Animal Medicine: Seeing Hidden Emotions


As one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, my horse Shadow ranks right up there with Jung and my dreams. Horses, like dreams, are Nature: they do not lie. People can cover their true feelings with masks, but horses do not know how to make masks. As animals of prey that have survived by being intensely alert and wary, they are easily unsettled by subtle signs of incongruence in people’s behavior. The tiniest gesture—a tentativeness in our stride, a sideways glance, a sudden intake of breath—can trigger prehistoric horsey images of predatory wolves clad in sheep’s clothing and cause them to spook.

One of the most amazing…and frustrating…things about horses is that they naturally mirror our emotions. If we are afraid, they will be afraid. If, beneath a calm exterior, we are irritable or angry, intense, anxious, sad or excitable, they will behave in accordance with the deeper reality. Shadow was especially good at this. And since I’ve always been especially good at ignoring my uncomfortable feelings, together we were a Jungian analyst’s dream and a horse trainer’s nightmare!

The first time Shadow and I took a dressage test, I was vaguely aware of feeling a tad nervous; but because I didn’t like the way that felt, I ignored it. Thirty minutes before my test was to take place, Liz, my trainer, told me to exercise him in the round pen.  This is a technique where you stand in the center of the pen and ask the horse to walk, trot, and canter around you in wide circles. This warms him up, reminds him of cues, bonds him with his trainer, consumes excess energy, and gives the trainer an opportunity to monitor his mood and correct inappropriate behavior.

I’d done this many times in the smaller pen at the stable where he lived, but he was a very young, high-strung thoroughbred and I still wasn’t very confident about his trustworthiness or my ability to handle him.  Moreover, I’d never ridden him in a horse show before. An added stressor was that we were both in a strange new setting and I was very aware that people were watching us out of curiosity.  In short, I was still a rank amateur in horse training, and here I was on stage.  I had every right to feel anxious, but I simply refused to admit it.

When Shadow started moving along the fence he couldn’t have looked more anxious; his movements were tentative and irregular and his eyes darted wildly from side to side as he looked over the fence to scan the horizon for danger. When I asked him to canter he raced around in the thick sand so quickly and recklessly that I was afraid he would fall and hurt himself.

My sweet Shadow. He's no longer with us now. He died of colic just before his 8th birthday.
My sweet Shadow died of colic ten years ago, just before his 8th birthday.

Worried, I yelled “Whoa” louder and louder, but this only got him more stirred up. I tried rushing to the side of the pen with outstretched arms to stop him, but that only made him turn around and gallop away in the opposite direction. Then suddenly the veil dropped from my eyes and I saw the full extent of my anxiety in his behavior.  Praying this would work, I stopped dead still in the center of the ring, closed my eyes, and began to breathe as slowly and deeply from my belly as I could.

As I calmed myself, his response was immediate and dramatic. Within two turns around the ring his wild pace slowed to a canter. Two more and he was trotting. A minute later he walked calmly toward me, stopped behind me, and touched his nose to my left shoulder. Whereas before my behavior had convinced him there was something to worry about, now he was equally convinced everything was fine.

This lesson affected me profoundly. Fifteen minutes with Shadow in that pen brought home something I had not mastered after years of meditation: recognizing my negative emotional states and rendering them harmless by returning to my quiet center. This skill is crucial to conflict resolution in everyday relationships, yet how many of us have acquired it? Can you imagine how different the world would be if everyone involved in international relations had a Shadow to show them their shadow?

What lessons has Our Lady of the Beasts taught you through your animal friends?

Image Credit: Top: Google Images. Bottom:  My photograph.

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0 Responses

  1. As a long-time beekeeper, I often take folks out around the hives. They approach fearfully, but I tell them, “Bees are very calming to me. They sense fear and anger, so I have to remove those emotions around them.” One of the observers told me, “Horses are like that, too.” We learn so much about ourselves from the animals around us!

    1. We truly do, Doug. Even insects have the power to “humanize” us if we will listen and watch and learn from them. It’s all about being respectful and aware isn’t it?
      It’s lovely to hear from you. Thank you for writing. Jeanie

  2. Our ancient friends — other animals and the plants and all Beings — have enormous gifts to share and lessons to teach. If and when we are ready to listen. Robin Wall Kimmerer recently shared an exquisite conversation with Krista Tippett about Plant Beings and my friend Renate writes a blog about the conversations arising around our relationships with horses (at ). My relationship with dogs has changed tremendously over the years; l exhibit less “control” over them and feel into greater listening. Blessings!

    1. Lovely. Thank you for adding to this conversation and providing these resources. I look forward to reading Renate’s blog. We humans have been so ignorant in thinking we are the only creatures with consciousness. The latest research and theories say that everything is conscious, that we’ll all connected in one big sacred ocean/matrix of love consciousness and that it’s only our immature egos that convince us that we’re separate. That feels so true to me at this point in my life. Blessings to you too. Jeanie

  3. I am very fortunate to be having an incredible relationship with a German Shepherd. He has literally changed the way I communicate with all aminals. He has been the most demanding animal that has ever been in my life. I have learnt so much about myself as well as him. Every interaction with animals and birds and insects comes from a different place now. A magnified awareness is his continuing gift to both myself and my husband. I am so grateful.
    I love your inclusion of the gift from the Lady of the Beasts, so beautiful!!

    1. Thank you, Lyn. You are fortunate, indeed to have such a magnificent teacher and friend. And to know how to receive the gift of magnified awareness. I see animals as very spiritual beings and teachers but I don’t know if it fully clicked with me until just now that having an ongoing relationship with an animal can actually be a spiritual practice too. I guess I always thought a “practice” had to be something formal like prayer or meditation or dreamwork, but truly my relationships with my husband, children, grandchildren and animals have been every bit as enlightening! Thank you for the gift of your comment today.

