Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The horse worshipers

I am endlessly fascinated with animal behavior.  Besides having been a pet owner for more or less my entire life, I have been a fanatical birdwatcher for years.  Beyond this, though, I just think the interactions of the non-human species with which we share the planet are interesting from the standpoint of evolutionary biology and neuroscience -- two areas of biological science that are intrinsically awesome.

It may be because of this that I tend to react with revulsion toward an all-too-common human tendency, which is to treat non-human animals as if they were something other than they are.

This can take many forms, and they are not all equally bad.  Our anthropomorphizing of pets is usually fairly harmless, and I've fallen into that trap, myself; what dog owner out there has looked into those loyal, liquid eyes and not thought, at least for a moment, that Rover is far more intelligent than he really is?  It's understandable, particularly since dogs are highly social animals who have been selectively bred for millennia to be responsive to humans.  It'd be surprising if we didn't by this time have dogs who were capable of eliciting this reaction in us.

It can lead to problems, however, when this natural and rather innocent tendency leads us to treat animals in (*ironic word choice alert*) inhumane ways.  I've seen more than one obese, unhealthy dog whose owner insisted on feeding it, both in quantity and quality, as if it were human.  But there's even worse than that; in our determination to make non-human animals into something other than they are, we ignore the (interesting) reality and create a (dangerous) fiction surrounding them.

We, in effect, create a modern-day mythology, analogous to our distant ancestors' imbuing of animals with magical powers.

It's not just domestic animals that we do this to.  The people in Tuesday's post who thought they were magically in touch with whales are examples of this phenomenon.  (One reader posted a comment wondering why woo-woos think that only the charismatic megafauna have mystical powers -- why they try to connect to the Wolf Spirit and the Whale Consciousness, but no one tries to create a telepathic link to, say, a chicken.  It's a good question, although I must say that it would be entertaining to watch someone try.)

I was sent a particularly egregious example of this whole phenomenon yesterday by a frequent reader and contributor to Skeptophilia.  Entitled "Equinisity Retreats: A Transformational Journey," this website describes a ranch in British Columbia where horses are... more than just horses:
Our Sacred Land is home to a herd of free roaming horses, llamas and our resident Buddha, Tesoro the bull. The 320 acres of enchanted forests, hills, lakes, rivers of underground crystals and magnificent views, is an energetic matrix for personal transformation through higher consciousness, universal love and connection to all life...  Equinisity Retreats are transformational journeys hosted by Liz Mitten Ryan, Author, Artist and Animal Communicator and her herd of equine higher beings.
Now, I will be up front with you; although I've been around animals my whole life, I am not a horse person.  I have ridden a horse exactly once, a patient, gentle old guy named Tonto on whom I sat for an hour's beach ride in Montauk fourteen years ago.  That's it: my one and only contact with horses.  I have, however, a friend who is a passionate equestrian, with whom I have had many conversations on the topic.  She understands that horses are, first and foremost, herd animals, who have evolved for millions of years to interact with each other and with members of other species in the ways evolution molded them.  In their original habitat, they are highly social animals, but are also prey; any interaction with them has to be predicated on that understanding.  And like any social animal, they have unique gestures, signals, and modes of non-verbal communication that you must understand in order to interact with a horse without its either running away from you or kicking you into the middle of next week.

But her understanding of horses is based on science, not on wishful thinking about their being "spiritual masters."  She studies, appreciates, and loves horses; she doesn't worship them.  On the other hand, listen to the way Liz Mitten Ryan talks about the interactions with her "equine higher beings":
These spiritual retreats offer re-connection, re-vitalisation and healing, dispelling illusion, shifting consciousness and tuning and raising personal and universal vibration...  Untainted by human mass mind consciousness, this perspective provides a life-changing understanding of the enlightened journey. You are invited to rest, reconnect, and heal with the Land and the Herd. Tune and raise your vibration through the powerful crystals of Gateway and healing sessions with the Herd; learn to see vortices, feel and see auras, and connect and communicate with all life.  Learn animal and communication with all life through journaling, dowsing, opening to channel and trusting and refining your innate abilities.
Now, I'm not claiming that what she's doing is in any way detrimental to the animals.  From what I could tell from the website, the horses are probably well cared for.  But her selling point -- that somehow, she is allowing you to learn animal communication through some kind of mystical contact with equine "higher beings" -- is absurd.  Be that as it may, if you wanted to, you can even go there to get certified to lead "horse healing sessions" yourself:
Horses are coming forward as teachers and healers in programs everywhere. Here at Gateway 2 Ranch we have pioneered the Equinisity Programs and have interest from people all over the world who would like to incorporate these at liberty horse healing programs that are producing miraculous results. 
The most miraculous result for the owners of Equinisity is that there are people who are willing to shell out $6,800 to take the training.

On some level, I get why people do this sort of thing.  Horses are beautiful, majestic animals.  But they are animals, not "spiritual beings," and are far less intelligent than humans.  Worshiping them as if they are "higher beings" that are "enlightened" and can allow you to see vortices and auras is, simply, false, and taking people's money on this pretext is unethical at best.

Once again, the reality is far more interesting (not to mention far cheaper).  Most places in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe are within a reasonable drive of a place where you can learn to ride and to interact with horses, if that's what you want to do.  And learning about how the behavior of horses (and every other animal in the world) has been driven by evolutionary pressures will help you to see why horses do what they do, in their interactions both with humans and with their herdmates.  In the long haul, you will learn more than you would by going to British Columbia to have a "spiritually transformative experience" involving a made-up view of animal nature.

As usual: learn some science.  Learn some facts.  Allow yourself to be awestruck at how cool the biological world actually is, even if it forces you to abandon your mythology.


  1. This one seems reasonably harmless. While it's a bit overpriced, people can find value in getting away from it all for a while and playing with animals, even if the horses are just horses. At least they're not saying the horses will cure your cancer. Clearly just a way to make people happier by relieving them of that extra money which is weighing them down and distracting them from spiritual attainment. Practically a public service, in fact.

    Plus, I now understand the saying, "Do not walk behind the Buddha."

  2. universal vibration...
    energetic matrix...
    enlightened journey...
    powerful crystals...
    vortices... auras...


    "Come and enjoy the universal vibrations your brain will feel when you energetically apply your own head-matrix to a laminated particle-board surface. An enlightened journey awaits. Vortices, auras, and powerful crystal shapes will flash, pop, and fizzle in your field of view.

    Come, apply your head to a desk today!"

  3. As a long-time-ago rider and lover of horses, I appreciated a teacher whose first suggestion about understanding horse behavior was to remember that horses know that they taste good to almost everyone. Second lesson: they are very amenable to the idea that someone is in charge, usually not them.

  4. In my limited experience, the kind of people who get sucked into these things are not hurting for money in the first place. Anybody who has every been near a horse for 30 minutes can tell that they know that they consider being eaten is a possibility at every moment. In fact, it seems they're main concern, perhaps behind the mint in your pocket. You would think being anthropomorphized intelligent spirit conduits or whatever they are would know that they are "top dog" in upstate new york, yet my lumbar are realigned every time my dad's horse sees a butterfly during the long shadow hours because he thinks a pleistocene predator is jumping him. I have little empathy for those who would spend that kind of money for the "privilege" of being near a horse. I love em, by the way, but they're dumb.