The Horse Totem – A Way of Passage

The Horse Totem - A Way of Passage

Several years ago I happened across a program on cable about non-violent horse “breaking.” I don’t recall the trainer’s name, but I still recall the method: The horse was in an arena with a high wall, no visuals to the outside; the trainer stood in the center with a long rope. The trainer kept tossing one end of the rope over the horse’s back, which caused the animal to gallop and move around the edge of the space. According to the trainer, it would take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour for the horse to start giving in and communicate information using its body language. When the horse paused and turned toward the trainer, the man turned away — signaling he was not a threat — at a forty-five degree angle from the horse. The animal walked up to him and touched his shoulder with its muzzle, a sign it had accepted him as the higher-status creature and was willing to be partners with him and start working.

How does this relate to the Horse as totem? It is clearly indicative that the horse as animal is at service to humans and it can be made to understand this of its own accord. It is a natural partner in the things that humans need from it, such as travel, portage, and working the land. This quality is part of the essential spirit of the horse because it is a universally shared trait in all domestic horses (I am excluding the ones who have been so badly treated they cannot be helpful to their owners/ handlers). It is part of the Horse totem and is passed from it as a common, shared essence to all horses on the physical plane. It is part of what makes a horse a horse.

I have worked with a Horse as my totem. Its primary function, what made it happy to do, was carrying me to the spirit world when I was seeking a vision. The Horse provided passage for me as a partner in my sojourn. Apart from that transition, it did not participate in my experiences. It was distinguishable from an imaginary horse by the fact that I saw it after I intentionally began my search for a totem animal; it appeared with a feather attached to its mane, and its coloring was not like a physical animal: oxblood red and white piebald. Several people have said to me, “Oh, it’s an archetype you’re contacting.” This is a blithe, presumptive view that is based in what seems to be a misunderstanding of an archetype.

Webster’s online dictionary defines “archetype” as “1: the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies . . . 3: an inherited idea or mode of thought in the psychology of C. G. Jung that is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual.1” The most common understanding of an archetype is as an “original pattern” per the first definition, and that all others are copies; this does not fit the Horse totem in that the spirit Horse does not look like Eohippus2, any more than do the horses in our everyday world. Eohippus was the original, but evolution has altered and changed it to the point that horses are no longer copies.

So, strictly speaking, the Horse totem is not an archetype. The third Webster definition references Jung’s theory of inherited racial experience; in that sense, the Horse totem is a better fit. Its suggestion, however, is that of karma (learning from past lives) and so leads to the notion of animals having souls which can learn over long periods of death and rebirth. It would be the only way that race experience could affect the horse’s mode of thought and perception of itself. Since we are not exploring that theory (and its implications), then we are left with the definition of “race” as it applies only to human beings and the soul’s karmic lessons. In that context, the Jungian reference does not apply to animals at all and animal totems, such as the Horse, are not an archetype.

The Horse is not a deity, since a “deity” is a god or goddess, a Supreme Being, or of divine character3. Horses are beasts of burden and work. A god or goddess is no servant. Animals can be symbolic of deities: The Horse is Epona’s symbol (and the Grey Mare is symbolic of Mala Laith, the Scottish Moon Goddess), the Raven is symbolic of Morganna, the Bull for Zeus, the Goat for Pan, and so forth.

We have established that the totem is not an archetype, nor is it a deity. Then where in the pagan cosmology would it fit? I postulate that it is in the middle ground of spirits along with faeries, elves, gnomes, undines, angels, demons, etc. As a totem it is a class unto itself, just as the other spirits I mentioned are in their own classes. To refer again to our dictionary definitions, a totem is: “1 a: an object (as an animal or plant) serving as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder of its ancestry . . . a usually carved or painted representation of such an object. b: a family or clan identified by a common totemic object. 2: one that serves as an emblem or revered symbol.” The etymology is Ojibwa, oto·te·man, “his totem,” ca. 17764.

