Zen Mind Zen Horse

by Allan J. Hamilton

Author Allan J Hamilton Isbn 1603425659 File size 76 5 MB Year 2011 Pages 321 Language English File format PDF Category Animals Mindful work with horses says neurosurgeon Allan J Hamilton can enlighten the human handler as much as it benefits the horse Evolving over 30 million years to become the quintessential prey animal equines have developed acute right brain survival skills such as leadership awareness empathy and cooperation In particular the horse has finely honed abilities t

Publisher :

Author : Allan J. Hamilton

ISBN : 1603425659

Year : 2011

Language: English

File Size : 76.5 MB

Category : Animals

h o r s e

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h o r s e
The Science and Spirituality of
Working with Horses

a lla n j. h a milton, md


Storey Publishing

To my wonderful Opa,
who gave me a love of horses and of life.
“I’m gonna walk with my granddaddy, and he’ll match me step for step
And I’ll tell him how I’ve missed him, every minute since he left.
Then I’ll hug his neck.”
“When I Get Where I’m Going” by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford

The mission of Storey Publishing is to serve our customers by
publishing practical information that encourages
personal independence in harmony with the environment.
Edited by Deborah Burns
Art direction and book design by
Dan O. Williams
Text production by Jennifer Jepson Smith

Storey books are available for special premium
and promotional uses and for customized editions. For further information, please call

Cover illustration by Yoshijiro Urushibara
Interior photography credits
appear on page 300
Author photo by Daniel Snyder
Illustrations by © Elayne Sears

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Printed in China by R.R. Donnelley
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Indexed by Samantha Miller
© 2011 by Allan J. Hamilton
All rights reserved. No part of this book may
be reproduced without written permission from
the publisher, except by a reviewer who may
quote brief passages or reproduce illustrations
in a review with appropriate credits; nor may
any part of this book be reproduced, stored in a
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The information in this book is true and complete to the best of our knowledge. All recommendations are made without guarantee on the
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author and publisher disclaim any liability in
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Library of Congress
Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hamilton, Allan J.
Zen mind, zen horse : the science and
spirituality of working with horses /
Allan J. Hamilton.
p. cm.
Includes index.
ISBN 978-1-60342-565-0 (pbk.)
1. Horses—Behavior. 2. Horses—
Psychology. 3. Horses—Training.
4. Human-animal communication.
5. Zen Buddhism. I. Title.
SF281.H36 2011
On the cover: Yoshijiro (Mokuchu) Urushibara
(1889–1953) was a woodblock print craftsman
who helped introduce Japanese art to the world
in the early twentieth century. His renderings of
horses were especially celebrated for their fluid
beauty and grace.


f o r e wo r d  vi

i n t ro du c t i o n  1

days of thunder  11

the two sides of me  22

chi & equus  33

grooming as a tea ceremony  46

searching for chi  65

grooming as an act of love  74

the magic dog  90

prey, predator & the rules of learning  108

patience  124

leading the way  134

now & the ocean liner  152

tiny bubbles of chi  156

picking up the pace  178

minding your manners  184

sending out & backing up  197

tending to horses  215

side­p assing & jumping  228

come to me  235

from sack to saddle  244

a leg up  257

stopping & spooking  269

trailering (or not)  278
e p i l o g u e  286
t w e n t y e x e rc i s e s 289
ac k n ow l e d g m e n t s 297
b i b l i o g r a p h y  301
i n d e x  306



