One of our members, Eric Krause, sent me an extraordinary video clip this week (see link). It’s called “A very special horse” and it’s about Peyo a 14-year-old stallion with an exceptional talent for communicating with people and especially these who are unwell. His trainer, Hassen, takes him to hospitals and residential homes twice a month where he brings smiles to tired faces, joy and solace to aching hearts.

Peyo is a magnificent horse and the scenes of him galloping with exuberance in his pasture lift your soul. It’s however the vignettes of Peyo communicating with patients that are most poignant. In one scene Peyo, who himself chooses which rooms to go into at the hospital, goes up to the bed of a young man who is dying. He places his face close to the man and looks directly into his eyes. It’s a moment of pathos and acute beauty and this man whom we are told has difficulty communicating is clearly deeply moved; he tears up and you feel like some inchoate connection has occurred; some primeval spiritual force is at work.

Horses have long figured in human history and myth. They first appeared in Palaeolithic cave drawings around 30,000 BCE. They have been used in wars and hunting for thousands of years. The Torah while considering them unfit and unkosher for eating recognised they were fit to help and inspire us. They are acknowledged as a fearsome force in Egypt and part of the military arsenal of Pharaoh. The dramatic events at The Red Sea emphasise how the chariots bear down on the Israelites and then ‘horse and rider’ are flung down into the waters. More positively the stunning equine power and beauty of the horse is captured in both the Book of Job (“Do you give the horse his strength? Do you clothe his neck with a mane? Do you make him leap?” Job 39:19-20) and in the Song of Songs (1:9). “I compare you my love to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots”. Habbukuk (1:8) focuses on the fleetness of the horse: “Their horses are swifter than leopards, fleeter than wolves of the evening”.

In Australia our interest in (and for some obsession with) horses, concentrates on the questionable industry of horse-racing – what other nation can boast of a ‘Chag Ha-Susim’ aka as Cup Day, a day that stops the country? I prefer to give my attention to the astonishing ability of horse to heal humans. Horse therapy also called Equine Assisted Therapy dates back to as early as 600 BCE to the ancient Greeks – Hippocrates apparently discussed the therapy in his writings (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Rambam refers to in one of his many medical treaties). This therapy was used to help rehabilitate soldiers wounded during the First World War.

Israel today is a strong proponent if not leader in Horse Therapy. It’s being used to treat PTSD for both soldiers and survivors of terror attacks as well as those with autism and other behavioural problems. There’s a “Shilo Israel Children’s Fund” providing therapy to young terror victims and an organisation called Israel Mitzvah Horse, which provides healing for physical, affective and cognitive conditions as wide-ranging as Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome and trauma and brain injuries.

Horses seem to have an extraordinary ability to sense and respond to human emotion. The literature refers to their hypervigilance whereby they can detect the slightest sound, smell or movement and also to their ‘Herd-Dynamic Social Skills’. These hard-wired evolutionary skills derive from their living in a herd which produce a capacity for acceptance; they’re non-judgmental and appear to reflect or mirror back the exact feelings, attitudes and intentions of a human being.

And so back to Peyo and what we can learn from him. It’s about being fully there for another human being; empathy is achieved by dismissing your ego and simply allowing the other to be who they are without judgement or expectation. It’s about communicating directly, eye-to-eye or in the Torah’s felicitous phrase ‘panim el panim’; face-to-face, heart-to-heart. It’s about putting aside your own tsorrisand reaching out to those who are in pain. It’s a reminder of your own fragility and mortality. This came to me with sharp clarity over the past few weeks after I had a minor non-threatening surgical procedure. I didn’t expect it to shake me up the way it did. It was a strong prompting of my own vulnerability as well as my responsibility to constantly reach out to those who are suffering. It also reminded me just how valuable and powerful is the human gesture of love, kindness or thoughtfulness when you’re feeling out of synch.

Peyo is a superb and sleek animal, filled with fire and power, yet capable of an eerily and gently astonishing sensitivity. If one of God’s creatures can so subtly heal humans, how much more so can we as humans help heal other humans…

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.