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Zen Horseman

Combining science and spirituality, Dr. Allan Hamilton, author of Zen Mind, Zen Horse, offers tips for strengthening your bond with your horse and becoming a more effective horseman.

By Debbie Moors



“There’s a reason why horses are able to connect so intimately with us, to instantly plumb the depths of our most personal feelings.  And yes, there’s a solid, potent explanation for why these gifted animals know when we need to be saved.” 

-Allen Hamilton, MD, in Zen Mind, Zen Horse.


Have you ever wondered how your horse sometimes seems to know what you’re feeling?

Dr. Allan Hamilton, a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon and a horse trainer, has written a book that connects the science and spirituality of horses like two halves of a whole as he explains how horsemen have much to learn in the presence of horses.

Hamilton works in two worlds:  One world is the clinical, scientific world of medicine; the other is the intuitive, sensing world of horses.  His book Zen Mind, Zen Horse, bridges both worlds and explains how horses, as prey animals, evolved in a way that made them consummate, non-verbal readers of humans.  That uncanny ability for horses to perceive human emotion is a hefty strand in the horse/human bond.

With glimpses at Hamilton’s book and suggestions he offers, we’ll take a look at what we can learn form horses, why they’re able to read even our imperceptible cues, and what we can do to understand and bond with our horses in meaningful ways.



It started with an injury.  Hamilton, who served as a surgeon during Desert Storm in 1990, returned home with a back injury that forced him to give up riding for a full year.  A lifelong horseman, he wasn’t happy to comply with that directive.  In frustration he turned to groundwork with his horses, and that perspective opened up a whole new world of understanding.  He began to communicate with his horses – and see how they perceived him – in new ways.

“I began to see that what was happening with horses was sort of a metaphor for other things.  You can see all of life through horsemanship,” Hamilton says.  And groundwork, he adds, is “one of the best ways for humans to enhance their awareness of non-verbal communication.”  Not just communication with horses, but communication in all aspects of life.  He contends that you can improve your communication and interpersonal skills by interacting with horses.

“Some days they match your mood, and there are other times where they mirror you, and say ‘this is what you look like.’  It’s one of their gifts – they read your body energy and give you a chance to see what you’re putting out.  It’s another level of awareness that they bring,” he says.

Carefully considering non-verbal communication, Hamilton developed a new philosophy with his horses, one that was grounded in science and practiced with spirituality.  And he found ways to combine his work as a healer with his deeper understanding of horses.  Hamilton offers seminars that range from teaching executives how to negotiate (which, he says, is what working with horses is all about) to helping doctors develop sensitive bedside manners.  He offers seminars for veterans, cancer patients, women who’ve left abusive relationships, kids in the juvenile justice system, and people dealing with substance abuse.  All of them, he says, benefit from the lessons horses teach.

For example, his retreat for doctors learning about bedside manners came about when he was at a hospital, doing rounds with a group of young doctors.  “We’d blow into a patient’s room, and he or she would look startled.”  It was, he realized, something he’d never have done when walking into a horse’s stall.  Learning to approach people with calm, respectful body language is a lesson horses teach. 

”Horses,” he says, “are quiet, loving, peaceful sages that are always offering up one more lesson about your self.”


A Matter of Chi

The lessons horses teach us have their basis in science, Hamilton says.  Horses are able to pick up on a person’s emotions, mood, and energy because they’re prey animals that have evolved to read even the subtlest body language.

Yet, behind that science of self-preservation is spirituality.  Hamilton looks at the spiritual beliefs of many cultures, and describes using the Asian concept of Chi.

“Chi conveys a notion of flow…it relates to the vitality of breathing and implies a concept of fundamental vigor,” he says.  “At the same time, it carries undertones of personal willpower and determination.”

He describes Chi at work with horses as their “primary language,” and explains that over millions of years, equids fine-tuned and developed their non-verbal vocabulary.  Their survival as prey animals depended upon it.

