“Your horse is your mirror” is a refrain repeated throughout the horsey world; I think it means that your personal issues, demons, flaws, and foibles, your strengths and your hopes and yearnings will be reflected back to you and shown to you by your horse. Gradually you come to realize that it is not the horse that is spooky, stubborn, timid, bold – not exactly – it is you.
Shakespeare once wrote that the job of the actor was “to hold the mirror up to nature” – to show us ourselves, humanity, in all our dimensions. This is the “mirroring” of a horse.
So – if the horse is a mirror – then what is the horse showing us about ourselves? About our humanity?
I did not own a horse or come from a horsey family or live in the country. We didn’t even have a dog or a cat. And yet, this was my idea of heaven: to have my own red horse and to ride her across green mountains to a castle where a king awaited us both.
Another kindergarten memory I have is the day President John F. Kennedy was killed. It was likely the same year I drew this picture.
I remember our classroom the day after the murder. We all sat quietly and at attention at our small wooden desks. We held our silence together, united as children. We were bonded by our unspoken awareness of the cataclysm that had struck our world. We knew our duty: to be good that day, to listen to the teacher, to obey her in spite of the insanity of adults. We waited to be led in the pledge of allegiance, and our actions, our kindness to each other and to our adults that day, held our world together.
Now another cataclysmic violent event has shaken our world.
The horses stand in the field beneath a tree in the winter sun. I park the car and walk through the gate and up the hill where my horse rests among the herd.
They gather quietly in a loose circle, ears flicking, eyes half-closed, heads lowered. My horse waits patiently near the back arc of the circle. When she hears me her head turns and her eyes widen in that look of surprised recognition she always greets me with. She stretches her long neck out and seeks my hand with her nose – I curve my fingers towards the earth and brush her nose with my knuckles – “bumping noses” I call it – the way we greet and check in with each other.
“Hey, girl,” I manage to say and then I walk around to her left side, lean into her, wrap my arms around her neck, press my face into her mane. I can really let go out here. They won’t judge my tears. They won’t call me names, bully me, or attack me. They don’t have any guns. They aren’t predators. Do they even know what we are? How do they see us ?? Funny creatures with long arms and soft tipped claws that reach to stroke them, always wanting to touch their faces and climb on their backs. Always making a river of nonsense sounds. Shouting, waving sticks and whips, frantic with fear?
Or calm, respectful, kind to those who are not like us ?
The other horses in the circle are perfectly still. Only my horse turns her head around to look at me and stands just like that – her swan neck holding its curve, her ears pricked forward, her eyelids wrinkled, giving her a worried look. Her nose hovers near my waist. She stands listening to the strange sounds I make and wondering and waiting to find out what is going on.
When I am calm, I stroke her nose with the back of my hand and press my forehead into hers and we stay that way for an infinite moment, breathing, the poison of fear and paranoia and heartbreak soaked out of me and onto her withers and mane, where it will dry in the winter sun or disappear into the foggy air.
Before I met her, my horse fell into a ravine and survived. She stood in a stall waiting for food that never arrived. She survived that too. She nickers, a low, throaty rumble, distant thunder in her throat, and follows me down the hill.
Our animal companions carry and comfort us in our grief. Through the darkest moments of horror they are present, knowing nothing of our human events and yet knowing so much of our human flaws. We bury our heads in their furry necks and earth-scented manes and sob out our stricken hearts when words abandon us in the shocking reality of our own unfathomable actions towards each other. These animals know our violence, sometimes as witnesses, sometimes as victims. In the horse’s devotion to us, they have even carried us into war, attacking or fleeing on our behalf.
When I was a child, my vision of peace, the world offered to me by horses, was more real to me than the “real world” of adults, a place of war, assassinations, and body counts. Grown ups seem to use violence as a way to be “free” and yet they only hurt others and made themselves angry and miserable in unending cycles. I never understood why, as a child, and I still don’t.
Horses offers me a way of being, of co-existence, showing me how to be strong without violence or cruelty. They do this in spite of knowing all too well what cruelties humans are capable of to each other and to them. That is the kind of devotion you experience the moment you are allowed to sit upon the back of a horse and feel that horse willingly carry you over the earth.
Horses show us acceptance, community, and humility, knowing and accepting that we are a part of and subject to nature. They teach us by asking us to step up to our responsibilities to them, as creatures we have caught or bred and domesticated, worked and used. In spite of all that, they serve us loyally and I even think sometimes they love us. Horses already know what we have yet to learn; how to work out their conflicts and maintain the peaceful coexistence of the herd. And at the same time they are always themselves, whole unto themselves, free of us and our ways.
Horses are a symbol of true freedom, interdependence, peace, and joy. To me, that is Spirit.
For Jessica, one of the girls murdered at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Ct., who dreamed of owning a horse one day. And for all the children growing up in an adult world of abuse and violence.