That changed the following summer, however, when I was packed off to sleep-away camp. I had never been away from home, not for even a single night at a friend's house. When it came time to climb aboard the train taking me from Grand Central to the heart of the Adirondacks, I was glued to the platform with fear.

Pete, the camp director, strode up to me, wearing a big smile and holding out a large open hand. I quivered. I looked at the ground. That morning, my mother had strapped brand-new, absurdly oversized hiking boots onto my feet. Where was I being exiled, I wondered, that I would need boots the size of nuclear attack submarines, sealed with waffled soles capable of stripping the very crust off the planet? Where were they sending me?

"Say hello, Allan," my mother said, nudging me forward. "Go on. Be polite. Take Pete's hand. Introduce yourself." She nodded me in his direction.

I didn't move a muscle. Pete was, in my eyes, the warden of the prison where I was being sent, perhaps never to be heard from again. Eight weeks was a life sentence.

"He's shy," Mom explained. "Withdrawn," she added, with an almost clinical wince. "He's likely to keep to himself, if you let him. That's one thing you should keep in mind."

My mother had a ready word of advice for everyone. For Pete: "You and your staff should try to draw him out. Get him involved in activities, engaged. Take him by the hand. Frankly," she added ominously, "you may have to drag him."

Pete's irrepressible smile seemed to wither a bit. He nodded and rubbed my buzz-cut. "Don't worry," he reassured my mother. "We'll take good care of him."

Political prisoners, headed to the gulag, have summoned more enthusiasm than I did climbing aboard that train. We sped through the Bronx, passing constrained backyards, and rolled into the unfamiliar, expansive farmscapes of upstate New York. A few hours later, beyond Albany, we chugged past lakes and streams, going deeper into the alien, evergreen heart of the Adirondacks.

We finally disembarked at a little hole in the forest called Keeseville. The train hissed to a standstill in front of a bleached wooden building. The whole depot sagged, its porch leaning over on its columns, ready to swoon onto the tracks.

A caravan of trucks and vans pulled up. Kids and duffle bags were stuffed into them like soldiers headed to the front. The convoy headed down a twisting road, into the shadowy gullet of the forest. Panic was shredding bits and pieces of me with every mile of the journey and as we rolled into camp, there was nothing left. I felt stripped naked, for all to see and ridicule.

Things only got worse at lights-out. Alone and afraid in my bed, I felt nighttime seeping into me. I couldn't sleep. I hid under the covers, where my flashlight staved off the gloom outside. By its light, I prayed to God to take me home, and finally, I drifted off to sleep.

THE NEXT MORNING the sun did shine, and substantially brighter than expected. It was Sunday. We went to the main lodge and sat down to a hearty breakfast of pancakes and cherry fritters. Since it was the first day at camp, everyone was free to explore the various activity centers: boat-house, archery, nature hut, woodshop, and so on. The camp was spread out over 30 acres of woodland, stretching down to blue lakefront. All the kids left the dining room, scattering across the grounds and greeting old friends. Most had a mission: sign up for baseball practice; look at the new sailboats; watch the archery demonstration.

I had a plan of my own. In many of those Saturday morning TV westerns, the hero kept some sugar cubes handy for his favorite horse. So I stuffed my pockets with a fistful of sweet, tasty treats and struck out in search of what I had heard was a barn "filled with horses to ride." I knew instinctively a barn should be located on flat terrain, not a hillside sloping down to a lake.

I headed uphill until I struck a dirt road leading out of camp and followed it a ways. It became more substantial and turned into asphalt. Great stacks of hay in an open field eventually appeared, and then the unmistakable smell of horses filled the air. I let my nose lead me. Sure enough, there they were.

Eight or nine horses milled around in a small corral. One in particular caught my eye: a black and white horse, what I now call a Pinto. Later, I learned his name was Thunder, but I saw nothing tempestuous in his nature. He seemed friendly enough and came up to the fence. I pulled out my first sugar cube, and he munched away on it contentedly. He stood patiently by the fence while I fed him another. And another. How tantalizingly close he was! It would be an easy matter to clamber up the railing, I thought. Couldn't I just lower myself onto the horse's back?

