In this special presentation of Eponaquest News, author and founder Linda Kohanov shares an excerpt from the revised and expanded version of her bestselling book The Tao of Equus. The new edition will be published in June 2024, but you can get a sneak peek at how the past and present merge in the full updated “Introduction” to the book below. In celebration, Linda is offering 20 percent off her upcoming four-day equine facilitated workshop by the same name in October. See the end of this newsletter for more information.
The Tao of Equus
Lightning flashed in the black horse’s eyes. A subsonic wave grabbed hold of my heart and stopped the beating, jump starting a more frenetic rhythm a half-breath later. My hands shook as I struggled to remove the halter and head for cover. But there was no time to retreat. I felt the thunder gathering force before I heard it. Bracing for a savage blast of sound, I expected the herd to spook and hoped I could negotiate enough space to avoid being trampled.
No one moved. Our bodies absorbed the massive crash, and though we all seemed to be standing perfectly still, my cells were quivering, spinning, awakening, resonating with deep vibrations that juggled the bones, shaking loose memories submerged and calcified long before my birth.
The feeling was so overwhelming that I was frozen, unable to run for shelter as echoes of that first sonic assault rumbled outward, fading into the distance. The clouds churned and darkened, conjuring a violent downpour. A potent silence hovered over the desert for a few moments, then water gushed through the crack between worlds. Seconds later I was drenched as completely as if I’d been tossed into a pool.
I had often wondered how horses handle Arizona’s outlandish summer monsoons. Yet even when I took cover in the tack room during storms that came up too suddenly to rush home, I couldn’t quite tell what the pastured herds were doing, let alone thinking or feeling. The sound was deafening, and I could barely see ten feet out the window as sheets of rain pounded the landscape. Nearby grazing lands suddenly seemed surreal and distant, shifting in and out of focus like a time traveling dream. Watching vague, lightning-accented visions of the wind practically bending trees sideways, I couldn’t fathom how the mesquites and cottonwoods held onto their leaves, let alone how the horses were handling the deluge.
I was therefore completely astonished when the night-haired mare gazed peacefully into my frantic eyes, then gently turned her back to storm, inviting me to do the same. The other horses gathered round, and over the next hour we moved like a slow carousel as the storm circled us, almost dissipating at times, then coming back for more. Yet no matter how close the lightning, how loud the thunder, I felt safe among them. A forcefield of protection seemed to strengthen between us, tuning my nervous system to trust the power of presence and deep, ambitionless connection. Civilized thoughts receded. I was vibrating with sensations I didn’t have words for, overtaken by primeval memories, flashes of people in strange lands standing with their herds as wind and rain and snow swirled around them.
Thirty-six thousand years ago, ancient artists were standing close enough to horses to memorize subtle facial movements and unique physical attributes. And something more profound: visions of horses approaching, unafraid.
The intricate visions at Chauvet Cave do not show herds scattering and hunters throwing spears. Of the more than 300 images found in this gallery of Ice Age art in Southern France—the oldest collection in the world—only one, vaguely human figure can be discerned: the lower half of a woman’s body. A nearby sketch depicts a human-bison hybrid. The vast majority of the paintings are highly realistic, artistically accomplished representations of animals. Horses are the fourth most frequently depicted subjects, behind lions, mammoths, and rhinos. And yet, these early equines are among the most vividly portrayed animals in the cave, clearly showing individual characteristics in striking detail.
One of the most famous sequences captures facial expressions that an artist would only pick up from close, direct observation of living individuals. One horse appears relaxed and engaged with ears forward. Another looks a bit cross, ears pinned in a gesture modern horses use to claim space. Still another with stallion-like jowls lays his ears back in a more aggressive, domineering posture. The smallest, most youthful animal has bulges along the bottom of its jaw. This is a classic sign of a colt or filly around two or three years old whose adult teeth are coming in.
