History of the Horse - Horses Then and Now
"I believe that magic is available to us all, and most of us, in our desire for transformation and growth, can use all the magic we can get. But still, it seems a lot to ask of an animal, no matter how strong and beautiful. Haven't horses got enough to carry without filling their saddlebags full of our dreams and needs?
The answer is that horses have been carrying that load for us as long as we’ve been together. The spiritual relationship that exists between horses and humans is ancient and well-documented and is no new age fad. Neither are stories of those who have understood that relationship.
Belief in the magical power of horses was widespread in the ancient world. Horses were used as clan totems as far back as the early Stone Age, when they also came to symbolize the cosmic order of the universe. By the time of the ancient Greeks, horses were keeping company with the Gods, especially those gods associated with the sun and with water. But at around the same time, the tribes of northern Europe were going one better. To these people, the horses themselves were godlike. The ancient Celts were a nomadic people to whom the horse was essential equipment. They needed horses to move, to help them fight their enemies, and to establish social prestige. Perhaps that’s why they had such a well-developed idea of the divine horse. Epona was her name – she was generally represented as a mare or a woman on horseback - and she was associated with freedom and creativity, as well as with fertility and battle. The name Epona seems to have appeared first among Celtic tribes in Gauil during the Roman Empire and her worship and soon spread throughout northern Europe. In fact, the Roman cavalry legions occupying these areas adopted Epona for themselves, honoring her under the name Epona Augustus or Epona Regina.
Just as these ancient cultures recognized the spiritual power of horses, they also recognized the spiritual bond between horse and rider. Leaders in the old Teutonic clans swore oaths by the heads of their riding horses. If those promises were broken, the heads of both were severed. The link was even more explicit in the tale of the Irish mythical hero Cuchulain, who could live no longer than his horses. Tales of people who understood these bonds and used them to communicate with horses are just as old.
I'm not suggesting that we should all become Neo-pagans and build shrines to Epona. Nor do I think we should accept those old horse whispering stories as gospel either. I’m just pointing out that I’m not the first person to come to these conclusions about the spiritual power of the horse and its relationship to us. People have been bringing this power into their lives for thousands of years.
As Western civilization progressed, we became so preoccupied with the practical uses of our horses that the spiritual side of our relationship has been overshadowed. It’s not hard to see why, given the importance of the horse to our development. Their strength tilled our farmland and carried our goods. Their courage took us to war. Right up until the Industrial Revolution, the fastest way to get anywhere on land was on horseback. They have been so important to the daily business of human life that horse ownership was the best measure of someone’s wealth and power. Any job that required power or speed required horses, and the Western civilization would be hard to imagine without them.
Now, of course, those days are gone. Our farms are mechanized and our cavalry divisions drive tanks. We fly quickly and easily from place to place through skies that once belonged to Pegasus. Except in a few specialized cases, horses no longer serve any practical purpose. For the first time in human history, we have no need of the horse's physical strength.
What we do need, perhaps more than ever, is the horse’s spiritual power. We need that power to resolve conflicts within ourselves and between ourselves. We need that power to bring us back together with our damaged planet. Great as the horse’s gifts to us have already been, this one might be the greatest.”
– Chris Irwin. Horses Don’t Lie, 2001