"The Equine-Human Bond: More Than Meets the Eye."

A Tale of Courage, Inter-Species Communication & the Human-Animal Bond.

Originally published in slightly different form on October 14, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.

“The phenomenon of thought-transference ... is so close to telepathy and can indeed without much violence be regarded as the same thing.” —Sigmund Freud, 1932.

Telepathy in Horses?

David Letterman had an interesting guest on his show the other night, a horsewoman with a great story of courage: not only her courage, but her horse’s as well. Her name is Erin Bolster. She’s a guide at Swan Outfitters, operating near Flathead National Forest in Montana.

On July 30th of this year, Bolster—who’s been riding since she was 4—was leading 8 horses and riders on a trail into the Montana wilderness. The riders included a family of 6, along with a California dad who’d brought his 8-year old son to Montana for his first riding experience.

They hadn’t gotten far when Erin’s mount Tonk—who’s described as a possible Percheron mix, and was s rental horse, not owned by Erin or the outfitting company—, stopped in his tracks.

Erin knew instantly that Tonk sensed danger nearby. Then she heard the sound of branches breaking and underbrush crashing, followed by the sight of a young male deer, running for his life, directly toward the riding party.

Because of a hard winter, the bears in the area had been more active than usual. So Erin wasn’t surprised to see a huge grizzly coming after the deer.

The young buck ran straight to the group, grazed Tonk’s shoulder with his horns, frightening Tonk, then the deer veered away.

Seven of the horses—including the California dad’s mount—turned and galloped back in the direction of the barn. The deer, perhaps feeling that there’s “safety in numbers,” followed suit. But Scout, the horse carrying the man’s son, stepped back at a 90 degree angle to the trail.

The bear immediately switched from chasing the deer to going after Scout. Bolster said that Tonk wanted to follow the main group back to the barn. But she dug in her heels, forcing Tonk, through her strength of will, into a spot between Scout, the boy, and the charging bear.

The boy—who’d never ridden a horse before—was having difficulty staying on Scout. Bolster knew that if she was going to save the boy’s life, she had to convince Tonk to stand his ground.

Somehow, miraculously, she did just that. She got Tonk to square off and face the bear. Tonk wanted to turn and run but Bolster held firm. Then, once Tonk was facing the bear, Bolster was able to do something even more amazing. She got Tonk to charge at the bear!

The grizzly was no fool. He knew the easiest way to his next meal was to circle around the bigger horse and go after the smaller horse and boy.

Bolster wasn’t going to let that happen either. She wheeled Tonk around to charge at the bear again. “Nothing in my body was going to let that little boy get hurt by that bear,” she told a reporter for Spokane Washington’s Spokesman Review. “That wasn’t an option.”

After three attempts, and three instances of Bolster and her horse charging the bear, he turned tail and ran back into the brush. The boy and both horses were in shock. But they were all alive and well.

The Animal-Human Bond

The studio audience cheered at various points of the story during Erin Bolster’s appearance on Letterman. I did a little cheering myself, as I watched from my spot on the couch. Even Dave felt his eyes getting a little misty when he thought about what an amazing horse Tonk was, and what an amazingly courageous and level-headed woman Erin Bolster is.

Since I normally write about dogs, you might be wondering why I’ve chosen to tell this tale. It has to do with the bond that develops between humans and animals, and how that bond deepens our ability to communicate in a way that doesn’t involve language, training, or conditioning. As Erin Bolster said, “No amount of training could keep a horse from running away from a 750-pound bear charging at him.”

So what was it that kept Tonk on track, willing to face that bear?

First of all, it was Bolster’s courage; it had to be. Secondly, it was Tonk’s trust in her. And finally, it probably involved a form of communication that can’t be explained empirically, through the lens of Western science, which brings us back to what Freud suspected about telepathy.

Freud and Telepathy in Animals and Humans

“One is led to a suspicion that this is the original, archaic method of communication between individuals and that in the course of phylogenetic evolution it has been replaced by the better method of giving information with the help of signals which are picked up by the sense organs. But the older method might have persisted in the background and still be able to put itself into effect under certain conditions.” [Freud, “Dreams and Occultism,” in J. Stracey (Ed.) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth, 1964, 53, 54.]

The relationship between a horse and a good rider develops over time. The human and animal move together with a certain rhythm, sort of like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Many dog owners experience this same phenomenon with their dogs. I know I have.

Psychologist William Roll writes, “The human self is not restricted to the body studied by physiology and behavioral psychology. The experienced self is a larger self, a ‘long body,’ to use a Native American metaphor, that includes significant other people, places, and objects.”

On her blog, Zen poet Genine Lentine discusses this idea of the “long body.” “When you pick up the phone just as your friend is calling, that’s The Long Body. Or when you are five and dream your grandmother has died and your mother delivers this news to you the next morning.”

Telepathy is a daily occurrence, one that we’re mostly unaware of. The problem with university studies is that they’re looking for mental telepathy when it doesn’t exist. The word telepathy comes from the Greek for “distant feeling,” which suggests that it’s a body state, not a mental one.

So in order to study the telepathic connection between dog and owner, or horse and rider, we need to focus our attention on synchronous firing of neurons in the limbic systems of both species, or perhaps the millions of neurons located in the solar plexus, often referred to as “the second brain.” Or, since dogs communicate via pictures, the visual cortex.

I believe horses communicate via pictures too. And I would venture to say that this may have been the primary reason Tonk was able to do what Erin Bolster wanted, despite his terror. She probably had a clear vision in her mind of the two of them successfully scaring the grizzly off. As long as she held that image, Tonk was willing to do whatever she asked.

This process works both ways; animals send us pictures as well.


A dachshund named Noodles often stays with me. He’s a picky eater; I’ll sometimes put his food down, he’ll come over, sniff it, then go take a nap. So I was a bit surprised the other day—while working at my computer (as Noodles napped under a blanket on my couch)—that I had a sudden image in my mind of Noodles happily eating his dinner.

I turned around to find Noodles not napping at all, but staring at me.

“You want your dinner now?” I asked.

He jumped down, then followed me happily to the kitchen where I put down his provender and he scarfed it up.

Movies, TV shows like Lassie, and even some scientists, tell us that dogs communicate with yips, barks, whines, etc., that are analogous to human language. I don’t think that’s true at all. Yes, dogs may resort to such measures, but I think they only do that when their owners ignore the telepathic signals they’re already sending.

By the way, since her ordeal, Erin Bolster bought Tonk from the stable that was renting him out each summer to Swan Outfitters. Tonk is her horse now, and will be forever.


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