The Enlightenment Lab

The Enlightenment Lab

8 Zen Lessons From Horses

"Solidarity" by Shanny Brooke /

Harvard-trained brain surgeon Allan Hamilton, MD, offers eight top lessons from his Zen Lab: working with horses.

One of my favorite Zen stories about achieving enlightenment is a classic told about Tennō Dōgo, a great Zen swordsman in the eighth century. As the story goes, a disciple named Sōshin came to study swordsmanship with Dōgo, and his practice sessions consisted of the master attacking him at the most inopportune moments: while he was returning with his arms full of kindling, or carrying cups of tea, or kneeling in the garden tending to the vegetables.

These random and painful attacks with the wooden training sword went on for years, at all hours of the day or night, until it became second nature to Sōshin to expect an attack from any quarter and at any time. He also began to use his own wooden sword to fend off the master’s blow quite naturally as he attended to whatever else he was doing. Eventually, the master noticed that no matter how or when he attacked his student, Sōshin would parry the blow without a thought. The master then explained to the student that his enlightenment had been reached without any conceptualization or intellectualization. He explained: “In the study of Zen, conceptualization must go.”

One reason the enlightenment of Sōshin is a favorite story is that it suggests that enlightenment is a practical and knowing ease—a magnet that points toward calm and peace no matter how unexpected or fierce the circumstance and the response required. The story also artfully introduces some of my own teachers. By profession I’m a brain surgeon, and by avocation I’m a horse trainer, but somewhere along the path of opening brains and training horses and thinking about Zen, it struck me that horses have spent over 50 million years undergoing training similar to Sōshin. Of course, a horse is not a warrior. Quite the contrary: A solitary horse can be easily defeated by a large predator, like a grizzly bear or a pack of wolves or humans. So, horses evolved as prey animals and later as herd animals, and they spent that time evolving not just an individual defensive awareness but also an integrated nonverbal communication—all of which acts as a magnet toward calm and peace no matter how unexpected or fierce the circumstance and the response required. So, working with horses can turn out to be a Zen Lab. I can’t say that I became enlightened at that moment of realization, but I can say that’s when my teachers appeared—a small herd of them.

How Words Get in the Way

Alas, before I can introduce you to my magnificent teachers, I first need to explain why reading this won’t lead to enlightenment—and can’t. Why? The reason that verbalism and intellectualization block our access to the experience of enlightenment has to do with what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio named “the autobiographical self”—the singular and separate identity that is lent to us by language and gives us our internal dialogue. This internal dialogue, primarily situated in the left hemisphere of the brain, separates us from experience because it makes us consider how we feel, react, or process an encounter—as opposed to a simple awareness brought on by the sensation of the experience in the non-verbal right hemisphere. That is not to say you haven’t had at least a glimpse of enlightenment: Myriad spiritual practices— from chanting and singing to drumming and dancing—are specifically right-brain activities that prevent our internal voice from inserting itself between ourselves and our direct experience of the world, thus evoking a spiritual communion with family, community, nature, or God. The goal of the practice of Zen is not to experience that communion, but to live in it—and that’s practically impossible.

Enlightenment can’t be grasped by a left hemisphere that tries to conceptualize it. And it can’t be taught by a right hemisphere that experiences it but can’t process it. That is why so often Zen lessons revolve around mundane and potentially thoughtless practices, like chopping wood or carrying water or whacking people with wooden swords while they garden. As Westerners, we have an innate distrust of doing anything that doesn’t come with an instruction manual or a YouTube video to tell us how it is supposed to be assembled. But there’s no manual or video for achieving Zen and there can’t be. Instead, it’s an experience that a horse can help you begin to experience and understand—if you’re open to taking the lab. If you are, the horse will constantly remind you that our rationalization is a derivative of our experience, but our intuition delivers it. Long before Nike, horses were silently exhorting us to “Just do it.” When we do, we see.

Here are 8 lessons from the lab.

1. Horses See Us First

We humans have an exquisite gaze detection system—brain cells that fire only 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. Our gaze detection system can feel like ESP, and yet a horse’s gaze detection system is much more sensitive than ours—and their eyes are on the side of their heads, so they see all around. In our Zen Lab, we learn that horses see us—and read us—first.

