Could you teach a peace-loving and exquisitely sensitive animal to carry you across a battlefield into enemy fire? What would that teach you? A true story …
I have spent my professional life as a brain surgeon, while my main avocation has been training horses. As a neuroscientist, I know how hard it is to overcome our deeply engrained thought patterns because they reflect the ways our brains are hardwired to default to instinctive responses. But I have also learned how much horses have to teach us about changing those thought patterns and reactions. My grandfather, who helped raise me, was a World War I cavalry officer with a horse named Otto, and then a dressage rider—so horses were key to his survival, as well as to his expression as an athlete and artist. He taught me that one of the biggest obstacles horse trainers face is that, as human beings—at our core—we are all so fundamentally predatory.
In my grandfather’s time a cavalry officer was symbolic of the über predator—something very different from the way most of us see ourselves. But he would argue that he was less self-deceived than most people. Our eyes are in front, our teeth are sharp, and we are all instinctively driven to look for the reward, to scrap with whatever assets we have to get it, and to throw as many obstacles and create as many setbacks for any opponent who stands in our way. No species has been more successful at getting what it wants than Homo sapiens. If he were alive, my grandfather would point out that our predatory nature today is literally killing our planet, and what we desperately need to do is to honestly confront ourselves as predators.
A life around horses taught him that—and he was a much better person for those lessons. Let me explain.
First let’s contrast the cavalry officer—an über predator—with the horse he needs to partner up with. The officer is in command. He uses his authority to coordinate men, weapons, and—in World War I—animals into military action. He employs language to ensure that instruction and orders are carried out. He uses maps and signals and strategy to decide what objectives to set. And the ultimate objective of all of this manipulation is to kill on a scale that should be unfathomable. During World War I, 11 million military personnel and seven million civilians were killed. But that is nothing compared to the killing that is taking place today—not so much to people in the short run, but to all the other species on earth.
Contrast those qualities with those of the cavalry officer’s mount. His horse is the prototypic prey species. His eyes are on either side of his head, his teeth are grinders, and all he wants is to be among his own, with his herd buddies, munching on grass, without a wisp of a threat as far as the eye can see. In other words, he wants peace. He wants to live in a place and a state where he can relish freedom, where he is able to feel secure from any threat of disruption and danger. Yes, a horse is a physically powerful creature, but his main method of defense is to flee as swiftly as he can. He is not driven by the rewards that we seek as predators. Instead, he looks for release from pressure.
“But wait!” I hear you say. “What about racehorses? Aren’t they über competitors?” The simple answer is “no”—or at least not in the way we think.
To understand why, contrast a horse race with a greyhound race. In the former, the horses are enclosed in claustrophobic stanchions at the starting gate. When the signal is given, the horses burst out, trying desperately to outrun each other. The goal is not to win a prize but to not be the animal that might fall victim to whatever is chasing. As the saying goes, horses run from. Of course, some horses are bred for running races, and we often refer to them as having “heart”—an inherent competitive streak. But in reality, what breeders have been able to do is genetically consolidate an instinct to be first, to jump to the head of the crowd. When the race is run and the pressure finally relents, the reward for the horse is rest. In other words, these horses will run their hearts out to find safety and peace. Greyhounds, on the other hand, are predators that require a mechanical rabbit, which circles around the track, giving them something to set their sights on. If there is nothing to pursue, there is nothing to win.
So a good question is how do you train a fear-based, peace-loving animal to carry you full speed across a battlefield into enemy fire? The answer is complicated, and where the question gets really interesting.
Into the Mind of the Horse
Perhaps the most basic lesson learned from horse training is that trying to muscle a horse into doing something is doomed to fail. When you have a 1,200-pound animal at the end of your lead rope or under your saddle, the horse actually has you. You cannot outmuscle your horse. That means the more you want from your horse, the more in tune you need to become with your horse’s mind.
The next thing a trainer must come to grips with is that horses don’t understand or care about what we say. They don’t care about the lies we tell each other or tell ourselves. They are nonverbal creatures. But they are expert at reading the energies we give off from our posture and gestures, as well as the pressure we project from our emotional state of mind. And they are about a thousand times more sensitive to the energy we give off than we are. Why? Because they have to be. Over the course of 40 million years of evolution they honed their abilities to sift through their environment to detect any threat that disturbed it. They needed to be able to sense a lion when the distant birds saw him and when they felt him staring at them. They still do.