In the sense of the first definition, a good example is the Lakota Sioux, who know themselves as the “People of the Horse.” Yet the usual definitions fall short of delineating the totem as a living being on another plane of existence that can, and does, connect directly with those who seek out the totem that relates closely with him or her. For example, a person who meditates with the intent of finding his totem might encounter the Dragonfly. Such a totem indicates imagination and creativity, but also flightiness. A person who receives such a totem, and who is not particularly creative, may need to find those qualities within himself; the Dragonfly totem is there to show him what he must do at that time. Flightiness may also be part of the person’s psychological makeup, or it could be a problem later, so the seeker may have to work on being more stable, committed or focused.

I mentioned ‘intent” in regard to finding a totem animal, and that is the vital difference between imagination and hallucination. The seeker deliberately, with purpose and conscious effort utilizing learned meditation techniques, sets about the task of attracting a totem animal to her. Through meditation she enters the spirit world; by keeping an open mind and an attitude of expectancy a creature of the natural world will approach, showing itself to the seeker in three different viewpoints (front and each side), which is how one recognizes the true totem animal. Anything else will indeed be imagination or a flight of fancy. A seeker must allow the totem to approach — no chasing after it! — and to gratefully accept whichever animal has decided to assist her in the work. A seeker skilled at carving may create a representation of her totem, known as a “fetish,” to keep in the meditation area as a home for the totem’s spirit and energy.

Many people like to “dance” their totems after they have arrived, to create unity with them and to give them energy so they will be happy and will stay. Dancing a totem means moving the way it moves and making the same noises: growls, snuffing, lumbering about as a Bear if that is the totem; buzzing and flying motions for Bee or Fly; hopping and croaking for Frog, and so forth. Some people will go out into the woods and dance their totems to the extent that they will run and leap and give each spirit animal the freedom to be itself, using the seeker’s body as its vehicle. Totems have been known to leave if they are neglected.

These spirit animals are there to help the seeker learn more about herself, so if you are looking for one or you have one already, make sure you meditate with it so you can gain intuitive knowledge from it. Why is it with you? What do you need to learn from it? What is it willing to show you? It is necessary to keep an open mind, for it might have surprises in store. It is not always a comfortable experience but it is fruitful if you can accept the unpleasant sides of yourself as well as the positives.

Even if you are dancing your totem, have carved a fetish for it, and have meditated with it to glean what information it may offer, your totem animal still might leave you. There is nothing that can be done about this, for it simply means that the animal has nothing more it can teach you or help you with and it must move on. You may then seek another totem, one that is ready and willing to help you with your next stage of learning.

To return to my Horse: I was, at the time it came to me, seeking passage to the world of visions, to learn more about myself. After the piebald spirit showed me it was my totem, it indicated it wanted me to get on its back, so I did. It then carried me to the Underworld where visions happen. The entire venture was a success, and I have traveled there several times since.

As a helper for journeying, the Horse is swift and certain as long as you, its rider, keep in mind where you want to go. Intent and goal are its guides, much as a bridle and reins. The Horse comes when the seeker has gone into meditation as preparation for journeying. It will invite the seeker to mount up by presenting itself sideways and moving closer; if the seeker is slow to understand it will turn its head and “point” with its muzzle to its side — a directive to climb on board. The rider keeps her goal of the Underworld firmly in mind. The Horse will start galloping and will go into the Earth tunnel to take its rider safely to the perceived destination. After emerging into the spirit world, the rider dismounts to continue her intended work. The Horse remains where it is, usually grazing, waiting until it is time to bring its rider back to the everyday world. I like to reward it with a nice, big apple and a couple of carrots as a way of saying thanks before I come out of my meditation.

If you wish to try attracting a Horse totem to yourself so you may work with it as a journeying aid, I suggest going into your meditation with that purpose in mind. Make sure you visualize that you are carrying treats for it. Focus on Horse in general, not a specific breed, color, build, etc. In a sense you are “calling” the spirit animal to you. If a Horse totem chooses to respond, it will do so and show itself to you in three different views as I have mentioned above. Allow it to approach you; offer the treats and if it
accepts them you have your Horse totem to ride as a journeying partner.


  1. Archetype. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 5, 2009.
  2. Anonymous. (2008). Evolution of the Horse. Retrieved September 5, 2009.
  3. Deity. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 5, 2009.
  4. Totem. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 5, 2009.

©2009 Lady Eva Michenet
Edited by Sheta Kaey

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