In his 2009 book Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief, David S. Whitley was particularly impressed with how two different horses painted in separate alcoves were purposefully set apart from other animals, creating the uncanny impression that these figures were reaching out to him. They “approach you, slowly, oblivious, and unmoved by the lions, rhinos, and other animals surrounding them,” he writes; “…they come to you in a stately and unhurried pace.”
Reading Whitley’s words and staring at photos of these evocative paintings in the oversized art book Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, I was inspired by a compelling possibility. Having lived with herds of horses as colleagues, teachers, guides, and friends — as sentient, empowered beings who made requests, reached out to me, communicated clearly, and quite often had their own opinions about things — it struck me that these prehistoric artists were capturing an ancient invitation, that very moment when a horse looked a human in the eye and stepped closer, hinting at a partnership in the making, one that would profoundly change both species in the process.
The plot thickens ten thousand years after Chauvet when it becomes clear that the artists at Lascaux cave, also in Southern France, were even more obsessed with horses. Out of 915 images at Lascaux, horses represent over sixty percent of the recognizable animals, followed by stags at a mere fifteen percent, aurochs and bison each at under five percent, and felines appearing 1.2 percent of the time. Wolves, generally considered to be the first animal willing to be domesticated, don’t even appear in these paintings. And here again, only one human figure abides among a bestiary that scientists now conclude had nothing to do with “hunting magic.” According to Whitley, “animal bones excavated from living areas at the mouths of the caves” revealed that “there was little if any correlation between animals painted and animals eaten.” Since then, he and a few other scientists have promoted the idea that the paintings were evidence of ritual trance states, that shamanism led to the birth of human creativity.
But what if the explanation was a bit more obvious than that? What if the most detailed paintings were ancient portraits of the artists’ favorite animals — and by that I mean individuals with whom these people were forming increasingly trusting, intensely inspiring, transformational relationships? After all, while archeological evidence of people riding horses doesn’t show up for a good 18,000 years after Lascaux’s artists closed shop, who’s to say that these people weren’t being called out by the animals themselves, following their lead, moving in harmony with ancient herds thousands of years before human beings developed the technology to confine and restrain the horse?
When The Tao of Equus was first published in 2001, I hadn’t heard of the Chauvet cave paintings, and Whitley’s insightful book had not yet been written. At that time, many people believed that animals, including horses, were instinct-driven biological machines with no feelings, no thought, no opinions, and certainly no individual will. The revulsion some people exhibited when I talked about emotions in horses was striking at times. In the early 2000s, a few audience members actually walked out of lectures and book signings when I broached the subject. I was therefore relieved in 2012 when a prominent international group of scientists made an official statement on the matter. Based on decades of physiological and behavioral experiments with multiple species, “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” stated “unequivocally” that “non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of consciousness states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” The document acknowledges that “neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals.” This includes “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.”
Record of our fascination with horses goes back well over thirty thousand years: Ancient equines galloped through those Paleolithic cave paintings in France, migrating over time to roam the vast plains of the Eurasian steppes where they were first ridden around six thousand years ago, reportedly in what is now Ukraine. From there, they carried our ancestors through an endless array of foreign lands and new worlds, eventually settling the American West, forever associated with the pioneering spirit.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, horses began to take on a new identity, breaking out of their roles as beasts of burden or vehicles for ego gratification, and moving into a new realm of partnership. Somehow, against all logic, these animals actually became more popular after cars and trucks replaced them as transportation. Statistics from The Economic Impact of the Horse Industry in the United States show that over seven million people are involved in the care and training of nearly as many horses. With a total impact of $112 billion on the U.S. gross domestic product, equestrian pursuits outrank the railroad, furniture, movie, manufacturing, and tobacco industries. Of the 6.9 million horses in this country, nearly 3 million are kept for “recreational” pursuits, meaning that they’re not working in racing, showing, or ranching. If the time, money, and effort we spend on these animals can’t be explained away by practicality or competition, what are they doing for us?
