The first horse psychic lived two villages away. I contacted him in a state of desperation after my daughter’s new horse had thrown her off. The psychic asked for a couple of pictures of the horse and some biographical details, and the reason we needed help. I explained what had happened.
My daughter Amber and her new horse Jack were making their debut in a one-day event. The day had started full of promise, sunny with a whisper of a spring breeze. Amber hoped that together they would win prizes and advance to more prestigious competitions. Jack certainly looked the part. He was dappled grey and long-legged with fine features and an impressive turn of speed. In height and talent he was a big step up from Amber’s previous ponies. The low-key, local contest should have been easy for them.
A one-day event consists of dressage (imagine horse ballet), show jumping round a course of coloured fences, followed by cross country, which involves galloping up to four miles outside the arena, jumping fixed fences, splashing through water and leaping over ditches. Amber started well. She completed the dressage phase smiling; she popped faultlessly around the show-jumping. In preparation for cross country she slipped on a loose air-jacket, the rider’s equivalent of an air-bag. As we headed for the warm-up ring, Jack started jiggling and shying. When it was Amber’s turn to enter the start box, he pinned his ears back and began to retreat. It was only with much persuasion that we cajoled him over the starting-line.
Jumps one to seven went well. The course then snaked over a hill out of sight. As always watching Amber compete, I was both excited and churning with fear. My legs started wobbling. Suddenly I heard the crack of an exploding gas canister and the cry of “loose horse!” Jack galloped past me, I could see the whites of his eyes and crimson of his inner nostrils. He juddered to a halt next to the nearest horse. Minutes later, Amber was brought back in a pick-up truck, her jacket puffed up and her face crumpled. Jack had stopped dead in open country and spun round, upending her. “Why did he do that?” she asked.
We didn’t think Jack was in physical pain. His back had been tense when we bought him, according to a horse masseuse, but she had smoothed out the knots and loosened his hamstrings through frequent sessions, and pronounced him ready to go. A vet, an equine physiotherapist and a chiropractor had all examined him; his teeth had been filed and his hooves newly shod. He looked in fine fettle. Yet he’d stopped when not even at a jump – almost unheard of for such a horse.
Not long before, I’d barely hidden my smirks when Ali, a fellow pony-club mum, told me that she’d sought the help of a psychic for her daughter’s difficult horse. Previously, the furthest I’d ventured into alternative health was Pilates and Veganuary. But we had exhausted all conventional treatments for Jack. Many of us, in desperation or love, have at some point swallowed our scepticism and put our faith in something irrational. And so I asked for the psychic’s details. “For the last 30 years I have worked primarily with people,” he wrote in response to my query, “but found that my sensitivity was such that I could almost do a session with someone wherever in the world they were. I usually connect through the name and photo.”
His email came back a few hours after I sent the photo:
I have completed my first session with Jack.
Once he got used to me he was quite chatty :)
I initially started with energy clearing…and then asked which negative emotions was Jack feeling.
He told me:
So I used trauma processing techniques until each emotion was down to 0/10.
He kept talking about the “bossy man”…and felt bullied. The trauma of that meant he has a tendency to become disassociated…so I did some grounding therapy on that.
Also he confirmed that he doesn’t like his name “Jack” as it reminds him of the bossy man…So if possible he would like you to give him a new name.
The cost of this session is £35 and you can pay by bank transfer.
We laughed. We shared the email. We changed Jack’s name to Smokey.
Almost everything I’d told the psychic had been flipped back at me: that he was named after his previous rider, hated being alone and was terrified of sheep. But I took comfort in believing that his trauma had been processed. Amber arched sceptical eyebrows.
We had bought Smokey from an Irish dealer, who had, in turn, bought him from a professional rider. I’d rung the rider to ask whether Smokey was a suitable horse for a 14-year-old. “Yes,” he said. “He wasn’t going to the top. Ferrari body with a Mini engine.” That was fine by me. When he came to us his ribs and hips jutted out, and he kicked. But we were convinced we would make him happy with good food and plenty of love. One night, soon after he arrived, I found Amber in the stable reading “Lord of the Flies” to him.
