Horse Sense

An interview early one morning on CBC, heard while I was imprisoned in hospital waiting for the two ends of my spine to reunite, caught my fancy.

The interviewee was Chris Irwin, renowned trainer of horses, and author of a slim book: Horses Don’t Lie.

His theme was the psychology of the horse, compared with the mental makeup of man.

Along with dogs, cats, lions, tigers, wolves and coyotes, man is a predator. He needs to kill his prey to obtain food to survive. His two eyes point forward and work together, to focus on his prey. Dominance within the pack is determined by physical contest—whether among a group of puppies, or young schoolboys establishing their position through horseplay in the company of their peers.

By contrast, horses are prey, not predator. Like deer and other ruminants, their food grows all around them on the ground—no problem there of supply. The challenge of being a prey animal is rather one of avoiding becoming food for the predator. So this type of animal has eyes pointing outward on each side of its head, giving it 360 degree vision, and its brain is continually attuned to awareness of its environment and possible dangers in it, rather than concentrating its attention on any particular objective.

Consider, then, the reaction of the horse, a prey animal, when approached by the predator, man. It is an instinctive urge to run for the hills in self-preservation—as indeed, is also the reaction of cattle at a rodeo.

So ‘breaking’ a horse has traditionally been a difficult operation, sometimes achieved only by cruelly destroying the animal’s spirit. Irwin, however, has a different technique. He has learned to think like a horse, and get willing cooperation by communicating with his charges in horse language.

Horses move in herds, and have their own system of deciding on who shall be leader. Instead of fighting for pre-eminence, horses engage in a form of discussion, carried out through symbolic movements of their bodies, which end up with a leader being selected, who has the approval and support of the rest of the herd.

Irwin’s art is to use that same language, to persuade his horses that he is the ideal leader to follow; more capable and more interesting than any other member of the herd. Once that is accomplished, horse and rider are friends for life, with a rich bond of devotion and loyalty between them—so long as the leader lives up to his promises.

It seems to me that mankind has much to learn from this.

Firstly, that though the average churchgoer may find that ‘original sin’ is a difficult concept to relate to, the idea that ‘man is by nature a predator’ is not, even though it is saying much the same thing. “Men behave like wolves to their fellow men” as the Roman writer observes.

Secondly, that it’s not a bad idea to have 360 degree vision in a world of predators: “Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves,” and beware of “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” even within the church.

Thirdly, the horse’s method of selecting a leader, based on the recognition and willing acceptance of merit, seems vastly preferable to the predator leader securing his position by sheer force of arms.

But, finally, is there not a lesson for us all in the journey Irwin had to take in order to carry out his objective of relating to horses—to abandon the ways of the predator, and learn to speak the language of the prey? So, in the Bible, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” becomes also “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”: Jesus is the one who is “led like a lamb to the slaughter.” In Isaiah’s vision, “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” “the lion eats straw like the ox,” and “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”

Predators cannot live without prey, or they will starve. Prey, though, need predators to control their numbers, or they will over-graze their territory, and in turn, begin to starve. Yet in a world so dominated by man, it seems necessary that at least a good part of mankind has to learn the way of prey, not predator, or the world will end in war and starvation. That’s what civilization is all about.

Perhaps the path of good horse training is also the path to the Kingdom of Heaven!

– Anglican Messenger, April 2003