o more than three minutes into my first animal communication session, I realized I’d already committed a major faux pas. “Did you tell D that we’d be talking?” the communicator, a middle aged woman with a chipper, southern accent asked me.
I chewed on this for a minute. No, I had not told my horse, D, that on Thursday, he would be “chatting” with an animal communicator. I wasn’t even sure how I would. Should I have telepathically told him, like Mr. Spock? Or physically told him, told him? In either case, I hadn’t.
When I relayed my omission, there was an audible pause on the other end of the line. “Usually owners are with their horses, or if not, they’ll let the horse know to expect my call,” the communicator told me. “If he’s not responsive, we’ll refund the money and try again another time,” she continued. “Is D in his stall now, do you think?”
I told her at this time of day, he probably was.
“Perfect,” she said, the slight hint of annoyance in her voice no longer perceptible. “Let me see if I can get him on the line.”
Until a few years ago, I’d never given the notion of animal communication much thought — nor, until being assigned this story, had I any plans to enlist a communicator of my own.
Knowing myself to be a pragmatist at heart, I’d often stifled an eye roll, listening to friends and fellow horsemen profess their belief in the practice. Over the years, however, I’ve been surprised to learn that many “true believers” come from unexpected corners. Exhibit A: a nationally recognized veterinarian who thought an animal communicator was worth a shot after traditional methods for diagnosing a horse’s source of pain had failed. Exhibit B: I also know of more than one top rider who has called on an animal communicator to get a sport horse over a particular issue in the show ring.
To be sure, the school of thought — if you can call it that — behind animal communication is one of the most divisive questions you’ll ever ask another horse person, aside from maybe their political affiliation. For every communicator devotee who feels confident that they’ve opened a window into the inner workings of their horse’s mind, there are plenty of readers right now shaking their heads, thinking that there’s a fool born every day, and also about the bridge they’d like to sell me. Trust me, there’s room for all of us around this campfire.
When I first learned that I’d be writing this story, I decided to call on my friend Molly. Midwest-born, no-nonsense, and a horsewoman through and through, I figured Molly could help to get my head right about this particular assignment. Our text conversation went something like this:
Me: “I’m talking to an animal communicator about D this week.”
Molly: “Can’t wait to hear what she says. As you probably know, I’m not the personality type to ever believe in that stuff.”
Me: “I thought as much...”
[…TYPING BUBBLE… ]
Molly: “But I had a communicator named Beth who talked to two horses and two dogs once, and all she had was pictures and names. And it was over the phone. And she completely nailed every single animal. I’ve used her two more times since.”
Me: “So, wait… do you believe in this stuff or not?”
[…TYPING BUBBLE… ] [PAUSE] […TYPING BUBBLE… ]
Molly: “I believe in Beth.”
Me: “This is not helpful.”
Unfazed, I pressed on. In the spirit of unbiased reporting, I realized I needed to toss my preconceived notions to the curb, while also making sure my “method” was as scientific as possible. I skipped personal recommendations in favor of equestrian chat forums, where I combed through old threads until I landed on the name of a well-regarded communicator with several positive reviews. I made a reservation through her website, letting her know in the details section that I was doing a story about my experience and promising her anonymity if she so chose (she did).
Since my Instagram, like yours, is chock full of horse pictures and telling details about my horses, I used my married name on the online reservation system so there would be no social media trail. Then I booked — or at least, I attempted to. The wait period for the earliest available appointment was more than a month away (apparently, the animal communication business is booming).
Two days before our talk, I received a preemptive email from my communicator requesting photos of D to view prior to our conversation. After some back and forth about the images I’d sent, we landed on two pictures of him looking directly into the camera, as she’d requested. When finally, the long-awaited hour for our call arrived, I asked the communicator if I could record our conversation and take notes while she spoke, both of which the lovely Jane (we’ll call her Jane, for argument’s sake), said she encouraged. “Animals speak in metaphors, so you can get a symbolic answer as well as a literal one,” she explained.
Jane said that it would take her a couple of moments to get D on the line, at which point, she would ask him to tell her about himself and also how he felt that other people perceived him. The only thing she wanted to know in advance was if D was a gelding or a stallion (I told her he is a gelding). Then, I waited.
I’d often stifled an eye roll, listening to friends and fellow horsemen profess their belief in the practice.
To be totally fair, the string of descriptors that Jane came back on the line with took me by surprise with their accuracy. As an equestrian journalist, I’ve often asked riders to describe their top horses in, more or less, three adjectives. If I were playing the same game, I’d have said that D is very kind and intelligent, with a goofy sense of humor.
Jane said: “[D] is very handsome — very sweet. He really feels to me like a gentle soul while being a pretty funny dude. I think he’s pretty bright, so he’s got a sense of humor [and] he’s a little bit of a trickster. He’s also pretty social guy, who almost considers himself to be the barn greeter.”