  4. “For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.” wrote the English poet William Blake. I have always loved this magnificent line, for it works like a dream in both challenging, and the most ordinary of times when a quick reminder of the sacredness, and divinity of life is needed. It was wonderful to read once more about your stunning horse Shadow and your profound relationship with him. Thank you so much for sharing your illuminating dressage story, there’s so such deep wisdom there and as always, in reading your wonderful replies.
    Apart from Sheba, my beautiful, gentle dog from an old relationship I have never kept pets. Her death, after a long life was a huge loss yet it is with fondness that I remember her today racing around, boundless energy, instinctively snuggling up close, and the utter joy of seeing each other after a long day’s work. As I write, the garden is teeming with babbling birds, while a solitary Robin on the ground belts out a fine tune. The squirrels are racing up and down the tree building a nest. Tiny green buds appear all over and the first rose of spring has come out.
    Alongside my tarot, and other divinatory cards I also keep Animal Medicine cards (Sams & Carson). Flicking back through my notebooks I’ve just found an amazing “nine totem animals” card spread which explores in many directions, the individual animals that guide and guard me on my path. In the superb film “The Golden Compass” I love how the soul is portrayed as residing outside a person as an animal companion called a dæmon. Oh thank you Jeanie for guiding me back to my beloved animal companions today. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    1. I love your Blake quote, Deborah. It resonates like a tuning fork…….I’ll remember it. Thank you also for the beautiful portrait of your garden: pure poetry.
      I have the same animal medicine cards as you, and the book that goes with them, and have received many meaningful insights from them through the years. I was very drawn to Native American spirituality in the late 80’s and early 90’s and know that for me the appeal was the extraordinary spiritual attitude of love and respect for Nature and animals…..and the instinctive awareness of the role animals play in life-transforming synchronicities……
      The film “The Golden Compass” is new to me. How did I miss it? Now I can’t wait to see it.
      Sending love and appreciation for your lovely comments that always inspire! Jeanie

  5. This brought back a memory from a very long time ago. It was October and we were having a regular birthday party in the afternoon for my son then aged about 10 or so … cricket pitch set up, tennis on the court, swimming pool, things that were hanging from the tree to bash down and so on. But that morning the bees appeared, swarms of them near the borehole alongside the tennis court. So, I spoke to them and said we won’t disturb you, please don’t disturb us. When the boys arrived for the party I took them another way around the house and said about the bees – don’t go there and all will be well … and all was well thankfully.
    Thanks Jeanie, it was lovely to read about Shadow and how he fully represented your inner being. I know of the beneficial therapy that can be gained with horses … where e.g. a deeply depressed person can, by spending time with a horse (even if for the first time), have his/her emotional state mirrored.

    1. What a wonderful story, Susan. It’s a beautiful example of that deep, respectful attitude toward animals and Nature I was just writing about to Deborah. No wonder you experienced so many synchronicities around your special painted turtle. (For those who are interested, here’s the link to your blog: )
      For me, the personal, creative ritualistic way you approached its formation and placement is every bit as much of a spiritual practice as anything else one can name. I’ve found that they are almost always far more meaningful than the formal ones I grew up with in church. I’m not saying those weren’t meaningful; they were and still are. But my personal rituals based on self-reflection and self-discovery are the ones that go the deepest and stay with me….
      Thanks for writing. I always love hearing from you.

  6. A moving story of our relationships with our soul animals. They tell us so much about ourselves. I had a horse named Easter when I was a young girl. Neither of us had nearly enough training, so it was an uneasy relationship. Nothing like you standing quietly in the center with that nose nudge from a quieting Shadow.
    I’ve never been closer to an animal than I am to my dog Willow. She doesn’t seem to pick up on my anxiety. Instead she counters me with cheerful relaxed energy. Even though I got her when I was grieving deeply, that was also a quiet time for me emotionally with no outward striving or desire for anything other than to find a little joy in life. I wasn’t worried or anxious because the worst had already happened. Willow brought happiness and physical contact. She’s my joy creature.
    Today, a few times, I quieted my breath and brought my energy to the soles of my feet, the place where I feel grounded and know that all is well and all will be well. Let’s remember to breathe together a bit before we work together. Good idea?

    1. I would characterize my relationship with Shadow as uneasy too….as one sometimes is with one’s own shadow, actually. 🙂 Probably the major difference between your experience and mine is that owning and training my own horse was a dream I intentionally fulfilled as a mature adult, knowing It would be the ideal way for me to get in touch with my own physically-, sensorially- and emotionally-challenged shadow. (I’m very intuitive so my shadow lies in the Sensate pole of the Myers-Briggs.) So I boarded my young, highly sensitive thoroughbred at a stable where I took regular lessons, devoured books and videos about human-horse relationships, attended an intensive workshop with a special trainer who taught us how to bond with and learn the language of our horses, and was deeply committed to respecting and learning from this teacher. Boy, did I!!
      Your Willow sounds like a dream: the ideal companion. I love dog energy so much. It’s all about loving and giving and relating and bringing physical comfort and fun and laughter and gratitude. Horse energy is somewhat different, and for me, much more challenging, yet horses are, like dogs, very natural and honest and social. And they can be fun and playful and affectionate, and are very happy to serve and please humans whom they trust. Shadow and I had a very strong and deep bond. Years after his death just thinking about him brings me to tears.
      I love your practice of brining your energy to the soles of your feet. I look forward to breathing together with you as we prepare for our presentation for the Jung Society of Sarasota next weekend. Great idea!!

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