It’s been a summer where the intense privilege of being a PhD student studying human-animal relationships has really struck home. I have serious academic questions to answer. They just happen to be best answered from within a herd of horses under big blowsy skies, tearing the summer grass alongside the busy, muscular, lips of soft muzzles, watching the swallows scooping over the fields and the surrounding woodlands turn from vivid June greens to misty autumnal extravagance. Pastoral clichés welcome here. “Bottle me some of that horse breath!” texts a friend when she learns where I am going that morning. “Best smell in the world!”
This is where I sit now with Erin, the owner and founder of an organisation I’m calling Equine Instinct, as we chat after a session with her flock of sheep, discussing the transparency of intention when approaching other animals. It took me nearly half an hour to get within companiable distance of this flock of snoozing sheep, playing a strange game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. My researcher’s intention, I reflected, was alarmingly close to that of Mr Wolf – steal as close as possible without attracting alarm. Meanwhile magpies surveyed me from their woolly backs as they grazed. “Look” Erin says (and I paraphrase). “This is what I was talking about – look at how relaxed the sheep are with them. When you watch nature programmes, you see all these animals at the watering hole – the lions alongside the zebra and the antelopes. The other animals know the lion isn’t hungry. They all have a way of communicating where they know that they’re not going to be hurting each other, or if they are. But as soon as the human wanders in, everyone scarpers. Why?”
Much of Erin’s work is about learning to understand how intention, emotion and body language affect transspecies harmony and communication. Equine Instinct run three day retreats, one day workshops, individual sessions and facilitator training in the field of ‘equine-assisted personal development’. Horses are used as a way to reflect on the emotional and social conditions of our lives whilst getting to spend time with them on the ground– no riding. Part of this work offers the chance to learn about horse behaviour and herd life on its own terms, through observation and discussion out in the fields. The rest comes as part of the work in the menage, where we and our chosen horse are released for a time to make of each other what we will. Through an understanding of horses as minded, sensitive, thoroughly social and highly attuned to the environment, learning about horses becomes an iterative process of considering your horse’s response as entangled with one’s own emotional state and embodied behaviour. In this way, what Erin calls ‘the felt sense’ is key to a greater “connection” with and understanding of the horse, over and above what can be learned from an ethological or scientific knowledge.
But within the context of personal development is an interesting underlying narrative - horses as role models for a more embodied, fulfilling, ‘present’, and less angst-ridden experience of being in the world. “Let the horses show you the way” says the promotional literature; and many of the participants I interviewed agreed, for example, that a horse’s ability to immediately physicalize a stress response – eg snapping or starting – and then release it by rolling on the ground or “licking and chewing”, was an important lesson. One commented:
“I do think horses are teachers, I think they’ve really got a lot to teach us about how we deal with stress, I mean the whole idea of the animals shaking off stress, you know, they don’t hold it in their bodies, they will get rid of it, they’ll discharge it, we don’t do that, generally….. (it) will all kind of build up. So you’ll probably then go into a whole narrative of, you know, how badly you’ve been treated? And it goes on and on and on and on. So our minds construct this story, about what might have happened and what might not have happened. And we then, hang onto that…”
This capacity for narrative reflection and our tendency to indulge in it is frequently referred to on the retreats as ‘being in our heads’. Here, our particular form of cognitive consciousness what modern neuroscientists might call the neo-frontal cortex is far from being the most appropriate tool with which to interrogate and understand nature. It becomes, if over-indulged, the barrier to understanding, spiriting us away to an ultimately unsatisfying place of abstractions, and distorting ‘clean’ interspecies communication with excessive cognitive noise.
Boria Sax (2011) suggests that humans have always had a misanthropic streak, despairing at our condition and gazing longingly at the seeming self-sufficiency, strength and peace of other animals. Numerous creation myths, from Adam and Eve to Epithemus and Pandora emphasise some kind of hubristic misdeed during early humanity, calling down the vengeance of the gods, and pouring misfortune on the heads of the entire species - pain, grief, deceit or weakness. Much later in the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud and sociologist Norbert Elias emphasised the ‘discontents’ resulting from what Elias called the ‘civilising process’. The centralisation of authority, state monopolisation of the means of violence, and the increasing complexity and differentiation of social rules and functions was, Elias argued, leading to ‘a change in psychological habitus’, whereby more ‘animalistic’ behaviours are invested with feelings of shame and hidden. Instead of physically violent expression, obsessive self-regulation and the attunement of conduct to others’ expectations becomes the norm, entailing “a constant, even pressure to inhibit affective outbursts” (1939:451)
The work of naturalists often reveals a seam of despondency after their immersive experiences with animals. Charles Foster (2016) rails at our ‘woefully unsensual lives’ in comparison to other animals, disconnected from any sense but cognition and vision, insensible to the rich interplay of minute events around us, and alienating us from simple pleasures of everyday life. Joe Hutto, who allowed wild turkeys to ‘imprint’ on him as a parent and raised and accompanied them daily for 9 months in their lives sorrowfully describes human reflexivity as “more of a nervous bureaucracy than a state of sentient awareness’ . He writes “As humans, we have struck an evolutionary bargain that has left us desolate, isolated, and consumed by a cold darkness born of our peculiar consciousness….I am bathed in the warm glow of these extraordinary creatures.” (1995:155).