What’s harder to grasp is that the entire herd sees us first. To communicate with the herd instantly and without alerting predators, the horse has evolved an elegant body language (sometimes referred to as Equus) that is made up of bodily postures, head tilt and carriage, ear position, and stance to communicate emotions, rank in the herd, and provide directions for leading or driving other horses. Unlike humans or chimps, horses don’t rely on vocalization because the sound would give away the location of the herd. Horses also don’t rely on facial expressions because they lack the facial musculature to permit a wide range of expression. Additionally, herds communicate over great distances, sometimes hundreds of meters, so the use of subtle changes in facial musculature would serve little purpose.

What that means in our Zen Lab is that I can grab a rope and halter, go out into a pasture, and pick one horse to collect, and that horse will pick up his head and stop grazing—yet none of his companions do. Why? Because he senses my gaze focusing on him, even from hundreds of yards away, and feels no reason to put the herd on alert. If, on the other hand, I send out an aggressive young man to collect a horse—someone prone to using excessive amounts of energy to get his way—these magnificent teachers will suddenly disappear. Only after the student learns to dial down the energy signature of his body and gestures to assume a calm, peaceful demeanor, will the teachers let the student approach.

2. Tricks Are Taught With Peace

Predators are attuned to stimulus-response learning. We humans, for example, intuitively understand the benefits of using excited praise and food treats to teach a puppy a new trick. Horses, on the other hand, are prey animals. They never forget “the flight imperative,” and so their biggest reward is to be left alone with no predators or threats in sight. In our Zen Lab, we must therefore keep in mind that a horse will feel far less rewarded by being given a piece of apple (as much as horses love them!) than being permitted to stand still and relax.

This is a difficult lesson. We typically motivate a horse to do something by applying energy to the animal either directly through a halter and lead or indirectly by swinging a lariat or training wand in the animal’s vicinity. But the horse ultimately seeks peace and is motivated by finding it. So the more instantaneously we can make that release from a high-energy state to a low or relaxed energy state, the more rapidly our horse will learn a new skill. Unfortunately, like any Zen training, I have only seen the timing of the release improve with concerted and sustained practice.

With a predator—let’s use a dog as an example—it often helps to get the animal “amped up” as they are tackling a training task. So, if I am asking a dog to make a jump, getting him excited with encouragement can make him more willing to attempt the jump. I am able to motivate him positively to make the jump by increasing my level of energy. By contrast, if I increase my own energy levels in front of the horse, I may actually discourage him from making the jump. With the horse, I want to get him to understand that when the jump is made, release, relaxation, and peace await him. I will use a soothing, soft voice to praise him.

This is one of the horse’s greatest gift to humans: Because of its prey nature, the horse teaches us to control our impulses, to sublimate them, and to replace them with calm, peaceful energy, no matter how serious the task.

3. Attachment Leads to Sorrow

The horse’s primary line of defense is to flee. If you try to thwart that drive, the horse will struggle. If you respond by holding tighter, fighting harder for control—by pulling harder on the reins or the lead rope or kicking deeper with the spurs—then the horse will only struggle that much more violently. It can turn into an unimaginably forceful and even deadly contest—and you will be defeated. But it is not the horse that vanquished you; it was you, deciding to assert control.

As one of my fellow trainers likes to point out: “The only really powerful tool we can use to control a horse is the strength of the bond between the trainer’s mind and that of his horse.” We have to relinquish our sense of physical control; we can only compel the horse to do what he wants to do to please himself and his trainer. Again, this is a powerful lesson, especially for an individual who has learned to rely on physical dominance, bullying, or reactive violence to get his way. Nine times out of ten, it is because they are fearful and insecure about their own situation. All of this can become obvious in front of a horse.

4. It Really Is All in the Breath

Horses are finely tuned to the nuances of our respirations in ways that we are not—until we see them in the mirror of the horse. For example, short and shallow panting might be seen as a cause of alarm or threat, while deep abdominal breathing suggests reduced muscle tension and relaxation that puts the horse at ease. With practice, we can often use breath control to signal to a horse on the ground. For example, by increasing our rate of respirations, we signal the horse to pick up speed or shift gait. Slower, deeper breaths will slow the horse down. For students who suffer from either anxiety, panic disorders, or poor impulse control, learning meditative breathing techniques in our Zen Lab can be especially useful because they can see the change that it induces in their equine partner.

