My Horse: My Teacher About Emotions

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No one can teach riding so well as a horse.” ~ C.S. Lewis

“No philosophers so thoroughly comprehend us as dogs and horses.” ~Herman Melville

Note:  Thank you for the wonderful response to my last post about what my granddaughter learned from her horse. I’d like to continue that theme with this post I wrote several years ago.

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, or excitable, they will behave in accordance with the deeper reality. Shadow was especially good at this. And since I’ve always been good at ignoring uncomfortable feelings, together we were a Jungian analyst’s dream!

“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” ~John Wayne

For example, the first time Shadow and I took a dressage test, I was vaguely aware of feeling 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 training technique where you 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.

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. This was his first visit to this stable where the event was to be held, and he was nervous. 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.

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 away and I saw the full extent of my own anxiety in his behavior.

“When your horse follows you without being asked, when he rubs his head on yours, and when you look at him and feel a tingle down your spine…you know you are loved.” ~John Lyons

Immediately 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. After a couple more turns he was trotting, a few more and 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 round pen brought home something I had not mastered after years of meditation: recognizing negative emotional states and rendering them harmless by returning to my quiet center. This skill is crucial to conflict resolution in everyday relationships. 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?

Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. Her Wilbur Award-winning book, Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.com. Her new award-winning book, The Soul’s Twins, is available at Schiffer, Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit and wherever books are sold. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.

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15 Responses

  1. Thank you Jeanie for sharing the healing and insights you gained from Shadow that day. Loved this line “… together we were a Jungian analyst’s dream!” which made me laugh out loud! Oh, what a beautiful, noble looking soul Shadow was! Horses do mirror us don’t they and sometimes they also do the opposite … or do they?! This, “Can you imagine how different the world would be if everyone involved in international relations had a Shadow to show them their shadow?” You nailed it!

    Following on from last week, I was on holiday missing Sheba lots when I noticed horses were available for hire around the forest I was staying near. By the time I got to the stables there was only one left and I would need to be a confident rider they advised. Well, I faked it to make it and said yep, that’s fine, lead me to him! The horse turned out to be a tad mischievous, seven year old black stallion … yet my desire since to be close to an animal that morning was so strong, I agreed to take him out.

    Well, to begin with he wouldn’t move, at all, not an inch, and when we finally and embarrassingly got past that moment, he decided to stay at the back of the group of riders, and plodded along in his own time like an old gentleman. While I was fuming, I could hear the trainer laughing to herself in front of me. On cue, he abruptly stopped again and this time would only move if he was led by the stable girl on a long rope … I felt so angry and humiliated! This wasn’t me I kept saying to myself.

    For I had tried everything that morning to get him going but none of my light squeezes or instructions were working. I tried whispering, I tried shouting, which included calling him a donkey instead of a horse! And I swear that horse looked back at me and laughed in my face … several times! It was like he’d pulled the handbrake up and wasn’t moving an inch! And so this is how I rode the trails that day … by being led by the stable girl on a magnificent animal that knew me more than I knew myself.

    Why? Because I was full of grief and struggling in a sham of a relationship at that time which I desperately needed to get out of … where I was pretending to be somebody I wasn’t. So your brilliant insight hit home as I was under full influence and control of my shadow, trying to convince others, especially my girlfriend at the time, that I was this loud, exciting, extroverted woman who loved danger! Hmm, no wonder the stallion chose me!

    As I dismounted half cross, somewhat-happy for the forest was a beautiful place to visit, the horse turned and breathed deeply over my face … which got the trainer laughing even more. Oh, he likes you she says! I ignored her and stormed off back to my bad lover and back to be the person I wasn’t. Today as I write, I realise I liked him, a lot, for he has taught me more about my shadow in those two hours than anything or anyone has … only it’s taken me nearly twenty years to understand this. Love and light, Deborah.

    1. Hi Deborah,

      What a great story. It has me laughing. A tad mischievous, for sure!

      Stallions are notorious for being willful and stubborn. Sounds like your Animus was in high dudgeon that day too! The competition was on the moment they met, and your ego was caught in the crossfire.

      I’m still chuckling. I suspect if you’d known Sophia then, she could have wrapped that stallion around her little finger in a heartbeat. 🙂

      Thanks for the morning smiles. Love, Jeanie

        1. I definitely got the idea it was a long time ago. It’s obvious you’ve changed a lot since then. 🙂

  2. What you write about you relationship with your horse, Shadow, beautifully reflects my own experience, though it’s a long time ago.
    As a teen I was keen to own a horse, which was out of the question, so in order to learn riding I helped out at a local stable and, like you, learned how my own state of mind and heart was clearly mirrored in the animals. I realized they read intentions clearly and are easily spooked by hesitancy and anxiousness in people around them. For my voluntary work I was given one horse to ride on a regular basis, riding it without saddle. We even swam together in a nearby pond. They were unforgettable moments of shared trust, deeply nourishing. And thinking of this time now, the experience gave me the skill to create rapport with groups in workshops and with clients.

    1. Your story brings back wonderful memories and warm feelings of my youthful experiences with horses. I mostly rode bareback too, racing down dirt roads, walking through streams, forest all around. Every little girl should be so lucky to have these experiences.

      I have no doubt they taught you empathy and and how to create rapport and engage in interspecies communication….mine certainly did. You feel how they’re “reading your mind” and you just automatically start tuning in and reading theirs.

