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The Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 375-377 ( 17 September )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/lipton.html
The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation through the Way of the Horse
by Linda Kohanov
New World Library, Novato, California, 2001
Reviewed by Judith Eve Lipton, M.D.
In the 60s, A Clockwork Orange was the ultimate dystopian vision: young men wearing huge codpieces committed random senseless violence in an urban nightmare of a tasteless empty city. By the 90s, there was The Matrix, an urban nightmare so complete that human beings can’t tell themselves apart from the computers that manipulate them, and in which real human beings are increasingly rare, as human fetal blood is used to power a world of robots. Whatever the degree of alienation to which post-war existentialists were reacting, these two movies show that its modern version has become monstrously worse than in Sartre’s time. Increasingly, people live in a virtual reality composed of electronic communications and images, synthetic foods, and manufactured environments. No wonder many of us long for connection and real experiences, and increasing numbers turn to other animals to find their own human nature.
Linda Kohanov, the author of The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation through the Way of the Horse found herself and her calling in a deep relationship with a lame black mare, named Tabula Rasa. She escaped the city and day jobs, to find a new world, a new career, and a new sense of self and belonging in the Arizona desert, and now her mission is to help others experience similar grounding and joy.
The Tao of Equus is a mixed blessing. I read it in a weekend, ate up the pages, and then found myself exhilarated and annoyed, excited and perplexed, challenged and discouraged, but mostly inspired. In other words, in many ways, this is a really good book, but it is also deeply and unnecessarily flawed. Read this book for genuine insights into equine and human relationships, and some novel insights into in vivo treatments for dissociative disorders. Don’t read it as a guide to classical horsemanship, eastern religion, or equine social behavior. Read it for good ideas about the nature of psychological trauma and healing, in both horses and people, but don’t expect sophisticated evolutionary psychology. But I do think you should read it, because overall, Ms. Kohanov has some unique and important insights.
The Tao of Equus begins with and shelters the author’s own personal journey, which is portrayed with integrity. She describes her nightmare first marriage, which was characterized by alternating emotional abuse and sexual control, resulting in a predictable set of dissociated emotional reactions. After leaving the marriage, Ms. Kohanov traveled to Tucson, where she reengaged with a childhood passion -- horses. She remarried, and began taking riding lessons. Eventually, she decided to invest in a young horse, and purchased a purebred Egyptian Arabian filly. Her goal was to train a horse that had never known fear or trauma. Hence her mare’s name: Tabula Rasa.
As luck would have it, the mare developed OCD, osteochondritis dessicans, a bone cyst that made her lame. Rather than subjecting her to dangerous surgery, Kohanov decided to let nature take its course, and so instead of medical treatment or riding, she began to experiment with just “hanging out” with her horse, accompanying her on long walks through the desert or just staying with her, emulating her, and doing not much of anything, day after day. Her unofficial study of equine ethology brought her into a deep resonance with horses, and she began to sense that she could be treated like a horse by other horses, exchanging sensory information as though she were a horse herself. This meditative process resulted in her own healing and recovery from trauma, and she ultimately transitioned from being a classical musician (violist) to an “equine assisted therapist.” This was a long road, with a lovely destination. Kohanov founded an organization called Epona Equestrian Services, a league of riding instructors and psychotherapists devoted to helping people heal and grow through trauma via interaction with horses.
So far, so good. If this were the whole story, and if the author simply told this tale and then recounted her experiences watching horse-horse and horse-human interactions, then I could recommend The Tao of Equus wholeheartedly. Kohanov writes clearly and with passion, the stories are compelling, and her overarching concept, that “horses are a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for, and I mean a lot more intelligent” resonates with my own experiences as a horsewoman and psychiatrist. I have maintained for years that horses can teach young women how to prevent date rape, because anyone who has every bossed around a 1200 pound horse could be similarly assertive with a man. Moreover, Kohanov helped me see that the deep connection between women and horses is more than assertiveness training. It can mean grounding oneself in the present moment, just as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, in order to achieve peace of mind.
