The Horse Knows

Photo by Joan Summers

The Horse Knows

As a child, I regarded animals as people. Particularly large animals, like the big dog that followed me around when we were at Hilltop, the bungalow colony in New Jersey where my family spent summers. They looked different from human people, maybe, but children don’t make a federal case out of that.

I didn’t ask myself what a dog’s sensory receptors could take in that mine could not, nor what I could do better than the dog could. I didn’t wonder about the dog’s cognitive abilities. The dog was just one of the people you met when you were out of doors.

There was a cat that sat on the landlady’s porch. I would pet her seemingly without end. I didn’t ask myself whether the cat was bored or how she felt about me.

Animal relations were not problematic.

When I was ten, my illustrated edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was one of my favorite books. Its hero is Mowgli, the boy who was raised by the wolves. Mowgli has good relations with friends of varied species. They teach him many things good to know: to hunt, to deal with enemies, to be a loyal ally.

How to cry is the one thing they did not teach him. When he has to leave the jungle, he asks his animal friends what’s happening to him, what’s wrong? He should not worry, they explain.

“These are only tears, such as men use.”

When you are growing up, you learn more about such tears. You learn that animals talk only in illustrated children’s books, not in real life. I had resolved not to grow up. I thought grownups were oversized and insincere. But sometimes, you don’t get a choice.

Recently, what with Jerry’s weeks of gradual recovery from his all-too-serious surgery, I told one of his nurses about my own caregiver’s symptoms. She thought I should have a stress test and an EKG.

Turns out it was “only” stress. My heart’s fine. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that my coping stratagems were not fully adequate for the current situation. I would need something more.

Facebook had an advertisement for something called Equine Gestalt Coaching Method. I consider horses to be good for you, with or without the “Gestalt” part. But I hadn’t found any safe way of being around them since I was last in the saddle. I was thrown at a run and really can’t count on falling so well next time. Anyway, the Coach is Joan Summers, so I called her.

Joan said her treatment doesn’t involve riding. You get in an arena with her and the horse. The horse wears no halter. Then something or other happens. I didn’t ask what.

When I arrived, I was introduced to Star, the four-legged coach. With Star looking on, I described, to Joan and the owner of the stable, my previous riding experience, which had ended so woefully. On impulse, I looked suddenly at Star.

“Did she understand what I said?”

“She understood every word.”

There are, the two women explained, energies behind every spoken word. Star was a lead mare, thus responsible for the safety of the herd. So she is precision-tuned to the energies of sound. She might not have gotten the words, but she got the point.

To me, this idea was extremely exciting. This was not just kid stuff. Mowgli was right!

Joan and I entered the arena with Star and began to discuss my sense of who and what I was – who and what I am. Every time I would say something just because I thought I was expected to say it, the horse would knock over chairs, buck or even sit down on the soft turf of the arena. Or she would just trot off by herself till I stopped messing around.

In marked contrast, anything I said that I could entirely vouch for would elicit a relaxed, alert stance. She would come right over to where I was, ears listening, head high, posture elegant and collected.

Well I’ll be!

The horse knows the truth!

Do you know what that means, for a philosophy teacher – or for any of us? It means, there IS truth! And that, deep down, we know it!

So the relativism, the skepticism, the cynicism, the various super-educated, soul-deadening layers of denial … are false. If the horse can tell –

crap from clay —

deception and self-deception from integrity –

so can we all!

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to The Horse Knows

  1. Gail Pedrick says:

    Love it!



  2. Johan Herrenberg says:

    Beautiful piece! My daughter Dunya is into horseriding, and thanks to her I have come to know and love horses. At one time she considered studying ‘equine therapy’. Your piece falls under that heading, I think. Nice to see it in action!

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