“The wind of Heaven is that which blows through a horse’s ears.”
So goes an ancient Arabic proverb. Truer words have ne’er been spoken.
No pretty pictures in this article, although I’m tempted to post at least one, that of the two yearling colts on Robbie Davis’ Saratoga farm. They zeroed in, and threatened to inhale my cell phone camera last year. Their big, twitching noses descended on my little phone like a wet suit. It’s a cute picture, funny, even. But humor isn’t what I’m going for here, so this article will be all black-and-white. Virtual ink on untouchable paper.
This musing is about spirit, and emotion. I ask that you join me on this journey, and allow your imagination to engage the camera in your mind–remember that, the camera in your mind? The one that takes words and translates them into images, colors and visuals that may mean something to you, alone? Please read, inhale, ingest–allow words that may appeal to you to wash over you, and seep into your pores. Let them find their way to that part of your brain that conjures pictures–especially when you really need to escape from the mundane. There’s nothing mundane about soulful experiences, and yet soul is found every day, in the very mundane–if we go silent and allow ourselves to become quiet enough to experience it.
Everyone who’s touched a horse for the first time has been sniffed. Even the most green of novices quickly realizes that this is how a horse feels out a stranger. Are you good? Are you bad? Do you smell like food?–or like danger? The basic zoology of it is that horses have always been prey animals: their sense of smell plays a large role in their survival. Very basic stuff. Do you smell like a coyote, or a goat? Goats are buddies–coyotes, the enemy.
The fact that a horse is domesticated, living a lush life on a nice farm that features friendly human faces providing food and water–does not negate the innate instinct to sniff. Social security cannot replace eons of wariness. All new beings entering a horse’s sphere must be felt out–and, since horses lack thumbs and need their front legs for, oh, standing–they must depend on their sense of smell to give them the heads-up if a bad animal, person or experience appears on their scene.
The first time you met a horse, no doubt you were instructed to make a fist and offer it to the horse at her nose. She sniffed, gently running her soft nostrils over the parts of your hand, perhaps your wrist. Sniff in, snuffle out. Sniff in, snuffle out. Your new friend’s velvety proboscis ran gingerly over the bones and skin of your digits and hand, as her eyes surveyed your facial reaction to her diligent investigation. She may have tried to bring her upper lip into the event: if you smelled nice, you might be a treat. In the final analysis, your new friend decided that you were OK.
The next step probably involved her expecting some proffered gift, your offering to her otherworldly superiority. You passed muster with the sniffing ritual, and now you can score a home run if you have carrots, peppermints or Skittles to hand over to Her Highness.
That Introductory Sniff usually lasts just a few minutes.
Like going through the metal detector at the airport: you’re in, you’re good, you’re out.
I’ve been security-checked by thousands of horses over the last 50 years, and yet it wasn’t until four years ago that I got the whole burrito: full-on spirit massage by a gang. A horse gang. A throng of angels, cleverly disguised as fat, furry, curious filly weanlings. In that one moment in time–which lasted somewhere between two seconds and 100 years–my Life was changed for good, and for the better.
I wish I could reach into my soul and pull out words that can describe the experience adequately, but those words don’t exist. I can tap dance around it, I can come up with some killer adjectives, but nothing in my severely-lacking English language (what is it, only 60,000 words?) can help me to give you the experience through my writing.
Oh, that’s right. I can’t write it for you, because you must experience it for yourself. You can’t truly know the experience until it’s yours. I can’t create it, and hand it to you. You can’t wish it into being. A spirit massage by a gang of horses just happens, spontaneously. They are the ones who decide it will happen, and they run the show.
My first spirit massage was conducted by a Thoroughbred gang on a friend’s farm in 2006. Early Spring, April. Sunny, perfect blue skies. A little warm, a slight breeze. Walking around the farm, reveling in the lovely weather, I wandered over to the paddock which I’d been told was the town square for five weanling fillies. These girls were granddaughters of my beloved Seattle Slew, so I hoped to have the opportunity to pet at least one of the great racer’s progeny. Just one pat on the back of a grandchild of the undefeated Triple Crown winner, who, for whatever reason, is my all-time favorite Thoroughbred.
