There is an old saying by the desert nomads: ‘The wind of Paradise is the one that blows between the ears of horses’. Thus, riding a horse is like being between heaven and earth.
With my own horses, what I enjoy most is to ride in the vast forest that surrounds my home. I usually take two of the horses from my stable at a time.
I will often ride a beautiful, pure white Spanish horse named ‘Grace’, while the other I lead ‘en dextre’, that is, to my right, guided by a lead rope. My own horse, a stocky dapple grey, with a strong neck and generous croup, named ‘Retive’, is a powerful horse with a sometimes strong and obstinate character.
‘Grace’ canters lightly, swaying elegantly like a dancer, while ‘Retive’ strikes the ground firmly with his hooves. When the weather is stormy, and the wind picks up, and lightning flashes across the sky, we gallop across the meadow, while the rolling of the hooves merge with the roar of thunder.
Of course, these are not just horse rides, but also involve a deep personal connection between horse and rider. For as you will know, horses are extremely sensitive to the inner state of their rider, and if the rider’s thoughts are distracted, or his emotions in turmoil, his horse will react and trust will be absent.
But if the rider is fully present, aware of the privilege of the moment, even better, if he is aware of the beauty of each moment, if he is fully focused, bright and clear as a pure spark of life, his horse will not cease to carry and serve him, even exceeding his expectations. With horses, clear ideation precedes right action, just as in the world of the soul.
Every outing with the horses is a learning experience. In the almost twenty years that I have been riding in the forest, I have come to believe that the force that sets a horse into motion is not their hooves, but a mysterious power, the power of right thinking, the universal power of love.
When we gallop, and are as if one with nature, meditation reaches a deeper level. Then I have the feeling of being transported to a different realm. Then I begin to understand the legend of the winged horse, Pegasus, approaching the mountain of the gods; or the vision of the four horses of the winds of the four cardinal directions. I can feel the universal movement, the course of the sun, the elevation of the soul.
But when ‘Retive’ shows his discomfort, or wants to choose a less difficult path, a smoother incline, he pulls violently on his halter, sometimes almost throwing me off. At those times, I am suddenly brought back to the reality of the present, brought down by negative emotions. The elevated thoughts, the meditative state, the awareness of being one with the universe, all disappear in an instant. Instead, I see only the thick neck and stubbornness of ‘Retive’, straining against the halter, showing his bad temper because the path is either too rocky, or because he is more drawn to the tall grasses by the way. I must grudgingly slow down, stop, and abandon the ride.
The two horses, or the Chariot arcana, are a universal symbol of the soul and the forces that set it into motion. It is these spiritual forces that are represented on the Tarot arcana, the Chariot.
More than two millennia ago, Plato already knew of the magic of horses. In his book of dialogue, the Phaedrus, he tells us that the soul can be symbolised by the shape of a winged carriage and its driver. The coachman represents the divine essence of the soul, the guiding principle, while the horses that of the fundamental force of manifestation. It is the force that enables the soul to move and to act.
Greek myth tells us that when the coachman returns from his celestial journey, arrives at Mount Olympus where the gods reside, he places divine food, ambrosia, before his horses, and waters them with nectar. Then the coachman carefully and lovingly grooms his horses, for they have climbed the sky, travelling the entire heavenly vault from sunrise to sunset.
The coachman here represents the archetype, the motivating principle, the idea. His intention is to accomplish a journey, while it is the horses that manifest the idea, and make the intention possible. From idea to reality, it is the magic formula that moves the entire universe.
Plato speaks of ‘Ideas’ as entities that have an unchanging form, that know neither birth nor death, that never admit into themselves any element alien to their nature, that never transform, and that are comprehended only by the intellect. Like the intentions of my horses, the ‘Ideas’ remain invisible to the senses, but their consequences become quite apparent when the horses take off at a full gallop. Ideas are made of an eternal, incorruptible essence. They are not bound by the contingency or relativity of changing things, but remain static, immortal and eternally vibrant.
For the ancient Greeks, the human soul was considered similar to the Idea. The soul was compared to the rider who guides his horses. Just as the universe of invisible ideas, transcends and governs the manifested world that is visible to the senses, so the soul commands, masters and guides the visible body.