This last detail was especially on point. I thought about D’s resident barn fan club of tweens, who often feed him treats and tap on his nose to make him stick out his tongue — his favorite party trick. Jane went on to describe how D likes to “keep his rider safe,” an overwhelming sense I’ve always had on his back, no matter how big the jumps get. Then, she paused.
“Actually, he said he keeps his riders safe. Does more than one person ride him?” Jane asked. In the last few months, and for the first time since I’d owned him, I’d had a couple riders try D for a summer lease — one was currently helping to keep him fit by hacking him three to four days a week.
Ding, ding, ding: another point for Jane.
And, as our conversation continued, this was not the only impressive reveal Jane came up with off the cuff. She nailed D’s competition personality, noting that while he enjoys the spotlight and social atmosphere of horse showing, at heart, he’s not a hardcore competitor; his motivation for doing well is more about being a good boy and a team player. “I just feel like he’s cooperative,” explained Jane, who is also a communicator for dogs. “He’s not a Border Collie, he’s more like a Lab. He’s a friendly dude — [gracious], but not OCD-driven.”
She also told me that D, at age 16, currently feels good in his body, a fact that was oddly prescient, given that I’d received an A+ soundness report from my veterinarian after flexions just one week prior. Finally, when discussing a minor crisis of confidence that D had suffered a couple years ago jumping liverpools, Jane used an odd turn of phrase that I recalled another animal communicator had also coined, years ago, when D’s former owner had him read.
“He doesn’t like if he can’t tell if a surface is solid or not,” Jane said, adding that if I could show D that there was reliable ground underneath the liverpool itself, he’d be more inclined to jump this particular fence with confidence.
As I led him from his stall and began grooming, I watched him with renewed scrutiny.
At this point in our talk, I tried to picture myself leading my horse around the ring, lifting up liverpools, pointing, and calmly explaining that there was, indeed, solid ground underneath, and not a black sinkhole to China. I thought about how I might also explain what I was doing to my trainer without losing whatever shred of amateur credibility I’d so far managed to accumulate.
Then I thought back to a time, years ago, when I first moved to New York City. Back then, I’d often be stopped on the street on my way to work by frantic-looking individuals, most of whom seemed either lost or in serious distress. Inevitably, and no matter how compelling their initial showing, they all wanted one of two things: to convert me to God knows what or to sign me up for an afternoon city tour. By the end of my first year in NYC, I’d learned the ropes: walk fast, keep your eyes low, and don’t take anything that’s offered. Everyone is trying to sell you something. Nine times out of 10, it’s best to suspend your disbelief in anything that appears too good to be true, be it Jesus on toast, an out of this world Groupon deal, or a $105 window into your horse’s psyche.
But what if?
Not everything Jane said during our conversation was spot on. She said D likes carrots (what horse doesn’t) and cool, crunchy things, when I would have described him as a glutton for junk food and pastries with icing. Jane told me D likes to have his neck brushed with a soft brush, something I hadn’t particularly noticed before, but again, an activity that most horses appreciate. Finally, she told me, initially, that D had a pressing issue to discuss with me about his turnout, which, in the end, was more of a “thank you for making sure D gets lots of turnout” since, apparently, he hadn’t at various points in his past.
As our 45-minute conversation drew to a close, Jane explained that it was important to be hyper-vigilant when I visited D at the barn and then for the next 24 to 48 hours when I saw him. “Often, horses will test the conversation to see if they’ve been understood,” she said, noting that it was important to thank D for his time, and also to reinforce the fact that our communication had actually happened.
At the barn later that afternoon, D did seem excited to see me, but that was nothing new. As I led him from his stall and began grooming, I watched him with renewed scrutiny. Was it just my imagination, or did he snort happily, toss his head, and blink his eyes while I brushed his neck with a soft brush? Had he always liked that so much? Why had I never noticed before?
For many of us, myself included, our horses are our best friends. We spend so much time with them, day in and day out, happily devoting the bulk of our mental, emotional, and financial resources to their care and comfort. Staring into D’s light brown, liquid eyes, so keenly aware with just a hint of mischief beneath the surface, I could easily comprehend the impulse to better understand the beautiful, sentient creature in front of me. What are his true thoughts and wishes? What are his real impulses and fears?
Some time later, as I prepared to put D away, I stared down at the offerings I’d brought him that day with a bit of a test in mind. I’d packed his favorite iced horse treat and also a couple of cool, crunchy carrots I’d thrown into my bag, just in case. When I offered them both out to him, one in each hand, my hope was that he’d choose a favorite, and put this whole animal communication thing to rest once and for all.
Instead, and without missing a beat, D woofed up one treat, then the other, not even pausing for a breath. As he chewed and crunched away happily, I realized I still had no idea whether D preferred iced treats over carrots, soft brushing or no brushing, more turnout or less. But there was little doubt, at least in my mind, that in this particular moment, he’d been understood.
Read this next: Do You Speak Horse? 5 Ways to Be a Better CommunicatorPhotography by Philippa Davin.