So what does that mean for your relationship with your horse?  It’s a basis for understanding.  When you approach your horse from the ground, you’re transmitting information to your horse, even if you aren’t aware of doing so.

In a herd of horses, one horse’s movement – the twitch of an ear or the slightest shift of hips – is “enough to send ripples of energy through all members of the herd,” he says.  That Chi helps keep a herd safe and aware, sometimes over great distances.

“Your horse can feel your energy.  Just thinking about one thing or another changes the energy you’re putting out,” he explains.

Hamilton uses round-pen work as a case in point.

“If I direct my vision to the area slightly behind where the girth would be, the horse drives forward.  All I’m doing is making my eyes move, but the horse senses that.”  And, he says, if your attention drifts away from the horse, he perceives that change and responds accordingly.

“Horses,” he says, “are virtuosos at reading the energy given off by another horse – or a person.  Horsemanship is based on the energetic interaction between horse and trainer.  So to become adept with horses we must change our sensitivity to Chi.


Focus and Attention

According to Hamilton, your own mental state has a great deal to do with your horse’s response.

“Horses provide us with detailed feedback about how adept (or clumsy) we are at feeling energy and moving it.  We learn from our equine partners how to clear our minds.”

He also believes that horses help us to live in the now, and to empty our minds of all the external worries that are plaguing us.  When we do so, “our energetic output suddenly surges.  Our horse begins to respond with greater ease and willingness.”

Hamilton goes on to say that we can take that focus, and turn it into intention, where we “visualize the end result before we begin.”

It may mean visualizing your successful reigning pattern or a clean jump.  By setting that as your intention, you’re able to sharpen your focus, and that clarity transmits to your horse.


Putting It To Work

So how do you apply concepts of Chi and intention to your own horsemanship?

Throughout his book, Hamilton offers exercises and ideas for connecting with your horse, from grooming and leading, to moving your horse from the ground and from the saddle.  Here, Hamilton offers a sampling of exercises for strengthening the relationship with your horse, improving your non-verbal communication, and understanding how to use intention and focus to work more effectively with your horse.


Watch Chi At Work

To see how a horse responds to your intention, head out to a group of horses pastured together.

“Every time riders go out in a pasture, they have something they want to do with their horses,” Hamilton says.  But this time, head out to your horse’s pasture with no halter and no agenda.

“Put a couple of treats in your pocket, take a book, sit under a tree, and just sit peacefully with your horse.  It’s important to periodically try to surprise him by how little you want from him.”

Once the herd relaxes and returns to grazing, randomly select a horse from the herd.

“Get up and start walking toward him.  Envision yourself catching, collecting, and haltering that one particular horse.  Don’t change your mind once you’ve selected a horse, but keep walking straight toward him.  Watch what happens.

The horses you didn’t select, says Hamilton, are likely to let you come close to them without concern.  But the horse you chose may pick up his head and eye you suspiciously because he can feel the energy of your intention focused on him, and on no one else in the herd.  He knows he’s the only one that’s been picked out of the herd, and he detects that in the Chi your body gives off, even from a hundred yards away.

A variation of this exercise:  Spend time with your horse without any expectations or agenda.  Just sit and read and be relaxed.  Watch how the horses will come up to you and bug you when you want nothing from them.  Then they’ll become very curious and want to hang out with you.  Or, extend your “herd” time by taking a sleeping bag and spending a night out together under the stars.


Groom meditatively.  Hamilton follows a careful series of rituals when he grooms his horses, approaching the task as a meditative exercise that allows him to connect with each horse.  He draws inspiration from the Japanese tea ceremony, setting out his tools in a careful order of use, laying out brushes and curries ahead of time, and folding washcloths in careful preparation for the time he’ll spend with his horse.

“I tell myself I’m going to spend 45 minutes grooming as if I’m going to show the horse,” he says.  The meditative quality of his energy helps his horse relax, and clears his mind.


Play hide-and-seek.  Teach your horse to play hide-and-seek.  Take a pocketful of treats to the pasture with you, and “hide” behind a tree or bush, with a goal of getting him to come looking for you.  Whenever he touches you with his muzzle, give him a treat, then head for another hiding place and repeat.