We humans used to know the language of birds, and we also have a “gaze detection” system that is especially sensitive to whether someone’s looking directly at us. Studies that record the activity of single brain cells find that particular cells fire when someone is staring right at you, but not when the observer’s gaze is averted just a few degrees to the left or right of you (then different cells fire instead). Our gaze detection system can feel like ESP, and the horses’ perceptions are much more sensitive—and their eyes are on the side of their heads, so they see all around. What that means is that I can grab a rope and halter and go out into a pasture and pick one horse to collect, and that horse will raise his head and stop grazing but none of his companions do. Why? Because he senses my gaze focusing on him, even from hundreds of yards away. My mind and my eyes have picked him out of the crowd and he feels that. He judges whether or not to run.
In that regard, a horse can become a wonderful teacher or sensei because he can show you that, whether you notice it or not, you are always engaged in a conversation with the natural world, indeed with the entire universe. Horses demonstrate for us how our outward transmission of energy is really a reflection of our inner state of mind. And through this process, the horse will eventually guide every good trainer to that threshold where they are face to face with the horse’s ultimate truth: There is really just one obstacle that stands in your way of achieving the mindfulness and partnership you seek—yourself. Repeatedly, the horse brings you back to the fundamental truth of training—you pose the greatest obstacle to your horse’s progress.
So now let’s return to the original question: How do you train a fear-based, peace-loving, and exquisitely sensitive animal to carry you across a battlefield into enemy fire?
The Making of a Leader
Training horses teaches us to become mindful of how, where, and to what we apply our energy. The training teaches us that powerful, effective leadership requires patient, focused, and efficient application of energy. Patient because the best leader is one who is interested in a long-term partnership that produces results but also produces trust. Focused because a good leader knows how to create specific, achievable goals that are earned through education and compromise and not through the application of force or suffering. Finally, leadership must be efficient: Energy needs to be applied thoughtfully, where the least amount of energy will produce the greatest results and benefit.
Ultimately, training horses teaches us that we must be of service to the horse. How can we best teach him to overcome his fears? How can we help him have faith in his physical and mental abilities to see his way through situations where his first reaction is to run the other way?
From this stewardship emerges the concept that leadership can only be bestowed by those who are being served, that leadership must be earned by the trainer. A horseman or horsewoman needs to prove that he or she is a good and fair leader—and earn that respect each day or lose it. Leaders must show they will put the welfare of their partners, the herd, in front of their own.
So it’s ironic that perhaps the best-trained horses the world has ever known were cavalry horses able to charge into battle because the partnership with their rider meant more than their own fear of dying. This mirror’s Mahatma Gandhi’s sentiment when he said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” The cavalry horse epitomized that concept—and when my grandfather left for the war, he told my grandmother not to worry, that no harm would come to him as long as he had his beloved warhorse, Otto.
And he was right.
It was early in 1916, when my grandfather’s cavalry unit was ordered to charge up a hill, and like good soldiers they did. As they arrived at the crest, they were met with a volley of mortar shells. As the rounds began detonating around them, Otto did what he was trained to do—he reared up to protect my grandfather and took the full brunt of the explosion. The shell took off his legs and eviscerated him. Badly wounded himself, my grandfather crawled to be alongside his beloved Otto. Cavalry officers had strict orders not to waste precious bullets on horses; instead, they were instructed to use their bayonet. My grandfather wept as he kissed Otto, took out his pistol, and released his horse from his pain. All Otto ever wanted was peace.
As a child, I was always fascinated by my grandfather’s big, shiny medal, which was personally given to him by Franz Josef, the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But every time I asked to look at it, my grandfather would first make me look at a small photo of Otto and himself riding off to war. “Otto earned this medal,” my grandfather would say. “He was the bravest soul I ever met. And every member of this family owes their life to this horse who gave his life for me, for us.” My grandfather confessed to me once that what haunted him above all the terrible memories he had from war were the screams of the horses. He could never get that terrible echo out of his mind.
My grandfather taught me that to properly train a horse, the rider must confront his own predatory core, and perhaps train himself to choose another path. We must now do this together if we are not to kill half the other species on earth in our own lifetimes.