Credit: Emma Kline
Heaven is a state of being and it is also a physical place. I believe this is true. Theologians, mystics, shamans and philosophers believe that living in a state of "grace" guarantees entrance into that mysterious realm and holy place when death ultimately opens the door. Anyone who has ever owned a horse or spent considerable time in their presence will agree that the horse is perhaps one of the purest beings to walk the earth. The horse knows no artifice and is consistent and steady in its interaction with the hierarchy of the herd and in its special bond with humans. This is the epitome of a state of grace. When a horse dies, there is a palpable sense of loss of a great soul or energy. Temple Grandin wrote, "I believe that the place where an animal dies is a sacred one," in her groundbreaking book Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism.
Horses most definitely go to heaven. I know this because I have witnessed the passage. How else can I explain seeing and hearing my daughter's show pony, Blaze, in the pasture twenty minutes before I received the call that he had died of an apparent aneurism 200 miles away? We rescued that pony from the slaughterhouse and he went on to become my daughter's companion and guardian through adolescence. He won too many show ribbons to count and protected her when she fell on a cross-county course. Everyone said it was a "miracle" that he avoided stepping on her during the incident. I believe he came to say goodbye.
How do we explain stories told by the Dakota 38 Memorial Riders about ghost horses seen in the tree lines along the 330-mile route from the South Dakota Lower Brule Indian Reservation to Mankato, Minnesota during the winter storms of December? The annual ride remembers the hanging of 38 Dakota American Indians by order of Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It is not commemoration, it is remembrance, and the spirit horses watch over the riders on this dangerous journey of witness.
How do I illuminate the behavior of my 35-year-old Arab mare when her 29-year-old gelding companion died unexpectedly during a recent May evening? She was observed standing guard with neck arched over the fallen one, and later remained weaving over the same place after his body was removed. Observing a day of what can only be described as "mourning," the old mare eventually picked up her daily routine but consistently avoided the place where the gentle gelding passed. Was she his guardian as he moved on? Did she sense some energy force that remained in the shelter they shared? Did the other horses sense the change? They, too, were observed examining the trail made through the pasture grass after the body was moved to its burial place.
Every young girl who has owned a horse will tell you that horses are steadfast guardians of secrets whispered into necks and manes. I was not "young" when my now old mare came into my life when she was ten years old. My mare, Imari, is also the guardian of many secrets and fears whispered into her strong neck. I do not want her to leave and join her companion, but it will be her decision to leave. As I watch her move about her pasture, I notice that we are physical opposites as we age. She is losing weight from her hips while mine are getting broader. Still, we both step more carefully and with purpose and slowness now.
Sometimes old horses immediately follow their companions in death; it is as if the herd instinct requires that they follow their companion. Would my old mare do the same? I asked Jeff Nelson, my Anishinaabe/Lakota friend and priest, who counseled, "Her decision. When is one's life over? Is it just at death? Yes it is a very sad time. It is also an extremely transformative time. We are all here, then we go home."
A question answered with a question requires meditation and connection with what is unseen and unknown.
While the American West was being stolen during the years of Manifest Destiny, First Nation peoples established a special bond with the Horse Nation. Horses reinforced Native communities during the terrible and futile the fight for Indian lands, and remain an important part of their culture.
None of it makes much "scientific" or even theological sense, but the special energy of the horse is an undeniable fact. Call it what you will: soul, energy or electrical waves that can be measured by machines, something powerful and healing resides within "Suŋkawakaŋ" the HORSE.
Science offers some perspective for those who require grounding in the physical realm.
Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT) pairs people with disabilities, both emotional and physical, in a supervised interaction with horses. Whether someone is living with Down syndrome, paralysis, depression, or autism, research has demonstrated that individuals can benefit through participation in EAAT.
But what about the horse? Is this a two-way street? Are horses sentient? Can they recognize bonds between humans and members of their own species?
The Institute of HeartMath studied this extraordinary "healing" process that many experience in the presence of horses. Is there a way to "prove" the healing power of the horse/human bond? Can the reaction of the horse to the stress of separation from herd mates verify that horses are sentient beings?
Science, belief, and experience can be reconciled.
By measuring changes in heart rate variability (HRV), which is governed by the autonomic nervous system, researchers demonstrated that there is a feedback loop of bi-directional healing that occurs when we are near horses. Using ECG (holter) heart rate monitors and a strict protocol, heart rates of horses and humans in interactive settings showed some interesting results. During a series of five pilot studies examining human to horse, horse-to-horse, horse to a scary object, and horse to an unknown human, the horse's stress level was measured by evaluating heart rhythms.
"The well being of the human and the horse are more important indicators of relationship than whether or not the horse is familiar with the person." In an amazing conclusion, "HRV frequency cycles from the horse influence the human's cycle, but not vice-versa," the study concludes. But the human has responsibility in this bonding process and must initiate goodwill.
HRV can measure that elusive and mysterious sense of well-being that accompanies a positive emotional state. Horse owners know from experience that the presence of a horse can generate feelings of joy, happiness and peace of mind.
Do horses go to heaven? How can a being that generates so much comfort and inspiration be denied immortality? The ancient Greeks had it right. Look deep into a starry sky and watch Pegasus. Sired by Poseidon, he watches over land and sea, a guardian and protector--flying on white wings.