These days, when a turbocharged SUV harnesses the power of six hundred horses, these animals seem intent on helping adventurous people explore the frontier of consciousness itself, fulfilling a promise foreshadowed in myth and legend. To the Greeks, the Celts, and countless other cultures, horses were magical beings, gifts from the gods, fierce protectors, explorers, and psychopomps capable of carrying a warrior between the worlds as deftly, and bravely, as they literally carried our kind around the globe.
When I began writing The Tao of Equus in 1995, I felt intensely alone — and more than a little crazy. My horses were awakening something in me, something profound and, at that time, indescribable. I could see these animals were having a life-changing effect on other people too. It’s just that we couldn’t talk about our experiences without sounding far too emotional or mystical — and vague, always much too vague.
So we chattered incessantly about the surface of all things equine: tack, breeds, training methods, lameness issues, therapeutic options, conformation, and competition. Over time, many of us became distracted by those details, losing connection to the powerful yet ever elusive spirit of the horse that drew us to the barn in the first place. As a result, we felt betrayed and frustrated at times, yet we were unable to describe why without sounding whimsical, unrealistic, and frighteningly, embarrassingly irrational. How does the average riding student or instructor express, in polite conversation, that she found her soul in the eyes of a horse, only to lose it in the business of training and competing? What happens when she consciously admits this, even to herself?
My reaction to this dilemma was to ask a thousand more questions, and for some odd reason, to strive to answer them: How do horses inspire us, open our hearts, and enliven our souls? Are there training principles and therapeutic approaches that can enhance, rather than suppress this ability? Why would such graceful, regal beings carry our species around the world in the first place, enduring our sometimes violent, sometimes comical moods and infernal shenanigans? Is it because they’re lacking significant brain power? Or are they sensitive, highly evolved beings, protecting us, nurturing us, gently guiding us, waiting for us to wake up to the wisdom they so patiently hold while we work through our adolescent fantasies of power and conquest, often at their expense?
In the late 1990s it was laughable, if not dangerous, to ask those questions, at least in public. As my book neared release, many friends and acquaintances distanced themselves from me. Most had experienced mysterious, soul-invigorating interactions with horses, but they weren’t willing to formally ally themselves with someone who might actually lecture or write about it. I too was losing my nerve. After the galleys were sent off to the printers, and I no longer had any recourse, I would wake up in the middle of the night hyperventilating, convinced that I would be tarred and feathered, burned at the stake, or carted off to the nearest mental ward upon publication. Had I written this same book two hundred years earlier, I most certainly would have experienced one of these dubious fates, or at the very least, been ostracized.
Instead, when the book arrived in stores and started selling, the reaction was very different from what my fears had predicted. Sure, some readers thought I was a little out there. But many more readers — all sorts of readers, but particularly women riders — wrote me to tell me that they too had experienced a connection with these animals that went far beyond rational explanation. They recounted extraordinary experiences, dreams, and coincidences. Then they began joining me to delve deep into their own psyches, with the essential help of these wise equine guides, reaching insights and truths they had buried out of necessity to continue with their conventional lives. They were waking up, both to the true presence of the horses they were partnering with and to their authentic selves.
The popularity of the book you now hold in your hands is evidence that many people are recognizing the transformational power of the equine-human relationship, acknowledging that their love of horses represents more than nostalgia, sentimentality, or recreation.
Because equestrian pursuits have long been identified with conquest, nobility, and competition, much of the horse’s innate wisdom still remains untapped. These sensitive, nonpredatory beings respond to the world in ways that are traditionally associated with feminine values, yet many amateur horse owners and a surprising number of professional trainers have trouble grasping these subtler facets of equine behavior. A spirited stallion ten times the size of the average human being inspires feelings of awe and even fear in observers, but first impressions can be deceiving. This kind
of horsepower is not effectively tamed through intimidation or coercion. A hundred-pound woman can successfully train an unruly mustang with methods that aren’t nearly as flamboyant or forceful as those a burly, six-foot-tall cowboy might employ, yet the horse will respect her more, not less, for her gentle, collaborative spirit.
