Black Horse Wisdom- Linda Kohanov

Many people associate the black horse with evil knights and renegades, but this universal archetype represents something more profound than reckless defiance. From the perspective of the Mexican aristocracy, Zorro rode like the devil on his magnificent black steed. The masked warrior, however, was acting on behalf of repressed populations, reclaiming freedom and dignity from a corrupt, narcissistic regime.

And so it is whenever we ‘re forced to face what the ego is so quick to reject as “the shadow.” The shadow is essentially a catchall for what we’ve suppressed through social conditioning. According to Robert A. Johnson, author of Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, “the ordinary, mundane characteristics are the norm. Anything less than this goes into the shadow. But anything better also goes into the shadow! Some of the pure gold of the personality is relegated to the shadow because it can find no place in that great leveling process that is culture.” 

Learning to distinguish between truly destructive impulses and the “pure gold” hidden in the nether regions of the psyche is part of the skill involved in becoming fully empowered. The call to explore this unknown potential often comes in the form of a dark horse who can literally turn into your worst nightmare if you refuse the journey she represents. 

In dreams and myths from around the world, the black horse heralds the reassertion of qualities difficult for the well­-groomed persona to handle, revolutionary insights and energies that can’t be readily tamed by the rules of polite society. To those courageous yet humble souls who ultimately aspire to ride her compassionately and consensually, this explosive force becomes a vehicle for expanded consciousness, inspiration, and innovation.

To those who suppress or ignore her talents, fear her passion, or try to harness her energy without integrity, she becomes an impetuous and compulsive element, inflicting mood swings and bizarre cravings on people who once seemed the epitome of good sense and reason. Cultures with a misogynistic bent are quick to demonize the black horse. The Bedouins, for instance, were among those inclined to slaughter black foals at birth. The fact that these male-dominated Islamic tribes exhibited a savage fear of dark horses would not have surprised Carl Jung. His experience with clients led him to recognize images of black horses as manifestations of long-neglected feminine wisdom rising up from the collective unconscious.

One dream he found particularly fascinating involved a magician and a dying king. The sickly monarch wanted to be buried in one of the ancient tombs scattered throughout his kingdom and finally chose the grave of an ancestral princess. But when the tomb was opened and the young virgin’s remains were exposed to the light of day, her bones changed into a black horse that galloped into the desert. The king’s magician raced after the enchanted creature. After a journey of many days and seemingly endless trials, he crossed the desert and came to the grasslands on the other side. There he discovered the rarest of treasures – the mare had led him to the lost keys of paradise.

In Jung’s estimation, the dream of the ailing king held significance far beyond the personal needs of his client. It was a richly symbolic myth that had emerged fully formed from the archetypal realm, simultaneously predicting the death of purely masculine forms of leadership and pointing to the resurrection of a long-buried feminine principle capable of moving future generations toward a more balanced existence.

As Jung himself once wrote, “Enlightenment is not a matter of imagining figures of light, but of making the darkness conscious.” Much of this work involves digging through vast graveyards of wisdom forced underground and left for dead. The black horse rises from the remains of an ancestral virgin, a pure being whose innate intelligence never matured under the patriarchal leanings of civilization. Inadvertently rediscovered, she springs to life when the first hint of light touches her bones. This part of the vision is crucial to distinguishing black horse wisdom from other, potentially malevolent aspects of the shadow. 

The magician, the part of the dreamer most open to the engines of existence, is the only member of court compelled to follow the night- haired mare. Luckily, he’s too wise, stunned, or inexperienced to bend her to his own limited will and imagination. Instead, he tracks her, plunging ever deeper into that proving ground of saints and mystics, the desert, an expansive vista where everything is stripped down to its essence, where the habits of logic evaporate in the trances of an unbridled sun, where the shadows are suddenly welcoming, nourishing, life-saving. Like so many saints and mystics, the magician is seasoned through his trials and finally rewarded with the ultimate treasure. 

The black horse doesn’t draw the magician a map or lecture incessantly on how to find the lost keys of paradise. She embodies the innocence, instinct, spirit, and vitality capable of leading him to the prize. And the trip back to the Source is no family vacation. 

Black horse wisdom challenges us to step off the well-worn paths of civilized thought. It is wisdom shrouded in mystery, wisdom that’s felt more deeply than it can ever be explained, wisdom we often unfortunately ignore, until some difficulty in life opens us up to other possibilities. This universal archetype champions knowledge rejected by the mainstream: instinct, emotion, intuition, sensory and extrasensory awareness, and the human-animal partnership associated with tribal cultures. It is, like the ancestral virgin, an innately pure, non-jaded, spirited, yet immature source of knowledge neglected for so long that it initially lacks the ability to interface directly with the modern human mind.

Science may never be able to dissect this wisdom, to bring it into the light of conscious understanding, but through the metaphor of the horse, and through real-life interactions with these animals, we can learn to track these mysteries, maybe even ride them, if we develop the right balance of trust, discernment, skill, and abandon.

Literally learning to ride a horse can act as a catalyst for dramatic shifts in consciousness, reinvigorating instincts that lie dormant in people forced to sit dutifully at desks for much of their adult lives. Moving with a being who has not been conditioned by human thought patterns, prejudices, and social taboos can awaken intuitive, nonverbal, body-centered wisdom. At the same time, respectful interactions with horses can open up other worlds of creativity and insight, including realms associated with the collective unconscious, the spirit world, death, rebirth, and tragedy. There’s a paradoxical element to this wisdom. What looks like darkness, hopelessness, and inhospitable mystery actually contains the seeds of transformation. 

“To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness,” Johnson warns; “this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents.” 

Those who grew up with rigid styles of riding, for instance, may find that a serious fall from the one horse unresponsive to conventional training techniques plunges them into a particularly troublesome, yet necessary, dark night of the soul. This is black horse wisdom in its harshest guise: a tragedy that holds the gift of expanded awareness. 

If, like the magician, we have the courage and endurance to cross the desert of what we’ve neglected the most in ourselves, the black horse will lead us to those rich and nourishing grasslands on the other side. 

“Our penchant for the light blinds us to the greater reality and keeps us from this larger vision,” Johnson emphasizes. The first half of life is devoted to the cultural process: gaining one’s skills, raising a family, disciplining oneself a hundred different ways; the second half of life is devoted to restoring the wholeness (making holy) of life. One might complain that this is a senseless round-trip except that the wholeness at the end is conscious while it was unconscious at the beginning. This evolution … is worth all the pain and suffering that it costs. The only disaster would be getting lost halfway through the process and not finding our completion. Unfortunately, many Westerners are caught in just this difficult place.”

Ultimately, and ironically, when the black horse pays you a visit, it’s time to claim the majesty – and the mystery – of what it means to be fully human.

Excerpted from Linda Kohanov’s book Way of the Horse: Equine Archetypes for Self Discovery




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Linda Kohanov is a world-renowned speaker, riding instructor, trainer and author whose five books have been translated into multiple languages. In 1997 Linda founded Eponaquest, an equine-facilitated learning program she uses to teach people the skills needed to improve their leadership, assertiveness, personal empowerment, and emotional fitness. Linda and her team have trained over 300 instructors who offer Eponaquest-based programs across five continents.

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