A man on a horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot.
I honestly believe there's a gene that determines whether someone's a horse person or not... and that I was born with it.
There were a lot of things about doing ranch work that instantly appealed to me (spending days outside, working with your hands to build things, the beauty of the Western landscape, the pared down way of life, the quiet, etc.), but what absolutely sold me was the unparalleled opportunity to spend long hours with/on a horse. Though I had the chance to take riding lessons as a child and occasionally in college, doing a job that requires you to do certain tasks on horseback is a completely different experience. It feels more authentic, more immersive, more purposeful and of course, we get to log more hours with the horses without having to pay for that privilege or to try to carve out the time to do so. It's simply part of the way of life.
But to back up a minute, what even is it about horses that exerts such a powerful pull on the human imagination and soul? Even if you don't like horses yourself, you have to admit that there are people who are profoundly and spiritually moved by their presence. Some people are really, really CRAZY about horses.
The British writer, pilot and racehorse trainer Beryl Markham once said that "a lovely horse is always an experience.... It is an emotional experience of the kind that is spoiled by words." Although I'm spoiling the whole thing right now by trying to put it into words, I think that's really the whole idea: working with horses fills in a gap in our souls by giving us the opportunity to exercise something that is allowed very little space and celebrated too infrequently in human society--the right-brained, instinctual, feeling, and nonverbal side of our nature. As humans, we pride ourselves on being "civilized," rational beings who have developed a written and spoken language to express our thoughts--this is what sets us apart from and above, we think, other creatures. These distinctions are worthwhile and are of momentous importance, but, taken to the extreme, the privileged overuse of our intellectual capacities can leave us dangerously out of touch with the equally valuable voice of intuition, which is the only way horses operate and the only way that we can attempt to communicate with them.
Horses don't respond to speech or reason; they respond to your energy. Don't get me wrong, being a verbal creature, I talk to the horses all the time, but I don't pretend to imagine that they understand what I'm saying. It's the tone of my voice, the energy of it, that matters to the horse brain: a gentle, soothing tone to encourage/comfort or a firm, sharp tone to rebuke.
And I find myself constantly amazed by how sensitive they are to these energetic connections. Before the ranch crew can set off on a ride, all forty or so horses have to be wrangled from their grazing pasture into the main corral. We enter the corral to catch our horse for the day and upon spotting him or her, our intention narrows into laser-like focus on that particular horse. The other horses continue to mill around relaxedly and will let you walk amongst them freely, but the horse upon which we have focused our intention picks up his or her head to look at you and begins to move away. It can sense the power of your focus. This is one of the ways in which prey animals (such as horses) detect and evade predators (such as humans) in the wild. We humans do have the same sensitivities (we too can feel the energy of someone's gaze), we just don't give them the same amount of attention. Cultivating awareness of subtle forms of energy is one of the gifts that horses can give us. They help us find balance between left-brain rationality and right-brain instinct.
Native American cultures have a really lovely creation story that explains the bond of companionship between humans and horses (and dogs) in a much more poetic way than I just did. In the beginning, they believe, men and women lived in harmony with all living creatures on equitable terms. But eventually, instigated by the mischievous Coyote, humans had the idea to develop new sounds to communicate with one another--language. They forgot the sounds they had originally shared with other creatures and began to think of themselves as separate and superior. The animals thus grew suspicious of humans, learned to hide their voices, and slowly drew away. When humans began to hunt, the animals went to the Creator to tell him how the humans had become terrible enemies. The Creator, realizing that humans would forever attempt to maintain dominion over the animals, sent down an earthquake to create a chasm between humans and animals so that they would be forever kept apart. Upon seeing this chasm, the humans were terrified and, realizing their error, called out to the animals to forgive them and pleaded with them to jump back across the chasm. Having grown distrustful, most of the animals shrank back into the forest, but at the last minute, the dog and horse decided to jump across to stand on the opposite rim of the chasm with the humans. The humans rejoiced and promised the dog and horse that they could live forever as cherished guests among them. The Creator was also pleased and asked the humans to remember that the dog and horse had joined them by choice and to honor them as special friends among all creatures.
How resonant is that? I'm always struck by the fact that both dogs and horses actively choose to cooperate with humans. Proof of this lies in the fact that riding a horse isn't like driving a car. You don't tell the horse where to go, you ask. He has a brain, the ability to make choices, and far more strength than you, so it is something of a miracle when he responds to your request--a true working partnership. It's an incredibly delightful sensation and a humbling demonstration of trust on the part of the horse. You can't help but feel gratitude and affection in return for his efforts to understand your commands, which helps to explain, I think, the deep bonds that can arise between a horse and human who work together for many years.
On a good day, working with a horse can help you to get outside of yourself too--past the worries of the autobiographical ego (a left-brain construction) and into flow and rhythm of the all-inclusive energy that powers and connects all life. A horse insists that you inhabit the present moment, and one of the benefits of a long ride in the saddle is a clear, centered mind.
So I think I'll leave it at that. There's a whole lot more to the magic of working in concert with another living being, but some things are better left unspoken anyways....