I originally began researching the intricacies of horse-human relationships in 1993 for an article in a Tucson-based weekly newspaper. I was amazed at how little had been written on the subject. Bestsellers like The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts and The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans emerged a few years later, confirming my belief that many people were fascinated with the subject, but these books barely scratched the surface of the strange and miraculous things that can happen when the two species get together.
Early on, I took this work into the field, observing and interviewing gifted trainers while employing many of their ideas with my own horses. I studied the physiology of the horse brain versus the human brain; I collected myths about horses and compared them with reality. I noticed that some owners experienced increased creativity and intuition as a result of their interactions with these animals while other riders exhibited only frustration. I slowly began to figure out why. I volunteered at a therapeutic riding facility and saw stroke victims increase mobility, cerebral palsy patients gain balance and muscle control, “unreachable” autistic children speak to their horses. In the process, I stumbled upon some unexpected and extraordinary realizations. First of all, I discovered that horses are more intelligent than we give them credit for, and I mean a lot more intelligent. When allowed to exist in a relatively stress-free environment, a horse’s mind is literally swirling with the nuance common in creative geniuses. Just by associating with their equine partners, riders can tap into this stream as well. I also found significant evidence that mankind didn’t intentionally domesticate the horse; rather, the species may have chosen to associate with members of early agricultural settlements and eventually lured some of these people into a nomadic lifestyle influenced as much by horse behavior as human behavior. In the process, I gained perspective on the nature of human intelligence (and our widespread misconceptions about the same) as well as behavioral quirks and historical blunders that led our ancestors down an unnecessarily destructive path.
For general audiences, this is arguably the most valuable feature of The Tao of Equus: In order to decipher the myths we hold about these animals, in order to clear the fog of our own preconceived ideas, we are ultimately forced to take a long hard look at our own species. In the process, we can’t help but uncover a few secrets about ourselves, artifacts buried under thousands of years of masculine domination and the accompanying tendencies to emphasize thought over emotion, logic over intuition, territory over relationship, goal over process, and force over collaboration.
As I researched The Tao of Equus, I was continually impressed with the powerful bonds women and horses instinctually develop, relationships that emphasize the potent healing qualities inherent in respectful interactions between the two species. The Taoist thread running throughout my book is the unifying factor in explaining how these animals nourish their riders physically, mentally, creatively, and spiritually while inspiring increased sensory and extrasensory awareness in people from a variety of backgrounds and belief systems. Though I originally intended The Tao of Equus to be a working title, my editor, Jason Gardner, and I felt it was ultimately the best description of the book’s thesis: that horses primarily relate to the world from a feminine or “yin” perspective. As a result, the species is a living example of the success and effectiveness of feminine values, including cooperation over competition, responsiveness over strategy, emotion and intuition over logic, process over goal, and the creative approach to life that these qualities engender. Taoism is unique among both Eastern and Western philosophies in that it offers a sophisticated model of how feminine wisdom operates and how these habitually neglected qualities can be used to temper the more destructive aspects of human nature.
Over time, however, I realized that horses actually do something more sophisticated: they moderate masculine and feminine characteristics with a decidedly Taoist flavor. One of the most famous quotes from the ancient sage Lao-tzu advises people to “know the yang, but keep to the yin,” which translates as “know the masculine, but keep to the feminine.” This principle, I discovered, was not only essential in working effectively with my herd, it explained how these animals deftly trained me to bring these opposites into an empowered, compassionate balance, inspiring me to renegotiate my human relationships to excel in life and work with greater ease and satisfaction.
The Tao of Equus essentially translates as “the way of the horse,” while emphasizing the healing and transformational qualities of this path. Interacting with these animals can be immensely therapeutic physically, mentally, and spiritually, helping people reawaken long-forgotten abilities that are capable of healing the imbalances of modern life. At a time when horses are no longer required to work in our fields and carry us to war, they can do something arguably more important — work on us. The logistics of how horses are currently being employed for this purpose and how we can expand on this model in the future are significant topics of discussion throughout The Tao of Equus.