n recent years there has been a wealth of books written about what
has become recognizable to horse lovers as Natural Horsemanship,
and what these authors seem to regard as the path to understanding
the mind of Equus. Most equestrians learn their horsemanship hands on.
They are observers of behavior and architects of harmony. Some of these
authors even address what I call the “language of Equus.” It isn’t often,
however, that they fully understand how the mind of the horse functions.
Most people recognize that body language is the primal form of communication. Equus has survived for millions of years through his communication system made up almost entirely of a silent language of gestures.
This system allows the herd to cohabit successfully with predators. My
years of observing and working with horses of all kinds have allowed me to
put together an expansive lexicon of gestures and postures that has given
me insight into the “language of Equus.”
Zen Mind, Zen Horse explores the depth of understanding and transforms the foundation of my work and concepts into a more probing exploration of the mind of the horse. In this comprehensive essay, we can gain
valuable insight into the reasoning behind the horse’s reactions to the
intentions we humans communicate through our thoughts and actions.
We discover that Equus is brilliant in his simplicity of reasoning.
As enlightened horsemen and horsewomen, we learn that it is our
responsibility to create an environment in which the horse can learn. The
round pen is a wonderful classroom in which to use the silent language of
Equus. Using the lexicon of body language and gestures, we communicate
to the horse our desire to form a partnership based on mutual respect and
trust within this safe enviroment.
In Zen Mind, Zen Horse, the author has generously given the reader the
tools to appreciate how we can better understand the mind of Equus. This
in itself can energize us to have a fresh outlook or approach to life, not just
with horses, but with fellow humans as well. This wonderful animal called
the horse is helping heal our wounded warriors who suffer from PTSD
and is changing the lives of autistic and challenged children and adults in
therapeutic riding academies.
We are just scratching the surface of the evolution of equine training by
what is termed Natural Horsemanship. Thankfully, open-minded people
have come to recognize how much further we can go to gain optimal


performance by taking violence out of the lives of our animals through
kinder and gentler techniques. This book is a wonderful tribute to all the
horsemen who have dedicated their lives and are sharing their concepts
with other horsemen the world over.
Monty Roberts, trainer and author, The Man Who Listens to Horses and other books


was as k e d to do this Foreword because, after a lifetime of effort,
I am now considered an expert on equine behavior. How I wish Dr.
Hamilton had written this book in 1949. I was twenty-two years of
age and had just decided that the conventional methods of horsemanship with which I was familiar were not the best ways of communicating
with horses.
Reading books written in past centuries and experimenting with horses
allowed me, in the subsequent half century, to learn some of the information available in this book, but by no means all. I am grateful for this
Read on and you will learn far more than the author’s very interesting
autobiography. I studied some neurology when I was in veterinary school
more than a half century ago. The neuroscience presented in this book,
however, was a revelation to me and helped me understand so much more
of why and how both humans and horses functioned.
The information on what we consider to be primitive societies is makes
us reevaluate their intellectual capabilities. There have always been reasoning, curious individuals. The voluminous, well-illustrated chapters on
handling and training horses, on the scientifically confirmed facts about
equine behavior, make reading this book a privilege to all who work with
horses. The sections on the power of intention, the relationship that can be
established during routine grooming, the all-important virtue of patience,
and the psychology of learning are invaluable.
Half of the book is devoted to the art and science of Natural Horsemanship, a method that is sweeping the world and replacing and improving
traditional methods, so much of which was and is unnecessarily coercive.
For people already skilled in and familiar with this revolution in horsemanship, the book will justify and explain their devotion. Those unfamiliar
with this revolutionary concept will, hopefully, be motivated to come on
board, not only for their own benefit, but for the horses.
Robert M. Miller, DVM, author, Imprint Training of the Newborn Foal and other books


Horses seem to have special abilities to connect emotionally with humans.



chilling thought occurred to me: could Lillian be trying
to kill herself, hoping my 1,200 -pound stallion might stomp her
to death? Was this how she intended to commit suicide? Weak,
frail, and eroded by the torrents of chemotherapy she’d endured during the
last few months, Lillian had recently learned that her doctors had given her
less than three months to live. Her brain tumor was growing too fast to be
stopped. A novice around horses, she was now asking — begging — me to
let her enter the round pen and work with my stallion Romeo.
Her experience with horses was nil: she had been on a few pony rides
as a little girl, nothing more. Romeo, on the other hand, was not a horse
to take lightly. As a stallion he could be a handful — a potentially lethal
one — even for a professional trainer. Stallions, in that sense, are a bit
like grenades. Play catch with them if you choose, but just be sure the
pin always stays in place. To make matters worse, Romeo was in the full
throes of breeding season, half crazed with testosterone, and stoked with
desire by the nearby mares in heat. His stallion’s drive to demonstrate his
explosive strength and physical dominance in front of the mares seemed
barely constrained by the steel railings of the round pen itself.
Next to Romeo, Lillian appeared puny and inconsequential, a weakling, with matchstick limbs hanging from her diminutive, skeletal frame.
She was virtually paralyzed on one half of her body. I could see the groove
in the sand where she had been dragging her weak leg behind her to get
positioned in the center of the round pen. I was afraid this might turn
into less of a training exercise and more of a sacrifice. Still there was
something about her request that seemed compelling. She looked like a
pilgrim, searching for an answer. She was going into the round pen to
confront something substantive, something to which Romeo held the key.


