Understanding Horses: The Familial Bond Between Horse and Human

This was going to be a “Links to Take Into Summer” post, lining up a series of horse-related links for fun and delectation. Then I watched the whole video I meant to link first—Dr. Kelsey John’s lecture “Animalities: Navajo Horse as Healer and Educator”—and all I want to do now is wrap it around myself and let it keep telling me its stories. I want to sit down with the horse and her human sister and ask questions. So many questions. And listen carefully to the answers.

Here is the link. It’s almost an hour long. It is worth it.

The speaker and her subject resonate strongly with me, not just because I’ve spent so much of my horse life learning about these things, but also because they’re local in a whole range of ways. Dr. Kelsey John is currently doing her postdoctoral work at the University of Arizona, right down the road from me in Tucson. She lives in town and boards her horse nearby.

Dr. John is Navajo, raised in a family of horse trainers. She grew up a horse girl. At the same time, she’s broadly and deeply educated in the white colonialist tradition, studying gender and settler colonialism and the relationship between animals and humans.

The lecture explains where she’s coming from and why. She begins by introducing herself in Navajo, establishing who she is, who her parents are. She pays respect to the land she stands on, which is ancestral land of another people, the Tohono O’odham. (I am sitting not far from that spot, on land that was of the Hohokam before the O’odham, and the Cienega people before that.)

What she’s doing is setting up a discussion of academic study that comes not only out of the white Western tradition but also the Native tradition. Native tradition teaches and learns through stories. In telling stories, we discover who we are and what we’re for; in being told stories, we learn new things and deepen our knowledge of things we knew before.

As a dedicated reader in genre, I can really relate to what Dr. John is talking about. We tell stories in order to understand not just the world we live in but the worlds we come from and the worlds we may someday see. We imagine worlds beyond this one. We imagine people and places and things far beyond anything that exists in the world we know, and yet we see ourselves in them. We hold up a mirror to the cosmos, and try to understand it through what we know of ourselves.

In the Navajo tradition, horses are key and vital and central. Dr. John says categorically that they have always been here. That they have been with the people from the beginning. They didn’t just come over with the Spanish. They were here before.

That idea has been gaining traction in Western thinking, in no small part because of Native contributions to the field. Where Westerners and Native peoples differ, according to Dr. John, is in their fundamental view of horses, and well as animals and the land in general. The Western colonialist view is utilitarian. The world exists to be used, manipulated, modified to benefit humans.

In Native tradition, animals are family. Your horse is not your property. She’s your sister. She communicates with you; she teaches you. Your job is to respect her, and to pay attention to what she’s telling you.

Dr. John’s horse Bambi is a Mustang. Many people would call her a wild horse, though technically she’s feral—her ancestors, however distant, were raised and trained by humans, but she herself grew up away from them. She and Dr. John developed a rapport that, from context, was there from the start, but took months and years to fully develop. And the first part of that, for the human, was learning to put aside her own wants and expectations and let the horse tell her what she wanted.

Dr. John wanted to ride. Most horsegirls do. But did Bambi want to be ridden? There was a distinct possibility that she might not. It was her human’s job to accept that.

This was a shift even for a person raised in the Native tradition. Setting aside human wants. Respecting the horse’s wishes. Letting the horse decide how their relationship would evolve.

She did end up agreeing to the riding thing, but it was not “animals must yield to human will,” it was consent between equals. It was a powerful lesson, and a clear illustration of the difference between Western and Native philosophies.

Western horse people have come around to this thinking more and more, whether or not they know anything about Navajo culture. Classical horsemanship, as seen in the early modern schools of Europe, is very much centered on the horse. The horse fulfills his (it’s usually stallions in Europe) fullest potential in collaboration with the perceptive human. Meanwhile, in North America, the heirs of the cowboy way have developed “Natural Horsemanship,” of which Dr. John speaks very positively—but that, when done right, is very close to the Native way.

It’s not just about learning to see the horse as a fellow sentient rather than a tool to be used. It’s also, for Dr. John, about settler colonialism and what it’s done to Native peoples, their land and their animals. And that, in turn, is very much tied up in the politics of gender.

The Navajo are a matriarchal society. Women own the livestock, herd the sheep, train the horses. When white politicians set out to break the culture, they turned it on its head. They slaughtered the livestock, forced the young people into residential schools where the girls in particular were forced into white gender roles, and decreed that ownership of the stock would now be reserved to the men.

The people are fighting back, and horses are a key element of the battle, especially the free-range horses in the Nation. A strong component of Dr. John’s work is to educate people about this, to teach the history. Central to that is her own story, her relationship with her horse, which contains so much of that history.

I came to horses as a more or less normal colonialist. I rode them because I loved riding. I did connect with them, but I didn’t realize how deep that dimension could go. I used them rather than collaborated with them. That was how we did things in our boarding barns, our lesson groups. It was how things were.

Then I was able to fulfill a dream of having my own farm, keeping my horses at home. I lived with them all day, every day. I realized that there was far more to them than I knew or had been taught. I started to see them as people—as family.

Once that happened, I started to be able to really learn from them. They taught me, and at first that seemed, well, weird. Not like what I’d been taught. And then I started talking to others who shared the same ideas. Gradually, over time, the horses showed me the things Dr. John talks about.

The history and the cultural aspects are crucial to Dr. John’s thesis. Large parts of them are painful, and not easy to think about, but there’s no turning away and no trying to deny them. They’re all intertwined. With the horse at the center, right where she belongs.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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