Suddenly, there I was, sitting astride Thunder's withers. He didn't even flinch. He walked slowly away from the fence, disappointed, maybe, that I was no longer feeding him sugar cubes. He mingled with the rest of the herd. And me? Well, I was in heaven, a million miles away from home, but just where I knew I should be: on horseback. The view from atop Thunder, looking out over the fields as he mingled with his fellow horses, was surreal. A dream. For hours, I rode wherever Thunder wanted to go. Naturally, there was no way for me to steer him, but I felt as free and unfettered as the Indians in my favorite TV westerns.

Then a nagging thought occurred to me. Yes, I was up on Thunder's back. The plan had worked flawlessly to this point. But there was one catch: I was six or seven feet off the ground, with no way to get down! The horse walked around ceaselessly, never moving close enough to the fence that I dared jump off. It dawned on me: I was stuck there, holding tightly to the horse's mane, and I had to stay that way until, somehow, help arrived. I hadn't planned for the dismount. And with Thunder constantly roaming about, disembarking appeared a daunting task. Surely someone would come eventually, to put the horses in the stable or to feed them.

Back at camp, lunch came and went. Dinner, too. My absence caused alarm. My mother's words about my shy nature now echoed with foreboding in Pete's head. Could I have actually walked off, or felt the need to hide, or, worse, wandered off into the fathomless Adirondack forest?

Staff members fanned out across camp, searching for me. Daylight died behind the mountain range beyond the lake. By then, I was alone in the dark, holding onto the massive shoulders and bones rolling beneath me. My legs throbbed. My crotch was squashed against Thunder's backbone. I tried to reach down to relieve the pressure on my groin but then stopped, afraid I'd lose my balance. I imagined falling and being trampled in the pitch black.

I noticed pinpoint stars. Headlights bobbed on the faraway interstate. My shoulders sagged wearily, and my thighs burned from hours on Thunder's back. I obsessed about becoming too sleepy and my grip giving out. Then I saw something down toward the lake.

It was a light, darting among the trees like a confused firefly, a haphazard dance in the distance. But then it progressed through the forest, oscillating wildly at first. Eventually, it consolidated just about where I guessed the road became asphalt. It was a flashlight! I started hollering at the top of my lungs.

The light suddenly jerked, steadied, and then surged madly toward me. I heard my name shouted. It was Will! He came at a dead run across the fields and leaped over the fence. The horses snorted uneasily and scattered as he dropped into their midst, next to Thunder. Will wrapped his arms around the horse's neck. "Whoa, boy. Whoa there!"


Excerpted from "Zen Mind, Zen Horse"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Allan J. Hamilton.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Days of Thunder 
The Two Sides of Me 
Chi & Equus 
Grooming as a Tea Ceremony 
Searching for Chi 
Grooming as an Act of Love 
The Magic Dog 
Prey, Predator & the Rules of Learning 
Leading the Way 
Now & the Ocean Liner 
Tiny Bubbles of Chi 
Picking Up the Pace 
Minding Your Manners 
Sending Out & Backing Up 
Tending to Horses 
Sidepassing & Jumping 
Come to Me 
From Sack to Saddle 
A Leg Up 
Stopping & Spooking 
Trailering (or Not)  
Twenty Exercises

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Zen Mind, Zen Horse: The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
lovingly_lisa More than 1 year ago
Just borrowed this book from library and love love it. Any one who loves horses an or works with horses should read this book. Definatley purchasing it. Kinda want hard copy versus digital as this book has great diagrams for learning chi placement and manipulation.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I must say this is one of the best books I have read. It's as if your standing right because the writer listening. In the 20 years I've been around horses this book gave me much more insight to being with my horses. Love it and will pass it on... Thanks Debbiexo
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ancientramsay More than 1 year ago
enlightening and inspiring
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not as expected
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Listened to an interview of Dr. Hamilton . Thought I could learn some thing new on the matter of natural horsemansip. I was very disappointed.