Since the beginning of time those humans who have shared their lives with horses have come to believe that horses, like people, have a soul. Proof of this is evident by all the writings, songs and poems speaking in regard to the horse, their spirits and their souls.
But what exactly does it mean to have a soul?
A quick peak at dictionary.com offers these definitions and I’ve highlighted in red those definitions applicable to horses, apart from the “must be a human to have a soul” component.
the principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans, regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable in existence from the body; the spiritual part of humans as distinct from the physical part.
the spiritual part of humans regarded in its moral aspect, or as believed to survive death and be subject to happiness or misery in a life to come: arguing the immortality of the soul.
the disembodied spirit of a deceased person: He feared the soul of the deceased would haunt him.
the emotional part of human nature; the seat of the feelings or sentiments.
a human being; person.
high-mindedness; noble warmth of feeling, spirit or courage, etc.
the animating principle; the essential element or part of something.
the inspirer or moving spirit of some action, movement, etc.
the embodiment of some quality: He was the very soul of tact.
( initial capital letter ) Christian Science . God; the divine source of all identity and individuality.
shared ethnic awareness and pride among black people, esp. black Americans.
12. deeply felt emotion, as conveyed or expressed by a performer or artist.
of, characteristic of, or for black Americans or their culture: soul newspapers.
bef. 900; ME; OE sāwl, sāwol; c. D ziel, G Seele, ON sāl, Goth saiwala
According to that definition, a definition which is human specific, it would seem that there is not a worldwide consensus that horses do in fact have a soul, yet to us it seems blatantly obvious that they do.
I have no doubt that most of horsemen along with millions of people worldwide believe that horses (and most animals) do in fact have a soul.
But do we treat our horses in accordance with this belief?
For way too long horses have been forced to perform our whims for us and often to their own detriment. Throughout history millions of horses have met an unfortunate end doing all those crazy things we’ve told them to do, like charging into battle.
Amazingly enough horses did it and still do our bidding. Some things they do because they want to please us. Sometimes they comply because they are forced to do so under threat of pain or the presence of actual pain. Shame on us when such is the case.
So we as horsemen find ourselves in a position to either believe horses have a soul, or that they do not and then to act in accordance with our beliefs.
If you don’t believe horses have a soul then there’s very little I can say to change your blind mind. If you haven’t seen that presence in a horse’s eye or how they interact with you then you are pretty much a lost cause and beyond any reasoning I can offer. You might as well stop reading now. Go play in traffic with explosives or something.
But if you DO believe that horses have a soul then I ask that you stop and think about what that really means.
Any being with a soul has a sense of self-awareness, feelings and emotions. There will be a response to kindness as well as a response to pain. As horsemen we like to pride ourselves on being kind and effective riders, but are we really?
When a rider hasn’t fully developed their seat and rides off balance or bounces unmercifully upon a horse’s back we can easily cause pain. If the horse reacts negatively to that pain we often subject it to punishment and even more pain and discomfort. Often, our bad riding leads to lameness or other soreness issues to the horse. In these situations we have failed to be kind and effective riders.
Humans also have a tendency to become rough in their training and we have become so blind to it, so complacent that we don’t even SEE the abuse. Case in point is a natural horsemanship trainer that I’ve seen on TV, one who routinely jerks the living crap out of the horses he handles and watching it makes me wince. Yet someone must think he’s good because he has his own TV show!
It could also be argued that there are varying levels ranging from dampening of the spirit to discomfort to pain to out and out abuse.
When a rider uses rough training tactics or equipment which is ill fitting, uncomfortable or is used as a weapon against the horse (like a bit) we are again failing to be kind and effective riders.
When a rider hasn’t obtained the skill to use exercises to achieve wanted goals and resorts to force it is likewise wrong.
When a rider uses force (like the type of riding seen in fixed hand rolkur/hyperflexion positions) in order to achieve goals quickly it is again wrong. The crying shame is that organizations such as the FEI no longer view prolonged discomfort or damage of the spirit or soul as inhumane. The FEI, by its latest proclamations has decided that the definition of undesirable riding is ONLY through the use of aggressive force. Discomfort and passive approaches to causing pain is just fine by them.
To my mind, this is akin to saying that among humans abuse can only be in a physical form and not in a mental or emotional form. Yet we all know that mental or emotional abuse is just as taxing upon the spirit and health of the individual as physical abuse. Yet for some reason we fail to see that comparison when it comes to horses.
So what are we to do to honor our horses, respect their souls and yet get the job done? How do we keep our goal oriented selves from getting greedy and rushing training or causing pain or discomfort in order to achieve them?
We need to learn technique and to work as hard as we can to perfect our balance, timing and skills. Then we must be patient and never, ever greedy.
This is challenging for us humans because humans do greed very well. Olympic equestrian tradition seems to have moved from the art of the ride to the want of the win and that’s greed.
I think that sucks too.
However, the first part of changing something is being aware that it needs to be changed and we’re at a point where many of us have come to that awareness.
It is likewise as disheartening to our humanly fragile egos to acknowledge that although we’ve owned horses for twenty years that we still do not know enough and we still cannot ride well enough to keep from causing the horse pain and discomfort. It’s hard to admit that when we push the horse to go in a zillion classes at a zillion horse shows that it just might be pushing the horse to its breaking point – and I do mean BREAKING.
Sorry to say as a horseman I do not have all the answers and probably never will. I, like the rest of us, do my best to keep my horse’s work pleasant yet effective. I try my best to educate myself and to ride to the limit, but never ever over.
In my own riding this currently equates to my getting my horse to use his back end enough to lift his front end even more than he already has. It’s a slow process but a necessary one. Constantly I have to go back to scratch and if I haven’t been able to ride as consistently as I want to I’ll come across those rides where I must have the self-discipline not to be greedy for more. Sometimes, less IS more.
It’s hard not to get carried away sometimes especially following a good ride. We seem eager to try and force a duplication of the wonderful ride, but that never works.
So I ask that the next time you ride you consider the horse’s soul in all that you do. Just because a horse can be replaced doesn’t mean that soul is replaceable – EVER.
If your horse is the type to try his heart out it would be simply criminal to take advantage of that, and soon you’ll run out of heart. When that happens a horse loses much of his magnificence.
For me adherence to this code means patiently doing my exercises, taking things as they come – as they are offered. I constantly try to add to my knowledge and expertise and I’ve learned that when I do things correctly my horse is very likely to also do things correctly.
I’ve had a lot of fun on my rides and I see the constant progress and am grateful for them. I may run out of time or ability (in either me or the horse or both) to get him to FEI levels, but with what is getting rewarded in FEI competition I’m pretty alright with that.
Especially when I consider his emotion, his soul and how precious and fragile it can be, just like ours. I’d rather be a good lower level partner that a shitty higher level source of pain and irritation who gets to wear a top hat so I can feel good about myself.
If there is an afterlife and souls can join there it would be thing of dreams. I imagine my horse and I in piaffe and passage, the two of us moving as if one, lasting for eternity.
Yes, this thought has made me smile. I want that.
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