The Horse as an Archetype for Transformation

By Blair McKissock


There are certain times in life when a single concept comes to you over and over again as if to say, “Here is something to pay attention to!” It can come to you in a way that is personal to your collective experience or a priori knowledge, and may not make sense to others but strikes a chord deep within your subconscious that causes you to tilt your head slightly as if listening to a far off sound that catches your attention yet you struggle to hear it. The word “resonate” comes to mind.  If you are on a seeker’s path, the horse may resonate with you as the embodiment of desire and will of one’s life.  The archetype of the horse comes up throughout history as a metaphor for the psyche.  They have evolved side by side with humans, and we have created a very unique relationship with them.  It may be that they represent this idea of abandon and wild freedom while at the same time something we try to control.  As we take a walk through history through the lens of the horse archetype, see what resonates with you, and how the horse might be part of our journey of self-discovery.
If we take a look into antiquity we see one of the first examples appear in the story of the Bhagavad Gita where we find Arjuna and Krishna on the verge of war.  On each side, we can envision warriors with their war mounts stamping and snorting anticipating the charge.  Some warriors sit astride their horse, and some rein in their steed from the chariot.  This scene represents will and desire; something that we as humans must overcome in order to attain the higher divine characteristics we are searching for.  In the story, Arjuna has a variety of powerful steeds to pull his chariot; these can be a symbol for the senses that one must gain control over.  He has battle armor representing the mind or a false sense of protection; and then he is joined by Krishna who is his Higher Self.  In most representations of this scene in the Mahabharata, Arjuna is not holding the reins of the horses.  We see that Krishna of God holds the reins as a symbol of man’s surrender to a higher power.  
In another Vedic text known as the Upanishads, we see the chariot again as the analogy for the human soul.  In this example, the horses are again the representation of the senses, but the reins become the mind.  The chariot symbolizes man’s journey or quest for higher meaning.  In the Katha Upanishad, chapter 3, “Know the self as a rider of the chariot, and the body as simply the chariot. Know the intellect (or soul) as the charioteer, and the mind (emotions) as simply the reins. The senses they say are the horses; and sense objects are the path around them. When the Self is yoked with the mind and the senses, the wise call it the enjoyer.” 
When animals become beasts of burden for pulling, a yoke is used around the neck and shoulder to attach them to whatever they are pulling; in essence it is a source of control.  It goes on to discuss how an unrestrained mind or uncontrolled horses leads to another turn on the wheel of reincarnation.  The one develops restraint and a discriminating intellect as the driver of the horses, and “a controlled-mind as the reins” reaches the supreme state.  In the case of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, the young ruler leaves the palace for the first time, and is driven through the streets by chariot, and it is the charioteer who reveals and interprets the nature of suffering.  In some interpretations, the horse is the vehicle by which Gautama comes to the realization, and comes to know man’s suffering, which sets him upon the path of enlightenment.
We can see another reference to the chariot from Plato. In Plato’s psychology, the charioteer becomes the symbol for reason and intellect much like in the Upanishads.  Again Plato’s chariot with driver and horses becomes a representation for the journey “to the heights of heaven and beyond, there to behold ‘divine sights’.”  Plato speaks about man’s quest to overcome the senses with intellect and logical thinking, as opposed to austerity measures of spiritual development.  If you look closely at almost every type of tarot deck, you see the Charioteer in the major arcana, and white horses depicted in the Sun card and the Death card.  Here the horse represents a vehicle for transformation.  The color white in Waite’s deck can also be interpreted as the color of purity and light. On the Chariot card, he holds no reins to control the horses. In the interpretation from Waite, he says, “All that machismo strength or dominion is secondary to the reality that he knows his path is guided by a force far beyond his human capacity to dominate and control.” He states, in this profoundly simple symbolism, that the course of his life is literally out of his hands, and like the example with Krishna, part of the journey is recognizing the illusion of control.
The last example we will explore is that of the Equipage from Gurdjieff.  Gurdjieff sees the man being made up of parts, yet there is only one true “I”. The carriage represents the body.  The horses again become our feelings, emotions, desires, and sensations.  The driver or coachman represents our intellect and the egoic mind. The coachman holds the reins, doing his job of keeping our emotions in check, going in the direction the master tells him to go.  The master is the true self and is the passenger inside the carriage.  If our body is fully integrated and operating on a certain level of consciousness, then communication between master and driver is clear. However, according to Gurdjieff we are all fools, and the coachman cannot hear the master.  Our ordinary consciousness is not even aware that the master exists.  The horses are ill-tempered, and cannot be controlled by the coachman. Our condition is such that our lives are led in a way where we are asleep, unable to distinguish the illusions of reality, and unable to hear the will of the true self.  
The journey toward spiritual fulfillment is mankind’s oldest story.  The horses have been on the journey with us from the very beginning.  Taking part of the metaphor as literal, one can never “control” the horse.  Control is the illusion.  We are just lucky if we have not gotten hurt, or if a horse has not bitten or kicked us. When we take the higher path and open our awareness up. we see the horse as a partner on that journey toward self-discovery.  We let go of the reins, realizing we don’t need them to ride the horse, or to steer the chariot.  There have been more and more examples of people accomplishing higher levels of skill in all disciplines from dressage to jumping and reining without the bridle.  It changes the entire dynamic of the relationship, as there is more trust between the human and the horse, as the human has let go of the need for control, and has instead enlisted a willing partner using a different level of communication that has always been outside the mainstream.  For them it may not be that they are seeking a spiritual awareness, yet I have no doubt that the horse is trying to take us there.
Blair McKissock, MSEd, RYT is a speaker and author on experiential and nature-based learning.  She loves sharing the amazing world of equine-assisted learning and therapies through her work at Strides to Success in Plainfield, Indiana. You can learn more about coaching, OmHorse mounted yoga sessions, and upcoming equine-assisted workshops at

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