Normally I would never agree to put an inexperienced person in with a
stud horse, but my gut told me there was more to this. It had a solemnity
to it, like a deathbed promise. So I nodded my consent against every fiber
of caution.
Lillian opened the gate. I braced my hands on the top railing, readying myself to jump in and pull the horse away from her if things turned
violent. But it wasn’t required. In the face of that charging, snorting horse,
Lillian simply closed her eyes and began to breathe. After a few moments,
she gently and patiently focused her gaze on Romeo. At first the stallion
thundered around the pen, but soon he began to slow down, growing visibly quieter and calmer with each revolution.
After five minutes, Lillian seemed to have drained all the force and fury
out of him. Romeo drew closer to her, in tighter and tighter circles, until he
came to stand next to her. He stopped there, almost at attention. Then he
sighed and hung his head down next to her. She turned and buried her face
into his huge, muscular neck. From outside the round pen, I could see her
shoulders shake as she wrapped her arms around him and sobbed. After
a few minutes, she walked over to me and said apologetically, “I felt like
I had to be strong enough to calm this horse down or I wouldn’t be able
to fight this cancer any longer. I needed to know I could make myself that
strong to keep on living. That’s why it had to be Romeo.”
Lillian did have the strength to keep living — a whole extra year. Her
ashes are buried in the center of the round pen on my ranch. That was her
final request. Every morning, I go out there and greet her spirit and pay tribute to the demonstration of spiritual strength Lillian shared with me that
day many years ago. Her presence makes my round pen a sacred place.

It’s human nature to want to improve ourselves: physically, financially,
emotionally. And as we age and mature, our efforts seem to focus naturally
on spiritual growth as well. But that requires new insights and skills we
must learn and practice. We need to build up karmic muscle to turn the
breakdowns in our lives into breakthroughs. We must turn into warriors
who take up the discipline of spiritual pursuit in earnest. But how?
How do we train for a journey of spiritual transformation alone? The
truth is that we need a spiritual coach, a sensei, to teach us — to show us
how to focus our intention and to demonstrate how to live in the present
and how to achieve Zen-like tranquility. We need a teacher to show us
how to see ourselves — not just with heightened objectivity but also with



greater forgiveness. For that job, there is a master: a sage who can teach
any willing student the way. That sage is the horse.
This animal has been considered among humanity’s most revered and
sacred companions across many great civilizations. To the Egyptians,
horses were htr (pronounced “heter”). Their hieroglyphic depiction for
the horse was a symbol for the bond between human and animal: a simple,
intertwined rope (see figure i .1 ).
Horse was hippos to the Greeks, whose mythological gods lived among
equally immortal steeds. And the Latin Equus became almost emblematic
of Rome’s imperial power. Why has the horse evoked such deep, emotional
and spiritual sentiments? Because he can carry us physically and spiritually
into unchartered territory, beyond our everyday worries and distractions.
The horse is a symbol of transcendence.
For most of us, the overarching problem in our lives is time itself. Our
schedules no longer seem to belong to us. Our waking hours (and many
sleeping ones, too) seem allocated to issues other than our own deep personal needs and values. Happiness and tranquility do not receive high
priority in our daily regimens. Instead, they drift out of sight in the fog of
daily routine.
Our internal voices seem to be constantly yelling at us to pull harder at
the oars, to go after more. They suggest that we’re losing out or giving in
or being passed over. These voices become like a broken record, endlessly
droning on about regrets in the past and worries in the future. We know
listening to our ego’s exhortations is not how we are meant to live. We
admit our lifestyle isn’t working for us, but how can we change it?
There is one single key, one secret, to undertaking transformational
change. It is the same in every great meditative discipline or self-improvement practice. Get that inner voice to shut up! Until we create inner
silence — literally, peace of mind — we are unable to transform our lives
into more peaceful and purposeful ones.
Why are our inner voices so ubiquitous and incessant? Think about
this: at the very moment we are reading these words on the page, we are
also hearing them echo inside our heads. When we think, we hear a voice.
Our thoughts take shape as words. To the extent that we even exist, this
voice seems to occur in the context of what Dr. Antonio Damasio has
termed “the autobiographical self.” This entity — our identity — is constantly thinking “aloud,” inside our head. Later I will discuss in detail why
this autobiographical self is a unique and necessary byproduct of our left
cerebral dominance. But for now, it suffices to say that this self emerges
from our own species’ unique dependence on language.




the symbol for
the horse was an
intertwined rope.