The first time Amber took him for a ride, he flipped out on seeing a field of sheep and turned on his tail. He was awkward when his shoes were changed: the farrier wanted to sedate him; I found a new farrier. He had a fit of bucking when Amber’s teacher suggested she “wake him up” with a volley of whip-slaps. On the way home Amber vowed never to do it again. Once he kicked me in the stomach. In time his behaviour started to settle, but he remained unpredictable. Fear nibbled at my stomach whenever Amber rode him. Sometimes I thought about returning him, but then I’d see how his eyes half-closed and his lip drooped with pleasure as Amber scratched behind his ears, and I knew I couldn’t.
Amber said she wasn’t scared, that they just needed time together. But I knew the statistics. There are double-digit fatalities from horse-riding in Britain each year and riders can expect a serious incident once every 350 hours in the saddle (it’s once in 7,000 hours for motorcyclists).
As the months passed, Smokey grew calmer. He waited at the gate for Amber to feed him and followed her around the field as she picked up his poo. He became the star of her phone’s lock-screen and her Instagram feed. She rode him before school or would rush home to ride in the evening. “I tried to tell him that it would be all right,” she says, “that we could get through this. I just hoped that he could understand me.” As their second event approached, I thought his volatility had dissipated.
It hadn’t. At the next competition – once again on flat ground between fences seven and eight – Smokey slammed on the emergency brakes. This time Amber stayed on, but she couldn’t persuade him to finish the course. Smokey’s eyes bulged, his breath was fast and jagged. He began to relax only when he was back at the trailer.
The vets, trainers and horsemanship manuals all suggested that Amber and Smokey work at their relationship, but there are no couples’ counsellors for horses. Amber wasn’t surprised that the psychic hadn’t helped, but I was determined to find a way to make Smokey better. And so we plunged deep into the wacky world of alternative remedies.
I once heard a champion trainer extol the miraculous properties of the “black box”. The device was invented in the early 20th century by Albert Abrams, an American physician, for a therapy called “radionics”. Abrams believed he could treat diseases and injuries at a distance by manipulating energy waves. In 1924, Scientific American described radionics as “at best…an illusion. At worst…a colossal fraud”.
Nearly a century on, the black-box business is still booming. Ali, my pony-club friend, told me of a practitioner in Cornwall who had soothed her daughter’s horse. I know a woman who’s convinced that a course of radionics eased her irritable bowel syndrome; some people seek its assistance with getting pregnant. Practitioners use a “witness” from the patient – usually hair – and its errant energies are apparently “harmonised” in a black box. The initial diagnosis costs £45. I sent off ten of Smokey’s tail hairs.
Nothing changed. Smokey and Amber danced in dressage arenas, flew around show-jumping courses, but when it got to cross country, he balked. I became increasingly desperate. At competitions, I found myself discussing the relative merits of horse therapists with people sitting next to me. Most, like us, spent every spare penny on their horses. They would walk through snow with holes in their boots so their horses could have new shoes. And almost all of them, I discovered, had at some point put their rationality aside and spent money they could ill afford on a kooky healer. Even the equestrian elite succumbed to it. At the Cheltenham Literary Festival, the wife of William Fox-Pitt, winner of three Olympic medals, talked of how his horse had told an animal communicator that “he didn’t like dressage and just wanted to hunt”. I nodded, along with much of the audience.
The lives of man and horse have been intertwined for six millennia. In the Copper Age, they were domesticated by the Botai people, who lived east of the Urals. In horses they found strong, loyal and biddable partners. Ever since, humans and horses have worked, lived and fought together. Around 350BC Xenophon, a Greek historian and soldier, wrote a treatise on horsemanship instructing readers “to understand the horse, and encourage his trust, rather than subduing and dominating him by terror”.
Until recently, most zoologists argued that animal behaviour was entirely driven by instinct: fear, lust or hunger. Yet many people who lived close to horses believed their mental world was more expansive. In 1904 Wilhelm von Osten, a German nobleman, taught a stallion called Clever Hans to tap out answers to maths problems with his hooves at public demonstrations.
Not everyone was convinced. Oskar Pfungst, a psychologist, observed that whenever Hans reached the correct answer, Von Osten would appear to relax and peer up at Hans from under his hat. Without his owner in sight, Hans failed the questions. Pfungst reckoned that Hans was responding to Von Osten’s signals. Yet though Hans was not an arithmetical prodigy, he did have an undeniable ability to decipher human body language, a trait that science had failed to acknowledge.
