Skip to main content

When the Horses Whisper

  Written by Rosalyn W. Berne, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Rosalyn Berne and Horse Close

Somewhere along the path of my life I must have said, “Yes!” to the Universe, because I keep finding myself in places and circumstances that seem to be outside the realm of possibility. Hearing horses? That gift arose when I slipped from a saddle onto the sandy bottom of a river in Costa Rica, and remounted to hear the horse asking, “Are you hurt? I can’t believe that happened! No one has ever fallen from me before. Am I going to be punished for this?”  Nowadays, conversing with horses seems as normal and as natural to me as talking with a human being.

Rosalyn Berne

At 12 years of age, as an urbanite living in inner city Philadelphia, I very much wanted a horse of my own. But there was no money for that, so my mother came up with the best alternative she could think of and subscribed me to a horse magazine. With every arriving issue I turned the pages while imagining my own horse: grooming him and sharing secrets.  Gazing out of the bedroom window into our small fenced yard, I pretended my horse was grazing there, waiting for me to come out to see him. And if I’d had a difficult day, that imaginary equine would stand with ears perked, beneath the old Sycamore tree that grew in the yard, as I pulled my fingers through his mane and stroked his withers.

Maybe it was this somewhat-overactive, sometimes-vivid imagination that has brought me to the life I am living today: a professor who is also an “equine empath.” Or perhaps it was simply a longing in my heart that sustained me through the twists and turns of my intellectual and personal life up to this point. This summer (now that I am at 59 years of age), my husband and I packed our belongings and moved out of our Charlottesville city home to Willow Oak, a horse farm in the countryside of Fluvanna County.  Why on earth would we do something like that, at a time in life when so many people our age are doing the opposite—selling their longtime homes for something smaller, maybe a condo in town? Well, that’s a longer story. But suffice it to say that it began with a mare named Raven who, while I was consulting for a horse rescue facility, came up behind my shoulder and said, “I’m the horse you’ve been waiting for. Take me home with you and I will help you to deepen your work with horses.”

Rosalyn Berne and Horse Far

Horses can change people’s lives, as they have mine.  So much so that even the direction of my scholarship is different now. Seven years ago I was researching ethics in nanotechnology development. Today in my research I am pursuing the ethical implications of interspecies communication and studying the design of horse tack, with the ethics of care in mind. It’s a challenge at times to bring these two worlds together: the intellectual life of academic rigor, and the life that calls on me to leave behind my preconceived notions of what makes a horse a horse, and put to one side what is traditionally considered the rational way of thinking. I’d never have imagined myself writing books, giving talks and teaching workshops that present horses as intelligent, conscious beings, who, if we are willing to listen, have a lot they’d like to tell us.  Also, I believe we stand to learn a lot about ourselves as humans in relationship with other living beings by listening to horses. To learn more about When the Horses Whisper and my most recent book, Waking to Beauty visit: