Horses and the homing instinct. Longing for home.

A trustworthy horse navigates the way home through a blinding snowstorm. Or he transports home the injured (or drunk) cowboy, slumped across his saddle.

Do horses have a homing instinct?

A few plausible explanations: horses as prey animals are acutely aware of their surroundings, recalling visual landmarks and scents. Some research has explored the possibility of horses, like some other animals, tapping into the earth’s magnetic field as a compass.

But the average horse-person experiences the equine homing instinct in everyday ways.

You’ve been there…

  •  prodded and zig-zagged your horse to ride away from the barn, only to beeline back on the return trip
  •  ridden more egg-shaped circles than you can count, your horse bulging as though magnetized toward the arena entrance
  • earned another break-of-gait penalty loping, then trotting, past the show ring in-gate

No doubt about it – horses have a “homing” instinct.

No wonder – a horse is designed to be drawn to an environment where things are safe and predictable for their very survival. A happy place where meals and turnout come on schedule. Where he knows where he stands in the pasture hierarchy. A horse feels “at home” – safe, when the cues and signals of his rider are clear and predictable.

Horse show grounds, in contrast, are NOT predictable; NOT familiar; NOT like home.
The gate represents the exit from the alien sounds, lighting and movement of the show ring. The gate is the exit from physical exertion, mental focus and…aloneness (Where are my herd mates?)

Yep, horses have a homing instinct.

So do we.

“We don’t know what it is at first. But we know this much. From the moment we are born, we are on a quest.
It starts with toys. We think if only we had a certain toy, then we would be happy. Then we get older. We think a certain position or relationship or thing will make us happy…We have a homesickness for a place we’ve never been before. God wired us that way.”
Greg Laurie

As the dust settles after hunting and gathering Black Friday deals, the excitement of the quest lulls and the Visa bills arrive. As does the sober realization that, in truth, I didn’t reeeally need that, seafoam- blue, matching set of monogrammed horse show sheets (quarter sheet, flysheet and contoured cooler). The lull returns to longing…for something else to make me happy. Longing for a place we’ve never visited.

 “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis

Hmmm…I wonder if there were any Black Friday deals on Advent calendars –you know, the ones with the little cardboard doors to open in the countdown to Christmas?

 Advent, the 4 weeks before Christmas, is all about longing and waiting. The ancient Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” speaks of the yearning of Jewish people living under the harsh thumb of the Roman empire for the promised Messiah. They were longing for justice; for a Saviour.
Emmanuel –  Hebrew, meaning the presence of God with us.

In the 1st century AD, it happened. Jesus’ disciple John recorded the events he’d actually seen and heard, how the promise had been strangely fulfilled:

 “So the Word [of God] became human and made his home among us”. John 1:14, the Bible.

For those who celebrate Christmas, its message is of a Saviour who made His home among us. He knows the unfulfilled longings we share navigating an unpredictable world. He spoke of a home beyond this life – a place where every unmet longing would be satisfied.

When I’m driving at dusk or dawn past farmhouses with their golden-lit windows, Christmas wreaths and front porch urns, I feel that tug of homesickness. For a place of belonging. A place of peace.

We are wired to be homesick. We, like horses, have a homing instinct.

Illustration: Sorenson