The Story of Horses and People

A Meditation by Lauri deGaris



Horses have grazed the plains and pastures of Mother Earth for 50 million years. For at least 30,000 of those years, humanity has held these magnificent creatures in the highest esteem. This is evidenced by a plethora of horse paintings throughout the world found in caves. The Panel of the Four Horses by Paleolithic artists uses the cave wall as a canvas to create a multi-dimensional image. It is a masterpiece and dismisses the idea that Paleolithic people were primitive. View the 3-D image of the Panel of Four Horses here.

The domestication of horses provided humanity with a great gift. One could now travel further, faster — and horses helped carry our burdens. The horse is magical and mystical, ridden by heroes and dreamers. Fairy-tale victories are escorted by the counsel of horses who always know the way. The knight in shining armor is nothing without a war horse. And, we measure the capacity of engines by “horsepower” to this very day.

“Stealing horses is stealing power” according to North American indigenous beliefs. In shamanic practices around the globe, horses have physical and spiritual power enabling us to fly and reach the heavens.

In mythology, Pegasus springs from the neck of Medusa as a winged white horse. Pegai means “springs” or “water” in Greek. Pegasus lives on Mt. Helicon and causes the springs to flow by striking the earth with his hoof.

One cannot help but compare Pegasus to the horses along the barrier islands of the Southeast. As sea level rise threatens barrier islands, fresh water becomes scarce. Marooned, feral horses along the Outer Banks of North Carolina are forced to dig for fresh water to survive, just as Pegasus once did. Nat Geo Wild produced a beautiful 2-minute video about the plight of Outer Banks horses. You can watch it here.


It was the mighty Gulf Stream that delivered the Spanish and their equine partners to the southeast coast of North America in the 1500s. The Gulf Stream is a flowing river of water within the ocean. The current begins its global journey when freezing brine, sinking at the poles, rotates with the spin of Mother Earth. The Gulf Stream regulates the world’s climate and the world’s food chain. Truly, it is a life-sustaining engine serving us all.

In the 1600s horses likely served Jesuit priests and Spanish missions along the Florida- Georgia coastline. There were “50-60 horses in a corral within Ft. Andrews” on the north end of Cumberland Island in 1742, according to the National Park Service. Near the end of the 1700s, approximately 200 domesticated horses and mules were listed as free-roaming stock on the island.

In the 1800s horses were used on Cumberland to cultivate and settle land. They provided significant assistance during war as transportation and as sustenance. In the 1900s horses served families at work and in pleasure. The Carnegies are reported to have stabled 50 horses at Dungeness alone. The horses provided carriage service, hunting companionship and recreational activities for the family and friends visiting the island.

Today, the National Park Service allows horses on Cumberland Island to roam freely. Visitors to the island are thrilled to catch a glimpse of a wild horse grazing by the ghostly ruins of Dungeness. Watching a herd of horses stand by the sea with the breeze blowing gently through the air is breathtaking. Mares guard foals closely as studs fight for the right to lead the herd through the maritime forest.

Cumberland Island horses have been the subject of countless news articles, paintings, photographs and poetry. They have become immortal, like a fairy tale, legendary. We dream about such places and we make plans to be one of only 300 visitors per day allowed on the island. Public visitation is limited, preserving the experience of enjoying nature in solitude by the seashore. There are very few places like Cumberland Island.

However, if allowed, I have no doubt that man would develop Cumberland Island just like the sister islands of Jekyll, St. Simons and Amelia, denying the majority of us the opportunity to enjoy solitude by the sea. We should all give thanks for the visionaries who recognized the need to save Cumberland Island from ourselves. Humanity is invasive.

The National Park Service defines invasive species as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause, economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” For a non-native species to be considered invasive, in policy context, the negative effects must outweigh the positive effects.

Consider that some non-native species provide benefits to society. Examples of that would be certain crops and livestock raised for food. The key message to keep in mind when considering invasive versus non-invasive species is how it affects our economy and what service does it provide humanity. Those creating these types of institutional policies are capitalists at heart. They show little if any, consideration for our role as partners with all other living species with whom we share this planet.

Mother Earth is a 4-billion-year-old, living, breathing planet. She has seen many changes in her lifetime. Asteroids have pelted her from outer space. Volcanic eruptions and flooding can change the landscape overnight. Great ice sheets that once extended deep into North America have melted away. It was only within the past 5,000 years that Cumberland came into existence as a barrier island.

Change is constant. However, sometimes it moves at a snail’s pace and we do not readily take notice. Change can be subtle like water eroding a rock. Or, it can be swift and dramatic like wildfire. And, despite policy ambitions and billions of dollars spent, we have never been successful at controlling the movement of species around the globe.

The Spanish arriving in North America with their mustangs could be considered invasive by definition. They brought with them cultural, natural and economic change that altered the landscape in countless ways. The Spanish people may have benefitted, but it was detrimental to the indigenous people of North America.

The National Park Service takes into consideration societal demands when planning park visitation. They attempt to balance the needs and expectations of visitors with the conservation of public land. It is a fine line to walk.