The Power of Gesture and Glance
Th e r e as o n t h e h o rs e can become such a gifted teacher for us is
because he does not need an inner voice. He doesn’t think in words at all.
He feels. He experiences the simple energy of his emotional state of being.
More than thirty million years of evolutionary pressure have turned the
horse into the quintessential prey animal. Rather than using words or
vocalizations to communicate — sounds that help a predator pinpoint its
prey — horses learned instead how not to talk, how not to make sounds,
and how to make sense from being, not thinking.
Horses infuse emotional meaning into every body movement. They
pour this vital, emotional energy — chi — into every gesture and glance,
lending them the nuances of tone, accent, and value. By sensitizing themselves to chi, horses can not only convey the meaning of what they want
to share with other members of the herd but can also feel the palpably
sharp energy emitted by a stalking predator, eyes locked intently on its
prey (see figure i .2 ). Evolution has driven equids to the farthest limits of
nonverbal, right-sided brain function.

i.2  Zebras on savanna being stalked by lioness in foreground. Evolutionary pressures

exerted by constant predation over millions of years put a premium on equids’ development
of nonverbal communication skills that allowed them to avoid detection.



Evolution of the Super-Predator
The human species went in the opposite direction. Selective biological pressures, coupled with a rapid increase in cranial capacity (see figure
i .3 ), permitted hominids to leave behind an arboreal existence and take to
the savannas. Our ancestors became foragers and, eventually, keen predators. Homo sapiens sharpened the skills housed within the brain’s left
hemisphere. We flourished as a species, using language to coordinate our
movements as pack hunters. And we became storytellers, sharing tales
about the game species we sought, creating mythologies, building cultures,
and even establishing empires. In the process, we became a new kind of
super-predator, an unimaginably successful killer species, playful with our
wits and lethal with our intellects, but, eventually no longer in touch with
the secrets deep within our own hearts.

i.3  The evolution of hominids was marked by the most rapid growth of skull size ever seen

in any archeological record. This set of skulls covers a remarkably short span of only a few
hundred thousand years. It is hypothesized that the rapid development in language and
speech function may have required dramatic expansion of brain size.

The Rise of the “I”
and the Fall of the “We”
The success humans derived from left-hemispheric dominance came
at a price. Just as the horse surrendered its vocal abilities to gain herd
identity, the human species forfeited its intuitive powers for the benefits of
language. We became outcasts from the natural world, because raising the
function of speech to its highest level of expression required the emergence
of a separate consciousness. Speech demanded a “me” to be the inner




Carl Jung, the
father of modern

voice. The expression of language gave rise to the autobiographical self,
an identity separate from the world at large.
Carl Jung, the father of modern psychoanalysis, wrote:
The source of numerous psychic disturbances and difficulties occasioned by man’s progressive alienation from his instinctual foundation, i.e., by his uprootedness and identification with his conscious
knowledge of himself, by his concern with consciousness at the expense
of the unconscious. . . . he forgets himself in the process, losing sight
of his instinctual nature and putting his own conception of himself in
place of his real being.

