- Wherever man has left his footprints
- in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization,
- we find the hoofprint of a horse beside it.
- John Trotwood Moore
At the beginning of this month I got in to see my osteopathic doctor that specializes in cranial-sacral work. He managed to get some of the more recalcitrant blockages in my neck and liver to move. So I have had fluid and grit pouring out my nose with the bigger bone chips working their way out by my inner ear and down my eustachian tubes while a whole other sector of my liver decided to rejuvenate itself. The process isn’t a new one for me (click here), but it doesn’t get easier with repetition. Frustration and anticipation both make the experience worse regardless of the actual amount of pain (which is considerable).
Shortly after my visit to the osteopath, I noticed small symmetrical bald spots appearing on either side of my horse’s withers. My first response was to search for how he had injured himself, which turned out to be fruitless. Then I remembered that the last time he had strange hair loss was when he finally regained the full use of his tail. His back had been twisted enough to interfere with the nerves to his tail and that had left him with poor muscle tone and limited movement. As the pressure on the nerves lessened, strength, sensation, and circulation returned. First he was rubbing his tail against the walls, then all the old tail hair fell out as the new began to grow, and then suddenly he was able to stick his tail straight up like a flag as he tore about his field.
His front end has been slower to readjust itself. Partly because his condition was so long-standing it had affected his hoof growth. One front foot had a contracted heel an inch higher than the other that had crushed heels and collapsed bars (click here for hoof anatomy). Since the horse had just come off the race track, that was equivalent to asking Usain Bolt to race with a ballet slipper on one foot and a cowboy boot on the other. He was also footsore because his front hooves were a little over 4″ diameter with a 3 ” hoof wall which is ridiculously small for a 17.2 hh 1400 lb horse. Because he had insufficient hoof mass, I have had to encourage hoof growth while correcting his other issues, but as the hooves slowly and steadily evened out his neck and back have been relaxing and readjusting themselves.
We had hit a sticking point somewhere in his first couple of ribs this summer where he had stopped improving. His neck would adjust, but as soon as he started moving, it went out again. I say we because when his neck hurts, he will come over and put his big old head in my arms so I can work out the knots in his muscles and let the bones in his neck adjust. It was different for him to resist my touching his neck even though it was causing him enough discomfort for him to be tossing his head about blindly, especially at the canter. So I had not been asking him to do anything much until this situation resolved.
The bald spots on his withers coincided with a tremendous release in his back and neck and resulted in the most overt change in his hoof structure. Up to this point, my focus had been on getting enough hoof mass, especially enough sole, to protect the bony structures inside and after two years, his front feet are close to 6″ in diameter with a 4+” deep hoof wall . With the release in his withers, his front hooves finally began to flex and pump as he moved. This movement encourages healthy growth and old, dead, and unnecessary sole to slough off of its own accord. So when I picked up his feet, both left hooves, front and back, suddenly had a 3/8″ flare on the outside hoof walls. This meant he has also had medial instability, the result of damage to the support structures inside the hoof that suspend the bones inside the hoof capsule. The hoof does not grow evenly side to side as the horse shifts their weight to compensate for the pain of torn tissues. Once I removed the flares, his whole body and demeanor relaxed. His soles are finally level, and he can stand and move without pain for the first time in years.
For me the interesting part is that not only was the focus of distress in a similar spot between our shoulder blades, but as soon as my own tension eased, he was able to release. His discomfort was mirroring mine, and I was unable to help him until I had dealt with my own problems. When I found this Scientific American editorial (click here) on mirror neurons, I was intrigued. Although the subject is rife with controversy, it appears that certain neurons in our brain respond to and are able to mimic clearly goal oriented actions. For these cells, meaning is essential to movement. They appear to understand not just what but why. Scientists speculate that the mirror neuron is essential not only to our very human ability to abstract concepts from actions but to the ability to understand others well enough to empathize with them.
One level of controversy is how neurons develop their mirroring qualities. Some scientist argue that they are a result of social actions, not a cause. The deeper more philosophical controversy has its roots in the definition of understanding itself. Those that believe understanding requires human language attempt to dismiss the possibility that mirror neurons can be an essential physical component in the development of empathy and consciousness. And indeed, experiments show that the ability to use human language is not directly related the activity of mirror neurons.
What scientists are not studying are mirror neurons in animals that live in groups having an uncanny ability to synchronize their actions. Perhaps there is a neurological aspect to that non-verbal ability to reflect physical and emotional states between individuals. I found myself speculating that birds such as starlings (click here) that are capable of breath-taking feats of synchronicity could have more mirror neurons than a solitary hunter like a falcon. Lions living in prides would benefit from mirror neurons more than the solitary jaguar. Herd animals like bison and wildebeests (click here) would have more mirroring ability than the solitary water buffalo. Not least, our domestic animals such chickens, pigs, cattle, dogs, and horses are all animals that thrive in group structures.
Does the remarkable ability of the horse to accurately reflect our inner nonverbal states, to connect with humans and arouse our hearts, their extra-ordinary ability to mirror both understanding and action across the gulf of differing species have a physical basis in the qualities of the mirror neuron? I remember the moment that I decided to withdraw from my mother’s world of projection and delusion. and anchor myself in a consensual reality with land, the plants, and the animals. I was about 14 years old, and had escaped from yet another episode of my mother’s emotional battering. I was so caught up in my own distress that I walked past our two horses without seeing or responding to them. The yearling colt noticed me however, and raised his head and whinnied to me, bringing me back to earth. When I stopped and turned towards him, he trotted over, gave a gentle whuffling noise, and nuzzled my cheek.
The way I verbalized my response to that non-verbal act of recognition and concern was to make a commitment to myself to first to observe without judgement and second to make sure that my words and my actions were in alignment. Forty some years later, I realize that was a revolutionary move given my family pathology (click here). The utter lack of empathy, the projection of negativity onto others, and the sense of entitlement, the entrenched justification behind saying/doing anything to get people to agree without any obligation to follow through once gratification is achieved, vanished from me at that moment of connection with the horse. Perhaps there was a physiological change as well an emotional and mental shift because the difference in my world view was distinct, immediate, and enduring. The idea that the experience precipitated the awakening of my mirror neurons makes sense.
I owe my humanity to the horse spirit. I do not reduce our exchange to mere bio-mechanics, but that there is physical evidence of non-verbal understanding and empathy in the existence of mirror neurons has profound repercussions not only for ourselves (click here) but for our relationship with other than human consciousnesses.