The Way of the Horse

Saturday, June 13, 2015 - 6:24am
Photo by Ferran Jordà

The Way of the Horse

At the age of 50, with no prior interest in horses, I propelled myself into the local horse world with an over-the-top enthusiasm. From where did this urging come, I wondered, and why now?

My adult life had consisted of work as a therapist, yoga teacher, writer, and full-time pilgrim on a spiritual path that was predominantly nature-based. I felt peace in the mountains surrounding my home in Alaska, and had long ago given up the guilt-ridden discipline of Catholicism and begging for specific outcomes from a kindly god somewhere outside myself.

Meditation was my prayer life and, through this: contemplation, stored knots of resentment, lethargy, anger, jealousy. Samskaras they are called in yoga philosophy, would eventually work themselves out if I were diligent and accepting of the darker human hindrances we all experience.

I would excavate the reason for this newfound yearning later; in the meantime, I volunteered at a summer horse camp. Before the children mounted their horses, I taught a yoga session that resembled their ground work in the round pen — poses that required them to stretch, balance, concentrate, and develop strength, as well as deep breathing to help eliminate fear while becoming familiar with these 1500-pound animals.

(Loren Kerns / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

I read books on centered riding and natural horsemanship. For the moment, I was perfectly happy mucking stalls, cleaning tack, grooming, and walking the horses on lead ropes from arena to feeding stalls at the end of the day. There was a quiet, satisfying rhythm to these actions.

After the children left, I could be alone with the horses, watching their fickle personalities and herd alliances, and enjoying the soft nickering and playful energy they displayed after a dinner of hay and grains.

Then, one day while leading a particularly feisty quarter horse named Obi, I felt an overwhelming flood of emotion. Waves of pain unfolded in my chest as I buried my face in Obi’s mane, shielding my tears from the children.

In the days that followed, I felt hurt and exposed, like a shell had cracked open leaving me frightened and vulnerable. God was talking to me, not through words in my now-scattered contemplations, but by putting me in a situation where I had to interpret raw feelings and reveal the hard broken places within myself.

An old wound that had festered in my psyche for years bubbled to the surface. It was big, a betrayal by a person I deeply loved and cared for who broke our friendship into tatters. Though intellectually I knew how to let it go, and did with a focused energy at the time, I truly had not forgiven her, or myself, for unreasonably responding to her transgression.

(David Noah / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Now my unfolding kinship with the horse was revealing old wounds. I was thrown off balance and stripped of all confidence. Yet, in my heart, I knew that in time the horse would graciously render it all back. I would simply have to get back in the saddle.

My training from the ground up began with a 14.5 hands chestnut Tennessee Walker named Bandit. We started my lessons in March. Snow was scattered in patches on the still frozen ground.

The first six weeks I rode bareback, learning the basics of feeling and sensing the horse’s body, an awareness of his musculature and breathing. Many of these insights had parallels in yoga. I began to feel my body from the inside out, and how my subtle energies were a form of contact between us. The subtleties of communication, from turning my trunk to squeezing my thighs, leaning forward and back, sitting tall or slumping, the urgency in my voice and the rate of my breathing — all these messages had meaning, and Bandit responded accordingly.

I learned to read his cues, and he mine. On days when I didn’t feel well, he could sense it and was slow in his responses to match mine; on days when there were hard winds whipping up new sounds in the paddock, he was distracted and fidgety. Out on the trails, we rode with exuberance. We became partners, and as the weeks passed, I slowly gained a new confidence that filtered into my inner and outer landscapes. Even greater was an inexplicable joy that bubbled up out of nowhere and needed no coaxing. My heart was expanding. I forgave, and was forgiven.

Nature has always been my guide. The god of my understanding is found in the majesty of hiking in the Chugach Range, rafting glacier fed rivers, and skiing cross-country after a freshly fallen snow. The ground of my being relies upon recognition of the beauty found in the wild places that surround me everyday. It’s no wonder I was led to the horse; he has become another portal, a living, breathing, responsive, loving portal that is capable of bringing healing and rebirth.