— Carl Gustav Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 1957
So an “I” was born in each of us, conceived from the neuroanatomical
development of our species. And it owns us lock, stock, and barrel, because
once it emerges, it seizes control of vast territories of brain function, of
our very self-perception and self-awareness. There is an intracerebral coup,
and the existence of a singular, internalized identity is the party line we
are told to accept. But our left hemisphere, armed with its overwhelming
power of speech, remains wary of its reticent, emotive, and mute counterpart on the right. The left brain demands absolute loyalty. It zealously
safeguards the supremacy of its creation: namely, our ego.
The left knows that if an uprising were to start, it would be sparked by
the right half of our brain. Though this side has no voice, it has the power
to remind us silently of the union we once enjoyed with all life around us.
The right hemisphere offers us the hope that a sense of unification might
be more important to our spiritual well-being than a sense of identification.
Inevitably, the hemispheric struggle becomes a battle of consciousness, of a
solitary, monolithic me implacably opposed to the notion of a communal,
interconnected we.
We need opportunities to lead with our right hemispheres. We need to
practice being connected without worrying about an explanation of why
we are connected. Our innate longing for connectivity — and the profound
warmth, peace, and happiness that we derive from it — requires us to rely
on our right hemisphere.
For most of us, that right-sided function has atrophied. It’s weak, feeble, shaky. We’re unaccustomed to what the right side feels like because
of the overbearing presence of the left. To hear the silence of the right, we
must strengthen our intuitive, nonverbal powers.



Partnering with Equus
Interactin g w i t h h o rs e s does just that. We glimpse nature from a
radically different perspective: a view of the world drawn by the right
brain. Relating to horses provides us a unique opportunity to mute our
left hemisphere. To force it into silence. Horses provide us with a respite
from thinking about ourselves, a chance to escape from the prison of being
ourselves by ourselves.
Because horses function from the premise of a herd identity, they see
relationships as partnerships. They struggle to include us in their concept
of a herd — a huge leap considering they are the ultimate prey species and
we the über predators.
As humans, it is almost inconceivable to us how dramatically different
the equine perspective of inclusivity really is. For illustrative purposes,
however, imagine waking up on Christmas morning. As you sit down to
open your presents, you suddenly discover an 800-pound Bengal tiger
seated next to you on the living room sofa. And your response? You are
scared out of your wits; you want to scream, run, and scramble for the
nearest rifle or tree limb.
Imagine instead you strive to include that tiger in a communal context.
Rather than flee, you rack your brain to figure out how to hang a stocking
on the hearth to make the tiger feel at home, a part of your family. This
gives us an inkling of the enormous emotional achievement horses accomplish each day to include us, human predators, as an integral part of their
daily working (and emotional) lives. It’s a remarkable spiritual statement
about the capacity of the equine heart and soul.
As horses derive their very essence from inclusion in a herd, so they
struggle to extend that relationship to us as shared being. When a horse is
with us, we become a part of his herd. As far as time is concerned, horses
live only in the moment. There are no expectations for the future or disappointments from the past to cloud their relationships with us. Without
such agendas, horses don’t know how to lie, cheat, or deceive. Horses thus
offer us a unique opportunity to see ourselves in “divine mirrors,” reflecting back the chi we give off in our own emotions, to show ourselves in the
moment. Horses react to what lies in our hearts, not in our heads. They are
not confused by the words we use to lie to ourselves or hide from others.
Horses awaken the dormant right half of the human brain. Because
the output of our right hemisphere has been largely suppressed since early
childhood, it takes time to feel comfortable as a right-sided “we” instead
of a left-sided “me.” Eliminating the voice of our egos creates a silence that



is at first frightening, but later, we learn, also enthralling. With that silence
comes breathtaking power and clarity of thought. As Obi-Wan-Kanobi
in Star Wars encourages Luke Skywalker to trust “the Force,” so horses
exhort us to trust our intuitive right-brain abilities.
Working with horses gives us the opportunity to return to a primal,
nonverbal state of awareness. Without the interference of language, we
reconnect with the energy shared among all life forms. The connection is
palpable and immediate. We learn how to find it, focus it, and let it fly. We
explore how to apply chi for the purposes of asking our horses to move
naturally, effortlessly, and respectfully wherever we wish them to go. We
discover by direct, personal interaction with the horse that we are equal
parts body and spirit: half chi, half DNA. Theologist John O’Donahue
wrote: “Beyond the veils of language and the noise of activity, the most
profound events of our lives take place in those fleeting moments where
something else shines through, something that can never be fixed in language, something given as quietly as the gift of your next breath.”