I was inspired! I began fantasizing about taking some of my dissociative disorder/trauma patients into the round pen with my schoolmaster gelding, to see if petting and grooming the grand old horse would help these women overcome their anhedonia and disconnected emotions. I began to think about volunteering with our local therapeutic riding school, setting up a program for people with emotional problems in addition to the physical disabilities that the school addresses. More importantly, I began relating more collaboratively with my 5 year old mare, testing Kohanov’s ideas in my own paddocks. If the measure of a good book is that it inspires new thoughts and changes behavior, I’d have to give The Tao of Equus an A+.
I particularly liked the chapter, “Horse Whisperings”, which addresses the question of why male trainers like John Lyons and Monte Roberts enjoy more fame and respect than females such as Mary Wanless, Sally Swift, and Peggy Cummings. Her discussion of sadistic methods of horse training, such as lying a horse down (portrayed in the movie, “The Horse Whisperer”) is insightful and a must read for newbies to the world of “natural horsemanship.” In general, her discussion of sexual issues is good, as she clarifies and respects the different worlds of stallions and mares, men and women.
However, for some reason, Kohanov seems compelled to reference pseudoscientific theories and New Age philosophy to justify or explain her sensitivity and the power of the horses. Julian Jaynes, Carl Jung and Candace Pert are invoked as authorities for Kohanov’s emerging belief in Rupert Sheldrake’s "morphogenic field" concept: nothing ever dies, no thought ever dies, everyone is connected through whirlpools of energy, and therefore horses can recall their past lives, etc. Kohanov believes that she can look deeply into the black pools behind the eyes of the horse, where she can access the Voices of the Ancestors, who interpret the emotions of people and horses and channel them back to the author. For example, she was asked to assess and treat a young horse that had trouble going forward. She closed her eyes, and the Horse Ancestors told her that he was stiff in his neck, and so she gave him a good massage and then he could go forward. Linda, honey, you don’t have to hear voices to perceive that a horse has a stiff neck!
Why is it that so many New Age therapists and social scientists reject plain old science as reductionistic and deterministic, before they even know what plain vanilla science really says? How come Linda Kohanov references E. O. Wilson’s book, Biophilia, but seems not to have read a word of his seminal books on animal behavior and evolution? Why does she piously teach us about the autonomic nervous system, but ignore the central nervous system? Many ethologists are fascinated by the science of social attachment and much research has been conducted on stress, emotions, and neurotransmitters. Why devote pages to what sounds like telepathy, or “clairsentience” as she calls it, and ignore oxytocin and serotonin? Those of us who have devoted our careers to the pursuit of knowledge through the scientific method owe it to the public and good people like Linda Kohanov to get our ideas down in print clearly and compellingly so that those ideas are not frightening. Understanding nature and nurture, the inheritance of traits through DNA and also the inheritance of traits to learn and adapt to present circumstances, also mediated by DNA and RNA, need not be a straight-jacket for the general public. Neither horses nor people begin as a tabula rasa. We carry within each cell the successes of our ancestors. Instead of beginning with a blank slate, having to learn all about ourselves and the world in a few short years of a lifetime, we come equipped with genetic traits that give us a leg up. Why not explore the evolution of horses and horse consciousness, as well as horse-human relations and, yes, human-human relations without mysticism and crystal gazing?
Not only I, but several of my patients read The Tao of Equus and found it useful and provocative, so I recommend it as a good read, an avenue for people to find themselves through horses. However, I don’t think horses are the only creatures that can assist this process: witness the late Caroline Knapp’s wonderful book about herself and her dog, A Pack of Two. The books are neatly parallel in their images: Mirror, Mirror on the Stall, and Dog as Rorschach. Both authors claim that their pets are telepathic, but Knapp discusses anthropomorphism, while Kohanov attempts to become a horse. The bottom line is: Don’t despair if you are allergic to horses! Dogs, horses, cats, parrots, and all of lovely nature itself can heal the hearts and spirits of those who need to give and receive love. In these dark and troubled times, we need all the help we can get.
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© Judith Eve Lipton.
Judith Eve Lipton M.D. is a psychiatrist in Bellevue, Washington, and consulting psychiatrist at the Comprehensive Breast Center, Providence Campus of Swedish Medical Centers, Seattle. She has 3 horses, 4 dogs, and 8 cats.
Lipton, J. E. (2002). Review of The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation through the Way of the Horse by Linda Kohanov. Human Nature Review. 2: 375-377.