In 1997, I began developing a series of programs based on the concepts outlined in the original 2001 version of this book. These workshops and private sessions employed horses in teaching people of all ages and backgrounds how to achieve a state of greater physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual balance. As I continued to expand my business and tour around the world, I found it necessary to write four more books on the many lessons horses are available to teach people. What started out as a Tucson-based collective of educators, trainers, coaches and counselors, eventually became Eponaquest Worldwide with specially trained instructors on five continents serving thousands of people. We still marvel at how talented these animals can be in facilitating the work of human development. Eponaquest Worldwide is one of a growing number of horse-facilitated therapy and experiential learning programs springing up internationally. The field, which has attracted some of the most creative and compassionate people in the equestrian, coaching and therapeutic disciplines, has amassed powerful anecdotes, inspired numerous books, and resulted in some solid, peer-reviewed studies showing horses to be highly effective in helping people integrate mind and body, increase awareness of unconscious behavior patterns, and develop the self-confidence, stress management, and assertiveness skills that lead to increased success in relationships, career, school, and parenting. My colleagues and I have offered workshops and private lessons to women who’ve suffered from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and the results have been impressive. We’ve helped veterans with PTSD, substance abuse survivors, sex addicts, and adolescents with anger management problems make significant changes through this work. Horse-facilitated leadership and personal development programs have also proven effective for people who want to excel in life and work.
Most equestrian programs remain competition-oriented and encourage students to “leave their problems at the gate.” While this is a valuable skill to develop for the show ring, the continued suppression of personal issues, which horses tend to magnify, leads to the frustration, tension, anger, and abusive outbursts exhibited by some riders under pressure. Many riding instructors are not equipped to handle the psychological and emotional difficulties their students bring to the stable, and riders at all levels of expertise invariably get activated by the behavior of their mounts. Riding lessons offered by Eponaquest-trained instructors capitalize on the horse’s uncanny ability to bring this material to the surface, using time-tested therapeutic methods and mindfulness techniques to help people recognize their own contribution to so-called “horse problems” and move beyond the challenges that arise when the two species interact. The Tao of Equus explores how riders and their trainers can move through these difficulties by treating each and every challenge or setback as an opportunity for personal growth.
The ideas presented in this book will also be of interest to the fields of psychology and consciousness studies as I’ve found that many of my equine-based experiences support some of the more adventurous scientific observations of mind, emotion, and behavior. To this end, I discuss theories concerning telepathy, human vs. animal consciousness, and autonomous, archetypal matrixes of wisdom that make themselves known to receptive members of our species. In my case it’s a free-flowing “horse knowledge” I use when training these animals to give me intuitive yet highly specific insights into problems I would have no way of grasping through conventional thought processes. I’ve shared my experiences with other horse trainers who admit they also feel this force when working, and the anecdotes are amazing. Until I was able to gain their trust, however, I never would have been given this information. Equestrians experiencing this rarely attempt to put it into words. In fact, many avoid doing so, fearing they might be perceived as crazy. It is a significant part of the Big Secret whispered back and forth between horse and human, yet I believe it is possible to demystify the process without taking away from the extraordinary perspective it affords.
