Horse Magic

(c) Lynne Glazer

(c) Lynne Glazer

Usually my posts in this blog are solidly and intentionally nuts-and-bolts, designed to provide a factual place for the writer to start when it comes to writing about horses. I’ll be doing lots more of those, but on this day of the Winter Solstice I’d like to tackle something a little nearer and dearer to the fantasy writer’s craft–though if you write science fiction, it could prove useful as well.

Horses attract magic and magical practitioners with remarkable consistency. Maybe not quite as much as cats, but wherever you find horses, you find a complex fabric of mythos and mystique. From the Pooka and the Kelpie to the Chinese Horse of Heaven, from Epona the divine Mare to the Ghost Stallion of the American West, horses loom large in human mythmaking as well as human history.

Practically speaking of course, the animal that made possible major advances in  transport and warfare would take on a distinctly mythic resonance in people’s minds. But to many lovers of horses and all they represent, that isn’t all there is to it. From the old horse cults to the modern equine spirituality–perhaps best known through Linda Kohanov’s Tao of Equus–humans have come back over and over again to the idea of the horse as spiritual power.

Now I’ll be honest. This sort of thing makes the inside of my skull itch. I’m psychically allergic to it. Those nuts and bolts, those practical posts, are to a considerable extent the real me.

But.

Like the latest wave of plumbers and techie guys as paranormal investigators, I have to concede that there are some things I just can’t explain. Oh, I can explain the way horses seem to be telepathic: they’re observant well beyond the human capability, and perceive and react to tiny movements or changes in expression of an ear or a nostril or a tail; plus they can hear and smell far better than we can. When a horse curls his lip in that comic fashion, he’s exercising an organ on the inside of the upper lip, which enhances his sense of smell.

And still.

There’s plenty of anthropomorphism out there, and more than enough imposition of human ego on animals who don’t know or care that they’re supposed to be representing this, that, or the other to the humans taking their name and nature in vain. But if you approach a horse as a horse, as a separate being with a different psychology and biology and social structure, you start to see that there’s something else going on there.

This is a very intelligent animal. Every new study that comes along ups the score; it’s getting up around a human toddler for broad cognitive skills now, which in my experience is about right–as far as it goes. As long as we’re talking about the kinds of things the human brain is good at: counting objects, reckoning causality, measuring time. Abstract thinking in general is a big thing for humans. For horses? We don’t know yet.

What they are really, really good at–and studies have barely touched on it at this point–is manipulating energy. A long time ago I read about a trainer who was hooked to an EEG, as was the scared and spooky horse she was working with. Very soon as the session went on, the horse’s brain waves, especially the alpha waves, came into synch with hers. This was regarded at the time as a proof of human brain power over the flighty equine, but these days I wonder.  Any horse lover can tell you that the best cure for a bad day or an upset mind is to spend some time with a horse. There’s a zone of calm around the animal that can make the human mind stop zipping around and learn to be still. It works the other way, yes, but time and again, for every story of the human who calmed the horse, I hear a dozen about the horse who calmed the human.

If you ever get the chance to observe an integrated herd of horses on its own, without humans yapping and yanking at them, watch and see how they move around each other, and see if you can pick up the vibe–how the herd feels. Peaceful, usually. Quiet. Content. Stay around long enough and keep your mind open enough and you’ll feel the same way.

That’s impressive, but there’s something beyond even that. This is where I humph and hem and haw, but I have observed animal communicators who were spot on (and plenty who were clearly full of hooey–but those few who got it, they got it). And not from observation, either: these people work by phone and do readings cold, without input from the caller. Horse telepathy? Possible. Highly usable in fiction.  Is there a great equine collective consciousness out there? Again, possible. And usable. Not all magic needs to be invented. A good part of it is right there in front of you, if you know how to see it.

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cairo_bvcJudith writes fiction about horses, too. Read the first chapter of A Wind in Cairo free right here on Book View Cafe. The rest is available at lulu.com as a trade paperback or a PDF download.

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Horse Magic — 7 Comments

  1. Oh yes. The woo-woo in horse writing can be mind-numbingly annoying, whether it be mainstream or genre. Even Walter Farley drifted into this with the Black Stallion (the last book on his own, The Young Black Stallion, posits a somewhat supernatural origin for The Black, something that he hinted at earlier in the series but is even more so toward the end, and his son appears to have continued with that aspect of things).