A more sympathetic understanding emerged in the 1930s with the founding of ethology – the study of animal behaviour. Ethologists observed animals in the wild and voiced ideas that, at the time, seemed radical. They believed that animals had minds – memories, judgments, emotional bonds with their young and the ability to solve simple puzzles. Research showed that the neighing and tweeting of animals were replete with meaning. Occasionally creatures revealed abilities that seemed all too human. In the 1970s Gordon Gallup, a psychologist, devised the mirror test, where a mark was put on the face of an animal. If it recognised itself in the mirror, Gallup theorised, then it would try to rub it off. Although most species failed the test, a number passed, notably female apes, that also turned around and appeared to use the mirror to check the size of their bums.
The ultimate leap was determining whether animals are conscious in the way that humans are (though the definition of consciousness is, at best, amorphous). The answer is still disputed, but in 2012 a group of prominent neurologists signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which “unequivocally” asserted that all mammals and birds have the same structures in their brain that generate a sense of self in humans. In other words, animals have a biological basis for consciousness.
It has become increasingly clear that we should judge animals on their own terms. It isn’t useful for most creatures to look in the mirror – nor, if they do, to care about a mark on their face. Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist, observed that though squirrels can’t count they can remember exactly where they’ve hidden thousands of acorns, a feat that would probably stump the World Memory Champion. When Kandula, a young elephant in Washington Zoo, saw a piece of fruit hanging out of reach on a tree, he shunted a tyre over and climbed on it to claim his prize. What matters, De Waal says, is knowing an animal’s Umwelt, the unique environment in which it lives, its subjective world, present and past.
We started to learn something of Smokey’s history. His breeder sent us photos of him as a foal in Ireland, when he was known as Murphy. The professional rider called him Imp. The dealer we bought him from rechristened him Jack after the rider. Many people warned us that changing a horse’s name was bad luck. Smokey was on his fourth.
The professional rider kept a large establishment of around 50 horses. Smokey may have got lost in the crowd. We learned that at an early event, Smokey had refused a jump and picked up 20 penalties, a rare blot on a rider’s record. He was taken to two more competitions and then sold to an Italian. According to his breeder, she sent him back because she couldn’t get him round a course. We bought him soon after.
From conversations with a number of former grooms from the professional rider’s yard, I learned that life there centred on success. Horses were judged according to their performance in competition. If they came up short, they were disciplined – at home by strong jabs in the sides with the rider’s long spurs; at events whacked with the wrong end of the whip. A year after we got Smokey, we watched the professional rider on TV as he competed at a prestigious competition and saw him repeatedly use the whip on two horses. He was given an official warning. Amber went straight to the field to give Smokey a hug.
Amber was determined to conquer his fear with love. She put aside competing and spent the winter bonding with him. Smokey’s mood appeared to lift. His liquid black eyes looked less wary. I even felt safe enough to take him out for hacks on my own. We began to think that the name change and his new life had blotted out any bad memories. Horses are sensitive to humans, a trait they share with several species. Deer, for example, have been known to differentiate between cars driven by hunters and forest rangers.
To make sure Smokey was in peak physical shape for the new season, we consulted Wendy Vaughan, a local equine physiotherapist. She found nothing physically wrong, but thought that from the way he clenched his jaw and swished his tail, that he was mentally tense. She suggested reiki.
As with many alternative therapies, there is no evidence that reiki is effective. Developed in Japan in the early 20th century, it supposedly works by a practitioner laying hands on a patient to create a free flow of energy. Smokey wasn’t immediately convinced. At first he tried to bite and kick Vaughan as she touched him. But by the third session, he let her rest her hands on him and seemed to sigh. Other ponies gathered round and began to nod off. Even our dog fell asleep.
Reiki appeared to have subdued Smokey’s anxieties. Spring came again and eventing restarted. At a competition in Devon, Smokey and Amber performed their best dressage test to date and jumped clear round the show jumping. They shot out of the starting box at the cross-country course and soared over seven fences. And then, as I was running to catch up, I saw Smokey grind to a halt. There was the now-familiar crack and Amber lay on the ground.
