“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
~ Anatole France
I believe that some connections in life are meant to be; they reach into the very essence of our being and provide us with lessons and growth we could never have imagined, and far less achieved, on our own. In the celtic world, the concept of Anam Cara, or soul friend, refers to these deepest of connections. The Christian mystic John O’Donohue popularised the term in his eponymous and beautifully written book. O’Donohue explains exquisitely how Anam Cara takes countless forms, and refers not only to our relationship with other people, but also that with ourselves, the land, and death itself.
I once read, although I don’t know if this is true, that the term originated from the celtic horse tribes of Scotland (possibly the Epidii) and that in its original form, Anam Cara referred to the unique connection between a person and their equine soul friend. Given that I have the honour of sharing my life with an equine soul friend myself and know first-hand the special bond that we can know with horses, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this origin story is true.
Is friendship between people and animals possible? The psychologist in me is wary of anthropomorphising my animal companions, but the girl who has shared her whole life with animals has no doubt that we do. Friendship, in its most basic form, involves mutual trust and affection. I obviously cannot speak for my horse’s experience of the relationship she has with me, but her behaviour certainly suggests that she enjoys my company. She calls to me (and even my car on the drive to the yard) as soon as she becomes aware of my presence, gallops away from other horses in the field to come to me, and seeks gentle mutual grooming behaviours on a daily basis, to name just a few. Being social animals, I would like to believe that horses thrive on the soul friendships with their humans as much as we do, but that is a contentious point of course.
On a side note, I have never believed that I own my animal companions. They are their own beings, with their own their autonomy and integrity. I cannot own another soul. What I do own is the responsibility for their welfare and wellbeing. So when I talk about “my animals”, what I really mean are the animals who share my life and who I have the privilege to care for, but that is a bit of a mouthful to repeat in every second sentence of this post.
This is where I leave the shores of critical thinking entirely and take a plunge into the fluffy waters of personal anecdotes. Palera, my fabulous equine mistress of mischief (or the supersteed as I call her), has been an anchor in my life for almost a decade. She is power and grace personified, and always willing share my joy and carry my worries. Without a doubt, the most important thing she has taught me in my life so far is the true meaning of trust. Themes such as giving others the chance to be trustworthy and giving my trust first have been important steps in building closeness in my life. She is a true soul friend, who knows what I’m feeling long before I do, and I consider myself to be a reasonably aware person. She meets my joyfulness with exuberant bliss and my suffering with compassionate understanding, but without tolerating self-pity.
There is much evidence that having animals in our lives is good for us, and just like people, each individual animal brings something special and unique to any relationship. Horses are powerful beings and not just in their physical presence, which commands respect. In my experience, horses are incredibly gifted at seeing a situation exactly as it is, no more, no less – this coupled with their highly congruent behaviour makes them supreme educators in my mind.
I know that when people connect with animals, incredible things can happen. Through my work, I had the opportunity (and honour!) to offer equine assisted therapy to some of our clients. The whole experience was beyond humbling and involved much learning and growth for all of those involved, myself included. As an experiential approach, equine assisted work provides a safe platform to allow individuals to step into the arena and become aware of their own habitual patterns of behaviour. In that space, horses are both companions and teachers.
Incidentally, if you are interested in healing work with horses in Scotland, please have a look at the beautiful work that Sue and her soul friend Noble are doing in the Scottish Borders!
How about you – tell me, do you have an animal soul friend?