    Myself, I rank horse intelligence as being somewhat higher than toddler–around the level of an inquisitive 8-10 year old, depending upon the brain power of the horse in question. But I’m also fortunate enough to own and be owned by a highly intelligent mare from bloodlines bred to think about a complex activity (herding cattle), who was started and handled consistently by a well-regarded professional before he sold her to me. She’s not a cuddly sort, but she clearly regards herself as #2 alpha mare in the barn (it’s clear from her interactions with one mare that said mare is #1 alpha). Watching her keep track of everything that is going on, observing, and thinking about things makes me very aware that there’s thought going on in that brain. Teaching her new tasks elicits a particular expression on her face as she lowers her head, flicks her ears to half-mast, and concentrates.

    But there is, as you say, that nebulous Other means of communication. I’ve had it not just with her but with other strong-minded, dominant mares who have figured out that humans do not see as horses do, and when trying to communicate something of import to a human, will deliberately turn their head full face to the human to engage eye contact, pause to make sure eye contact is made, then very deliberately indicate a problem (the most striking example was a 24 year old Appaloosa school horse mare who wanted to tell me that she wasn’t pawing as bad behavior, she was pawing to indicate a shoulder pain. Eye contact, then slo-mo raising of the leg in question, keeping eye contact all the time. I started probing her shoulder and felt a lump, which went away after massaging it). There have been times when I’ve known there’s something wrong or something that a horse I know well wants to communicate to me, with no obvious cues. Well, obvious to me. Then again, I’ve been around horses off and on for over forty years (yikes!) so odds are good that I’m picking up on a lot of subconscious cues that I don’t recognize.

  2. The toddler thing is related to abstract concepts and time. How intelligent are they really? How do you measure? They’re geniuses with body language and subtle social cues. Far, far beyond human capability. They’re deeply wise and masterful at manipulating the world–especially the alpha mares. The mares rule.

    I’m thinking they’re on a par with elephants for smarts. The social structure is remarkably similar. It’s complex and subtle and full of signals that humans can barely detect if at all.

    The wonderful part is that they let us into their world, if we’re bright enough to realize it and open-minded enough to admit that they just may, in many ways, be smarter than we are.

  3. I think you’re absolutely right about comparing horses and elephants, and I think one of the keys is a detailed and elaborate memory. Horses are masters of long-term retrieval skills, they do well with short-term memory, and if we could ever devise a working memory test for horses, I suspect their scores as compared to humans would be in the top 1st percentile (sorry, the special ed testing geek comes out in me here).

    Fluid reasoning skills would probably score high in equine measurement as well (fluid reasoning is the skill of manipulating and using novel concepts presented to them to understand something).

    Hmm. I should take another look at the Cattell-Horn-Carroll intelligence theory presentation and think about how it would apply to measuring equine intelligence. Sadly, I think I left all that reading at work….

  4. :). What does it say that I knew what that link about the EEG trainer would take me too before I clicked?

    Also, yes. Horse magic is there to be observed and written about and i think there is much we don’t know. And that the temptation to anthropomorphize is inevitable — and also a potentially useful plot device.

  5. Joyce, if you would write that out at some point, I would love to read it–and would link to it like a linking thing. People who study horse behavior all too often don’t seem to know zip about human behavior or educational testing, or have theories set in stone that no empirical evidence will shake.

    Like the scientist doing the horse movement studies–she persists in studying one type of horse as if all horses were one type, and reaching conclusions that apply to THAT type, but not to the type that, you know, was actually bred for the kind of movement she studies. There’s a big gaping hole in the methodology, which she appears to be blind to.

    Same seems to apply to cognitive studies. Some of them are opening up now, and there’s all sorts of startlement at the intelligence and overall mental capacity they’re finding. But any observant horse owner could tell you hey yeah, no kidding.

    Not every horse owner is anthropomorphizing or making stuff up. The clear-eyed ones are seeing things that “shouldn’t” exist according to the common view. But they do. And always have.

  6. Judith–I’ll put some thought into writing that up. Nag me if I don’t, please! One of the authors of the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Cognition (which is the prime cognitive test based on CHC theory) does blog. Wonder if he’d consider the question?

    Failing that, I’ll go back into the online sources and take some notes from an eye toward assessing equine intelligence.

  7. Plus, scratch a few old horsemen, and you’ll get the stories about horses that “know”. Far off deaths of beloved people, horses that have gone for help, horses that have found their way home over new and complex terrain, protecting injured riders.

    Then there are the horses that learn by watching and who memorize countless difficult tests and courses to the point of anticipating the course and doing it themselves.

    Everyone has one or more stories that defy reality, but are absolutely true.