      The first time Shadow and I tried to trot in figure 8’s in a round pen, we struggled a bit the first couple of times and then it was if he got it and suddenly took over and did it perfectly the third time with barely a nudge from me. I swear I felt this wave of delight and pleasure coming from him and washing over me. I was so delighted I laughed out loud and just knew he was feeling the same way.

      You don’t forget experiences like that. They’re numinous, really. Jung thought horses and animals in general were very spiritual….

  3. It’s so lovely to read of your experience Jeanie thank you for sharing it with us. I’m reminded of that film “The Horse Whisperer”. As a teenager a horse with me on it jumped over a fence and I landed on my butt. Somehow that memory is bred in my bones and subsequent rides on horses as an adult with my children in tow, showed me how my shadow was reflected. Obstinate is the word that comes to mind, reflecting both me and my horse’s response at the time. It would not go!
    One time, a dog was out and about looking a bit mad and unruly and was approaching me as I was out and about walking in my parents’ suburb. I remembered something which I put into practice, ie getting down on my haunches so as to see eye to eye with the dog instead of towering over him. The deflection happened – I was safe.
    I know that horses are used as part of therapy in some instances. And that ‘mirroring’ is an extremely effective technique in most interpersonal relationships. Love, Susan

    1. Sounds like you and Deborah had similar experiences with Animus and Horse!

      I had many experiences of landing on my butt, usually after the horse shied at a sudden movement of something beside the road. But once after Shadow died, a horse I was leasing for the summer bucked me off and I landed hard with my head hitting the ground inches away from a big rock. I suddenly realized I was getting too old to risk my life like that. I had grandchildren by then and wanted to be around for them. I haven’t ridden much since then, although I still love to be around horses. They just bring me so much pleasure. I still can’t really explain why.

      There are a couple of stables here in the Orlando area that specialize in using horses as therapy. One works with special needs children; the other with veterans who have post-traumatic stress. I’ve heard reports of amazing results from both. Love, Jeanie

    1. Thank you, Diane.

      I still need that lesson sometimes too. It’s especially useful to remember in close relationships when you know each other so well that if one of you gets in a ‘mood’ the other picks up on it and absorbs it until they’re in a ‘mood’ too. If one of you doesn’t make a conscious choice to center yourself in love, it can go on indefinitely. Funny that it takes animals to teach us things like that! 🙂

  4. You are “right on”! As a horse owner I have learned that they pick up on our emotions; however, they are wonderful to bring “calm” into our lives as well. For years I’ve taken the time to meditate and experience mindfullness; whether at home, walking in a garden environment, hiking and most of all spendig time with Storm, my horse. Let’s add dogs as well. Love your posts…………

    1. That’s an excellent point, Fern. I think that calming influence may be exactly what being around horses does to me. Especially when I groom them. It brings me into the now, heightens my sensory awareness. Yes, dogs do that too, for sure! Happy trails……

  5. I had a horse when I was 10 and 11–but the horse had me. She was full of mischief and I was naive. My parents (dealing with my very sick dad) were glad to let me work it out on my own which was dangerous. She puffed her belly up when I saddled it and then exhaled while I was riding so the saddle slipped around. She knew she was in control and I was terrified. It wasn’t a good relationship and I never wanted to ride again. No instruction for a novice that age! It shocks me still.

    I remember Shadow. Thanks for telling this wonderful story about centering yourself and your animal friend. They are so tuned into us. My young dog Disco was a rescue, so didn’t get enough time with her mom. My old dog wasn’t into snuggling or mothering her, so Disco was anxious. I would lie on the couch with her lying on my chest with a blanket over her. Warm! I did deep breathing and within a few minutes she sighed deeply a few times and nodded off. She needed a mom. Now she’s 45 pounds and still wants to lie on me at night. I don’t let her under the blankets, but allow her to sleep on top of the blankets as close to me as she can, often with her head on my hip or belly and her whole body pressed against me.. Lots of deep sighs and then she’s quiet until I wake up in the morning. Sometimes when I wake up, she’s meditating on my face with open eyes–or meditating on our morning walk and breakfast. I didn’t know how much I needed snuggling and body comfort since I never before allowed a dog on my bed or couch. She’s been a great helper through the pandemic. My healing and healed “soul animal.”

  6. Such a lovely and enlightening post, thank you for sharing. I have also been thrown from a horse, bucked off head first one time. These falls happened when I was a lot younger and so I would be hesitant at my age, with grandchildren also, to saddle up again but there is something so special about horses that I adore, they seem to be kindred spirits. Your post is so inspirational on the theme of ‘mirroring’ our emotions. It’s quite extraordinary and wonderful, wish I had understood that when I was a teenager.

    1. Thank you, masked native. I agree. Horses do feel like kindred spirits. As soon as I get around them I feel centered, peaceful, and happy. And also, kind of in awe. Just being close to them feels so special. They’re such wondrous creatures. I spent all of my time with Shadow trying to bond with him. I took a riding clinic with a Western horseman (I usually rode English but wanted to learn from everyone I could) who taught us how and where horses like to be touched, and how to approach them, how to greet them, how to place your body when you walk with them, showing them by your body language where you want them to go and what you want them to do, keeping your stride the same as theirs, etc. It was very cool, but hard for me to remember sometimes since I’m usually so in my head!

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