(Howard Ignatius / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

I’m always compelled to liberally thank Bandit after a lesson or ride, when all he requires of me is a treat and a good brushing. It is gratitude that isn’t forced or ritualized; it just emerges without thought, a spontaneous prayer. Thank you for allowing me to open, thank you for being patient; thank you for being intuitive and cooperative, even passionate; thank you for your quiet dignity because now I feel all those qualities silently pouring forth through me.

A meditation teacher once said that training the mind is like training a horse; the horse is the breath and the rider is the mind. We use the breath to calm ourselves and develop a clear mind, free of samskaras, or past hurts and failures. There are countless pathways on the long road to inner freedom and the search for the Divine within ourselves.

One most illuminating, even mystical, is by way of the horse.


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Monica Devine

is a yoga teacher and author who writes both fiction and non-fiction from her home in Eagle River, Alaska.

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Love this article. As a yoga teacher and returning to the world of horses, the parallels in the riding and yoga are very clear. Horses have a unique way of opening us up to what can be. Along with a close friend we have developed a program of yoga classes focusing on the rider and how to get their body and mind in connection with their horse. It is very rewarding to see the results. Thank you so much for sharing

This is beautiffuly written.

Incredibly powerful writing. I could feel my own shell crack open just a little bit through your story. I have work to do and beauty to seek. Thank you, Monica.

There is a primordial connection between some people and horses. It is a precious gift.

The way of the horse is the only way for me to remain centered.Has been so for a long time. Thank you Monica for putting it into words for me.

Beautiful. Listening to the tears, to the rhythms in our bodies, our feelings. Always room for opening the heart after it has been broken, no matter how long ago and how. Opening to our forgiveness, our love, our precious nature. Namaste.

though I now have dogs, I've had and love horses; I swear my third spoken word after Mom or Dad was horse. To me, my dogs are good for my spirit, but my horses were best for my soul. Thank you. This speaks exactly to what the horse can do/be with her partner.

most things are too personal to put on the interwebe. But sister, I've ridden where you find yourself, and my only hope for the future is the reminder that entire cultures have been built on the lessons between horses and humanity. I try to ride with a loose rein in their memory. ~like granddad said,"keep yer cinch just tight."

Loved reading your piece on The Way of the Horse....beautifully articulated. AFter a 30 year hiatus , Icame back to horses a coupla years ago following a Vision Quest experience, and what a rich experience it has been. Carry on !

"Perhaps this is Horse's greatest medicine, the knowledge that no matter what we have borne in the past, there always exists in us the waiting seed of our true selves. Horse shows us how to carry our burdens with ease and with dignity, but more importantly, he shows us that we are always and forever free."

Amen. And therapy pets.

Your insight was very powerful. I am also learning about horses at age 53. My beautiful wife of year and half is showing me the way of the horse. We have a seven year old Lusitania Andalusia and this journey i am on is not easy. Thank you for your inspiration and encouragement for a long journey ahead.

Thank you for giving voice to how powerful the healing force of horse can be. Ten years ago an abused and abandoned Arabian gelding was put in my path. His healing and mine were a parallel process that I still have not been able to put words too. Your experience is such an important sharing. I too teach yoga to women who ride. Because riders can get lost in doing with horse those of us who offer an experience of being with horse are a gift.

Thank you so much for writing such a heartfelt beautifully written piece. I have a horse who has saved my life in so many ways and he continues to each me every day - they are magnificent creatures who give and give and give.

Thank you for so beautifully articulating your story. Two months ago I had to say goodbye to my beloved Lusitano mare, Passionaria. She was my partner, my soul mate, the heart of my life for fifteen years. She was so kind, generous, loyal, and trusting. We knew each other's souls. This is a loss like no other. I gave the best of myself to her, and she did the same for me. She was a gentle warrior, a brave heart who stood strong and gave so sweetly from her big heart. I feel her presence, her powerful spirit in every moment—and I miss her more than words can express.

