Synchrony, the Horse’s Gift
Updated: Jul 11, 2020
Dawn. Silhouetted against a golden sky, a group of horses grazes peacefully. One, a little way away, raises her head suddenly, walks purposefully towards them, and tries to hide herself among them. Her action makes the others stop eating, raise their heads and bunch together as if expecting trouble. But the stallion, turning towards the direction from which she has come, is in full alert, his head jerking upward as he stares fixedly at the bushes. He whirls back towards the huddled group, only to see them already fleeing towards another group nearby. The groups fuse, are joined by others, and all stampede. I am in the Llanos of Venezuela, watching wild horses acting out the tactics that have kept them alive since horses were horses. In a stampede from puma lurking in the bushes their first move is to rush together before fleeing in a block. Carefully maintaining spaces between them, they do not collide but move as a whole, by synchronising their speed and direction. The sight of this massed block of bodies confuses the predator’s eye so that he does not know where to attack, but the unity of the mass can only be maintained if all copy each other, as pigeons or little trout do. To my eye, it is a sight of enthralling beauty and wonder when 150 of them wheel together as if the same idea had occurred to all at the same time, a harmonious swirling flow that lifts my heart.
It’s not a human talent. In a human stampede, people act as individuals, taking their own line so they collide, fall, and get trampled to death. But we don’t have either the mentality or the lateral eyes that make synchronising our movements possible. We don’t want to lose our individuality by merging with a group the way horses do, for predators have not been the determining factor in our evolution. For us, the concept of acting in synchrony without a boss or a leader to tell us where to go is distinctly difficult to grasp, which is perhaps why we have failed to notice that it’s the horse’s greatest talent.
If your life depends on following certain rules in an emergency, it would be just as well to practise them all the time. The rules are: keep together, don’t collide, and synchronise with those around you. They are the guiding rules of a horse’s life in more peaceful moments too. Bands stay together, eat together, rest together, march to water together. Mares spend time teaching others’ youngsters to respect their individual space. Youngsters practise playing at moving in synchrony; we notice this more when they are investigating something new like a UFO recently landed in their field, when they line up together, move forwards together, lose their nerve together, high-tail away and re-group to approach again. When in doubt, synchrony saves your life.
Synchrony goes even deeper than unity of movement, speed and direction. Horses are emotional synchronisers too, as we know only too well. Alarm alarms them; calm calms them; playfulness makes them playful, rigidity makes them rigid. Their emotional attitudes are constantly tuned to those of others around them, even when those others are people, not horses. We fail to notice that most horses step forwards when we do without being asked, accompany us along twisting paths, and stop when we do; but we cannot but help notice that our fear makes them frightened and our pleasure makes them feel good too. Synchrony is so embedded in a horse’s psychology that he has to be given active reasons not to want to merge and flow even with us: it his default mode of being.
So why aren’t we using this concept to make our lives with horses more harmonious? The reason seems to lie in our own heads. We tend to be obsessed by control, by establishing our authority, giving orders, expecting obedience, and working hard to achieve our ambitions. All these are anthropomorphic concepts. There is no evidence that horses understand them: on the contrary, we should not need so many curbs, whips and spurs if they did. What they do understand is about living harmoniously, safely and without offence to others in their band, trying to be inconspicuous and maintaining synchrony just in case a puma pops up.
When we ride a horse, our body is in such close contact with his that he feels our every movement, and tries to synchronise with it. Although it does not seem so, we are built on the same plan as the horse, and all our body parts (except the collarbone) have a corresponding part in his body. What we do with each part of us invites the horse to do the same. If we are stiff in the lumbar region, so is he, and takes shorter, stiffer steps; when we let go, he relaxes and swings along. We turn our body, looking “with our eyes on our chest” where we want to go; so does he. We stop, imagining ourselves rooted to a spot; so does he. We change the inclination of our pelvis at a canter, and he changes legs. We rise to the trot slower than his rhythm, and he changes the rhythm of his trot to synchronise with ours. We put a constant pressure on the reins, and he pushes back with an equal pressure, making his body rigid and inflexible.
Why we are not taught from the beginning to ride with synchrony in mind I really don’t know, because it’s what horses understand and enjoy best. Instead we are taught “the aids”, together with a rather militaristic misapprehension that these are orders that the horse has a moral duty to obey. But these helps, as the Duke of Newcastle charmingly called them, also rely on synchrony. The horse pushes himself forward with his back feet, so when we want him to move, we too push with our back feet. If we wish him to place a back foot sideways underneath him instead of stepping straight forward, we move our corresponding foot sideways in the same direction, touching his side; but we had better be sure we do so when his foot is in the air, before he steps on it, or he will correctly conclude that we are idiots for asking the impossible. We need to be able to feel his movement and synchronise with it before we can be so presumptuous as to try to ask him to synchronise with the changes we make: changes of gait, speed, rhythm, direction and balance, changes of where one foot lands or the inclination of his sacro-iliac joint. When we feel his moving body and allow ourselves to flow with it, we reach that mystical state of being centaurs that is close to a horse’s heart. He does not want to be alone: he wants to be part of a flow, and is willing to make adjustments to stay with that unifying flow.
It is what has kept him alive for 55 million years, after all.
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