Grooming activities can constitute an important part of a student’s lessons with his or her horse at the beginning of each session. Grooming can often calm a horse, and when the student adds meditative breathing to the rhythmic stoking, it can be doubly so.

5. Seeing When We Lose Presence

Whenever the trainer is not fully present to the horse’s needs, he or she risks compromising the integrity of the partnership with the horse in ways that become obvious. For example, if I remain angry or upset with a horse because he failed to make a jump, then I am compromising the ability of the horse to clear the jump right in front of us. By the same token, if I am worrying about how high a jump my horse will make in an upcoming steeplechase event, then again, I have handicapped his performance in the present because I am focusing on future expectations.

In a similar vein, students are inclined to use a dressage whip to intervene when they feel the horse is preparing to slow down. I warn the student not to anticipate the horse making an error; instead, they should simply observe. If—and only if—the horse commits the error, then the student should simply correct it in a straight-forward, matter-of-fact manner—without aggression or shouting. Again, we don’t need to imagine a future when the horse makes a mistake. We will remain in the present and simply respond to what occurs.

Even the experienced trainer must be sensitive to even small lapses in attention that can arise from sharing brief instructions with a student that can cause a horse to “lose his eye” (meaning he is no longer trained on the individual at the center of the round pen) or to alter his gait (e.g., change his speed or length of his stride). Similarly, a horse may be willing to “hook on” to a student as part of a “joining up” exercise, but quickly wanders off if the student’s attention flags.

6. Seeing the Path of No Self

“Breaking a horse,” the traditional rudimentary horse training shown in Western movies, is based on what psychologists call “flooding.” The trainer breaks the horse’s natural resistance to the saddle by tightly binding the horse to a snubbing post, cinching the saddle down tightly, and then allowing the horse to buck until he loses the strength to resist further. Viewed from a broader lens, this is an example of how Western culture supports the priority of the personal ego and fosters hedonic principles that heighten the self’s obsession with fulfilling its own desires.

Contrast breaking a horse with the natural horsemanship approach of our Zen Lab. Here we begin by lightly “sacking the horse out”: gently rubbing the horse’s back, shoulders, legs, and underbelly with blankets. We then proceed to a light belt or cinch, then to a light saddle, and finally to a heavier Western rig (if that is the chosen endpoint). Using what’s called systematic desensitization, we proceed at the horse’s pace of acceptance and ensure all steps are assimilated willingly and thoroughly so that every step of the way, the trainer is building trust with the horse. In this fashion, one gets to see the direct benefits of sublimating the needs and agenda of the trainer’s ego to those of the horse. Through a larger lens, the gradual practice demonstrates the benefits of seeing personal identity as an illusion—and that the first step out of the illusion is to turn off desire.

7. Understanding Simplicity

At our Zen Lab, the quintessential interaction between horse and horse trainer is embodied in the round pen: just one individual exerting the influence of his or her energy at the same level as the horse, eye-to-eye. This is the bond of the horse simplified to its essence, free from the complications of saddles, bridles, bits, and spurs. There is a clean, streamlined quality to the horse-human partnership, with no other goal than to further the relationship with the horse. Yes, there are exercises of escalating difficulty, but the notions of success or failure fall away. All that matters is how the horse and trainer engage with each other. There is no other objective than to endeavor together as a team to see what can be achieved.

8. Living Free From Judgment

Horses do not prejudge us—and they don’t judge individuals based on their level of expertise or ability. Instead, they respond to individuals in the present moment, based on their own unique personalities and behaviors. For some people, that non-judgmental awareness can mean an entirely new experience of acceptance and connection.

The experience of working with horses in this way can be a powerful reminder of the importance of non-judgmental awareness in our daily lives. By cultivating a state of mind that is free from notions and judgments, individuals can experience greater acceptance and connection with themselves and others. This can lead to a greater sense of wellbeing, compassion, and equanimity.

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Solidarity credit Shanny Brooke

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