Pay attention to details.  Another somewhat meditative activity is to carefully go through your horse’s equipment, checking for anything that might be dirty, cracked, or over-worn.  Think about how much these tools mean to your horse.  Is the leather as supple as it could be?  Do you need an extra hole for a better fit?  Take time to clean and condition your equipment.


Take the lead.  Begin groundwork with careful attention to leading your horse.  “When you take up the lead, do it with the awareness of creating a connection,” he says.  “Always start with your right shoulder aligned with your horse’s eye.  Depend on your body language to give directional clues.”

Hamilton points out that novices often focus on the ground or on their horse, but a good leader will focus on where he’s going – toward the horizon.  To add challenge to this exercise, try to see if you can take your horse for a walk without a lead rope, using your intention and focus to keep him at your shoulder.  (Just make sure to work within a safe enclosure so your horse is contained if he wanders off from you.)


Breathe to relax.  If you’ve been around your horse when he’s relaxed, you’ve probably heard him sigh and watched him casually cock a hind leg.  Can you induce that same level of relaxation with your breathing?  Horses will often mirror your breathing, and you can practice using your breathing to slow a horse down or create excitement.  Try to see if you can make your breathing audible enough to get your horse to sigh with you.

“I was working with a 2-year-old in the round pen and having a problem getting him to circle right.  He wouldn’t turn inward.  I was trying to get his eye off the rail, and I found that every time I’d give the horse an audible breath, he’d turn and give me both eyes, taking his attention off the rail and transferring it to me,” Hamilton says.


Sing a song.  Hamilton says he often has novice (or nervous) riders sing when they seem to be having a difficult time with their horses.

“They have to take a breath when they sing, and it takes their focus away from trying too hard with the horse,” he says.  By singing, they change the energy they’re directing at the horse and are able to work more effectively.


Face fears together.  “The horse offers us living proof that fear can be overcome by cooperative endeavor,” Hamilton says.  “Fear’s power lies in its ability to make us believe we’re alone, abandoned to the mercy of monsters, beasts, and demons.  To the extent that we discover strategies to overcome that sense of isolation, we find courage.”

Hamilton suggests finding something that your horse is fearful of and working through it together, using three essential points:  Direct your horse’s head as little as possible; distract him with a job or task to do (like making circles or half turns) as much as possible; and, then, once he’s relaxed, let him stand still and soak it in.  Leaving the reins long and soft allows him to use his vision and get a whiff of any scent.  Then circle him again, giving him a task to bring his focus back to you.  Then let him relax.

Let him breathe, and mirror that breathing deeply yourself.  By allowing your horse to alternate his focus on a task and then stand nearer the object or source of his fears, your horse gradually comes to be perfectly relaxed.  He learns that going away from the object is work and standing nearer the object is an opportunity to rest and relax.  Eventually, Hamilton asserts, your horse will choose to rest rather than work and, ultimately, he’ll become curious enough to inspect the object and get totally comfortable with it.

“There’s a certain irony in this partnership:  We seek to improve horses by supplanting their instincts through training, while they inspire us to expand our thinking through intuition.”


Watch for extinction.  “Right before a behavior is about to disappear, there is that behavior,” Hamilton says.  It’s important to recognize what he calls an “extinction burst,” because it often happens right before a horse gives up a behavior you’re trying to eliminate.

It also can precede a horse’s learning of a new behavior.  He’ll seem to be learning something new, then have a setback right before he really becomes solid with what you’re teaching him.  Being aware of those bursts in behavior can help you face some of the frustration you may be feeling while training your horse.


Approach life peacefully.  Finally, says Hamilton, work toward becoming a “gentle soul” to make the journey through life more fulfilling.

“That’s what horses are about,” he says.  “They’re saying to us that you don’t need to be violent to be effective.  You don’t need to be violent with yourself.  Life can be approached in peaceful, tranquil fashion.”