It’s easy—too easy, in fact—to look around ourselves these days and ask: “What’s gone wrong with the world? Is everyone on the planet crazy?” In just recent days, we witnessed the shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and the killing of innocent Sikhs in a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. There’s the government-led and sectarian killings in Syria. And NASA just recently reported that nearly sixty percent of Greenland’s icepack melted in less than four days and that the disappearance of the polar ice caps is proceeding at a much faster rate than anyone predicted. So what is really going on and what has gone wrong? The answer: the predatory attitudes and solutions that helped us as a species to be so successful for the last one hundred thousand years are now out of date. It’s time to start thinking more like prey and less like predators.
To understand the differences between prey and predator there is simply no better place to turn than to the partnership between horses and humans. In fact, it is a magnificent paradox that the super—über—predator of the planet is able to team up with the stereotypical prey animal, the horse.
We succeeded as nomadic hunters working in packs or tribes. All hunting—from the Kalahari tribesmen to the alliances in a global conflict, or from spear fishing to commercial seine fishing—all depends on language. The ultimate expression of our evolution is our highly complex verbal abilities to communicate. Language became our forte. But with language becoming so predominant in our development, the left hemisphere of the brain (where language function is housed) also took over.
We developed an internal voice—what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio called “the autobiographical self.” It separates us from the world around us because we must register our own internalized dialogue (i.e., “here’s what I’m thinking”) as distinct from what is going on outside of ourselves (i.e.”here’s what I’m saying or here’s what I’m hearing”).
Another by-product of our success as predators is that we are very reward-driven in our behaviors. We want something. Chocolate. A raise. A sportscar. More energy. More consumption. More power. We developed an enormous anticipatory drive that is always searching for something else to satisfy its endless yearning. It’s the same reason we can get a dog to play “fetch” a hundred consecutive times or get him to jump even higher for an extra piece of hotdog. The dog is like us, he always wants something.
Now compare that with a prey animal like the horse. Almost no verbal output. Why? Because making noises helps predators locate where you are. So horses evolved a nonverbal language, one that is based on reading the energy in each other’s body language and posture. So a horse has to learn to listen and observe. A dominant horse stands differently, positions himself differently, than a timid one or a more junior horse. And then there’s the herd. Horses are constantly yearning for a herd. Even if it is only partnering with their owners, horses have to have a sense of belonging to a herd because it is what gives them a sense of security. They have a yearning to be together. A lone horse on the savanna, without its herd, was a dead horse. Finally, prey animals have a different reward system. They’re not interested in acquiring toys, burying bones, stockpiling cash, or hoarding hay. They live in the moment. If they have what they need right now, they are content. Their idea of heaven is to be left in peace, without threats, in the company of a few close herd mates and family. In other words, their notion of a reward is closer to what we might term tranquility. One last observation: ninety-five percent of the conflicts between one horse and another horse will end non-violently. Ninety-five percent of the conflicts between horses and human end in violence being perpetrated on the horse.
Horses do not rely on verbal communication. Instead they depend on interpreting the emotional energy and intention they see in other horses as well as in their trainers and handlers. They “read” what it is we humans are after. They use their intuition to guide their responses. In that sense, horses resemble right-brain creatures. We have many of the same instincts lying dormant in our non-verbal right hemisphere but because it has no “voice”—no language—it is drowned out by the left side of the brain. So where the left hemisphere communicates, the right interprets. Where the left side thinks “me,” the right side evokes “we.” Where the left side can analyze and calculate, the right brain grasps and responds. Where the left seeks reward and distinction, the right seeks peace and collaboration.
So why turn to the horse in these troubled times? Because they make us think with our right brains rather than our lefts. Because being around horses teaches us that there are distinctly different solutions to problems than the direct, predatory reactions we have so frequently. We can learn to share assets the way a herd of horses looks upon an open pasture as a communal resource. We can learn to be less acquisitive and develop more of an attitude of stewardship. Finally, if twelve hundred pound creatures can figure out how to get along without resorting to brutal displays of physical strength and might, can’t we figure out how to do it too?
Being around animals is a glorious way to see how nature has tried to solve the problems of identity, communication, and security. Animals engage us and challenge us to see the world through their eyes if we are to successfully train and husband them. And, along the way, we learn a little about ourselves and a little bit about different ways of being. I would submit to you that one of the things that is going wrong with the world today is that there are too many predators on the planet holding to their predatory ways. So the way to ensure that your position or belief system is upheld is not to kill those who disagree with you. Nor does it mean that you keep consuming fuels, forests, and oceans in a ceaseless (and now surely suicidal) quest to acquire. Motivational speaker and psychologist Wayne Dyer wrote: “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” One thing we can all agree on is that is time for things to change. So perhaps we need to look at the world more like prey and less like predators.