I walked up the hill to the girls’ domain, determined to touch at least a small patch of Slew’s DNA. This would be a special day, to experience a Slew grandbaby, perhaps see his fiery eyes in one of the young ones.
I had an agenda, but “…the best-laid plans of mice…” and women paled by comparison to the intentions of these five spirit animals.
I thought I’d have a challenge on my hands, that of luring a horse over to the fence for a pat.
Quite the contrary: like five guileless faeries–think, the Nox in “Stargate SG-1”–they loped, long-legged but sirenesque, to the paddock fence. Their eyes were trained on me, mesmerizing: I could not turn away from that which was destined to occur. Silently, moving like mist across the bright green grass, they held me at the fence with ten deep orbs: the Eyes of Heaven tied me in place while they made their way, slowly, deliberately, to the spot, where I stood.
I was physically outside their realm, we were separated by a fence–but borders are meant to be breached, and physical divisions mean nothing in the realm of the Numinous.
As the queens reached their side of the fence, it occurred to me that I was participating in a living enactment of an Alma-Tadema painting: I was a mortal, observing the approach of several Greek or Roman goddesses. I was helpless to their wiles. They were all light and ethereal, questioning and knowing. The silence surrounding their approach was so loud that I gasped, and that gasp was the only sound audible to anyone but we six.
Once at the fence, the divas-cum investigators set straight to work: while one chubby weanling dove straightaway into my neck, another burrowed into my hair. The third was content to run her silken nostrils all up and down my right arm, caressing my palms with her deep knickers of approval. Number Four had shoved her head through the slats in the fence and up my shirt from the bottom. She was determinately sniffing my abdomen: side-to-side, middle, top and bottom. I wondered if, in horse culture, the abdomen represents any particular virtue. That moment was sublimely delicious. The fifth Epona was in charge of legs: she left no part of my two appendages untouched. Young as she was, she may have wondered why, if we seemed to be of one spirit, did I not stand on all fours?
Whatever her train of thought, she was almost aggressive in her quest to determine what constituted Me. Horses are so far superior to humans in their ability to intuit, and to communicate. Each of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant in Jain lore touched a different part of an elephant, and declared that the elephant looked like thus-and-such. Their imaginations were limited by that which they could physically feel–ah, the never-ending Empiricism vs. Rationalism argument. But horses, ah, horses: unlike those six blind men, each of these equines were experts in a certain human body part, and the mind-body connection.
They knew, deeply, the role that part played in the tapestry of the spirit that entwined our beings.
Horses. Ah, horses. They are neither confined nor slaves to the realm of the merely physical. They may use their sense of smell to re-enact ancient prey survival rituals–but the scent wafts up through to their brains, and settles in that unknown realm known as The Mind. And The Mind–that is the berth in which the soul resides.
My bemaned angels wordlessly exchanged information, coming to a complete picture of the geography of my soul. Those fillies knew me better than I knew myself: their approval was my entrée into a place I’d never-before entered, a land where I would seek residence for the remainder of my very mortal, so limited days.
In essence: horses use their noses to inform their souls about our souls.
I don’t know how they do it, I know only for certain that they do.
And I…how did I respond to this equicelestial rite of initiation? I stood stock-still. Eyes closed, sensing every tender caress. I was the first human to experience a horse: I knew in those golden moments every nuance, each nuzzle, of the first equine-homo sapiens encounter. I was blessed beyond measure. To say that I was merely “calm” would be an understatement of monumental proportions. I had never felt so alive, and yet…so transcended.
I would love to report that, following this moment of pure bliss, my Life has been a bowl of cherries, or sweet feed. It hasn’t.
But I’ve come to realize that, when I least expect it–the angels will descend on me again. Inspecting, intuiting, introducing, knowing. Sharing their Wisdom, reading my needs.
One such moment happened 800 miles from the first, two years later–but because neither time nor space is relevant to heaven’s messengers, it was familiar and warm. Like coming Home after a long voyage, I knew the terrain, and anticipated the welcome of that porch light.
