During breaks from Princeton, instead of lounging on the couch, I can be found somewhere on Route 95, clutching a Ziploc bag full of carrots and heading to northern Massachusetts with my mother. It’s our ritual—a necessary pilgrimage to visit the members of our family who are too big to live at home with us, but no less loved for it.
We wind down tree-dressed roads, past New England farmhouses and eventually pull up beside a green and white barn. I climb out of the car, my boots ringing out on the hay-strewn concrete, and am met by a soft whicker—a low-pitched, welcoming hum. Rounding the corner I spot Mika, the elegant and eccentric grey mare who has been a part of my life for five years now. In one sense, I suppose you could say I own her, but I prefer to think of it as a friendship forever in progress.
Mika’s nose and slender ears point in my direction as I approach her stall. I reach up to trace a familiar path over her soft, dusty coat with my palms, but my fingertips creep too close to her ears and instantly, she pulls her head away. Towering overhead, giraffe-like, she gazes at me questioningly with her intelligent, deep brown eyes. For some horses, ears are forbidden territory, no matter how many times you’ve earned their trust. And when it comes to Mika, things always have to be on her terms.
In the wild, an alpha mare, not a stallion, is responsible for the safety of the herd. Many riders thus avoid mares for their notorious strong will and hormonal moods. Though I had owned mares as a child, I don’t think I ever really understood the old saying, “tell a gelding, ask a mare” until Mika. My mother often jokes that as two stubborn alphas, Mika and I are the perfect fit. But in the past, I became frustrated and even frightened by her quirky behaviors – some of which were so severe as to make her near impossible to ride at times, even dangerous.
I pause, lower my hands to my sides, avert my eyes to the ground and wait patiently, as I know I must. Mika blinks, widens her nostrils, and after several seconds lets out a long sigh, releasing the breath she has been holding in. Her velvety muzzle twitches and her neck relaxes. Her head sinks down until it’s in line with my chin. Finally granted permission to enter the no-touch zone, I scratch her ears, and her feathery eyelashes flutter, half-closed.
Whether I’m on the ground or in the saddle, Mika is a mirror for my mood. Without the human urge to explain away or hide the way she feels, she is painfully honest. She reacts to me exactly the way I am in the moment, and can pick up on my irritability or sadness more quickly than I can. My emotions transmit through my tone of voice, or the tiniest tension in my arms or legs, and she reflects them back to me without fail.
The years of caring for her, riding her and competing with her have shed light on the entire spectrum of my emotional character. Her stubbornness, hypersensitivity and unpredictability have brought out – and sometimes still do – deep feelings of shame, anger, self-doubt and fear. But in learning to communicate with her, I’ve also discovered a capacity for patience and confidence in myself that I could never have found otherwise. As a creature without ulterior motives, Mika has helped me to become more aware of my tendency to hold on to anxiety and frustration – not just in riding, but in all areas of my life. It’s safe to say I still struggle, but she has forced me to own up to the implications of my feelings on those around me, and try to let negativity pass me by.
From the lows of terrifying falls, desperate tears and tense miscommunications, to the highs of galloping and soaring over four-foot jumps together in perfect balance, as if one, Mika has challenged me to both talk and listen in ways beyond words. I’ve learned how to reassure with the touch of a hand, the slightest tilt of my torso or squeeze of my heels. I’ve learned how to read subtle cues—a swish of the tail, a flick of an ear—to figure out how Mika is feeling, but also—in my own tense elbows or clenched jaw—how I am feeling.
Growing up with horses, and other animals, has developed a large part of my moral character—and I can only imagine what I could learn from a chimpanzee or a dolphin. From cats, I’ve learned to find calmness and stillness. From dogs, I’ve learned to love and play without self-consciousness. I like to think that the same values of compassion, determination, and empathy I have developed through my animal relationships, also translate into my human relationships.
Anyone who tells you animals can’t feel a vast spectrum of emotions—from joy to jealousy, boredom to melancholy—has clearly never played fetch with a bounding Labrador, or been bucked off by an exuberant young horse on a chilly winter morning. Such a person has never felt the depression and hopelessness of a South African rhino mourning the death of her mate, or the distress in the plaintive, confused meows of a cat whose littermate disappeared and never came back.
Their minds aren’t identical to ours, but all sentient creatures tap into the same life force—an ability to feel emotions and respond sensitively to the world—that we do. Rats share their joy through laughter. Alex, the African Grey parrot, learned over 100 words and could carry on an entirely coherent human conversation, forming a deep friendship with his owner. Even fish feel pain from loss, and can learn from watching each other.
I admit, though, that I sometimes have to catch myself when I want to ascribe human-like thoughts or complex justifications to animals. The underlying similarities between humans and other species—no matter how profound or beautiful—aren’t grounds for completely anthropomorphizing. I’m under no illusions that cupboard love defines part of Mika’s relationship with me, but it’s a part of her nature. There’s a reason I always bring that bag of carrots.
We humans like to see ourselves as special—and I suppose, in many ways, we are. Our brains have extra structures that make us uniquely rational and intelligent. But our ability to think makes it harder, not easier, to feel and experience life fully and instinctually. Perhaps this is the greatest blessing of having an animal friend: they help us to reconnect with the parts of us we lose touch with when we rely solely on words to communicate.
As I continue to scratch her ears, I stumble across a sweet spot; Mika tilts to lean her weight into my fingers, almost throwing me off balance. I see soft, kind wrinkles forming at the corner of her eyes, and if horses could purr, I’m convinced she would. I comb my fingers through the tangles of her mane, and gently let my forehead fall to rest against hers to stand in silence. A stillness falls over us, broken only by the feeling of her warm breath on my arm. Next to this huge, powerful and yet gentle creature, I can find a kind of peace that goes soul deep.