"The Way of the Horse," brought back childhood memories for me growing up with horses and the fabulously generous, loving and strong relsrionships I had with my horses. Many thanks for the sharing!

I went on trail ride with a group, Cowboys for Christ, and during the ride religion came up (surprise). I asked what the connection was between horses and their church. The answer, "You are closer to God on the back of horse." I have always loved the brilliant obviousness and simplicity of that.

Sharon Wilsie and I are dong a book for Trafalgar pub date 2016 on how to see the subtle nuance of horses gestures, what they mean and how we can mimic these in our own way to have conversations in the language of the horse. My cousin sent this link and no matter how we define it our journey with horses is sacred. best wishes Gretchen Vogel

I was born and raised on a farm during the depression. We farmed with five draft horses When I was about six years old it was my task to feed the horses and to water them prior to going to school. My favorite horse was 'Old Rock' a white horse trained to be a single-line leader. After feeding them I would crawl on Old Rock and hug him as he ate his corn on the cob. I can still hear the sound of him munching his breakfast. When I was 17 years old I worked as a cattleman on an old Liberty Ship taking horses to Poland during the summer of 1946. I was one of the few individual on the ship who knew and loved horses and was called upon to lead them around so that the ones that died could be cast overboard. Working with horses give me a sense of oneness with them and an appreciation of their controlled power. To see a horse abused or neglected causes me anguish of soul.

"Prautes was used in secular Greek writings to describe a soothing wind, a healing medicine, and a colt that had been broken. In each instance, there is power - for a wind can become a storm, too much medicine can kill, and a horse can break loose. Thus prautes describes power under control." Blessed are the meek - preceptaustin

Having lost two horses last October. I miss their presence every day and long for the deep quiet communication we shared. They kept me open and present. while I have incorporated their not being present to learning how to be present on my own. I still miss the feel of their skin, the quiet nicker, the warmth and the god the smell

The surest way for me to feel what is real is to be outside. I have found, over close to a decade of homeschooling, that it is the same for my children. There seem to be no conflicts when we take to a trail, a park, the ocean. The balanced energy I feel outside of my home, and especially away from the city trappings, is a sure bet to plumb my depths, and put me back in touch not only with what is happening inside of me, but also with what is important. Beautiful piece, Monica.

Thank you Monica,
There are numerous places where this writing strikes my heart. There is nothing like a horse's presence to hold the stillness where emotion can rise and there is no more welcoming place than a horse's neck to hold tears. I teach a form of mindful awareness and always name my horse, Sunny, as one of my best teachers. He is also a walker. He has taught me not to believe my mind, listen to my body and just engage the presence of each moment. Trees and horses remind me of my divine essence more easily than anything. Thank you again!

Yes, this is beautifully written and it's about horses. Horse are like that.

However, horses are not "14.5" hands high. So I don't know whether the horse was really 14.3 or really 15.1. Certainly that's a typo. It's unfortunate that it wasn't caught and corrected before it went to print. That's a huge disconnect for me.

Another disconnect for me is the researching and reading of "natural horsemanship". NH training has been tested and found faulty along the lines of Learning Theory. Because it uses escalating levels of pressure, for me it doesn't fit in with yoga, meditation, etc.

I am an energyworker, a massage therapist, a Pilates instructor, and now a trainer of horse using positive reinforcement techniques ("clicker training").

While I appreciate the essay and the message and the intent, I think her horses (the ones she's in relationship with) would appreciate her learning about operant conditioning, R+ training, clicker training. She will find even more heights of bliss.

Thank you!


my daughter sent me this.I have owned horses most my life and am struggling with not have one in my life at this point and have had a real hard time the last two year so when my wonderful daughter sent this to me i cried like a child.but thank here so much its beautiful.

