from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

what we can learn from horses

A great deal of my work is directed towards our remembering our interconnectedness in the great web of being, and what it means to live wisely in this, with compassion, not force, as the modus operandi.

I think we all know that the dominator-model has had its day. It doesn't work – except for the few at the apex of the hierarchy, and it's destroyed whole cultures, much of the natural world, its wealth, and its native species, and the economy.

As someone who's shared most of her life with horses, I'm a big fan of the books of horsewoman and wisewoman Linda Kohanov (The Tao of Equus, Riding Between the Worlds) in which she explores the enormous wisdom of animals in general and horses in particular, and the ways in which our lives and theirs are and can be skilfully interwoven to create quite amazing partnerships. And there's much to learn in terms of co-operation, interdependency, and unity from the way herd animals relate to each other, as if operating through a group mind (as indeed they also do), and without ego.

You may remember, if you read this blog from time to time, that I was hoping to incorporate work with horses into my course programme. This won't happen for a while yet, but I continue to imagine how it might.

Meantime, I'm finding Kohanov's latest book, The Power of the Herd – a non-predatory approach to social intelligence, leadership and innovation very inspiring. In it, she explores through prey animals such as horses what it might mean for humans to move away from the old dominance/submission models of power-relationships and to learn instead intelligent actions based not on submission but on group responses of non-confrontation without submitting to predatory behaviour – and without becoming prey.

Even our assumptions about prey animals such as horses are seen through the lens of our own power-based predatory sociology. For instance, we all have this romantic picture, don't we, of fiery snorting stallions, on their hind legs, ruling the herd, dominating the herd, showing the way, commanding respect? And don't we somehow assume this position of arrogant power to be associated with survival of the fittest? (The fittest for what, has to be asked, perhaps.)

Kohanov is not the first to point out that it is rarely, in fact, the wild domineering throwing-his-weight stallion who holds the power in the herd. Mares appreciate a steady, trustworthy, friendly stallion who can calmly direct operations when that's needed and get on with his own thing in between. What's more, it's often the stroppy domineering stallions that are ejected by older calmer stallions in a bachelor-herd situation.

It's a long story, but a beautiful feisty little white ('grey') Welsh mare came to live with us when my daughter was 9. Since the mare was small and lightweight, my daughter had grown out of riding her in 5 or 6 years. Since our animals live with us for life, passing her on wasn't an option (plus she was a fiery handful, for all that she was small). We couldn't afford to buy a bigger pony, so we saved what little we could until we could afford to take the mare to stud with a beautiful fairy-tale snorting prancing bright bay Arabian stallion – all flashing eyes and flared nostrils. 

I confess I was anxious – two highly-strung and flighty animals together seemed like a challenging and potentially dangerous combination (when we arrived at the stud the stallion had actually broken through a concrete and stone wall to try to get to an in-season mare being ridden in the next field – had he managed, the woman riding could have been killed), but my daughter had lost her heart to the stallion, and I couldn't blame her.

Bubbles, the little mare, hadn't. Despite running with him for a few weeks, she didn't take to him or 'take', and so we were given a free return. To my intense, unending and grateful relief, Bubs had fallen for the bigger, older, quieter, steady, unpushy, gentle grey stallion, still an Arabian, but much more kindly engaged. You felt good simply being near him. I was so glad.

The product of that kind match, our beloved little Cirrus, was an extraordinary horse – and became the highlight of my daughter's life. That was quite a pairing, and the youngster had his dam's light beauty, intelligence and vitality, and his sire's kindness and steadiness. He was also a swift and courageous little thing. So when he tragically died, aged 13, in an accident, we were heartbroken, utterly bereft, having bonded with and handled him since day 1. 

For a long time the idea of having another horse was inconceivable. 

By this time Bubbles was in her mid-twenties, a good age for a horse; she'd lost some teeth, become a little stiff and hadn't been ridden for quite some years. She needed a companion. My daughter, savings in her pocket, started the search for a bigger horse. 

My heart sank when she chose a big-boned tall Spanish colt – unhandled, and with the intention of keeping him entire, as a stallion. I confess I was terrified he'd kill Bubs with a blow from one hoof, or rape her – which could have killed her, as he was twice her size and she was elderly; her being able to bear a healthy foal and survive it seemed impossible, too. (Fully-grown, now, he's a BIG horse.)