In the case of Cumberland, horses roam freely on the island for the benefit of people. They wander into designated wilderness areas, altering barrier island native landscape, which is also protected by policy.

Once domestic, Cumberland Island horses were our partners, not so long ago. The horses received essential sustenance from us and we received essential services from horses. Today, that relationship is unrequited. Many no longer honor the long-standing partnership we developed with horses over the past 30,000 years.

There are approximately 150 horses on Cumberland Island. They suffer from high parasite loads, show signs of drought-related stress and possibly carry equine encephalitis and West Nile virus, according to the National Park Service. The horses are controlled, not cared for, ensuring a shortened life span of 9 to 10 years. Compare this to a horse that is honored and cared for by humans. They live to be between 20 to 30 years old.

Today, most people are quite content observing Cumberland Island horses in their declining state. We dream the dream and plan the fairy-tale excursion to witness wild horses roaming through majestic forests by a tropical seashore, unbridled. The National Park Service provides us with this opportunity because we demand it.

I am in partnership with a horse. Thorn is an accomplished, handsome, strong but kind, old guy. Part Haflinger and part thoroughbred, Thorn entered our life as an equine therapist for our daughter. He has a shimmering, copper color coat and a beautiful blonde mane and tail. He is stunning. He trots everywhere he goes as a mature 23-year-old gelding. And Thorn has great ground manners, as one would expect from a therapy horse.

Thorn shares 60 acres of lush, managed pasture with 12 other horses. The herd has an artesian-fed pond to swim about at leisure. After roaming for most of the day and all the night, the herd is brought into the barn each morning for the “once over,” a quick look to ensure everyone is well. After a small snack and siesta, the herd returns to pasture. We tell everyone “Thorn won the horse lottery.” But really, the truth is, it is we who won the lottery when Thorn entered our life.

Thorn joined our family six years ago. We adopted him from an equine therapy program. Our daughter had undergone surgery to relieve pressure on her brainstem (Chiari Malformation). This condition caused a host of physical dysfunction in her body. Equine therapy was prescribed to help her regain core body strength through riding and to have a best friend in times of emotional need.

On days when nerve pain and anxiety were getting the best of her, we would jump in the car and go see him. Many times, the two of them would just sit together in the barn. His presence alone was enough to reset her nervous system, allowing anxiety to melt away. It is beautiful and works every time.

We honor our partnership with Thorn by ensuring he has lifelong care. And, I can assure you, there is nothing more important to us than preserving the partnership that exists between our daughter and Thorn.

There is no question in my mind about why Paleolithic artists were creating complex paintings of horses 30,000 years ago in reverence. Horses were their loyal companions. Following horses could lead you to fresh water in times of drought. Just ask Pegasus and the horses of the Outer Banks.

My daughter will testify that if you sit with animals quietly, they will share their heart with you. And, if you are kind to them, they will help you find your own heart.

Our maternal heritage includes indigenous ancestors from the Muscogee Creek Nation, Wind Clan. I respect cultural lessons passed down from indigenous leaders. And, the following is a lesson I wish everyone to remember. It is inspired by Mary Frances Thompson Fisher (1895-1995) best known as Te Ata, gifted storyteller from the Chickasaw Nation.

Te Ata teaches us that there are horses of many colors, but they are all horses. There are birds of many colors, but they are all birds. There are people of many colors, and they are all people.

All living beings intermix, rearranging culture and nature, constantly. We are just one small part of a large, diverse, living planet called Mother Earth. Let us gallop together on the winds of destiny honoring each other along the way. And remember, “history is the tapestry of life woven out of nature.”

And I am, Lauri “East Wind.” 


Ancient Art Archive – “The Panel of the Four Horses” Sewanee, Tenn.

Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, The Book of Symbols. Taschen Publishers, Brazil, 2010.

National Geographic – Nat Geo WILD – Wild Horses of the Barrier Islands.

National Park Service – Cumberland Island National Seashore “Feral Horses.”

Sams and Carson, Medicine Cards.  St. Martin’s Press, 1988.  New York, N.Y.

Smithsonian Institute – “Ocean Conveyor Belt.” Image.  Washington, D.C.

University of Central Florida – “Pegasus Magazine.”  Image. Orlando, Fl.

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Noble Member
10 months ago

Beautifully said, East Wind!

Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
10 months ago

Thanks for this deep and wide-ranging essay. Note that the NPS has a plan to expand public access to Cumberland Island. I believe the public comment period is over, so we will have to wait for the outcome. Many people and groups opposed the plan. Also, thanks for expanding “value” beyond capitalism; our environmental and spiritual needs are just as important. Finally, I was an assistant at an equine therapy center outside L.A. for a couple of years back in the late 70’s, and it was one of the best experiences in my life. I am so glad equine therapy helped your daughter.

Richard Timm
Trusted Member
Richard Timm(@rtimm-ontheislandgmail-com)
10 months ago

Wow. This was just beautiful. Thank you.

10 months ago

Very nice article