So very beautifully expressed, Monica. Your journey parallels mine in so many ways. My saving graces' name is Markus, a 17 year old Haflinger gelding. He has taught and companioned me on my inner and outer spiritual path during this second half of my life with extreme compassion and clarity. No wonder the American Indians call their horses Holy Dogs! He now partners with me to offer women spiritual guidance and healing. Thank you sharing so powerfully about The Way of the Horse- the ground and being of my experience of God, too.

I loved reading this piece - I'm a yoga teacher who always loved horses, and when I first did my yoga t raining was struck by how like working with horses was to the 'yukta' aspect of yoga, the joining of mind-body-spirit. That was what I realised I'd experienced with horses, when horse and rider are working together in perfect harmony, e.g. in a perfect dressage session.
Thank you.

Wow, Laurie Higgins, I sense some deeply painful hurt in you that masquerades as indignant anger. I am sorry that you are carrying such, and I sincerely hope and pray that your connection with horses - or some other modality - will help heal you. Best Wishes.

Winston Churchill said it best: "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." I am proof of that. Thanks for sharing your story.

After I read this article it sent shivers down my spine. I had read my near-exact feelings of intense joy, deep respect and love for horses. I own horses and now soon will be teaching others to respect, give and enjoy the sense of 'being' when my clients will be interacting with my steeds. I have had to need for many years to teach people that horses are the most amazing animals put on this earth and the love that comes from simply being beside them its truly unmeasurable. Therapy with horses has the most amazing healing powers that many people are not aware of, so my journey now is to move away from working with perpetrators of violence to victims in need of understanding and non-judgement.......that is my path. I love this story and will keep this for myself to read when I need to reflect my own inner being.
Thankyou very much
Judy Wright
Victoria, Australia

Beautiful article. As a person who has been blessed to have had a connection with horses throughout my life I have often pondered why I feel so at home with them. It is interesting that these animals have been such partners to us humans in many different ways throughout our history. We rode on their back into battle. We used their strength to plow our fields and to carry our goods. In the current day in modern society, they are our pets and fellow athletes. Do we still NEED horses? Yes, I believe we do. My heart tells me that horses have been provided to us by our Creator to meet our needs at varied points in our evolution. We no longer need them for the heavy work or for transportation. We have the machinery to complete these tasks. We do need them to connect us to our inner selves. To bring us back to nature and to the mystery of creation. To teach us to read body language that is lost over cell phone texting and social media marketing. We need them to heal our hearts and souls.

The horse is ouf partner in meditation. They see the road ahead better than we do, take 4 steps to out 2, lead us home to the barn when we're through. Brush us before we brush them. Nicely done, Monica. We'll have to ride sometime.

Thank you Monica for putting so many of my feelings into words. I, like you, started riding again at the age of 53. I had an opportunity to foster a horse and it's opened a new area in my life that is joyful and fulfilling. Communicating with a horse is a quiet, deep, and calming relationship. Soleil is a 25 year old Chestnut Arabian who continues to teach me patience and enjoying the simple act of just being together. Horses are magnificent creatures. I feel so grateful to have this opportunity that brings me such joy.

i was told that horses hold as much compassion and comfort for humans as man's best friend the DOG, but horse being large 1000+ creatures are able to absorb more of our negative energies and complicated personal issues…they are therefore wonderful giving creatures willing to accept and absorb our problems …looking into an horses eye is close to bliss

I didn't find the piece so inspiring actually, it made me sad because like so many searchers of peace and healing, it focused entirely on the flow of the horse's gifts into her and what she could take from the experience. "He has become another portal". And while she gave thanks I don't think she received the "education" horses offer us in just being able to be.

You never cease to amaze and move me. Apparently, judging from the responses below, I'm in good company. I think I'll go to the barn and take a deep neck sniff of the wonderful scent that the beasts give off. It is always a calming memory trigger, as was this writing by you.

Once again, you've amazed and moved me Zoo Bird. Time for a trip to the barn to close my eyes and take in a deep sniff of horse neck; a pure and calming memory trigger.

So good to read you after spending time in clay!
Sorry it took so long to make this connection......... future conversations abound!
Joy and Mud to you too -- suzanne at santa fe clay