My daughter and I had a bad falling-out over that. I'm happy to report, though, that to my astonishment, Bubs very quickly assumed the leadership. Certainly, she was more active in avoiding his attentions in the three years before she died (basically of old age) than she'd had to be in a decade of idleness. Certainly he tried it on. But Bubs always retained the upper hand, without aggression or force, though she wasn't above a well-timed squeal or warning kick, or a nip to his quarters if necessary. Sometimes she just had to bare her teeth, or turn her back; but they were inseparable. And he respected her as 'leader' of their herd-of-two right up until her death, no question.

I'm not sure that I knew this then, but actually, the real herd leader is usually a mare. That's always a surprise to people. She's firm, she's confident, she's usually older, she's steady and again reliable, she's not pushy, she doesn't wave her ego around to intimidate others. She's friendly; she accommodates others. She doesn't have to be first. She's not competitive. She's not forceful. She's not controlling. She doesn't need to be – her quiet presence says it all, and in itself commands respect. She knows about boundaries. She'll nip, if she has to. She'll kick out when pushed – and then go back to what she was doing. Her instincts are strong and clear, and she's not prone to panic. She can co-operate – and she can also lead.

The stallion protects the herd in times of danger. In the top photo, of a Dartmoor feral herd, the white spotty pony is a stallion. Notice how alert he is, watching the camera and my dog (front right). Behind him are a mare and foal, and out of the frame another few mares and foals.

The lead mare does just that – she leads, in a quiet, assured way. 

And us? What might we learn from those species who live co-operatively?

Of course, no matter what our biological gender, we are all both masculine and feminine. The challenge, in both inner and outer realms, is to bring the two together to complement each other's strengths; and from where we are in the Western world in the C21st, we clearly have a way to go yet before a healthier balanced relationship is possible, and our socioeconomic systems don't operate predominantly out of principles of aggression, competitiveness and dominance – winner/loser model, where actually we all lose.

'Know the yang, but cleave to the yin,' counsels the Tao Te Ching. Following the yin, or 'feminine', way of co-operation, relatedness, receptivity, engagement and non-domination might yet save us, perhaps, if we can bring it up to a level where it can be seen to offer a positive alternative to power- and aggression-based strategies, and where the healthy yang, the focused, direct and unhesitating 'masculine principle' in humanity – in men and women –  can be seen to complement it. 

And then we might be fit, at last, to co-rule, yin and yang together, with the strengths of both appreciated, needed and pooled.


  1. Well said!
    (and lovely stories about your horses)

  2. Thank you, Belinda! And look forward to seeing you at the workshop. Rx

  3. A timely blog. Feeling nervous about leading a workshop, I read your blog. I, too, love the stories. We'd a cat and dog- both female- who shared leadership dependent on relative ages and how they grew very close. When the dog died, the cat yowled. The vet said it meant nothing but I didn't believe him.
    Quiet by Susan Cain says a similar thing about introverts.
    But it helps me find some perspective on what I do/am.

  4. Marg, there is power and strength in quiet; and you will do fine with the workshop. It's only been the last couple of years (my heart alerted me) I have realised that I too am an introvert, who's developed a lifelong strategy of acting like an extravert. Hooray for both, I say.

    As for that vet! What will it take before we realise that animals, too, are CONSCIOUS, and experience grief as well as pain; and change our behaviour accordingly? When my little dog Hess died, Ash was inconsolable; didn't want to eat, get out of her bed or even walk, for nearly two months. WE so need to keep talking, publicly, about this, those of us who know.

    Thank you, Marg. And love - Rx

  5. Love this post. I have worked with racehorses and observed many of the behaviours you write about. Also very timely, being the Chinese Year of the Horse very soon now.

  6. Hello Katherine - thank you - I thought you must be a horseperson! That a pic of you on horseback on your blog/site? - Me too, once - was quite an eye-opener, in this case to the casual mild brutality of what was definitely an industry. However had a much happier experience exercising the biggest racehorse I've ever ridden - 17hh - along Woolacombe Beach in the early mornings for a few months for a neighbour.

    Only realised yest that it's Year of the Horse - tomorrow, I think?


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