Horsemanship as a Spiritual Path
Training horses with emotional energy, with chi, is an evolution
of the concepts of pressure and release used in natural horsemanship. All
of us who work with horses owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneers of this
discipline. Because of their contributions, we gain a better vantage point,
from which we can see that horsemanship can lead us deep into the realm
of self-awareness.
In this book, I have relied, in part, on concepts borrowed from different cultures, religions, and philosophies that have inspired me. These
teachings or symbols offer beautiful ways to conceptualize and integrate
the personal impact of training horses. I have included inspirational writings and scholarly interpretations from such diverse sources as Confucianism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American folklore, and
Yaqui shamanism.
But nothing about training or interacting with horses using chi is meant
to be esoteric or academic. The methodology in this book can be used by
anyone, with or without prior equine or scholarly experience. Novice or
expert, we can all find a comfortable setting in which to be around horses,
to play with them, and, most importantly, to learn from them. I have
taught individuals ranging from nine years old to ninety, from nationalcaliber athletes to the disabled, from the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies



to hardened criminals. What I teach here is not magic. I am no magician; only the horses possess magical powers. By sharing their nonverbal
abilities with us, they show us how to amplify our inner strengths, values,
and energies.
First and foremost, this book is for those individuals who feel a certain
mystical curiosity. The spiritual itch. It describes an approach to the training of horses that gives us a new way of seeing. Wayne Dyer, the popular
psychologist, says, “If you change the way you look at things, the things
you look at change.” By altering how we visualize our relationships with
horses, we discern a pathway leading to self-improvement, fulfillment, and
awareness. Horses connect with our souls — the part of us that links us
to everything. Horses help us find those bonds. The connections become
as real as the ground we walk on. I hope my book will be an equine atlas,
showing us another way to find ourselves.

Crossing the Threshold
Tr a i n i n g h o rs e s , however, is a path, not a destination. Becoming a
horseman or a horsewoman is not some elevated summit to reach but a
journey to be undertaken. The way of the horse is a prescription for engaging the Universe. It serves as an algorithm for finding a more fulfilling life;
maybe even a shot at peace and happiness, too. Ray Hunt, one of the great
sages of natural horsemanship, summed it up:
My goal with the horses is not to beat someone; it’s to win within
myself. To do the best job I can do and tomorrow to try to do better.
You’ll be working on yourself to accomplish this, not your horse.
Every time you step into the round pen with a horse, remind yourself that
today you may stand on the threshold of a great new personal discovery.
Each horse, in his own way, is ready to coach you. And when your resolution to change — to work on the person you want to become — becomes
heartfelt and sincere, then the horse will reveal his next great secret, his
next great gift, to you.
Horses are like a band of legendary Zen masters. They are perfect teachers because they uncover your real motivation. They tell you when you’re
wholeheartedly committed or faking it, when you’re making a sacred vow
or just paying lip service. Horses see what’s holding you back. And when




Ray Hunt

you find the courage to confront those shortcomings, horses will always
reward you with a way to overcome them. Just as Romeo did for Lillian.
If all this begins to make horsemanship sound like a religious experience, I can accept that analogy. Describing how to work with horses as
a way to access spiritual lessons is one of the goals of this book. I hope
to encourage people — especially novices — not to feel intimidated by a
lack of experience. None is required. Working with horses on the ground
is a simple, easy, and safe way to see and feel spiritual concepts at work.
I also want to elucidate a new method for training horses based on the
Asian concepts of manipulating chi. I hope the language and writing style
are accessible to horsemen and novices from every walk of life and style
of riding.
Finally, I pray this book can help convey the power of what horses can
teach us about the nature of spirituality. French literary figure Anatole
France wrote: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains
Horsemanship is another way, another vehicle, to achieve awakening.
What is spiritually and developmentally significant in that pursuit is different for each of us. An automobile can take you and me to different
locations, yet the method of driving and rules of the road for cars remain
universally applicable. Mastering horsemanship is no different. A common
set of skills is required before we are ready to seek our own destination.
Happy trails!

Note: The term horsemanship is unfortunately
not entirely gender neutral. This is regrettable in
the modern world of horses, where so many of
the individuals fiercely dedicated to improving
the lives of horses are women. I employ the term,

with its historical constraints, to signify the pursuit of furthering the knowledge and understanding of the skills of riding, managing, and training
horses, and gaining insight into equine behavior.



chap ter one


The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent, they are in another world.
D.H. Lawrence, The White Horse


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