When I was growing up in Scotland my horse, Mr. Bojangles (Bo for short), was my best friend. He listened to my problems without judging me, he let me fly like the wind on his back when I needed to let off some steam, and he had a good thick coat to cry into when the going got tough. While I knew what I had with Bo was pretty special, I didn’t yet realize the full impact that my bond with horses would have on my life. While I got to know modern day horse heroes such as Black Beauty, the Black Stallion and My Friend Flicka, I didn’t realize that people had been doing this with other ‘horse heroes’ for centuries; that there was a universal bond between people and horses that would later form the basis for my work. Now I realize that I wasn’t the only teenage girl to experience such a powerful connection with a member of this noble species. People across time and culture have been drawn to horses, from Black Beauty to Pegasus; drawn by a bond that is reflected in our stories, our legends and in our history books. Some describe this bond as a symbolic function that renders the man-horse connection spiritually powerful. Others describe it as follows:
“We had no word for the strange animal we got from the white man – the horse. So we called it sunka wakan, “holy dog.” — Lame Deer, Sioux Medicine Man
“The air of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.”— Arabian Proverb
“A horse is worth more than riches.” — Spanish Proverb
“Gypsy gold does not chink and glitter. It gleams in the sun and neighs in the dark” — Saying of the Claddagh gypsies of Galway
“And God took a handful of south wind and from it formed a horse, saying: ‘… I establish thee as one of the glories of the earth … I give thee flight without wings.’ ” — Ancient Bedouin Legend
The Horse in Mythology
Mythical horses from different times and cultures have held a variety of meanings. To the early Celts the horse was a major symbol of energy, power, and fertility. Epona, also known as Rhiannon (Wales), Macha, and Etain (Ireland) was the mother goddess who was frequently depicted with horses and with foals. The fertility cult of Epona stretched from Spain to Eastern Europe, from northern Italy to Britain.
Similarly the stallion was a symbol of the God Freyr, who was lord of fertility of men, animals, and crops. In the sanctuary devoted to Freyr at Thrandheim, Norway, sacred horses were kept in honor of the god. Many cultures, including bronze age Scandinavians, Vikings and the Greeks connected the horse with the sun. Sunna was a Scandinavian goddess who drove her horse drawn chariot round the sun; Helios was the Greek sun God who drove his horses through the sky. Others saw the horse as providing a connection to the underworld, as expressed in the burial practices of the Chinese and the Celts who buried horses with their kings to transport them to the next world. To others the horse represented courage and generosity, as reflected in the many Christian Saints, including St. Martin, St. Maurice, St. George, and St. Victor, who did their good deeds on horseback.
The Horse Symbolizing Life Energy
The connection that speaks most powerfully to me, one that many of my clients seem drawn to explore, is that of the horse symbolizing life energy. Carl Jung talked about the self being made up of the collective unconscious (which he said was common to all people AND animals), instinct and archetype. Jung also said that psychological discord can result from a disconnect with your life energy. For example, depression can represent our life energy going underground; and when we experience abuse our life energy can disappear, then come bursting back uncontrollably. Jung said that animals in our dreams represent our connection to and relationship with our life energy. As a person moves closer to connecting to this energy the animal representing it becomes more sophisticated. A dream about an insect might represent a primitive connection to our life energy. As this relationship matures, more sophisticated animals appear in our dreams – like horses.
Similarly, Joseph Campbell describes the Mandala or Medicine Circle as a culture’s attempt to connect with the universe. Jung saw the mandala as the perfect image of self, with the centre of the mandal representing the source of life energy. Many cultures depicted horses in this centre.
Discovering the integration of the horse into mythology and psychological theory confirmed and reinforced the intuitive connection I had experienced. Over time the power of this connection became a vision, which now guides my professional practice. My intuition, my horses and my research all told me that others could be helped by connecting with horses, and that I could be their guide.
The Horse in Equine Facilitated Counselling
At Healing Hooves I have the honour of accompanying my clients as they travel along their own unique paths to discovery, healing and growth; guided along that path by their vision, their intuition, and the human horse bond. On this journey clients sometimes choose to explore their connection and relationship with their life energy. Many of the individuals I have worked with have experienced abuse and violence in their lives. Power and control are key factors in the dynamics of abuse, and many survivors of abuse feel that they have no power or control in their relationships with others and with themselves. ‘Jenna’ first recalls experiencing abuse as an eight-year-old child, when her father followed her into the bathroom and locked the door. As an adult she married a man who beat her, did not allow her to have her own money, monitored her phone calls, and told her she was a lousy mother. Jenna felt she had no control over her life, she felt powerless with her family, with the system, with herself.
When first faced with a horse Jenna saw a thousand pounds of uncontrollable power, she felt anxiety and fear; she told me she was small and powerless. But she also felt a connection, was drawn to the beauty of the horse; the energy, freedom and hope which she saw represented there. We started with Jenna on one side of the fence, the horses on the other; Jenna chose the pace. Over time Jenna developed a relationship with the horses, she learnt to groom and feed them, she sat in the field and talked to them. Through groundwork exercises Jenna asked the horses to respect her boundaries, and experienced not anger or rejection, but acceptance and respect. Ultimately Jenna was able to ride the horses, she built a partnership with them in which she led the way. In debrief sessions Jenna explored her relationship with the horses as representative of her relationship with herself – and specifically with her life energy. Jenna learnt through the horses that while she can’t always control every aspect of this energy, she can develop a relationship with it, take care of it, feed it, rest it and train it – trust it and respect it – so that it accommodates her and works with her, rather than against her. Once Jenna had developed a healthier relationship with herself, she started to work on other relationships in her life. Like many of my clients, Jenna had found in the horse a powerful metaphor that she could explore experientially and then, in her own time, transfer to other aspects of her life.
I am of course always guided by my education, training and experience in counselling, therapeutic riding, animal assisted therapy and horsemanship. However, the vision and intuitive connection to the horse, which I first experienced as a child, and later understood through mythology and the writings of Carl Jung, are also powerful guides. Just like Bo did when I was a child, my vision and intuitive connection to the horse revitalizes and reassures me when the going gets tough, grounds me when I feel lost, and reinforces in me daily that this is the life I was born to live.
© Sue McIntosh, MA, CCC, 2001