I was in Lexington, Kentucky. I often drove up Van Meter Road, to breakfast at the Keeneland Kitchen. Van Meter is the backdoor to Keeneland, a lovely drive off of Versailles Road. It separates Keeneland’s property from that of Calumet Farm. Narrow, with gullies on either side, Van Meter is a quiet longcut that promises opportunities to see mares grazing at Fares Farm or other of the great Bluegrass Thoroughbred establishments. At Rice Road you take a left, and zip down to the best breakfast in Kentucky. Great food and hard-working racetrackers; Hall of Fame trainers and locals who know the secret about that famed kitchen.
That March morning I drove recklessly down the middle of Van Meter Road–if you know the via, you know that your side of the road is the middle–I spied four luscious, zaftig weanlings on the right (East) side. A chance to kiss a horse, perchance to assuage my beaten-up emotions.
I swear that God filled in a gully; made it flat and covered it with grass–for right next to the young horses was a spot, perfect for parking. A bona fide Bluegrass miracle.
I parked. I disembarked. I walked one foot to the fence, and–on cue–four beautiful heavenly messengers introduced themselves to me in the same sniffing, full-court-press spiritual massage that I had experienced two years previously.
This time I was prepared: I knew what was about to happen. I closed my eyes, and drank in the experience with none of the surprise of the first encounter. I was ready, and–like one about to be baptized after sincere repentance for a Life of waste and debauchery–I dove in with abandon. I participated: I relayed my thoughts and love through my very cells, my mind and my soul to these beings who were new in their particular-ness (as would write Plato)–but as familiar as my own laughter.
Again, I was blessed, and was assured that, indeed, mercies come along when we least expect them–but when we need them the most.
(Note: These weanlings wore halters bearing the names of their dams: as I read monikers like “Miss Grindstone” and “Arabic Song,” I realized that this was a place at which my spiritual pursuits met the very-earthly kingdom of human-made greatness. These were Calumet babies. These horses were born to a greatness that manifests itself in tangible accomplishments. But those empirical achievements are absolutely fueled by the spirit which cannot be measured [but surely is implied] by pedigree. Greatness can be inherited, but it is not necessarily the result of sinew and bone, conformation and cut. True greatness comes from within, regardless of pedigree, and the names on these little ones indicated that they were the heirs of guts and glory of the truest dimension.)
In a very human, very earth-bound moment, as I realized that this was Calumet and these were children born of royalty, I slid my bare right foot under the lowest rung of the fence, to caress that grass of that mythological city. And I said aloud, “This is for you, Claire.”*
I was empowered so to do by the strength, the encouragement, of my new friends. They invited me into their Home, and I brazenly went forth.
I’ve never been called “shy,” but I would not have put my uninvited foot on Calumet’s sacred land, had I not been encouraged by the residents, themselves. Sans my new-found guts, I would have driven by, admired, and wished. In very tangible terms, Calumet is the royal palace, and I was an interloper. But when the invitation is extended by the royal residents, themselves–one is emboldened to step forth into the throne room.
If you’ve not-yet been encountered by a spirit gang, a herd of horses who decides to initiate you into their tribe–you will soon. All you need do is open your heart to the possibility, and go through your days with the expectation that some time, somewhere–the angelic throng will come to you when their whim or assignment dictates that Today is Your Day.
When you do receive your equine anointing, breathe deeply. Take in every moment, make it your own. Trust your own instincts to follow their lead, and trust them to lead you to a place of unspeakable joy. On the other side of the ritual is a new understanding of the equine species–their specialness, and the reasons why those who love them fiercely refuse to back down on issues like slaughter, roundups and abuse.
Beyond that, oh, it’s nothing spectacular: just the realization that you are more connected to God’s Nature than you may have entertained in the past–and that empirical evidence, in The Big Picture, is only the first step. If you stop at what the five senses can take in, you’ve only gotten a fraction of the picture.
Open yourself up to sensing all the way: give a horse her head, and she’ll always take you Home.
* Claire Conmee is my friend who fell in love with racing when she went headlong for Citation, in 1948. She and I shared our love of Calumet’s great Alydar: our bond with each other was deepened by our common love for the beautiful Thoroughbred.