The shift to a learning process of sensual, emotional and moral rehabilitation, however, is an interesting one, in keeping perhaps with what Giddens called the ‘reflexive project’ of the self in postmodernity. It also reminded me of a talk I attended by Sandra Kottum, PhD student at the University of Gothenberg. Kottum has explored the historical construction of animals as ‘teachers’ in early modern writings, not in bestiaries where animal characters are primarily symbolic mouthpieces for human teachings, but in their own right, with their very own wisdom and social criticism to impart to a debased human race. The tendency to think of animals in this way, as, nonhuman parallels of a Noble Other, she labels as ‘theriophily’ (following George Boas). Interestingly, her particular lens is that of the study of animal ‘language’ in the early modern period, and its believed moral significance.
According to Kottum, the important context here was the belief, circulated in ancient mythology and in many religious traditions in an ‘original’, sacred language, thought to have been spoken by humans in a golden age before the fall. English cleric John Webster referred to it as “the Paradisical language of the outflown word which Adam understood while he was unfaln in Eden” (1654, q.i Kottum 21). During the fierce European religious wars of the 17th century, the search for this original language of universal harmony and understanding intensified, funded by, for example, The Royal Society. (Harrison, q.i Kottum, 14). Its sanctity was in part derived from its believed transparency –instead of words merely corresponding to the things they described, as signifiers, they contained the meaning of the thing within the word itself. This primordial language was conceived of as more natural than cultural; more associated with divine instincts than rational civilisation.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Hebrew was a key contender; Robert Hooke was charged by the Royal Society to investigate whether Chinese could be the source, given its ‘transparent’ pictorial inscriptions. However, a minority eschewed the dominant view that language inherently separated us from the animals, and instead held the belief that the original sacred language was shared by birds and beasts. Human language, after all, was the language of lies and deceit, memorably introduced by Pandora, and full of the potential for misunderstanding. Animal language, said naturalist Thomas Tryon, was perfect in its simplicity and directness (q.i Kottum, 20), and great wisdom could be gleaned by listening to their grunts, bleats and chirps. Animals had retained a part of this sacred knowledge through their language, whilst humans had lost it through a variety of hubristic means. As the German mystic and theologian Jacob Böhme said:
“Today, while the birds of the air and the beasts of the forests may still […] understand each other, not one of us understands the sensual speech any longer. Let man therefore be aware of that from which he has excluded himself […]” (ibid:18).
Whilst not everyone conceived of animal language in this way, Böhme’s idea of a profoundly embodied ‘sensual speech’, is echoed elsewhere, according to Kottum. John Bulwer, the chirologist credited with the earliest development of sign-language, believed that human gestures were shared with “the common tongue of beasts”, communicating more directly one’s inner thoughts, feelings and personal qualities. (Kottum, 4). Humans’ inability to understand this common gestures, he reflected, was due to human, not animal inadequacy. So rarified was this ability that in some Christian and Islamic texts, the ability to understand and speak with other animals bequeathed the status of a spiritual elite – such as the legendary Greek philosopher Apollonius Tyaneus, or the Prophet Solomon in Sufi texts, to whom God taught the ‘language of the birds’.
At Equine Instinct, participants could be said to be (re)learning ‘sensual speech’. We asked to do this first by looking inward: becoming aware of our breath, our sensations, emotional landscape, rhythms and tensions of our own bodies. We then tune in to the communications of the horse in our shared space– the subtle or not so subtle shifts to maintain or release personal space; the positioning of the ears, the workings of the mouth, vocalisations of snorts and whickers; the presence of tension or release throughout the body, and the wider context in which these things are occurring, which includes ourselves and our own psychological impact. This interspecies communication is not explicitly conceived of as a lost original state, but undoubtedly horses are conceived of as role models, demonstrating a more present, sensorially alive way of being, a more attuned social awareness, and a place of calm self-knowledge that enables us to address repressed or ignored issues in our lives. To learn about horses, in this model, is also to learn about oneself; equine-assisted personal development is thought to allow us to become a better version of human in a postmodern secular project of the self, rather than in an early modern religious sense. Only in this way, perhaps, can humans find harmonious accommodation at the waterhole. Or get to snooze with sheep.
Elias, Norbert (2000) (1939) The Civilising Process, Wiley
Kottum, Sandra (forthcoming) An extract from "Beastly Lessons: Animals as Moral Teachers in 17th Century England"
Foster, Charles (2016) Being a Beast, London: Profile Books
Hutto, Joe (2006) Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey, Lyons Press
Sax, Boria (2011) "What is this Quintessence of Dust? The Concept of the Human and its Origins", in Boddice , Rob (ed) Anthropocentrism: Humans, Animals, Environments, Brill