My original motivation for writing this book came from a series of seemingly irrational yet ultimately transformational experiences with my own horses. These events motivated me to do extensive research both within and outside the equestrian field, even as I became a trainer and equine-facilitated therapy/experiential learning practitioner myself. In most circles, such experiences would be classified as “psychic phenomena,” though I’ve since come to realize these supposedly supernatural events stem from mostly unrecognized natural processes. My initial reaction was to keep my own experiences out of the book so as not to compromise the integrity of more acceptable studies on horse-human interactions. Then I realized this was exactly what the majority of trainers and equine researchers were doing, even though this unspoken element was a part of the lore historically associated with the “horse whisperer.” Once I got over the fear of being condemned as crazy, I set about the task of examining this dynamic. My openness subsequently led to even stranger territory, but in the long run, I reached the point where I could successfully argue that the so-called sixth sense is a legitimate natural phenomenon with certain parameters and attitudes that foster it, and that horses can kick it into gear, often leaving their owners confused and frightened until they learn to integrate this new perspective into their lives. I also realized that my reactions followed an archetypal pattern of intuitive awakening. That’s when I decided to weave the information I had collected into the telling of my own story, allowing readers to take the journey with me, giving them the same emotionally charged sense of discovery I felt when my objective research turned into a desperate search for ways to explain the unexplainable. As I became active in the field of equine-facilitated therapy and experiential learning, I also realized that the most efficient episodes of healing between humans and horses hinged on processes that defy conventionally accepted scientific and psychological theories. I was therefore thrilled to write a 2023 edition of The Tao of Equus so that I could share some new theories and studies that bring deeper insight into key experiences I could not back up with science when this book was originally written over 25 years ago.
The Tao of Equus is about horse-facilitated therapy and experiential learning, horse training, and horse behavior, but it’s mostly about what these magnificent creatures are ceaselessly, patiently teaching us. It’s about the courage and humility, focus and flexibility it takes for a human being to listen to those messages. It’s about the quiet pools of reflection we experience in their presence. It’s about the transformations that await us when we embrace our seemingly irrational sufferings with the same grace and dignity that horses exhibit in the face of adversity.
Human responses to trauma range from an overwhelming sense of fear to feelings of personal failure, denial, resentment, and mistrust in the universe. These and other powerful emotions run rampant in the equestrian arts as the best intentions, aspirations, and preparations are routinely thwarted by unforeseen circumstances and injuries. It’s not uncommon for riders to go through horse after horse, trying desperately to find that rare animal physically and mentally capable of fulfilling some lifelong competitive goal. Are they missing something vital as they discard all these “mistakes”? Certain people just seem to attract problem horses. Is it bad luck, bad karma, or is there another, more benevolent principle at work? Is there a light hidden in those moments of darkness we try so often to avoid or ignore?
Lao-tzu observed that “it is upon disaster that good fortune rests,” pointing to what is perhaps the most potent Taoist paradox, one that my own herd has brought home to me time and time again. Throughout The Tao of Equus, I weave my journey with the odysseys of many two-legged and four-legged teachers who repeatedly reminded me that the mysteries of life, the most potent gifts of existence, quite often arrive on the backs of black horses.
Copyright 2023 by Linda Kohanov from the revised and expanded edition of The Tao of Equus, to be published in June 2024
Experience how horses lead people to greater physical, emotional, and spiritual balance in the upcoming four-day workshop The Tao of Equus 2023: Mindful, Authentic, Heart-Centered Wisdom for Personal Well Being and Professional Success (October 20 to 23). You can receive 20 percent off the tuition by contacting the Eponaquest Worldwide office at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a workshop description https://eponaquest.com/workshop/the-tao-of-equus-2023-mindful-authentic-heart-centered-wisdom-for-personal-well-being-and-professional-success-2/.
If you’re interested in the mythic, intuitive and mystical side of the horse-human bond, Linda is also offering 20 percent off her popular workshop Black Horse Wisdom (October 6 to 9). For a workshop description https://eponaquest.com/workshop/black-horse-wisdom-3/. Contact email@example.com to receive the tuition discount.
If you can’t attend an in-person, equine facilitated workshop this fall, Linda offers a series of self-paced, professionally produced online courses that offer innovative tools for emotional fitness, social intelligence, nervous system regulation, and balanced, connection focused leadership. These courses are also useful for equestrians and people who work with other animals. Go to her online course hub and scroll down the home page to see course descriptions at https://lindakohanov.com Use the coupon code 15rasa at checkout to receive 15% off tuition.
For a list of Eponaquest Instructors in your region: https://eponaquest.com/recommended-instructors/