Symbiosis carries the prefix, “sym,” coming from the Greek for “same.” Think symphony, where we’d hear similar, or like, sounds or phonics. Listening to a Mozart symphony, we take in harmony of like and related sounds – as well as harmonies of differing tones. Or think symmetrical, where differing parts are assembled in well-proportioned structures and where – in a given form – consistent sections or parts have achieved balanced relations with each other with respect to a common center.
Consider, too, the second part of symbiosis – “bio,” from the Greek, meaning life, life forms, and the biotic sphere. When we deal with symbiosis, we’re looking at balanced, harmonic, and centered forms of life. So let’s see what these etymological roots can yield as we think about life with animals or when we think about the ideal ride.
Before that, however, I want to pause and go back to a horse’s earliest, foundational moments as a foal. When first learning to walk, where does that foal’s instruction come from and what does he learn? He learns, of course, from the mother. The mother guides the foal by helping him learn how to follow. But she doesn’t do this just by waiting and waiting for the foal to eventually catch on and follow her; she does it by doing the following first. She doesn’t, in other words, issue a command to “make” the foal follow along. Instead, the mare – the one in charge, the one who must lead – does the initial following. She will match her footfall to that of her foal, coming into like or harmonious stride, footfall for footfall. And she’ll do this until the foal starts to learn one of life’s best lessons: the pleasure, comfort, and safety that comes from being in time and in step with another being – especially a leader. The foal learns that being in rhythm feels good because it is his safety zone; following his mother’s flight or stillness, he can survive. He learns that it feels good to follow. The foundation for being in synchronous cadence is laid in to the horse in the earliest days. The horse naturally seeks and needs harmony.
So what can we learn from this? We – creatures vastly different from the horse, the ones who will lead – seek partnership and purpose. And to do so, we must also learn the pleasure of following.
Remember, symbiosis isn’t just necessarily harmony between two like forces or beings; it is – according to the Oxford English Dictionary – the achievement of a life or biotic unity between two “same or different things.” Extrapolating from this, we know that two species very unlike each other can nonetheless find harmony and even interdependence. We don’t always find this on the best rides for very long; and, yet, even in those rides where we may not find technical expertise or achievement – where the correct lead didn’t come, where we missed the calf, or just struggled with some human or equine tick or unwelcome behavior – we still find moments. Maybe it’s four smooth strides in a lope across a field, or maybe a gliding moment in a turn on the fence, or just a moment where you feel or offer the try. Even fleeting symbiosis is still symbiosis – when intention, understanding, and action converge.
I recently met a former Hollywood stunt rider who, for many years, trained performance-horse riders. He told me that, when he came across a rider who couldn’t find that sweet spot – in posting, in rollbacks, in the lope – or who got left behind on cows, he’d completely stop lessons for a couple of months and have the rider pursue balance and cadence through other means: aspiring professional riders were asked to take swimming lessons, practice on the trampoline, or take dance lessons. He wanted to have those riders seek and find the muscle memory, as he put it, of “gliding,” so that “resistance would melt away.”
That sounds like symbiosis to me. Those moments of glide are what we seek horseback – moments of concord, harmony, and balance, when two different creatures locate a shared intention – where each is, for that time at least, both follower and leader.