words by Willow Defebaugh
Humans have long shared a unique companionship with horses, which—humans aside—may have altered history more than any other animal.
“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.”
Happy Friday, dear readers. It feels good to be back in your inbox—or feed—after a week of wandering in the windswept wilderness of Patagonia. One morning, my friends and I set out on horseback across grassy plains and winding pathways. It wasn’t an adventurous ride by any means, but I was left silent with wonder even still—for the creature I found myself tethered to, a magnificent gray-speckled mare named Pepper. And more marvelous yet: the evolutionary pathways that led our species to a bond beyond symbiosis, something closer to companionship.
Humans aside, out of every animal in history, horses may have altered its course the most. Imagine all that would be different today had we not found fellowship with them. How many journeys would have been cut short? How many lives would have been culled? How many saved? How many civilizations wouldn’t have been constructed, conquered or crumbled? Our fascination with horses is ancient, dating long before we were riding them: they are the most depicted animal in art from the Stone Age and Western European cave art.
Horse domestication can be traced back to cultures around the world, dating as far back as 5,500 years ago. It is difficult to say where it first originated, though a study published in Nature last year points to Western Eurasia. Between the Black and Caspian seas, its quick spread is believed to be due to two genetic developments in horses of the region: one that gave them a stronger back, and another that made them more docile. It was then, during the Bronze Age, that humans invented the spoked wheel, a pivotal turning point in our species’ evolutionary unfolding.
My intention is by no means to romanticize the domestication of horses, for it is their wildness that makes them equally awe-inspiring. And it is what sets them apart from other animals that our species has grown close to: dogs, cats, and anything else that might be considered a “pet.” Anyone who has looked in the eyes of a horse knows that some ferality will always remain there, which is why communication is so important when riding with them. Maybe they remind us of our own wildness—who we are outside of all our conditioning—the way any friend would.
Humans and horses have developed a language that is unique between our species, as numerous studies have found. Neither human nor equine, neither spoken nor heard, it is a language of embodied synchronicity that is rooted in touch: pressure here, shifts of weight there. Horse-riding pairs spend years attuning to each other, ultimately allowing them to act as one. As Keri Brandt, who has dedicated her research to this communication, puts it: “Horses can help humans develop a different kind of knowledge, one rooted in the body.”
Even in the wild, free of humans, horses are social creatures. They are a rarity among hoofed mammals, living not in large herds, but in small bands of three to 10 individual horses. Perhaps even more interesting is that, within these groups, certain bonds emerge as more important than others: sometimes familial ones, but other times not. Even wild horses, it turns out, make friends. And while we have our ideas about dominant stallions, recent studies have revealed that mares are just as powerful within these groups—and have been seen to work together against stallions.
As we walked along, I placed my palm on Pepper’s back and felt the softness of her hair, the warmth of her body, and I thought about what it is to belong. Not just to a place, but to each other—to the Earth and all the animals we share it with. I thought of what it is to be carried, and the kindness we all have the capacity to carry in return. I thought of all the poems and proverbs that have been written about romance, and how few odes there are to friendship: that rare phenomenon that calls two souls together, irrespective of desire, but nonetheless full of love.