Yet it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a normal human being to fully comprehend the soul, or the universe of Ideas.
Impossible… because the soul’s carriage is driven by two horses with opposite characters. There is the white horse, Grace, which is good, beautiful, straight, magnificent and powerful, with a high neck and a slightly curved muzzle, just like the elegant Arabian horses. Her coat is white and her eyes black, and she has a kind and gentle character. A word of encouragement, or a simple look, is enough for her to respond.
But the other horse is restless, aggressive and uncooperative. Plato describes him as follows: ‘he has a thick neck, a short nape, a stubby muzzle, a dark grey coat, hairy ears and faded grey eyes. He has a sanguine, restless and often stubborn nature.
Marsilio Ficino, when he published his translation of Plato’s works in Florence in 1484, accompanied the myth of the Phaedrus and the team of horses, with a commentary. He compared the two horses to two characteristics of the human soul.
He said that the white horse is moderate and reserved. To be driven, it does not need to be hit. The grey horse on the other hand, is obstinate and restless. His reactions are excessive and full of passion. Above all, he always wants to be in front. He is so driven by passion and anger, that it takes a spiked whip to gain any form of obedience. Often the coachman has to use force to obtain any semblance of cooperation, and to prevent his unbridled behaviour from slowing the carriage down, or even causing a catastrophic fall. As a result, the grey horse has come to fear the painful actions of the coachman, flinching nervously at every movement by him, only further complicating the relationship and movement of the carriage.
Marsilio Ficino rightly remarks that this coachman has a very thankless job: the bad temper of one of his horses deeply upsets the smooth running of the carriage and greatly complicates his work. The opposite natures of the two horses, causes continual disharmony and slows down the progress of the carriage.
As a result, the ascent of the carriage, the spiritual ascent, becomes very difficult. The restless horse fights with such passion, that it pulls the whole carriage down towards the earth, forcing the coachman to use ever firmer measures.
Here we see the symbolic struggle of the human soul. Just like the coachman, the soul is continually engaged in trying to restore balance and harmony to its two horses, and thus, it is unable to focus on anything else. Only for fleeting moments does the opportunity arise where the rider can look towards the goal, the heavens, the world of Ideas. And so it acquires only glimpses; vague and incomplete visions of this world. Fighting a deep fatigue because of the unrelenting efforts to master the carriage, the focus of the human soul drifts away from the goal, from the heavens, without ever having been initiated into the contemplation of the realty of Ideas.
In its deepest essence, the human soul is related to the world of Ideas – it is incorruptible, eternal. But it also possesses a deeply divided nature. The mixture of these constituent elements causes the soul to encounter painful difficulties in its ascent to the world of Ideas. All three elements that constitute the soul, whether they be the white horse, the coachman, or the grey horse, all are turned towards the same goal. They are all driven to return to their home on Mount Olympus, and once again drink of the ambrosia. What separates them and causes disorder, is the road to reach the goal. The white horse is moderate, disciplined, and willingly follows the coachman’s directions. The grey horse is full of passion, and although he is also strong and determined, his unruliness seriously compromises the ability of the chariot to reach its goal.
In this constant instability, harmony and cooperation can only be achieved by the coachman through the use of force, by inflicting punishment and suffering. It is man’s antagonistic nature, his passions, that are the causes of his endless difficulties.
Even the rider experiences this dual nature. One part of his consciousness lifts him to a higher reality, while the other plunges him to the depths of the material reality of the world. One is submissive, obedient and gentle, while the other is rebellious and obstinate. Yet these two aspects of consciousness are indissolubly united. Just as the two horses have the same desire to rest and drink, so the two aspects of the consciousness share the same desire to reach the one goal.
They all want to restore the unity of the whole in order to reach the truth. Just like the carriage, the human being needs the driving force of desire to access the truth of the soul world.
The rider of the soul finally discovers the desire that is beyond duality, the pure longing that keeps the universe in motion. And this is the wind of Paradise that blows between the ears of the horses.
Beyond the spheres of day and night, preceded by my two horses, I pass through the gates of truth.