For the first time, Amber admitted she was scared of him: “I don’t want to do it again,” she said. I asked her instructor what we should do. “Consult a lawyer,” she replied. Instead I contacted another horse psychic, this one in New Zealand.
Many scientists wield the term “anthropomorphism” to deride anyone who describes the actions of animals in human terms. But people who work with horses believe that they are emotional creatures. “If we get the animal’s emotions right, we will have fewer problem behaviours,” says Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and expert on animal welfare. Grandin spends much of her time outdoors among livestock. In her bestselling books she argues that animals have feelings and memories. To understand horses, she says, we need to think about both the evolutionary experience of the species and the history of the individual steed.
Horses evolved on open plains, ready to flee danger. “Fear is the main emotional system that causes behaviour problems in horses because horses are much higher-fear than many other species,” writes Grandin. She reckons that horses have hyper-specific memories connected to fear. She worked with one that was afraid of black cowboy hats – but had no problems with black baseball caps or white cowboy hats. According to Grandin, “a fear memory can have two causes. The first is a past abusive experience and the other is introducing a new thing…too quickly.” I wondered if something had happened to Smokey on the far reaches of a cross-country course. And, if it had, whether he could get over it.
Grandin advises against punishing frightened horses but her empathetic approach has not been widely adopted. Horses that won’t load onto trailers are often whipped; those that chew the stable door may be subjected to correctional neck straps or bars. But typically the symptom is treated rather than the underlying cause of stress.
Amber would never try to manage Smokey with violence. But she had no idea why the cross-country course struck him with fear – or what to do about it. Despite her best
attempts, she can’t talk horse.
Suze, the animal communicator from New Zealand, was reassuringly busy and it was a few weeks before our scheduled appointment. Since the Devon debacle Smokey had grown recalcitrant again. When Amber took him cross country he stopped dead in the middle of a field. She fell off, rotating her pelvis. We gave him a month off to decompress in a field while we tried this one last avenue.
We spoke to Suze by Skype to hear the result of her chat with Smokey (for which they had not needed cyber channels). In a soft Kiwi accent, she gave us a brief account of Smokey’s aches and pains, before turning to his feelings. “He kept saying that you weren’t listening to him,” she said. “You need to take things more slowly.” Above all, he feared underperforming, she said. “I asked what he liked doing most,” she continued with a laugh. “He loves galloping round the field bucking and farting.”
We laughed too. But as she talked, things started to make sense. Like Grandin, Suze has lived with horses. She talked about Smokey as a complex emotional being who wanted to be recognised as such: “When I told him that you’d said you wanted him to know that you would never harm him, he replied: ‘not listening is harm’.”
It suddenly occurred to me that I had focused so much on what we saw as his betrayal of Amber’s trust, that I hadn’t thought about betraying his. By seeing him as a vehicle for Amber’s dreams, we were ignoring his emotional needs and fears. His supposed behavioural problems all related to our demands. We were trying to persuade Smokey to do something quite unnatural: leave his herd and jump man-made fences with a metal bit in his mouth and a rider on his back. Whatever it was that Suze thought she was hearing, the emotions she described rang true. I felt tears running down my face and looked at Amber, who was also crying. “It’s OK,” Suze said. “Horses teach us so much about ourselves.”
After a month off Smokey seemed calmer. He and Amber anchored the winning team at the National Schools’ show-jumping championship. But afterwards, Amber confided that she never wanted to take him cross country again. “It’s not fair on him,” she said. When I emailed Suze with an update, she replied: “I checked in with Smokey and he said he doesn’t want to hurt Amber. But when he feels overwhelmed, he isn’t in conscious control of his actions and he feels agitated about scaring Amber.”
It had taken nearly two years, and a journey into the weird world of outlandish remedies, to see what was right in front of us. Horses are not machines. Like us, they have distinct emotional needs that, in many cases, we can neither understand nor satisfy. And for us the crazy therapies fulfilled an emotional role too: they were an expression of our love for Smokey – and my love for Amber – when the conventional realm failed to offer any solutions.
With a serious face one evening, Amber said: “I can’t do it anymore. I think he needs a fresh start.” And so we made the heart-wrenching decision to find a new owner for Smokey. Someone who would listen to him patiently – and who has no interest in making him jump the eighth fence.•